Diagnosing the ills of our body politic
In politics, as in life, it’s funny what we remember and what we forget. What’s not so funny is that our governing class seems to have forgotten how to, well, govern. No prime minister has served a full term since John Howard.
Laura Tingle wants to reboot Canberra’s memory. In Political Amnesia, the seasoned political journalist sets out her theory of where national politics went wrong and how it can be fixed.
It’s all about institutional recollection. Tingle paints a rather apocalyptic picture of a public service battered beyond recognition, where old hands have been shifted out and those left behind no longer have the ability to influence policy.
Add to this political parties which have denigrated the very public institutions they need to rule effectively and a media with a short attention span, and you have a sticky situation.
The stories from the past five years of shocking government are too many to count. But Tingle opens with a doozy to make her point. It’s 2012 and prime minister Julia Gillard is trying to start a national conversation about childcare. One government idea is to shift subsidies from parents to childcare providers.
Here’s Tingle on hearing about this initiative: “I watched on, puzzled. ‘Am I the only person,’ I asked a senior public servant, ‘ who remembers that this is the way childcare used to be funded?’ ‘Probably’, was his sardonic reply.”
It’s a salutary tale. And no wonder it’s come to this, Tingle argues, when the public service has been reduced to such a sorry state. Long gone are the days of the Seven Dwarfs — elite mandarins such as HC “Nugget’’ Coombs — who served Robert Menzies. This group was instrumental in 20 years of sound government through policy imagination, deep expertise in their fields and a willingness to provide the prime minister frank, fearless advice. But these Sir Humphreys down under were undermined by Gough Whitlam’s revolution and his introduction of political staffers.
There was a small renaissance in Paul Keating’s Treasury, but the rejuvenation came to a halt when Howard won office in 1996 and start- ed gutting the upper echelons of the public service. Tingle argues that the loss of institutional memory means public servants do not receive the mentoring they need and are not sustained by an internal culture needed to develop sound policy. Key people are shuffled around departments — never mind if they know anything about the policy area — and everything worth doing is outsourced to the private sector, often with far-from-ideal results.
Tingle is tough on all parties for this decline. She notes three failed prime ministers (Gillard, Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott) all chose political warriors as their chiefs of staff rather than civil servants. But she comes down most harshly on Abbott and Peta Credlin.
“Tony Abbott’s greatest sin,” she writes, “may have been his remorseless degradation of our political institutions. Abbott’s failure to run a successful cabinet government, his disdain for parliamentary negotiation and his undercutting of the public service were all the more perplexing given his avowed conservatism.”
The media also comes in for strong criticism. Tingle sees a Canberra press gallery suffering institutional amnesia at least equal to, if not worse than, the public service and a lack of specialist reporting that leads to dozens of journalists committing the same gaffe or pursuing some leadership rumour. She offers a stringent argument for a political press that has a better grasp of both policy and political history.
Near the end of this Quarterly Essay, Tingle — she who has seen it all and forgotten nothing — writes about waiting to do a radio interview. The host tells her not too presume the audience has much political memory.
“‘Sure’, I said, ‘ what should I presume they don’t know?’ ‘Well, don’t presume they will know who Paul Keating is, or what he did.’ I concede this caused a sharp intake of breath on my part.”
She goes on to explain this youngish audience belonged a generation that can’t remember a world before Howard was in The Lodge. Yes, our political memories change. But what a world it is where we can’t even remember Keating.
Tingle has written a vivid, often witty, consistently depressing essay about a political class that desperately needs to remember its past in order to shape its future, and hold on to any wise heads that are still left.
is a Melbourne reviewer.
As PM, Julia Gillard proposed reviving the old system of funding childcare