Di­ag­nos­ing the ills of our body politic

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Richard Fer­gu­son

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

Laura Tin­gle

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