I ended my last post asking why the major political parties in Australia seem to be finding it more difficult to promote sensible policies. One possible explanation I hear quite frequently is that our political leaders lack vision. The argument seems to be that the policies of the major parties are too easily blown around by powerful interest groups because the leaders are no longer anchored to a set of values that their parties stand for.
The argument is expressed most often about the prime minister. I often hear people ask: Who is the true Julia? What does she really believe in? What does stand for? (A recent example is in the remarks by Paul Gardner here.)
I am not about to become an apologist for the prime minister, but it seems to me that those questions are unfair. Julia Gillard tells an authentic story about her origins, the use she made of the educational opportunities available to her and the values she holds relating to opportunity and responsibility. Why can’t more people accept that she means what she says when she argues that ‘Labor's modern mission’ is ‘to spread opportunity with a matching sense of responsibility’?
One of Gillard’s problems is that her espousal of opportunity and responsibility seems vague and out of kilter with the leftist views she is known to have held in the past. Some people might feel that she is using the language of opportunity and security as a cover for statism and wealth redistribution.
The leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott, has a somewhat different problem stemming from his background. Abbott makes no secret of the fact that in his youth he was strongly influenced by Bob Santamaria, a catholic political ideologue, who was a particularly divisive figure in Australian politics. The problem that poses for Abbott is that some people think the values he has espoused are a cover for paternalistic conservatism.
So, what values has Abbott espoused? In his book, ‘Battlelines’, Abbott poses the question: “How can Australians, individually and collectively come closer to being their ‘best selves’ and what can the Liberal Party do to bring this about?” (p79). That question seems to me to imply a strong set of values relating to individual aspirations. The doubts that some people have about Abbott stem from the possibility that he may be inclined to impose a social conservative’s view of what it means to be ‘one’s best self’ rather than respecting the rights of every individual to live according to their own views of what it means to be ‘one’s best self’.
It seems to me that the claim that our political leaders lack vision is garbage. The values that Gillard and Abbott currently espouse deserve to be recognized and considered on their merits, even if there are be grounds for suspicion that both are still influenced by their respective ideological histories.
There should be more focus on the similarities and differences between the values that Gillard and Abbott espouse . It seems to me that Gillard’s ‘opportunity and responsibility’ is closely allied to allowing and helping people to come closer to being their ‘best selves’. The difference is that Gillard puts more emphasis on spreading opportunity while Abbott would probably put more emphasis on encouraging greater productivity and individual excellence. There is still potential for the major parties to compete for votes on the basis of their emphasis of different values even though the old political divide based on attitudes toward the role of the state have greatly diminished.
So, if lack of vision is not the problem, what is? The prime minister has failed to ensure that ‘opportunity and responsibility’ are reflected in policy development outside of education and social welfare. For example, the national broadband network seems to be as much about reducing opportunity for people in the big cities, by restricting competition, as it is about expanding opportunities for people in regional areas. Health policy seems to be more about attempting to reduce risk factors through greater government regulation, rather than encouraging individuals to take greater responsibility for their own health.
The leader of the opposition has adopted a small target strategy. Rather than promoting new policies to encourage greater productivity, he continues to recite the mantra he took to the last election about ending the waste, repaying debt, stopping the new taxes and stopping the boats.
What are the incentives for politicians to adopt small target strategies? What role does the media play in this? Why don’t journalists do more to hold political leaders to account for lack of consistency between their high ideals and the policies they adopt? Is there anything that ordinary people can do to raise the level of political debate in this country?
Jim Belshaw - an historian, economist, management consultant and blogger - has suggested in a comment below that there is a lack of good policy ideas and that people like me (and himself) have something to answer for in that regard. Jim has also posted a more extensive comment on his blog.