Romanticising Reform: We’ve Set The Bar Too High

Is major economic reform no longer possible?

That’s the conclusion Paul Kelly draws in his recently released history of the Rudd and Gillard governments, Triumph and Demise: The Broken Promise of a Labor Generation.

Yet it’s a strange conclusion, because the story Kelly tells over 500 pages is one of near-constant ineptness and dysfunction by Kevin Rudd and the architects of Julia Gillard’s 2010 coup.

If Kelly’s narrative is correct then surely getting rid of those characters would allow reform to pick up again.

Of course there’s much more to a political system than politicians. If Australia is unreformable then it must be for institutional reasons. Not simply because we’ve had a rubbish bunch of recent leaders.

Kelly offers a few institutional explanations for why political culture has changed. First, the pace of personal and social life has intensified. Second, social fragmentation and technology mean that “sectional interests have more power than before”.

These aren’t really answers though. Why has the pace of personal and social life intensified? And surely sectional interests were more powerful when – for instance – the major parties specifically represented sectional interests, as the Labor Party did for trade unions and the Country Party did for the agricultural sector?

The last major reform success Kelly identifies was John Howard’s GST in 1998. The question is what has changed since. There are a few possibilities. For instance, Australia is richer and more populous. But it’s hard to see why that would make us less open to reform.

Technological change is one obvious institutional explanation. As technology has destroyed the business models of the big news outlets, it has also undermined the clubbish nature of Australian politics.

In the past policymakers were able to call up a handful of key journalists and media owners and they’d be virtually guaranteed press gallery support for their agenda. The cramped quarters of Old Parliament House meant that journalists and politicians lived on top of each other.

When a journalist tried to break out of the club – as Max Newton did when he left The Australianin 1965 and set up his own publishing outlets – it was scandalous. (The story is best told by a press gallery insider who opposed his reintroduction to the gallery, Alan Reid, in the 1969 book The Power Struggle.)

Now the mastheads are collapsing and the gallery is starting to be populated by outsiders. TakeCrikey and the Guardian, for instance. Political commentators – as opposed to gallery journalists – are even more diverse and uncontrollable.

There are more outlets, those outlets that exist have fewer staff, and digitisation means those staff can be spread around the country.

It’s now entirely impossible to line up the press behind a major new policy with charm alone.

This is a good thing though. If it is hard for politicians to railroad through reform because our democracy is richer and more vibrant, well, too bad for reform.

There are two popular technological explanations for our political malaise that we need to rule out: social media and the 24-hour news cycle.

Social media has democratised political debate but it would be hard to blame Twitter for Kevin Rudd abandoning his emissions trading scheme or the lack of consensus on Joe Hockey’s GP co-payment.

Anyway, social media is hardly the first time the political class has faced media democratisation. Talkback radio was a virtual revolution when it was legalised in 1967. Talkback delivered passionate, virtually instant political feedback. Politicians and parties struggled to adjust their campaign and communications strategies accordingly.

But they managed. As they will with Twitter and Facebook. It’s easy to forget how recent any of this stuff is. In 2007 merely posting a video on YouTube – as John Howard did during the campaign – was remarkable.

And the 24-hour news cycle? Yes, 24-hour television is a relatively recent innovation in Australia. But nobody really watches it. We’ve had 24-hour radio for decades. We certainly had it during the great reform era of the 1980s.

Too often the political class is deluded into thinking voters care about day-to-day politics. “Winning the day”, as Kevin Rudd tried to do, means nothing for those people who tune into the political news at most a few times a week.

In other words, the problem is less the technologies that govern politics but the way political strategists adapt themselves to those technologies.

If the world has changed, the political class is just going to have to learn how to change with it. They’re in the middle of this process. They haven’t yet reached a comfortable equilibrium.

Nor is it clear that the technological empowerment of activists and corporate interests presents a roadblock to reform.

Take the now iconic example of resistance to government policy – the anti-mining tax campaign in 2010. This campaign was actually as traditional as they come. An industry peak body took out television ads.

In practice this campaign was not much different from the anti-bank nationalisation campaign run by the banks nearly 70 years ago.

One year into the Abbott Government and it’s easy to think the worst of the political system. But over-rating the past in order to reflect poorly on the present is an old human pastime.

Kelly more than anyone has created the hero story of Australian political history. His 1992 book End of Certainty made Paul Keating and Bob Hawke out as larger-than-life figures whose decisions were confident, epoch-defining, and Australia-changing. (The contrast between Kelly’s bombastic End of Certainty, and Laura Tingle’s gloomier Chasing the Future, published just two years later, is striking.)

Our political class has imbibed a thoroughly romantic interpretation of the 1980s and early 1990s.

Against it, any modern leader would fall short.