Food for thought from the ever thoughtful John Anderson-
Crisis of political confidence: Anderson
Mr Anderson has been out of federal politics since his retirement in 2007, but the former Howard government transport and regional development minister proved – in his Sir Earl Page Memorial Address in Sydney last week to about 100 party faithful – that he’s still capable of stirring political senses.
Mr Anderson said everyone was responsible for improving the standard of public debate and civilising informed national discourse, not just our politicians.
“The critical state of economic health among western democracies is only one manifestation of the challenge we face,” he said.
“We’re at an important inflection point on a whole range of issues from climate change policy, to immigration policy, to foreign affairs policy and families.”
He also cited global food security, water security, land availability and energy policy as important issues.
“The decisions we make in the next five years will define the opportunities and prospects of our children in this very difficult environment.
“The range of potential outcomes is enormous and yet still it appears, frankly to me, that we choose to stand and gesticulate with each other on the railway tracks as the express train bears down on us.
“We need to recognise that the nature of a crisis is that it does not wait – it moves faster and further than anticipated (and) shows no mercy.
“And I believe we may be approaching such a point.
“We accuse our politicians of an absence of policy conviction and insight and there’s a popular perception that scandal and slur have become the currency of debate and the focus of our media.
“But we need to recognise clearly that the fault cannot lie solely with our representatives for indeed that matter, to be fair, with our media.
“In truth we are all responsible. All of us have our share of the blame to carry.”
Mr Anderson said “spin and spittle” have been rewarded – but we’ve neglected to act with sober responsibility in light of the challenges that we all face.
The result, he said, has been worse policy outcomes for the Australian people.
“Driven by the incentives that we ourselves have created, we make it all but impossible for our leaders to find the balance between the political theatre that we respond to and the policy substance that we need,” he said.
“And this is not sustainable on any dimension.”
Mr Anderson said the Australian public’s dissatisfaction with politics was unprecedented.
A recent poll provided “staggering” research results, with 33 per cent ranking the nation’s political leaders one or two out of 10 in their capacity to deal with the economic issues the nation must confront over the next five years.
The research results also showed that 26pc of voters are now looking to cast their vote outside of the major parties.
“It seems then that we’ve reached a tipping point,” he said.
“The Australian public is casting about for a clear voice and a clear vision – they sense that we are approaching a point of no return on a number of issues and major crossroads on many more.
“I believe there is a crisis of confidence in the cultural roots and values upon which the success of the West of our society was built.
“We need to face the fact that without values both our economic system and our political system are self-defeating.”
Mr Anderson said a better pathway was to re-engage values in public life, by first re-engaging with the nation’s cultural roots.
He highlighted the importance of history in education and lamented its decline in importance. He said there was also a need to avoid discussions driven by ideology or expediency and characterised by overly emotive, overly personal, overly simplistic arguments.
“If we can break that stalemate, by returning to a dialogue of reason, there are real opportunities to advance the national interest on a number of issues, both controversial and routine.”
“Those who publicly take a minority or unpopular position, or who open a controversial issue for discussion, can be blown away by apparently progressive intelligentsia who would prefer to shut down the discussion to avoid offense, than engage with whatever has been put on the table.
“Unfortunately, this issue has worsened, not improved with the advent of social media.
“The recent examples of ‘Twitter trolling’ – the mass attacks on our public figures with extreme and hateful language – demonstrate this.
“Protected by the anonymity of a computer screen, people are willing to say and do things that they would never consider were they to find themselves seated across the table from the person they are seeking to bring down.
“Nothing could be more destructive to free speech and quality debate than the fear of holding unpopular positions that is created by such practices.
“It needs to be rejected as a practice that has any place in civil dialogue, lest important truths be downed out or worse still, never spoken.”
Federal Nationals Leader Warren Truss praised Mr Anderson’s speech, saying the former leader had always brought a depth of analysis and perspective to the National’s party room which they now missed.
Mr Truss said the hung parliament had been an intense period for all participants.
He said there’d been little or no spare time for any depth of philosophical debate and discourse on important, long-term policy issues, given that all parties had been in almost permanent campaign mode since the 2010 election.
He said parliament needed to find a better way to debate broader issues more thoroughly, like health, education and land use, rather than being purely focussed on or driven by immediate policies, or the issues of the day.