In a recent interview with Bernard Keane, the now former leader of the Greens expressed some misgivings about the world of Australian politics that he was just about to leave behind.
Progressive politics, said Bob Brown, is in a “stunning and very troubling retreat … it’s being totally eclipsed by the power of the corporations … I see this disconnect where people are so frustrated with politics generally that they don’t see that there’s any hope in the political arena whereas there is no hope anywhere else.”
Today Keane kicks off his series on the nature of power in Canberra, and who wields it, for The Power Index. And his thesis on the changing nature of power in our capital isn’t all that far from Brown’s:
“True, the financial and legal power of the federal government has grown steadily at the expense of the states through years of centralisation. But there have been other forces at work. Privatisation has removed major areas of economic activity from political control. Governments are under constant pressure to adhere to the broad economic “Washington consensus” of budget discipline, deregulation, privatisation and low taxes. An independent Reserve Bank controls monetary policy. A floating currency and a liberal foreign investment further minimise the role of government.
“And power is more contested than ever before. The tools of influence — lobbyists, economic modellers, market researchers and pollsters — are now widely available. In the past five years, two major anti-government advertising campaigns have seriously damaged governments.”
The byproduct of this power shift? Among other things, “… the most inexperienced generation of political leaders since WW2”.
The study of power is nearly always fascinating, but lay it alongside the results from the Ipsos’ “mind and mood” survey conducted in late February and published by Fairfax this weekend and things really get interesting. The research is a reminder of how the public views power in Canberra, or more importantly, the public fight over it that bleeds well past election time. As one participant noted: ”Australians deserve a lot better from politicians, both sides of the fence … they continually fight, squabble and argue about power. They’ve got no integrity.”
Ipsos were interviewing people at the height of the ALP leadership battle, and the researchers were struck by how unmoved the public were by the contest. They simply didn’t care about the result, but the unedifying spectacle of Rudd’s power grab, and Gillard’s bid to fight it off, completely turned them off. Power plays are nothing new in politics. So what’s changed? According to Keane, the secret to being an effective leader in the vein of Hawke, Keating or Howard is the ability to identify between soft and hard power, and then learning how to wield both.
Turns out Abbott and Gillard could learn a lot from Brown on both scores.