The third, and final, extract from an as yet unpublished book by Kevin Balshaw, a senior staffer in Jeff Kennett’s office during the term of his government 1992-97, which sets out to examine not only the Kennett years but the changing dynamics of Australian politics.*
In place of the old rulebook, there’s a pack of wildcards, and political fortune has come to be determined more and more on the vicissitudes of the draw.
The general case in Australian political history is that only once every four or five elections does one of the major parties gain a decisive margin on the two-party preferred vote. It may not be a one-off, but may happen at successive elections Jeff Kennett in Victoria in 1992 and 1996, John Howard federally in 1996, 1999 and 2001. Those are exceptions outside the rulebook. Usually after landslide wins the margins begin to be eroded almost immediately. And the rule of experience is that in the main oppositions don’t win office; governments lose it.
Most elections are won on the slenderest of percentage margins, sometimes with a minority vote, although that may not reflect in elected numbers. It depends on the swings and fall of preferences electorate by electorate. Often, the percentage swings occur in safe seats and have little impact on the result. And on this score election outcomes are divisive. Roughly half the people can say they didn’t vote for the government. Dissent is rife and splintered into a myriad of interests, even among that half of the electorate that put the government into office. Access to new means of communication and information sharing provides the avenues for people to share their complaints and misgivings: dissent is becoming organised, for the most part better organised and co-ordinated than the governments that are trying to ameliorate, contain or fight it off. It is also becoming more overt, more likely to blaze its way into media headlines.
Irrespective of which direction they cast their votes, people hold governments in disdain and politicians in distrust and are suspicious of their motives. The general level of disrespect for politics and politicians has risen dramatically in the past couple of decades. A majority far greater than the one on which elections are determined feels governments are out of reach to them, remote and out of touch with their daily lives and needs. The political vision for the future may meet consensual agreement, but people increasingly want to see it translate into the betterment of their lives today and tomorrow. They see new forces coming into play globalisation, competition, the uncontrollable pervasion of the Internet that in the popular view are imposing new pressures on their lives, quite beyond their control, and aggravate the uncertainty they feel about the future. These forces are external and invasive. Little wonder then that tribal loyalties are on the rise as a refuge from the menace seen to be posed, or at least espoused, by politicians and faceless multinational corporations. That the two are popularly held to be working in league accentuates people’s feeling of powerlessness.
Governments, however, are groupings of competing egos and disparate interests, despite the basic party loyalties of their members and the internal discipline exercised by their leaders. Jeff Kennett’s crushing win in 1992 should have been comfort enough for the legion of Liberal and National Coalition members whose numbers spread around three-quarters of the benches in the Lower House and totally overwhelmed Labor’s ragged remains in the Upper House. But many were there on knife-edge margins. Witness in the few months that followed the formation of clusters of disaffected, newly-elected backbenchers, confused, ill-informed and fearful of the extent and pace of the largely Kennett-Stockdale reforms in which they had little, if any, say. They gathered of a night during the dinner break in small groups in the lounge bar of the Imperial Hotel, opposite the Parliament, where a few pots launched them into full vocal flight. Bernie Finn, who had taken the seat of Tullamarine in Labor’s western heartland, led in two of his fellow travellers one night early 1993, drew several ministerial staffers into their circle and began talking about how a future Finn government would get it right. Witness Ken Jasper, longtime Nationals’ member based at Wangaratta in the north-east, abandon the team to play the local member, assuring his electorate he would oppose Kennett’s plan to remove a number of country rail services. It was also symptomatic that after all the years in opposition, during which MPs devoted their time to hammering the government, making outrageous demands on the government and equally outrageous promises to their constituents, that many remained in opposition mode long into that first term. For the first six months, even the new Kennett frontbench stumbled periodically into referring to their opposition counterparts as “minister” in question time.
The media is a highly influential and troublesome pressure point that bears on a publicly elected administration. Troublesome? in the sense that some journalists, not many, do their damnedest to give an administration a tough time, but more generally that governments are targets for scrutiny and investigation and journalists are ready targets for a wide scatter of interest groups, organised protestors, organisations (including unions, universities, and thinktanks, public policy analysts and business consultants out to make a name for themselves) and individuals with axes to grind and complaints about the way governments treat them and breakdowns in services, politicking by oppositions, internal leaks both from their own MPs and public servants and the steady flow of material released under Freedom of Information. There will always be cases where governments are perceived to be helping out their mates links with the big end of town, for example, were a constant thorn for Kennett ambulances not arriving on time, hospital beds in short supply, child abuse, government agencies withdrawing local services or being heavy handed with people, or straight out neglectful. Ready sources of headlines that put a government on the spot, and day to day you never know what direction they might come from.
While oppositions are rarely taken seriously unless they can provide a juicy scoop, and fight uphill all the way for every media mention, governments are under constant scrutiny and pressure from a wide coterie of journalists. The regulars are members of the parliamentary press galleries, who feed off each other like collective herds and create the momentum for the day’s main headline, and pursue it by monitoring radio talk program interviews and gathering in packs for doorstops, all at the expense of the government’s event or announcement that it hopes vainly will dominate the day’s news. But there are also innumerable writers on specialist rounds, feature writers, editorial writers, and the TV and radio current affairs programs. For their part, governments court the media barons far more frequently following the narrowed aggregation of media ownership in the past few decades and regularly meet or entertain editors and the key writers they want to influence or whom they believe to be onside. A loose framework of relationships develops, with advantages that extend two ways. It was no accident, to cite one example, that the Melbourne Herald Sun had a day’s break on Sir James Gobbo’s appointment as Victorian governor in January, 1997.
Faced with a broad front of critics, governments are on their own in dealing with the issues across the political, administrative and service spectrums. People readily and unquestioningly seize on fault or a whiff of scandal or corruption. Outside the political party organisations, there are no pro-government advocates. Business presents a classic example. It might well be expected the corporate sector would put itself on the line publicly for a conservative, pro-business government, but don’t count on it. A new political mentality has permeated the corporates, along with the creed of corporate governance. This goes under the guise of corporate citizenship. No longer do companies direct the bulk of their public benevolence to sponsorship: the focus is on community programs targeted to demonstrate community benefit. But it’s there to support the business strategy in delivering shareholder value in the shortest possible time. On controversial questions even social policy areas closely associated with economic welfare, where they might be seen to advantage as public advocates in accord with their philosophy of community benefit the corporates keep their heads down. No more are the likes of John Ralph, Don Argus or Hugh Morgan to be heard berating governments and their own kind from public podiums. The corporate will that might seek to make a difference has been heavily sedated.
Political lore on the surface is collection of set pieces. In practice, it is hard-nosed pragmatism and numbers. Rarely is it clear cut. The rulebook spelled out the virtue in numbers 50.1% was 0.2% better than sitting on the opposition benches, to hell with the fact it reflected either indifference or a divided electorate. Decisiveness is a rarity, the kind particularly that saw 100,000 people cram the streets outside Kennett’s parliamentary office and chant for his head in November, 1992. But they missed the point. He was an instrument of changes that already encircled them, changes that among other things were to sap the power of the brokers of social protest and unionism. Along with it went a missed opportunity to be a participant in change and harness at least some of its force for their own advantage. The anti-Kennett protest was bigger than the Vietnam moratorium sit-in of the 1960s. But the Red menace of Asia, and the contrived, seriously flawed Domino Theory that was perceived to support it, was different in that it was an external factor. Vietnam, linked to communism, was played on the strings of conservative middle Australia to the electoral glee of successive conservative governments and gave part lie at least to the common notion of the 60s as the rebel era. As the dissent peaked in 1966, Harold Holt led the Liberal/Country Party coalition to a crushing victory. Distinct similarities can be drawn to the war on terrorism and refugee menace that almost 40 years later brought a similar political result.
It’s an old story, but one that still has currency in the political arena. After all, you can fool some of the people some of the time Turn to euphemisms that create the impression of inclusiveness. Tell them it’s for the good of the country better still, for their own good. Experience the good fortune to have fortune shine upon you, discover people who can be portrayed as enemies within the shadows of polling day, and have it rain down upon your political opponents. These are cases in which the winners do not necessarily display genius, but merely catch the mood or push an emerging trend. They get the tactics right on the day or in cases in which they might not be quite above the line, they don’t get caught out until too late. Their opponents end up sandbagged because they fail the astuteness test in picking the mood swing and tuning their agenda to it, or they prove not to be tactically clever enough to switch the direction of the agenda. Both factors were central to the downfall of Labor under Kim Beasley in 2001.
The old saying? Some leaders are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them. But there’s nothing like good fortune, the fortuitous circumstance that has a Russian Embassy official defect and his wife dragged off an aircraft at Darwin and a lurid web of espionage cultivated in the course of a pre-election Royal Commission. Nothing like a September 11 event combined with what had always been feared would happen the scourge of the Yellow and Saracen hordes heading towards Australia’s shores under the guise of refugee boat people, obviously not having read Foreign Minister Ruddock’s tourist brochures that if the white pointer sharks didn’t get them as they beached, very soon the crocodiles or death adders would, or they’d perish unremembered somewhere in 2000 miles of inhospitable desert. Terror Australis. Australis Impregnable.
And a government in a barbed wire canoe without a paddle gets re-elected. This is post-Hanson Australia. The Domino Theory, the Cold War, Fair Go values come back to haunt us. We who have come from all the compass points can talk of racial purity and integrity? And at the same time be more concerned about genetic engineering than indigenous culture or greenhouse emissions, unaffordable house prices and rents, credit card rates ranging from 14% to 27.5% and offset savings account returns of 1.5%?
The pendulum that often needs to swing only a couple of points either way to consolidate or consign the fate of governments is a constant in a complex and dramatically changed political environment. Much like some political leaders and knowledge industry soothsayers have been saying, change is the only constant in modern life. The Machiavelian intrigue remains, as do the philosophies of the rights of citizens and the responsibilities of governments that thread the breadth of history from Plato and Aristotle to John Locke, the establishment of the American colonies and of America as an independent nation, the French revolution, Abraham Lincoln, Australian Federation creating, as the inaugural Prime Minister, Sir Edmund Barton, described it, ” a nation for a continent and a continent for a nation” the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and the freedom (yet to be fully delivered) of South Africa.
These make up the consistent tapestry of what should be the fundamental tenets of people’s lives and of political endeavour. The reality is different, except of course on Australia Day, Anzac Day, Bloomsday in Irishtown, the 4th of July and 10 days later the 14th of July. Meantime, we have experienced the rise and fall of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Chairman Mao, and the consequent fallout including the economic and social collapse of Russia and the virtual closure of its borders, the rise and fall of what was portrayed as social democracy under Hitler and the revival and fall of the Samurai culture in Japan. Other things remain constant. Despite the UN Convention on Genocide, agreed by the General Assembly a day before the Declaration of Human Rights, genocide remains a thriving (if that’s the word) engagement of a multitude of regimes around the world, and dispossession, slavery, poverty and terrorism, underpinned by seemingly irreconcilable neighbourhood and regional differences of opinion in effect the selling of souls for a song and the equation that a life is worth the price of a bullet are threatening a more encompassing conflict. It was handled appallingly on all sides, but tell me was September 11 New York a wake-up call or the beginning of WWIII, in the very different form to world wars as we read them a succession of new global power plays and regional conflicts in which the superpowers would play an even stronger hand than ever before?
Today we live with the heritage of the lofty philosophical concepts and amid the pandemonium created by racial, religious and regional bigotry, and conflict, and their consequent atrocities. These are some of the factors of globalisation, which at a higher level than hunger and bloodshed is every nation’s biggest economic, social, security and identity crisis. Opportunity unparalleled in human history, but which has led people to arm themselves physically or ideologically against the possibility that they no longer have control.
The political pendulum swings through the full arc of fortunes attached to public office. It’s a rollercoaster ride from the peak of the cycle, charged with the dynamics of leadership, rulership, fiercely competing interests, personalities, agendas, alliances, intrigue and self-interest and emotion. One day, one night after a long, humiliating, bitter erosion of the goodwill that saw its creation, or from out of the range of vision like a knockout punch it reaches the nadir and stops. After the count of 10, bewilderment, deflation, emptiness, and often lengthy bouts of disbelief, remorse and depression.
The notion, as yet unexplored that after four to six years, governments in their second or sometimes third terms lose direction and their popular support dissipates is central to this work, which is a combination of thesis, comment and observation on political agendas and events of recent times, historical perspectives, and anecdotes and insights from my years in politics.
New governments almost invariably ride through their first term on the breeze of change. Two primary factors cause them to drop their focus on the compass point. One is that the political arm of government becomes absorbed in process, allying itself more closely than it realises with the public sector administration. Second, the bureaucracy re-asserts its timelessness and serves as a major force in the process driven agenda. In that second or third term, when it is critical for governments to consult, explain, get their message out and reinforce it, they prove incapable of achieving this effectively.
There are several sub-sets that can work either way. A government with a meticulously developed policy platform may be defeated, among other reasons, because of the lack of a divisive issue that polarises the electorate; for example, Kennett 1999. Alternatively, governments mostly federal win elections on the basis of a contrived external issue that divides opinion. Examples: Howard 2001, external threats ranging from terrorism post-September 11 to the arrival of refugees on creaking boats; Fraser 1975, the Khemlani loans’ affair; Holt 1966, a landslide on the back of the Vietnam War; and Menzies, a combination of the Cold War and threat of communism (reinforced by the Democratic Labor Party) at pretty well any election during his reign with the exception of 1961 that went to the wire after the 1960 credit squeeze hit every hip pocket in the country. And there’s the element of the changing dynamics within the media’s portrayal of a government.
Further, the 1990s and 2000s have seen a dramatic change in public attitudes. Essentially, there’s a new rule come into play deny people democratic process, or allow a situation to arise in which they feel it is denied, and they will take democracy into their own hands. As witness to this, the minor parties gained a record vote in the 2001 federal election, and it was again reflected in the March, 2002, Victorian council elections, at which there were cases where almost whole councils were thrown out of office. People are returning to community values not the old 1950s values that Howard espouses, but values based on their local community involvement and aspirations for community life in this current era. This is the phenomenon of community democracy. A parallel exists in endeavours to commercialise the Internet. There is a delicately defined balance between a mass market, a market that has a community of interest, and an individual market.
A correlated trend has been the rise of support for independent candidates. The number of independents holding office has increased, and in states like Victoria independents have taken places on the parliamentary benches in recent years for the first time. Governments and oppositions the big parties have been unable to stop them. The new reform agenda is not one of the something-isations rationalisation, globalisation, privatisation, even public financial management (fiscalisation?). It stems from the assertion of individual and community rights and interests and is manifest in community democracy.
While the swing to small is good has been gathering momentum, the big operators are in decline. People are prepared to have their say, but not to wear political colours on their sleeves. In fact, the increasing unreliability of the polls reflects that right up to election day growing numbers of people are remaining among the undecideds. I doubt it’s that they don’t know, but that they distrust big politics as much as big business. They keep their options open and want to be convinced. While conservative politics and business have gloated over the slide of the trade union movement, they’ve overlooked that political parties are suffering the same fate. Memberships are at an all-time low, and membership profiles are ageing. There’s a shortage of cannon fodder to put out on the political picket lines the how-to-vote handouts. And the party organisations themselves are becoming moribund, out of touch and bereft of ideas. The exception among the big two is Labor, which has some good operators and ideas people like Greg Sword. But what do they do when it comes election time, and, later, time to look at what went wrong? Bring in Barry Poobah Jones and Blanche Dressing Gown Hawke.
Far from being a malaise of disinterest, the independent spirit coming to the surface in local neighbourhoods and aggregating nationally, admittedly in an ad hoc fashion, may be one of the most heartening democratic trends we’ve ever experienced. Political and business operators, be on your guard there look to be plenty more wild unpredictable nights to come.
A new cycle of political existence has emerged from the changes that have occurred from the 1970s, but predominantly in the latter years of the 20th century, and the consolidation of a range of pressure points imposed by public opinion and global influences, both aided by technological advances.
The political sector, administrative and elected, is influenced by the entire spectrum of constituent groups and factors I have outlined. Change, both internal and external, is the constant. The cycle of change is bringing about the emergence of different needs, different expectations and new pressures.
Throughout the 20th century the growth of large corporations transformed them into multinationals transnationals, as the Left dubbed them, as if to coin a new dirty word, a euphemism, for the new face of capitalism. While protection remained the creed of nations, the multinationals set out to be the modern colonists. It would be some time before they countered with euphemisms of their own the triple bottom line, corporate citizenship, downsizing and, heaven help us, rightsizing. Protection was no more than a trial hurdle to be hopped over. Set up in any and every country that meets your market demographic, capture the market not a lot different to rounding up slaves on the Ivory Coast and repatriate the proceeds. Closed trade borders forced the big corporations to take a direct stake in the local markets. Then emerged the era of inter-nation competition for a share of the burgeoning international economy. Governments responded with well-intentioned, but economically falsely premised, industry policies offering infrastructure support, tax breaks, direct cash incentives in many cases and tariff protection to fabricate a competitive climate for newcomers. In effect, they were buying jobs and often at prices higher than the jobs were worth. Both cases fed the electoral catchcry of jobs, jobs, jobs.
The advent of the information and communications age, driven by telecommunications and the Internet, brought more open global pressures to bear. Economic rationalism and competition policy came to the fore as the principles of the global economy. But we still have trade blocs, preferred nation agreements, and protection remains entrenched agriculture in the US and Europe as classic examples. There’s a multitude of local cases media ownership, the big four banks’ policy, petroleum industry pricing and franchising, postal distribution, medical practice and medical services and the protection of small business sectors such as pharmacies and newsagencies, many of which, incidentally, are extensively franchised by large operators. These are government influences, but what about protection that functions within the private sector? What about the fast food outlets, coffee shops, pubs, liquor stores, small supermarkets, homewares, house and garden, electrical and clothing stores that are run as franchises or part of buying and distribution collectives? Bet your socks the McDonalds at the top end of Melbourne’s Bourke Street never undercuts the one less than a kilometre away at the bottom of Swanston Street. Sure there are advantages in being part of a large supply network combined with formula retailing and marketing, but the question is whether there is an element of real competition missing behind the tedious sameness of their shopfronts, displays and offerings.
Witness Kennett’s move to centre stage with a national industry policy around 1996. His statement on targeted industry development to provide support for major Australian industries and to attract new age tech and science development proved the bane of the National Competition Council. I once had the firsthand discomfort of watching NCC chairman Graeme Samuel and his CEO Ed Willett wince at the mention of it. And his successful campaign to slow down the reduction in car industry tariffs, principally to protect the car, engine and components makers that comprise a sizeable proportion of Victoria’s manufacturing industry not to mention Ford at Geelong, in the heart of a swag of marginal seats.
Ironically, the first sequence of parliaments after Federation in 1901 were divided between protectionists and free market advocates. The question has still not been resolved, but it is being resolved for us, around us. In the process, Australia will lose half its car industry and all but two of its oil refineries, but we need to be reminded they will be replaced by niche businesses in each of these and many other sectors. Australia is constantly reminded of the thriving examples of Ireland, Israel and Singapore. All, however, are underpinned by domestic or external tax breaks and subsidies. They are houses of cards. Australia needs to compete. It will do so with a unilateral declaration of open economy in the same brave spirit that Paul Keating opened the international doors forever in the mid-1980s by floating the Australian dollar.
Globalisation has come along amid subtle, fundamental changes in the social fabric, which have led to the rise of another fundamental change in the atmospherics the spirit of community democracy referred to earlier. Residents of the most urbanised nation on earth are returning to their community and neighbourhood roots or, rather, re-establishing them. But the social framework is also different. Again, the force of change at work. Many political and corporate leaders have misread the trend as a reversion to the values of old and moved to trade on it as a re-creation of traditional social ethics by exchanging new for old policies. Or, on the part of corporates, by incorporating the triple bottom line into their business strategy as if this somehow positions them alongside the political and community structures, committed to social and community benefit.
It doesn’t wash with people who day by day are seeing their workmates dispatched with redundancy packages, who are forced by an ever more demanding corporate culture and peer pressure to perform in order to keep their jobs or collect an annual bonus. They see themselves as captives, working harder to achieve the same ends. And then there is their growing home and community commitment and the consequent conflict between work, home and community this is what is different in the changing social make-up. The social imperative is primary, but it has a correlated economic impact.
The priorities are home lifestyles not always centred on families given the significant change in household make-up a cosy local Friday night restaurant, and weekend activities that might spread around the neighbourhood or wider networks of like-minded people, and simply to take a break. People are more and more happy to live and work in the same suburban region where the choice is available, as it is increasingly.
Then there is the Internet. Online communications provide people with a perspective beyond their immediate horizons, and serve as well to create neighbourhood type clusters with similar interests even though they may be spread around the world. People are growing in their interactivity across these various tiers of their communities, a factor very evident in the local neighbourhoods where they work. Just look at the changing demands on councils to look after local people, and the electoral fate they suffer if they don’t.
The Internet adds an extra dimension that comes to play in a variety of ways. People who don’t have much to do with it see it as a reinforcement of the gathering forces of global darkness. Those who do the netizens are far from the archetypally depicted introspective, anti-social nerds. They are a bunch of highly aware, analytical, concerned people, a potent force to make a difference.
Politicians espouse the Internet, or at least they did until early 2002 when the full impact of the dot com crash became evident. It was more expedient post-September 11 to talk up external threats, and a new sci-tech industry biotechnology, with bioterrorism as a haunting sidebar soared to the top of the charts before it, too, crashed. The heyday of online government and the creation of connected communities had their pioneering years from about 1994 to 2001. The policies and initiatives of Kennett and Stockdale in Victoria, Richard Alstin federally, read like a new biblical era. They wouldn’t admit that their rationalist programs were a part driver of online access take direct contact away from people, sell their assets, shut down their local service outlets, but, bugger it, they can now get all this online. It was brilliant and showed every sign of working. And it will find a new life and work. The online revolution has not gone away. But it is a 100 watt idea that has dimmed.
Was jeff.com part of the cause? No. Despite the jaundiced view of some revisionists in the Liberal Party in the wake of 1999, it remains the most successful political web site ever put online in Australia. It was possibly the first political site in the world to be used purely as a campaign tool. Jeff.com attracted significant interest from the political operators around Washington, and in the US we saw web sites being used in a similar way for the first time at the 2001 presidential election. The site centred, as did the fundamental theme of the 1999 campaign, on Kennett as the dominant leader and public face of his government. Yes, it presented a presidential image and cemented his arrogance in many people’s minds. But in the circumstances, a Kennett focused campaign was the logical way to play it.
A significant point is that the Internet’s intrusion into virtually every aspect of daily life has brought about what Internet guru, Esther Dyson, calls the disintermediation of government: “Over time, tension will grow, pitting the global world of digital commerce and online society against the more local worlds of traditional governments and of people who aren’t part of ‘the brave new world’. Call it the disintermediation of government: each field of activity attracts its own set of defined-jurisdiction ‘governments’.” Dyson very neatly describes the jurisdictional difference: “While terrestrial governments are natural monopolies in their own territories, cyberspace governments compete. Terrestrial governments get overthrown when things get too bad; cyberspace governments simply lose citizens ” Not only that, the Internet has aggregated like-minded people in both local and disparate neighbourhoods and workplaces into communities of interest. It has also developed a human phenomenon that accords with the law of physics that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. What the governments and corporates mostly dine out blissfully unaware of is that their web presence is probably outnumbered at least 20 to one by opposition and more strident protest groups. Kennett’s jeff.com, for example, competed in cyberspace against sites like Stephen Mayne’s jeffed.com and the RMIT based realjeff.com.
These are the basic elements and laws of the gravitational forces that swing the political pendulum in ways that no existing polling mechanism is able to forecast with any surety of accuracy. The question is whether politics the process that is supposed to reflect moods and aspirations, provide the vision and establish the compass setting towards the future is up to the challenge of the very change it espouses and claims to be able to harness for the common good. Is even a liberal democracy such as exists in Australia able to evolve to encompass these new pressures and expectations?
The answer is probably no, based for one on the experience of the Kennett regime, but supported also to some extent by the falls of the Fraser government in 1983, the long serving Victorian Liberal Government in 1982, Labor in Victoria in 1992, Keating in 1996 and the domino effect that has cleared the states’ and territories’ slate of conservative governments over the turn of the century. However, the old jurisdictions failed and none of the new ones has yet shown the creativeness to set aside the abortive republican debate and put in place the new image that might be Australia in the 21st century, and gain in public respect as a result.
Government is changing, as an institution and an instrument of democracy. The trend has been evident for two decades. Cling to the notions of power and popularity though they may, governments are subject increasingly to constricting cycles. They face the same old day-to-day pressures, but many of the new and emerging restraints are of their own making. Despite the ever more extensive and sophisticated resources of incumbent administrations and their supporting party organisations, they are more out of touch than ever. Except for the more committed minor parties, active party membership is in serial decline and the party organisations themselves are offline, poorly administrated, devoid of ideas, and reactive rather than proactive. They provide an election campaign base, but that’s about it. One of the reasons is that the parliamentary wings of the major parties treat their party organisations and memberships with disdain.
In this environment, governments falter because after an initial wave of change they become internally focused and lose direction in the sense of establishing genuine relations with their constituencies and getting their messages across. Governments themselves are often the main barriers to political longevity. Beyond the initial phase in which a new administration establishes its identity, it becomes introspectively process driven bound up in budget and expenditure reviews, the infinite detail of examining program performance portfolio by portfolio. The excitement of holding the reins of government, the dream of changing the world, fades. They lose the name of action and become more and more defensive and, as if the two seem to have a natural affiliation, more and more secretive.
The core nature of public leadership, as well as the traps that exist in the process maze, is a significant factor in this picture. Leadership and leaders, and their inter-relationship with, and influence on, the government and parliament, the bureaucracy, particular interest holders and the people at large, will be examined in the course of this work from a number of aspects. One is the part played by the strong, charismatic leader. This is the person who is a leader for their time, whose message strikes a popular chord, whose strong hand is accepted as being necessary in the circumstances. It will be demonstrated, however, that despite the visionary rhetoric and the espousal of change, the fundamental message of such leaders does not move on. They are trapped in a comfortable time warp that comes to have a ring of sameness about it. Secondly, the charismatic leader has a very limited lifespan. The leader whose vision might project decades into the future runs out of shelf life in around seven years. The same fate is in store for more pedestrian leaders who manage to rally at times amazing levels of popular support off the back of a more overtly contrived, divisive strategy that plays with shameless opportunism to populist opinion and fears.
Since 1901 Australian politicians have abided their faith in God, country and democracy the most advanced and even-handed democracy the world has known. But despite the unshakeable foundation of the federation and the constitution that underpins it, even that has changed. The city built on a rock is crumbling. Few have awakened to it: even fewer understand why. These are some of the dynamics of the new political environment, in which the political cycle is being constricted and the vision and fibre to paint the broader canvas that accords with people’s changing lives and aspirations is evaporating. We are in need of the kind of spirit that can harness this brave new world.
* Copyright 2002 Kevin Balshaw. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced without the written authority of the author.