Leaving aside the relative merits of Labor and the Coalition, arguably the greatest advantage of having a new mob in the Lodge is that, just for a moment, it makes it easier to see how much of what frustrates us about politics can be ascribed to individual politicians, and how much is the fault of the system they work within.

When it comes to political dysfunction, most of us suffer from what psychologists call “fundamental attribution error” — the tendency to attribute behaviour to individual character traits rather than the situations that people find themselves in. Understandably, the media is particularly susceptible to this error. Stories about people are so much more interesting than stories about systems.

So it’s a rare journalist who asks the question that Bernard Keane posed last Monday: “Is our current political model, the accepted way of governing in Australia, capable of dealing with the challenges of the 21st century?”

When a party which so clearly wants to overcome the “short-term outcomes dictated by the electoral cycle” can’t even resist sacrificing next year’s policy agenda on the alter of the 24-hour news cycle, the answer has to be ‘no’.

The petrol price stoush has certainly been the most obvious example so far: buying into a debate over a tax cut that would save the average motorist around $100 a year — compared for example to the $1000 a year that he or she could save if fuel efficiency standards were raised to 6.8L/100km. As the ABC’s political editor Chris Uhlmann pointed out in John Lyons’ ‘Captain Chaos’ article: “The longer Labor plays short-term politics on petrol, the harder the long game will become.”

But it wasn’t the first time that good policy was sacrificed to the polling gods (think tax cuts and carers’ payments) and it probably won’t be the last. As the Chinese proverb says “if we don’t change our direction, we are likely to end up where we are headed”. And we’re unlikely to change direction until we find a way of getting hyperbolic discounting out of politics.

Hyperbolic discounting is an economist’s typically obtuse way of describing the human preference for jam today over jam tomorrow. A certain bias towards the present is rational – in financial matters. $100 tomorrow is not worth as much to us as $100 today. If we had $100 today we could invest it and have more than $100 tomorrow. And tomorrow we may be dead. But behavioural economists find that we are much more biased towards the short-term than a hypothetical “rational human” would be.

To counteract a habit that we know is against our own long-term interests, we sometimes find ways of coercing ourselves — of empowering the “future I”. We put our alarm clock on the other side of the room the night before to make it harder to give in to the urge to sleep in the next morning. We let ourselves pay higher tax rates throughout the year to accrue a lump-sum rebate that we’re less likely to spend. Superannuation is a government-enabled means of doing the same thing.

But how can governments do likewise?

Savvy political leaders who want to resist the constant pressure to think in soundbites need to do the equivalent of placing their alarm clock on the other side of the room. FDR, when approached to support a particular cause, reportedly said “I agree with you. I want to do it. Now go out and make me do it.”

Only the most informed and engaged citizens, the most responsible media, the most independent institutions, the most fearless and forward thinking public service, can help politicians serve the interests of future voters. We all have to do our bit too, obviously, but there are some things that governments with foresight can do to create rods for their own backs. And that’s the subject of a future article.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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