Beware the Siren’s call of populism
By Peter Burnett
The Grattan Institute’s latest report, ‘Gridlock: removing barriers to policy reform’, argues that Australia’s governance is going backwards and that, without reform, there is little prospect for many policy reforms that would ‘increase Australian prosperity’.
To which we at Sustainability Bites would add ‘and avoid environmental catastrophe’.
The report identifies a number of barriers to public interest reforms. These include vested interests, a weakened media, increasing tribalism in politics and society, and, ultimately, plain old unpopularity.
Grattan also gather a number of sensible recommendations for reform: increasing the expertise and independence of the public service, reducing the number of political advisers in ministerial offices, a federal anti-corruption commission and so on.
Interestingly, the report also confirms that the 1980s and 1990s were indeed ‘golden years’ of reform (something we too believe here at Sustainability Bites) and that this view is not just a rose-tinted longing for the ‘good old days’.
Why the gridlock?
This is all good stuff. But what’s really going on here? We are an advanced liberal democracy, better off in material terms than any society in history — so why do we find ourselves stuck in reform gridlock?
In some cases, the explanations are obvious. The decline of traditional media for example is largely due to the rise of social media.
But it’s much harder to explain the recent rise of tribalism and populism, and a corresponding decline in the willingness of our leaders to champion unpopular reforms.
Of course, these things are all manifestations of human nature, but why are they so prevalent now?
The rise of neoliberalism, and the decline of Conservatism
I put much of the current prevalence down to the rise of neoliberalism, pushing out ‘capital C’ Conservatism and other ways of thinking now seen by many as old-fashioned.
Let me explain.
Neoliberalism is based on classical liberal ideas of individual choice and the efficiency of free markets. However, unlike classical liberalism, it is much less focused on governance-oriented themes such as equality before the law and democracy.
As a result, the prescriptions of neoliberalism tend to be focused on economic policy, such as deregulation and privatisation.
In common with economics, neoliberalism is utilitarian, a philosophy which is focused on maximising ‘utility’ or happiness. And utilitarianism belongs to the family of moral philosophies that are consequentalist, assessing the morality of actions on the basis of their consequences.
In contrast, various other moral philosophies are deontological (from the greek word for ‘obligation’ or ‘duty’) and thus concerned about ‘doing the right thing’.
‘Capital C’ Conservatism has a strong deontological theme, as it seeks to conserve institutions and values on the basis that they are good in themselves. Most religions also have strong deontological foundations, as does humanism.
Does it really matter?
Why all the philosophy? Isn’t it enough that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, to point out that neoliberalism has made us all much wealthier and indeed lifted millions out of poverty?
These things are true but there’s more to it. Remember, we are looking for an explanation for a loss of reform momentum and decline in standards of governance.
The philosophy is relevant because it does provide an explanation.
In looking for explanations of the changes in our politics over the last 40 years, it is not enough to point to the rise of neoliberalism. There has also been a corresponding decline in deontological thinking such as Conservatism and traditional religion.
In short, while material wealth is up, it’s just as important to note that commitment-driven behaviour, such as church-going, volunteering and even sticking with one football team for life, is down. We are not as ‘rusted on’ as we used to be.
So how does this explain the politics?
Consistent with the neoliberal focus on ends rather than means, good government does not matter as much as it once did. The most recent examples of this come from two very capable and well-respected centre-right politicians, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and federal Finance Minister Simon Birmingham.
Both were asked to defend pork-barrelling by their respective governments. The Premier said:
“The term pork barrelling is common parlance. And if that’s the accusation … I’m happy to accept that commentary … I think all governments and political parties make promises to the community in order to curry favour … it’s not an illegal practice; unfortunately it does happen from time to time.”
The Finance Minister said (and then promoted it on his own website):
“[T]he Australian people had their chance and voted the government back in at the last election, and we’re determined to get on and deliver those election promises that we made in relation to local infrastructure as we are nation building infrastructure.”
Shocking. Gladys says ‘everyone does it’ and Simon says ‘you had your chance and you chose us, pork and all’.
Yet, other than a few outraged columns from political commentators, these frank admissions of very poor political behaviour seem to have had little impact or generated much backlash.
If that’s our attitude to pork barrelling, is it any wonder that we are in trouble?
At the most general level, the solution to environmental decline is to keep our consumption of nature’s services to the rate at which nature produces those services. If we fail to do this, we consume nature itself (natural capital), to our own detriment but especially to the detriment of future generations.
This is why ‘intergenerational equity’ is the fundamental principle of environmental sustainability.
Intergenerational equity is a classic example of deontological thinking. It is a moral imperative to do the right thing by future generations, even at the expense of our own consumption.
So if this kind of thinking is out of fashion, what can we do?
A return to moral codes that many have abandoned seems rather unlikely.
The next best thing might be to emulate the pragmatism of the Greek hero, Ulysses. When he knew that the voyage home from Troy would take his ship past the island of the Sirens, he had himself lashed to the mast so that he would be restrained from giving in to their velvet-like and irresistible call.
We too can lash ourselves to the mast of the ship of state, by setting up institutions such as a federal anti-corruption commission, or, for the environment, a legislated ‘net zero’ target and the independent Climate Change Commission (as proposed by independent MP Zali Stegall).
Of course, it would be better just to ‘do the right thing’. Failing that, when we are tempted to give in to the siren call of populism, good institutions can help save us!