Politics in the 21st Century

Our political system has become unresponsive to the big national and global challenges requiring urgent attention. Why is it that politics has become so moribund? In this article, Peter McMahon provides a short history of the declining capacity of modern politics in Australia.

Our political system is increasingly creaky as the critical issues of the new century emerge. Globalisation and hegemonic change along with environmental, energy and other techno-scientific matters challenge the old political structures and processes due to their scale and complexity.

The current political system is a product of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a time when mass-industrial society emerged and matured in the West. It was a result of the great class conflict as working class political parties grew up to confront the entrenched power of the aristocracy and rich merchants. The central issue was the old question of ‘who gets what’ which was taking on a different character as ongoing economic growth took hold.

In most countries political contest came down to the lowest possible number of two parties, sometimes with a lesser party stuck in the middle. Working class Labour parties slugged it out with the parties of business and wealth, with the professionalising middle classes splitting according to economic interest and ideological bent.

Only in the US, with the peculiarities of southern politics inherited from the Civil War, did this pattern fail to emerge, although organised labour increasingly claimed the Democrats and big business the Republicans. This two-party political system was understood in zero sum terms: a gain for one side was a loss for the other.

For a while there was a genuine contest as world wars and Keynesian economic ideas, with some pressure from socialism, generated heated argument about the best way to run an industrialised society.

In Australia, when distances were still great and information processing power was meagre, a form of economic nationalism took hold that overrode other differences. Social cohesion was seen as just as important as economic growth. However, in the 1980s the Hawke and Keating Labor governments, confronting the growing pressures of globalisation, opened the door for neo-liberal ideas, an opening that the subsequent Howard Coalition government strode right through. Since then neo-liberal ideas (sometimes known under the rubric of “economic rationalism” locally) have held sway and politics as a vigorous process of debate and decision-making has been in decline.

The ascension of neo-liberalism and the end of the great debate about how the economic system, and increasingly society itself, should be organised meant the end of content-driven politics in Australia. As part of this change two new trends appeared and came to dominate: the first was the professionalisation of party politics; the second was the growing influence of the media.

Politics increasingly became a career choice just like accounting, teaching or the law as opposed to an activity one did after a period of life experience to hone one’s political ideas. Politicians became much younger, more and more doing a stint in politics and then leaving for a second career. The common pathway to political office became university politics, a short time in a law practice, trade union or politician’s office, and then pre-selection. These careerists had few strong views on anything other than their own worth, and were focussed increasingly on internal aspects of politics; that is, acquiring power and influence within the party.

The degradation of parliament itself only promoted this careerism as members did not even have to have oratorical skills anymore. The decline of that core institution, question time, thanks in large part to Paul Keating, was a signal event in this regard.

The other significant development has been the rise of the media and in particular the right-wing media, led by the Murdoch and Packer instruments along with the radio shock-jocks. The media were always central to the representation of politics to the broader public, but the abandonment of any pretence to balance and declining literacy made the media’s role different.

In addition, the media increasingly declined to do their own genuine investigation or analysis of issues, instead relying on short sound bites or eye-catching video. In the absence of real issues, personality politics – so amenable to surface only coverage – became the main political content.

The use of constant and ever more developed polling by the media (and later political parties themselves) exacerbated these trends. The replacement of Kevin Rudd by Julia Gillard on the basis that he had fallen out of favour with the electorate as evidenced by polling showed how important all this had become.

Now, it could be argued that when the political content was so narrow – basically, how to manage a modern national economy as indicated by interest rates, unemployment figures and investment returns – it hardly mattered which party was in power. This was even more the case given that the trenchant pragmatism of the NSW Right had come to dominate the ALP, making it little more than a shadow of the Liberals. Political disputation was increasingly over heart-felt but marginal matters, like asylum seekers and indigenous issues.

Both sides have become focused on interest rates and borrowing levels with the much harder to delineate unemployment issue off to one side. Fiscal rectitude has increasingly become the only really important hallmark of good government.

However, the emergence of a series of intractable problems that demand effective policy responses has shown that this political malaise cannot continue. Global warming, the emerging energy crunch (including peak oil) and other global scale matters require a well-informed and sustained political debate to arrive at adequate policy.

The failure of the major political parties to take any relevant action on the big issues has been shown up by the eventual carbon tax decision that was forced on Prime Minister Gillard by the Greens and independents. Meanwhile, the Coalition stands carping on the side with only Malcolm Turnbull acknowledging the hard scientific reality of global warming.

The world as a whole is entering a time of great change and equally great danger, and in the absence of a true global governance system the very least we need is for national governments to start looking beyond political expediency and towards open and meaningful policy-making.

Dr Peter McMahon lectures in sustainable development in the Institute for Sustainability and Technology Policy at Murdoch University. He specialises in researching the relationship between technology, organisation and globalisation. He is also a long-term activist on peace, social justice and environmental issues.