A helicopter view of the Gillard Government


'Helicopter view' by Chris JohnstonFairfax political journalist Michelle Grattan stated on Radio National last week that Australians are unlikely to take the all-encompassing 'helicopter' view at the next election. And this, despite the 300 pieces of new legislation achieved so far by the Gillard Government under the extremely challenging conditions of a minority government.

Instead of focusing on the overview of this remarkable achievement, these citizens will be bogged down in the detail of one scandalous union funds abuse, the misbehaviour of another high profile government official and the alleged impact of some new progressive taxes on their personal lives.

It has become the fashion to trade negative remarks about the other side of politics but this takes us nowhere. Better to contemplate the advantages of Grattan's 'helicopter view' which is very like the concern of the Canadian political philosopher, John Ralston Saul, about the proliferation of 'experts' in the conduct of affairs in the West.

We need the generalist citizen, Saul argues, who remembers it is his or her right to speak up on all matters from a citizen's broad perspective. We are responsible as citizens for what happens to our country. This means taking the whole picture into account, being prepared to hear all perspectives and to participate in the public debate. We have an early template for the benefits of this process in readings about the ancient Greek city state.

Australia has a headstart with respect to the helicopter view. Our own Indigenous people have manifest in their art the most miraculous ability and inclination to see landscapes as though from the sky. Many Aboriginal artists, without having viewed their area from above, have mapped their 'country' on canvas with remarkable sensitivity.

Perhaps it is because of this overview of the lie of their land that they tended it so sustainably in pre-European days, as detailed in Bill Gammage's recent award-winning book The Biggest Estate on Earth.

Some years ago I was blessed with a personal lesson in the value of the helicopter view in the classroom, at a centre for specially challenged students. Before each session the teacher would require the students to discuss why the learning we were about to do was important in the world's terms. Then at the end she would have us review why, for example, the algebraic sums we had just completed would be useful, in the long run, in our lives.

Initially I thought this was excessive and was privately critical of the teacher. But I soon learned to treasure these helicopter moments. They could be profoundly energising for both students and adults. From that time, I have book-ended my own teaching with big picture perspectives.

It might be indeed the only wise way to contextualise any undertaking, especially when casting one's vote in a federal election.

Writing for the Canberra Times, the executive director of the Australia Institute Richard Dennis — a commentator who can be relied upon to give an overview for the common good — reminded us that, despite our interest in the new enquiry into particular taxation methods, it is the amount of taxation we take, rather than the method we use, which will ultimately determine the quality of our shared national life.

Or consider the Federal Budget with its humble moves to increase equity and sharing of resources. It may well be a mistake at this time to require single mothers to return to work earlier, but the aim of this change is their participation in the whole functioning of the country.

From our helicopter we should be glad to see that there will be a greater degree of sharing of the profits of the mining industry across the nation, and that we are taking steps to move on from our carbon dependence.

As Grattan's comment implies, it is foolish to focus on how a person speaks, how she responds to questions, or the fact that she has changed her position in order to negotiate a way through quagmires of powerful interests, while ignoring her government's significant achievements under the most trying political circumstances.

Jill SuttonJill Sutton is a Canberra writer.

Topic tags: Jill Sutton, Michelle Grattan, Julia Gillard, Carbon Tax, Craig Thomson



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Existing comments

What exactly should the generalist citizen focus on? Should we ignore the appalling standard of debate and conduct of MPs in the House? Let's forget about how Gillard became PM! Should our helicopter view fail to detect the removal of a Prime Minister without any input from voting citizens who are "responsible for what happens to our country".
Andrew | 04 June 2012

'the misbehaviour of another high profile government official' I assume you are referring to Peter Slipper. He is not a "Government official", he is an Officer of the Parliament. There are actually no scandals of any sort that are directly connected to the Government.
Steve 1 | 04 June 2012

And who pilots the helicopter? The mass media. And what are they only interested in showing us observers/passengers? The very trivia Jill Sutton enumerates. And why? Because these are things that capture the attention of most newspaper readers/radio listeners/TV watchers. And having got their attention they advertise and drive home again and again the messages of their sponsors. Of course there are exceptions like Eureka Street and Crikey, but not many people can be bothered booking a seat in their helicopter.
Uncle Pat | 04 June 2012

Outside of the central issue of design of taxation, the Gillard government has indeed achieved a great deal of substantive reform. The conventional wisdom is that such reforms have been hindered by the dynamics of minority government, which is wrong; the pursuit of genuine reform has been enabled and energised by the demands of minority government. Parliamentary majorities result in domination of the backbench by the Cabinet, whereas minority government breaks the stranglehold over the legislative agenda by the Party strongmen. Instead, governments must also appeal to people of integrity such as Tony Windsor and Adam Bandt.
David Arthur | 04 June 2012

Jill, if you live in Canberra you could be excused for taking a less critical view of the current government. Here's how the rest of the country sees it: Julia is in power on a lie. She has had to sell out Labor's traditional values and the greater interest of the country to the Greens to stay in power. She is heading up the most incompetent government since Federation. This is the way the majority of the country sees it. The only reason there is media interest in the current scandals is that the majority is hoping that this government will finally be voted out. I mean, really, has this government improved the lot of the majority of the people? I think not.
ian | 04 June 2012

A helicopter view involves counting the number of Acts passed by a minority government? I would not think volume speaks to anything. The real question is has the government taken fundamental steps to make real and lasting change for the better for the citizens and has it been honest. The answer to the first question is yet to be answered. Some good things have been done. However, nothing really spectacular like under the Hawke/Keating years where long term views were taken and policies implemented through legislation. In terms of honesty, the government has been a failure. Sometimes you see the best or worst in people under fire. What we see with the government is sheer desperation to hold onto power at any cost.
Arthur | 04 June 2012

I daresay that it is unfair not to consider the range of positive things that the Gillard government has achieved. Nonetheless, I am continually amazed at what appears to be arrogance and/or stupidity at their level of non-consultation with stakeholders in decisions that affect them. The latest snatching of defeat from the jaws of victory, the mining jobs debacle, is a prime example. Why did the ministers involved not have meaningful discussions with the potential workforce (i.e. the unions) and others so that they understand the opportunities presented by new ventures? The fear of the loss of jobs is understandable, but so is the fact that the Australian workforce will almost certainly not be able to fill all of the new positions. Why was the PM not fully aware of the wider ramifications (political especially) of this decision prior to its announcement?? Tony Abbott’s level of aggression is unpleasant and a huge turn-off. However, he is not responsible for the own-goals the government keeps kicking. If the government bothered to consult widely and deeply, and to then communicate clearly decisions made on the basis of hard evidence, perhaps we mushrooms in the community would be more tolerant.
Patricia | 04 June 2012

I like David Arthur's comment. "Helicopter" at its best. Write about real reform without giving a single example. At least the author of the article backs her analysis with some facts. David, do you work for the Labor Party?
Arthur | 04 June 2012

When you mix incompetence, hunger for power and dishonesty then you end up with a bad Government. I spoke recently to a WW2 veteran and he told me that he was a Labor voter all his life, but he had never seen a Government as bad as now. He thinks that the Gillard Government is even less competent than the Menzies and Whitlam Governments.
Beat Odermatt | 04 June 2012

I partly blame the 24 news channels and internet news for the grubby state of politics at the moment. Instead of dealing with the big, broader issues, our leaders are biting at each other's necks like jealous, vexatious teenagers. Every time Gillard passes wind, Abbott's on air somewhere with his same tire old grumbling put-downs. I am starting to avoid watching the news now - It's not information overload, just an overload of crap about stuff I don't need to know about!
AURELIUS | 04 June 2012

Behaviour in Federal parliament is often very poor, but who is to blame? Tony Abbott. He sets the tone of debate with abuse, negativity and a lack of policy or positive comment. And the mass media must share some of the blame. They headline and emphasise stunts and slanging matches rather than focusing on the significant news. Consequently, many people may adopt the attitude that 'politics is nasty and best ignored' - playing into the hands of those who prefer the power of wealth and influence to democratic government.
Bob Corcoran | 04 June 2012

I studied economics and practised as a market researcher - the Labor government's Keynesian economic policies saved us from the economic recession suffered by many countries. Give credit where credit is due. Abbot's policy stance is very negative- attributable to his University studies which included a "blue" in boxing
frank hetherton | 04 June 2012

It is possible to have your own view, be right, and remain in the minority. I think many Australians feel this way at present about our politics. The media is fixated on the contest, not the content. The main reason is because of the delicate balance of power in the Parliament, where a government has to operate all the time not certain if it will have the numbers tomorrow. Garbage stories like Slipper and Thomson wouldn’t rate a mention in our press if the government had a stable majority in the House. This dismal scene is only exacerbated by the one dimensional Tony Abbott. It is perfectly obvious why he is an unpopular leader, he doesn’t lead. But we seem also to have a Prime Minister who either cannot connect with the nation, or is not allowed to.
BUNYIP BLUEGUM | 04 June 2012

Ian,a perfect summation.None so blind as those who can,t recognise the serious problems we now face.
Brian | 04 June 2012

As another mushroom ,I find it very difficult to get to the real deal and shudder to contemplate a future government running on a no policies agenda.
As an Labor voter over many years I voted Green last electiopn and shall probably do so again .
David | 04 June 2012

Much sense in the comments. And the media must take much of the blame; think the Murdoch papers, Alan Jones, Andrew Bolt and their ilk. By all means, take Crikey and Eureka Street out of that but add to the honour roll Independentaustralia.net. Why has nobody taken up the research they have done which seems to suggest that Craig Thomson may indeed be a victim? Why has no one else spotted the one person who crops up in the case of both Thomson and Slipper: Anthony Pyne?
Frank | 04 June 2012

Ian, do you call the losing side in an election liars, because they don't keep the promises they made in the campaign. Of course not, it would be silly. It si equally silly to cll the leader who wins only with the help of another party a liar for being constrained to break an election promise as a cost of being able to form a government. What is a lie? I think it's saying something you know to be untrue. Was Julia Gillard saying something she knew to be untrue when she made that famous promise about a carbon tax? No, of course not. So it wasn't a lie.
Gavan | 04 June 2012

Andrew, In our system the voting public have no input into the election of a Prime Minister. He/she is elected or removed by the Members of Parliament. Kevin Rudd was judged to be incompetent by the majority of his caucus. Gillard quite legitimately was elected PM.
Janet | 04 June 2012

What a pity the policies and legislative achievements of the government, and the "policies" of the opposition, are not the focus of discussion instead of personal abuse and denigration of leaders (even to their hair styling). Seek opinions from the old boys of your golf clubs and pubs and the Bolts of journalism, and you'll unbderstand what I mean. Well said, Jill Sutton.
Adrian Costigan | 04 June 2012

Most Australian people are ignorant of the good government and reforms of the Gillard government. This ignorance is because of the garbage coverage by most of the mainstream media. The only decent political commentators are George Megaleonis and Lara Tingle. Most of the media coverage of politics is trivial and celebrity nonsense. Most Australian people are apathetic about politics because of their affluence; 95% of Australian people are financially well-off and there is no poverty in any Australian city or town. The only people in Australia who live in poverty are some Aboriginal people in remote areas who do not have acceptable standards of health, education, housing and job opportunities.
Mark Doyle | 04 June 2012

Having just read the responses to Jill Sutton's contribution, I am reminded of that old biblical maxim about pearls and swines. The word 'lie', for example, seems to be attributed to Gillard. I'd imagine that Abbott/Howard/Joyce/Baillieau never lied? What was it again that Sitting Bull once said? When white men win it's called victory, when Indians win it's called massacre. What has changed from the days of pearls, swines and Sitting Bull?
Alex Njoo | 05 June 2012

Laura Tingle has concluded the latest Quarterly Essay ('Great Expectations') with the following words, 'We are fighting so much among ourselves about the personal qualities of our leaders that we cannot rationally discuss the options open to us. And we don't really know where we are headed or, indeed, where we want to go.'
Jill Sutton | 06 June 2012

Mark Doyle, If 105,000 Australians are homeless on any given night. What do you mean by saying : 95% of Australian people are financially well-off and there is no poverty in any Australian city or town?
Myra | 06 June 2012

Myra, your statement that 105,000 people are homeless is a myth. The majority of the so-called homeless include the following people: 1. women who leave home because of domestic violence; these women generally find temporary accommodation with either family or friend for a short period of time before they find permanent accommodation; and 2. young teenagers who leave home for one or two days after a domestic dispute; most of these teenagers spend most of their time wandering the streets making a nuisance of themselves before returning to their home. Demograhers also wrongly include people as homeless who live in caravan parks and rooming houses; the main issue for these people is the lack of low cost housing in the inner suburbs that is available for people on low incomes and students. In the past thirty odd years since the housing industry has been deregulated and has been dominated by profit seeking property developers, most housing in the inner suburbs is luxury accommodation for the upper middle class.
Mark Doyle | 08 June 2012

Mark Doyle I strong disagree with your interpretation of 'mythology'. While it is fair to say that, fortunately, for the majority of people homelessness is a temporary and frightening experience, the figure of just under 105,000 is a point in time estimate from the 2006 Census. Are you suggesting that women and young people should stay in situations of abuse and DV? Do you think we should limit our understanding of homelessness to 'rough sleeping' Your pejorative view of young people as delinquents appalls me. Have you ever spent time in a boarding/rooming house? They're not nice places. Most are sites of rampant untreated mental illness, criminal activity and many don't comply with health & safety by-laws. You can be evicted at a moment's notice and have no privacy. Yes the housing affordability crisis we're facing is a major reason why tens of thousands are in boarding houses. Does this mean we should accept they are not homeless? In my view, no. BTW, average time spent homeless by DV pathway is 4 months, for youth it's 8 months, for financial crisis, it's 12 and for mental illness and AoD it is 36 months, not 'a couple of nights.
Trav | 12 June 2012

Thank you for giving 'big picture' perspective some fillup. I am often derided for defaulting to this view. For me it is the absence of such a perspective that lies at the root of so much of our social ills.
graham patison | 23 June 2012


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