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In praise of complexity

One of the tests by which we can judge political maturity is whether it gives due weight to complexity. It is easy to reduce political conversation to opposed statements between which we must choose. That will sometimes be appropriate. Often, however, discussion of policy raises several different questions, each of which needs to be considered. The resolution of each question will qualify the response to others.

This complexity has become evident recently in the many large issues facing Australia. The Government has also reassuringly acknowledged it. Australia’s management of its relationship to China, for example, is often represented as a simple choice between surrender or hostility. The complex reality of the relationship, however, is one of simultaneous mutual dependence and mutual rivalry, each of which must be given due weight in policy. It will find expression, not in a neat and sharp-edged policy, but in a complex set of responses to particular aspects of the relationship. Both China and Australia will work to build relative independence in supplying the needs of their own people while at the same time accepting that they do need one another and will need to cooperate. In managing its relationship with China the Government will now also to take account of its relationship to the United States and to the Pacific nations. These in turn will affect its policy on international aid and climate change. 


'We should welcome the decision of the treasurer to expand the budgeting process to include priorities concerned with the wellbeing of society. Although it will have only a small immediate effect, the priority given to wellbeing will question the common assumption that the health of a society can be measured simply by its GDP.'


In responding to climate change, too, the Government will need to take account of another complex set of relationships. It certainly needs expeditiously to phase out the use of fossil fuels, but in a way that also considers the need for energy security, the need for a resilient economy to fund the change, the need to support people and communities that are dependent on mining, and the need simultaneously to reduce emissions in agriculture and transport. Each of these elements of the response to climate change involves relationships that extend beyond Australia to a world shaped unpredictably by war and hunger.

The complexity of policy making suggests that no policy should be seen in isolation but should be set within all its salient relationships. It is like a mobile in which items of different weights are suspended from interconnected rods from the ceiling. The addition of a heavier or lighter item from its rod will affect the position both of the other items on that rod and also of those hanging from other rods. The elegance of the installation will depend on attention not only to each weight and its unique design but to the relationship between them.

In Australia, as in many Western societies, the mobile of society is quite ugly. It is distorted by the massive accumulation of wealth by the few, leaving the many suspended and pressed against the ceiling. This affects not only their economic security but also the quality of their lives and their effective participation in society.

For that reason we should welcome the decision of the treasurer to expand the budgeting process to include priorities concerned with the wellbeing of society. Although it will have only a small immediate effect, the priority given to wellbeing will question the common assumption that the health of a society can be measured simply by its GDP. It recognises that economic relationships are important, but that they need to be set within all the many relationships between persons, institutions and the environment that help shape human flourishing. When all these relationships are given priority they should help shape the economic settings of economic growth, taxation and distribution in a way that promotes the common good.

Both our parliamentary representatives and media reporters often fail to pay attention to the complex network of relationships involved in any Government policy. Especially at election times the reductive rhetoric of members of Parliament is echoed in disrespectful and partisan questioning by media representatives. They reduce policies to single issues and demand a response to them of unqualified consent or rejection. Increases in taxation or in welfare payments, for example, are represented only as an imposition on the taxpayer and not as part of shaping a better society.

Such attitudes assume the priority of self-interest over the common good. They encourage responses of hatred, anger or fear to any policy that calls for self-sacrifice on the part of citizens. In such a climate it becomes impossible to propose policies to ensure the common good in complex areas such as education, health, tax reform and housing. Their political opponents and media allies immediately reduce them to short slogans and seek sympathy for those disadvantaged by them. Those disadvantaged by existing policies receive no attention. In this climate attention to complexity becomes an intellectual luxury and a political disaster. 

Oversimplification and polarisation can also be seen in the call for national debates on such topics as gender relations, educational standards, race relations and attitudes to minorities. The debate demanded is better described as an exchange of slogans designed to foster anger and fear. It is polarising and distracts from the complexities of the relationships involved, so reducing the human reality to a cartoon image. It is like taking a mobile of delicately balanced Dresden China figurines and appending to the end of one of its arms a huge lump of coal. The result is neither attractive nor decent.





Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Aerial view of crowd connected by lines. (Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Complexity, Politics, Economy, Society



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