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In praise of complexity

  • 21 July 2022
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