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Making a difference in the age of high-speed politics


Zhuangzi dreams of a butterfly, or a butterfly dreams of him

The ancient Chinese text the Zhuangzi tells of a kingdom where the people rose up and killed their ruler three times in succession.  The next-in-line to the throne, Prince Sou, fled for his life and hid in a cave but was pursued by the people, who smoked him out of the cave and took him back in the royal carriage to become their new ruler.

According to the Zhuangzi, it was Prince Sou's rejection of the throne, his refusal to harm his own life for the sake of political power, that proved to the people he was worthy to become king.

Australia has seen two of its rulers 'killed' in succession since 2010, with a third and current prime minister now perilously close to extinction. In each case the people have provided not the mechanism but the motive, with plummeting opinion polls driving internal party revolt against elected leaders. 

Are we approaching a point where the highest expression of political wisdom would be not to run for leadership at all?

In general, our politicians give the impression of being full of ambition with a powerful sense of individual worth. Success in politics requires such qualities, yet these qualities can also blind people to the harms and the costs of success in a politically dysfunctional era.

Like Abbott or loathe him, one must wonder how much of his original self, his private ideals and innermost convictions remain intact as the conditions of leadership demand ever more compromise from a man whose DLP and Catholic roots supposedly distinguished him from the economic liberal ideologues within and around the party.   

Less ambitious observers might wonder why Tony Abbott persists; or, equally, how Julia Gillard now reconciles whatever prime ministerial hopes and ideals she once had with the undoubtedly bitter reality of her few years in office. Gaining the world but losing one's soul springs to mind, but it wasn't even the world they've gained, just a few harried and embattled years at the head of fractious government.

Those of us motivated more by idealism or by the simple desire for strong and stable governance cannot help but feel dismayed and discouraged by the now half-decade of leadership instability and political melodrama that persists like the dying seasons of a once-popular TV show.

What we fail to appreciate is that politics has always attracted but now demands candidates whose self-assurance insulates them from these struggles, the kinds of people who feel innately that their very involvement brings something valuable to the political landscape, that they can 'make a difference' even when truly differentiating convictions, ideals, and landmark policies must be sacrificed along the way.

It hasn’t always been this way: politicians have not always been graduate-entry careerists, nor have they always relied so extensively on, or been so heavily subject to, the internal machinations of their respective parties.

Like the pursuit of profit as the over-riding concern of big business, the pursuit of office at all costs has gradually stripped big politics of any extraneous, inefficient, aesthetic, idiosyncratic or genuinely amateur qualities — unless they poll well in the electorate, of course. Efficiency translates into uniformity and conformity, with even the Prime Minister himself forced to adhere to the prevailing ideology of his peers in exchange for their political endorsement.  

How can Abbott's supposed conservatism persist in the face of internal pressure from more liberally-minded backbenchers? We've recently witnessed the demise of his poorly-received paid parental leave scheme, and on issues such as penalty rates Abbott has reportedly 'warmed' to reform, suggesting a triumph of free-market thinking over the conservative instinct to protect holidays and weekends.

It could be argued that the shortened life-span of our prime ministers reflects a deeper trend, a more responsive take on responsible government as the public grows accustomed to instant gratification in all areas of life. We may not have high-speed internet, but we are getting high-speed politics: government-on-demand with opinion polls providing a more interactive political experience than ever before.

This new era of political instability may have started with the 'knifing' of Kevin Rudd back in 2010, but by all accounts this was only the most audacious expression of a culture of political expedience that has infiltrated both sides of politics. If the political deal is that one must sacrifice everything for a chance at the top job, and expect nothing — not even reluctant loyalty — in return, then it should come as no surprise that even the prime minister is expendable.

Abbott was, after all, the unlikely candidate chosen after a grassroots Liberal reaction against Malcolm Turnbull's climate change policy. Abbott remained Opposition Leader despite some misgivings, on account of the strength of his campaign against the incumbent Labor government. He is at risk of being abandoned now simply because he has become more of a hindrance than a benefit to the Coalition Government in the polls. He who lives by political expedience dies by it as well.

It is hard to imagine anyone with genuine ideals hoping to enter parliament to 'make a difference' these days, unless they are ready and willing to let that difference be determined by factional politics, opinion polls, and PR advice. The metamorphosis of the major parties from tools of representative government to election-winning 'machines' has come at a cost to public confidence and stable governance.

We can only hope the drastic measure of prime ministers betrayed and abandoned is a sign that this broken political era is hastening to an end.

Zac Alstin headshot

Zac Alstin is a freelance writer and PhD student in Philosophy of Religion who lives in Adelaide. He blogs at zacalstin.com

Topic tags: Zac Alstin, Zhuangzi, Tony Abbott, Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd



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Existing comments

Is Tony Abott were 'friends' with Pope Francis? He can write a letter or call him on the phone asking him to please Tweet Jokowi Presiden to have Mercy, and the world to pray for the lives of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan to be spared. Cardinal Pell is also in the position to help. Here is Jokowi Presiden Tweeter. https://twitter.com/jokowi_presiden

Bernstein | 16 February 2015  

I have just started reading Hilary Mantel's 650-page tome "Wolf Hall" and according to the blurb on the back cover "Thomas Cromwell has broken all the rules of a rigid society in his rise to power, and is prepared to break some more." I'll have to read much more than 13 pages to assess this man. The current political scene in Australia shows little idealism and a pragmatic approach to exercising power, with a fractious Senate giving the Prime Minister plenty of headaches. Maybe what's needed today are politicians who can see the advantages of power and still be willing not to make any sacrifice for it.

Pam | 16 February 2015  

Pope Francis spoke against the death penalty. There is a letter in the Hebrew language the ‘Hey’: Thought, words, and action. Action must be brought into reality. More must be done.

AO | 17 February 2015  

"It is hard to imagine anyone with genuine ideals hoping to enter parliament...". Not just hard to imagine but impossible to achieve since such a person would never be preselected by any of the major parties. Our only salvation might be a whole bundle of elected independents unlikely to be controlled by the trade unions or big business.

john frawley | 17 February 2015  

"Betrayed and abandoned", Zac? Not a case of sowing what one reaps? Frankly I would have far more of a struggle shaking Abbott's hand at the eucharistic sign of peace, than I did Tom Hughes' (having a memory of his antics back in the Vietnam War era)..

Fred Green | 17 February 2015  

Tony Abbott has the courage of his convictions. Whether this is a virtue /asset depends on whether such convictions are free from monocular vision and untainted by self interest.. The same could be said of President Jokowi and his determination to rid Indonesia of drug traffic. Similarly, all Established Religions who focus only on their solipsistic response to God's call, at the expense of God's universal and spiritual call for cooperation, peace and harmony.

Robert Liddy | 17 February 2015  

Zac, Mr Abbott should expect that his back benchers are sophisticated people who require a vision rather than an hallucination from their leader and will resent being obsessively micromanaged. The backbenchers should expect that their leader has a sophistication and maturity a nd is not caught in a time warp from his student politics days at Sydney Uni in the mid '70's. A thumping majority does not allow a leader to treat his/her fellow government members with contempt & overarching control. Mr Rudd was slow to learn this lesson and was initially replaced. The challenge for Mr Abbott is whether he can change himself and learn from history.

Paul Crittenden | 17 February 2015  

Paul, how does Gillard figure in these considerations? Was her removal not sheer expedience? And can the parliamentary members blame anyone but themselves for electing and supporting leaders who treat them with contempt and control?

Zac | 17 February 2015  

Fred, betrayal and abandonment are in the same vein as 'killing' and 'assassination'. Hyperbole, though the Prime Ministers in question might feel it more keenly! I don't want to say "you reap what you sow" unless we broaden it to accuse the whole system. That was my take on the Labor leadership saga and election defeat: "All are punished."

Zac | 17 February 2015  

It's a bit like getting a job for $8 an hour at McDonalds when the local takeway shops in your little country town are being pushed out of business. But if you manage to stay with McDonalds and work your way through the corporate structure, I think by the time you get to that stage your priorities would have changed a little. The same with politics.

AURELIUS | 19 February 2015  

Dear Zac, the Australian public & I suspect many parliamentary party colleagues of Ms Gillard never warmed to her either before or during her prime ministership. This is very similar to Mr Abbott's situation. After all, Mr Abbott only won the leadership by one vote against Mr Turnbull in 2009. I suspect the people who voted in that 2009 ballot would be a minority in 2015. Therefore, at least a substantial proportion of Liberal MP's never actually participated in the ballot when Mr Abbott became leader. Politics should be about listening and also hearing. The "Reluctant loyalty" will only obtain for a finite period if a leader is not hearing. Unlike either Mr Abbott or Mr Rudd Ms Gillard didn't initially become PM through winning an election. This perhaps created a certain illegitimacy issue in the minds of some. She also made her fair share of "CaptaIn's picks" including the selection of Mr Carr as foreign minister. Questions of judgement arise when someone a leader personally selects in this manner and is subsequently turned on by them. I think that ultimately good policy is good politics. Perhaps all three should have concentrated more on policy matters rather than spin & "messages".

Paul Crittenden | 26 February 2015  

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