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Pragmatism: obscuring ideology in Australian politics

  • 09 February 2021
It’s a commonplace assertion that Australians don’t do ideology. So, even throughout the chaotic year from which we’ve just emerged, we ended up with headlines like the one in The Australian, suggesting that the Morrison government’s post-COVID recovery budget heralded the triumph of ‘pragmatism over ideology’. Others pointed to the strengths of Scott Morrison’s transactional ‘pragmatism’ and to his blending of social conservatism with non-ideological ‘policy blankness’.

Time and again we’re told that a certain kind of politics, even the best kind of politics, runs free from ideological commitments. Ideology, from this perspective, prioritises programmatic coherence out of a penchant for rarefied and cumbersome theory, while pragmatism responds flexibly to experience and contingency, to the demands of the moment.

But the celebration of pragmatism in Australian politics obscures the role that ideology has always already played. In fact, one of the more stealthily ideological moves in Australian politics, generally made within that swirl of commitments people call ‘centrism’, is the de-politicisation of policy — the attempt to present policy as responsive to natural imperatives rather than to specific values and ideals. Such ‘pragmatism’ converts ideologically traceable ideas into naturalised orthodoxies or, in the language of the hardhat-wearing political everyman, ‘mere common sense’.

The call to ‘post-ideological’ pragmatism has a powerful ideological pedigree, and we should be wary of anyone packaging it otherwise. Over this past half-decade of social and political crisis one of the critical arguments that has justifiably gained popular purchase is that a certain kind of ‘post-ideological’ liberalism, marked by technocratic density and a confidence in rationally driven historical progress, has met with serious failure. Managerialism and formalism are used but made invisible by those who think that the law is neutral, that the economy is an apolitical framework for organising our ‘natural’ acquisitiveness, and that bureaucracy presents a greater challenge to democratic sovereignty than multinational corporations with turnovers larger than some national GDPs.

Its more freewheeling advocates are possessed by the idea that power may be exercised without politics, that the systems that organise our lives, including the system of the market economy, may be conditioned to function without prioritising the interests and values of favoured sub-groups. They see ‘good governance’ as the non-ideological, technically adept, management of human affairs. This form of jackdaw liberalism, which selectively snaps up authenticating tropes from Enlightenment and early modern sources. It was, until 2008 and with embattled fortitude afterwards, the heartland of ‘common-sense’ talk.