Saturday, August 18, 2012


It might appear as if two columns of about 1,000 words each a week really shouldn't be too difficult to manage . . . but it has been an enormous drain over the past two years.

So I'm shutting down my Saturday contribution.

I hope you enjoy this one, published in the Canberra Times today . . .


Finally, the answer is clear. We can dispense with parliament and replace the entire institution with a couple of three-person committees. These can then be assigned responsibility to decide all the previously insoluble issues that have bedevilled the country for years.

It’s a tempting prospect. But a moment’s reflection quickly reveals why such an outcome could never be allowed to occur. It would cut across the special pleading of the special interest groups that are doing very nicely out of society being organised just the way it is; be they the mining magnates and big supermarkets or even just comfortable senior bureaucrats watching their paycheques rise by double that of their subordinates. Change would threaten too many: it will never happen.

Of course not everyone embraced the findings of the Houston committee. The Greens, for example, had previously abandoned their opportunity to actually influence public policy, choosing instead to sit on their hands. If they’d been prepared to negotiate with Labor earlier on, a better deal could have been done to protect asylum-seekers. Instead, under the stern, unforgiving eye of ‘Gauleiter’ Christine Milne, they rejected any possibility of a trade. Politicians? On the current evidence you’d have to suggest the answer is no. Impotent ideologues? Watching Adam Brandt and Andrew Wilkie stand alone, while every other politician crowded together to vote against them, hinted more at mere ineffective helplessness.

Nobody’s suggesting the Greens don’t believe – absolutely – in their cause. But politics is the art of the possible; achieving the best outcome that can be realized. The Greens dealt themselves out of the game and shouldn’t be surprised they didn’t score. Milne failed, utterly, in her first test as leader, overruling at least one colleague to do so. More significantly, she’s accomplished nothing for the very refugees she so loudly protests she’s fighting for.

Politicians are behaving as if they’re in nothing more than the media content business. Lindsay Tanner has accused the media of reducing serious debate to nothing more than a circus sideshow. He’s right – because that’s exactly where the politicians have led us.

No real leader would ever outsource a vital piece of her policy jigsaw to a working group from outside parliament. Searching widely to find the best way forward is commendable. Using such advice as cover to excuse a failure to count the numbers in parliament is (although only just) acceptable. But Julia Gillard’s decision to allow her party to linger helplessly in the polls for months, searching for direction without any prospect of the stalemate being overturned, is outright inexcusable.

That’s why, reluctantly and haltingly, the eye is inevitably drawn across the chamber, to the opposition benches. Some gloating was understandable, if unnecessary. Nevertheless the incoherence of some of his MP’s speeches should worry even Tony Abbott. Obtaining pre-selection and getting elected are intrinsically difficult, so it appears reasonable to assume a certain degree of capacity amongst anyone who manages to pass these barriers. Theoretically. Yet listening to the disjointed ramblings of some opposition members sends a shiver down the spine. Is this the ‘alternate government’ by anything other than default?

That’s why it’s important to note that the Huston report also torpedoed amidships a central plank of Opposition policy – the idea that somehow the boats can be “towed back”. As a young sailor, Navy Chief Ray Griggs experienced what this means: a gut-wrenching choice between allowing people to drown or saving their lives. That’s not a burden anyone should ever be expected to bear.

Despite mounting evidence his policy would never work, Abbott continued blindly to insist it would. Why? Because it (supposedly) played well in the marginal electorates where the next government will be decided. Decision-making by focus-group. Good strategy subverted as part of a naivĂ« tactical attempt to pander to the electorate. The point is that good policy is always the best politics – something Kevin Rudd found to his cost after abandoning his great moral challenge to act on the environment, and later when he ignored the vast majority of Ken Henry’s tax review. He should have left the cherry-picker in the orchard.

Parliament does have a mechanism to obtain the best policy prescriptions for the country. It’s called the Committee system. Sadly, this has languished under both Rudd and Gillard, who have instead privileged the executive arm of government. High-quality process does encourage superior policy outcomes. And good policy is good politics. Until our representatives get back to basics the political process will continue to be held in disrepute.

The political rewards will, ineluctably, follow from recognising social changes are occurring and government needs to adapt policy settings to match.

It’s difficult sometimes, as we’re surrounded by the clamour and tumult that accompanies everyday life, to escape to the better world of ideals and aspirations where we’d prefer to live. For two years now this column has been picking away at the scabs hiding the ugliness seething beneath our thin veneer of civilisation. My reward has been to discover how selfless so many people – particularly here in Canberra – actually are. Despite the increasing insistence that every social transaction can be reduced to a fiscal imperative, Margaret Thatcher was wrong. There is such a thing as society, and it is alive. It’s to be found in the actions of those who contribute selflessly to others, and not in the bank balances of the selfish.

My biggest discovery over this period has been that there is no apparent connection between the number of Olympic Gold Medals a country receives and anything other than the medal tally (although some, less kind members of my family have pointed to a undoubted linkage between our declining medal count and my own, increasing girth). Thinking through our many unchallenged, glib assertions often allows a better way forward to reveal itself. Unfortunately, challenging those comfortable assumptions requires effort. I need to take a break (although I will continue to contribute on Tuesdays) and would like to thank you for indulging my occupation of this space for so long.

Twenty-one years ago I technically died after a terrible car crash. My body was resuscitated but real recovery has been another matter entirely. The accident taught me to revel in every minute of life. Embrace the frigid wind flying off the mountains and the warmth of the sun. Accept the challenge to think and question. And, most importantly, engage with others, because that’s what life is about. That, and taking the occasional risk to do something out of the ordinary for yourself.


  1. Within the ranks of Parliament, there are many who could best be described as Luddites, Flat Earthers and a variety of other descriptive terms of equal weighting. How did they get there one asks and ponders ? The pre-selection systems is riven with failings such that, as with flotsam and jetsam, the scum really does rise to the surface.

    On another front, the reduction of your column is understandable but one will miss the Maxwell Smart approach to politics which you bring....