Appealing to the ‘better angels’ of Australian politics

Associate Professor Haydon Manning believes Australians should take lessons from more cooperative governments of the past.

“We are not enemies, but friends.

“We must not be enemies.

“Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.

“The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

While Flinders University’s Associate Professor of Politics Haydon Manning is trying hard to believe in the words of Abraham Lincoln, he admits it’s been getting harder to see the “better angels” of the Australian political system over the past few years.

Faced with the impact of unrelenting “Gotcha!” journalism, negative state and federal election campaign tactics and a bewildering electoral system that seems capable of letting almost anyone into the Senate, Associate Professor Manning says it’s not surprising that the general public is also losing faith in Australia’s ability to deliver a competent government.

He isn’t ready to give up on Australian politics without a fight though.

“I have to keep reminding myself that the Hawke-Keating partnership, followed by the Howard-Costello partnership, delivered, for the most part, admirable government that broadly served the national interests,” he said.

“That said, I have seen some things happening over the past few years that I’ve found extremely concerning and which, at worst, could lead to a serious political crisis.

“I don’t think that crisis is imminent, but this “Gotcha” culture within journalism – and within Australian culture in general – is acting to foster negative attitudes to the point that people seem virtually incognizant of the positives.”

Professor Manning acknowledges that constant spin doctoring by politicians isn’t doing them any favours and points to the current flounderings of Prime Minister Tony Abbott as an example of one politician who is both victim and architect of the current malaise.

He is, however, sympathetic to some of the challenges they face.

“I really don’t envy politicians these days. They’ve got a very tough job of it and are often treated automatically by many in the media as if they’re people of ill will.

“What makes it worse is that they’re not given the chance to explain the context of their decision making, because many journalists are so ready to fuel negatives.

“This in turn infects voters with a jaundiced disposition toward politicians and a determination to pigeonhole them.”

No stranger to attempts at pigeonholing himself, Associate Professor Manning is proud that after many years as a political commentator, even close colleagues and students are often unable to decide whether he is a supporter of the ‘left’ or the ‘right’ in Australian politics.

The reason they can’t, he believes, is because he doesn’t consider himself to be either.

“That’s quite hard for a lot of people to understand, because in political circles, including university social science departments, there is always a strong pull to take sides,” he said.

“The truth is that I’m not pro-left or pro-right. If I’m anything, I’m pro liberal democratic practice – and particularly pro systems with good checks and balances on power.

“After that, I’m mostly just hopeful that competent government is the order of the day, which means it strives to forge consensus; or to at least forge a governing narrative that is consistent, well-articulated and, crucially, not captive of any powerful section of society.”

A first generation university student, Associate Professor Manning says being educated in an era when it was possible for him to progress from being an undergraduate at Flinders University to becoming an Associate Professor taught him not to take anything for granted.

He extends that thinking to democracy itself, and is very concerned with helping other people to understand how the Australian system of government works, and how they can positively contribute to it.

“Democracy is something I’ve never taken for granted, and I think we do so at our peril,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to begin teaching at Flinders in the mid-1980s when the old ‘academic apprenticeship’ was still available to those of us lucky enough to score a full-time tutorship.

“There was no rush to finish the PhD, instead I took my time, working alongside highly intelligent academics like Dean Jaensch, Andrew Parkin, Richard Leaver and Norman Porter.

“In a way, I feel like I did my bachelor degree over and over again, and along the way gained a very broad education across the major fields that underpin political science.

“All this formal work as a tutor in politics was set against my earlier ‘political youth’ and is what drew me into the study of politics.

“The collapse of democracies in South America and the nature of authoritarian fascist dictatorships really occupied my attention and for a while prompted an indulgence in far left-wing politics.

“It was clear to me that functioning democracies may, given certain social and economic conditions, succumb to dogmatic ideology that appeals to the ‘darker angels’ of political life.”

While he believes Australia today is nowhere near that kind of democratic crisis, he does believe it has the potential, particularly with the rise of populist politics.

“We see some elements of this with the rise of Clive Palmer’s party, which is well positioned to take advantage of the Abbott Government’s confusing narrative in the lead-up to its first budget.

“When bipartisanship between the major parties on the key economic challenges breaks down entirely, the door opens for the populist agenda – including the potential for the major parties to also morph into populists

“Such a scenario would be in effect an add-on to the dysfunction of the Rudd-Gillard years, and one wonders how ten years of vacillating government will be tolerated by voters.”

Associate Professor Manning also believes the Australian political system is more vulnerable than most people may realise.

“Under some of the conditions I’ve described, Australia’s system is actually quite open to exploitation by opportunistic demagogues with significant resources and the willingness to tell an impatient, angry electorate whatever they want to hear,” he said.

Thankfully, Professor Manning says he has seen some more positive signs in recent days.

“Some bipartisanship has emerged among the Liberals, Labor and the Greens over the need to sort out the mess that has become the election of Senators, which I find very encouraging,” he said.

“I really hope that we will see more of this kind of cooperative government going forward because I think it would be very reassuring for the public and good for the country.”

He also hopes Australia’s current crop of politicians, and indeed the general public, will look to the past for inspiration about how to improve their present.

“Australia’s best governments have been those that have worked and cooperated across the floor in the best interests of the Australian people, and Australians are at their best when they are more positive, engaged and focused on the good,” he said.

He believes electoral reform will be part of a more permanent solution to Australia’s current governmental woes – backed up by journalists recognising that their high levels of cynicism should be tempered to stop scaring good candidates from considering standing for election.

He says he will continue to do his own part by offering objective political commentary that he hopes will, as a consequence, be considered trustworthy.

“A good radio interview, for example, is one that when you finish you feel you’ve helped people make up their own minds by having both sides of an argument presented,” he said.

“My hope is that this can in some way encourage people to avoid the easy path of cynicism and negativity that many seem to be following at the moment.

“What people need to learn to understand again is that they actually can make a difference in the political life of Australia, but that they can’t do it by launching into tirades and pigeon holing every politician who dares to open their mouths.

“I’d urge them to go out and join political parties, become politically active themselves, meet politicians and just to get more involved generally.

“I think that if they do this they will be surprised by how much they can achieve.”

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