Many Australians are disillusioned with politics and their leaders. David Morris says we need to improve our system of government and free ourselves from the colonial thinking of the past.
I am an optimist. I believe the future is bright for Australia if we back ourselves and seize the opportunities from the profound change occurring in the world. This could be Australia’s century. But it seems optimism is not the spirit of the times. We are in the grip of a great disillusionment with politics and our leaders, a great insecurity about our economy and an understandable confusion about the state of the world around us.
The Lowy Poll, released last week, had some sobering statistics. Only 60 per cent of us think democracy is the best system and, further, only 42 per cent of 19-29 year olds believe so. What has happened? Has our esteem for politics dropped so low that we would give up on representative democracy? I don’t believe so, but the figures do show how our elected leaders are fundamentally failing to inspire us.
Politics has become a sport, chasing the 24 hour news cycle with ever more slick one-liners. Politicians look like they are selling used cars, not critical policy choices that will affect our future. So engaging Australians in our choices seems harder than before, at the very time when technology and access to multiple sources of information and education should be empowering people more than ever before to participate in the big discussions.
The issues are certainly important. As Ross Garnaut pointed out last week in a speech at the University of Tasmania, Australia has had an unprecedented 23 years of economic growth, soaring on the China boom, but we are inevitably entering the downward journey. In what Garnaut calls our “age of complacency” we saw the profits from the China mining boom as some sort of win at the roulette wheel, frittering much of it away, rather than using it as an investment in adjusting and strengthening Australia for the Asian century.
We are in the midst of a great shift in the world’s centre of gravity to our region. For the last two centuries a small proportion of the world’s population dominated the globe, first the British Empire and then the American Century. As Australia was a product of the first and then an ally of the second, our national mindset has been formed with this as the natural state of affairs. It also made us hugely insecure, always feeling the “tyranny of distance” and needing the approval of the UK and US as if Australia were a child far from home.
We need to cast off this great insecurity, what Paul Kelly calls our “neurosis … the idea of Australia as a society marginalized in its own location.” On the contrary, we have actually built a strong, resilient society with a commitment to fairness and equal opportunity that is deeply engrained in our culture and which was grown from our experience, not transplanted from elsewhere. We have also built an impressively competitive economy on the foundation of great natural advantages as well as innovative new industries geared to our location in Asia. In the coming decades, as the great population centres of the world, here in our region, re-emerge as great economies, we will be well placed to continue building a strong and prosperous Australia.
But only if we believe in ourselves. Only if we make decisions that take us forwards and not backwards. Only if we appraise choices based on our national strengths, our national advantages and our national interests.
So rather than put off the big issues for another day, waiting for a leader with some vision to emerge, or waiting for other countries to tell us what to do, I believe it’s time for us to engage in a big conversation about where we are going and how we want to get there. This means taking three steps that today’s crop of politicians don’t want to face.
First, to have such a conversation, we need make a simple improvement to our system of government. As a parliamentary system, the politicians are engaged in day-to-day combat and we know we can’t believe a word they say, most of the time. That’s why politicians are held in such low esteem. But there is an easy change that can elevate our national debate. A parliamentary system requires a figurehead, a leader who sits above the fray and who can represent what is best about the nation, talk in non-political ways about the nation’s values, its identity and its place in the world. We don’t have such a leader.
Because Australia was created as a dominion of the long-gone British Empire we are saddled with a figurehead who represents Britain and not us. Other former colonies that became free in the post-Empire period have become republics and they have such leaders. A great example is Ireland, where the parliamentary culture is just as rough and tumble as Australia’s but the President plays a unique role representing what unites the Irish people and promoting Ireland on the world stage. The recent friendly meeting between the Irish President and the British Queen was a powerful symbol of Ireland’s coming of age. Imagine that day for Australia.
Second, to make sense of the big economic challenges ahead, we need objective information that will cut through the political spin and the partisan and monopolistic media. Again, a Head of State who was not engaged in day to day politics but who had a role to lead the nation, would be in a unique position to interpret in a calm, factual way the economic transformation Australia is undergoing. Imagine how such a figure could provide a moral check and balance on the politicians’ spin. No wonder Tony Abbott and many other politicians prefer to have a rubber-stamp celebrity monarchy.
Third, and even more importantly, there is the whole question of mindset. Australia is stuck in a colonial way of thinking, more comfortable with the past than the future. We still compare ourselves to our former colonial rulers more often than we compare ourselves to our neighbours, New Zealand, Korea or Singapore. Anonymous Washington experts were quoted a few days ago as saying Australia should “think about what it wants to be when it grows up” and that “Australia seems scared of its own shadow.”
Let’s not be scared. We are one of the world’s best-endowed nations, with resources, skilled people, a fair society and location, location, location. But we will only prosper in the Asian century if we shift our mindset and think of ourselves no longer as far away from home. Making the decision to be ourselves, as a republic, will help our confidence and our mindset for the challenges to come. This is our home, and we can have our day.