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The Politics of Deception (email sent 25/2/10)

Hon. Tony Fitzgerald AC, QC

Re: Koch T., 'Corruption-buster slams the politics of deception', The Australian, 25/2/10

There is no doubt, as the above article quotes you as arguing, that Australia's political system is not working well. However there are 'bigger picture' issues that need to be considered (eg greater complexity that now defeats policy debate, and a lack of adequate institutional support) which explains why our political system is failing.

My interpretation of the above article in which you were quoted: Former Queensland anti-corruption commissioner, Tony Fitzgerald has criticised amoral political culture of Australia's governing class preoccupied with amassing power for itself. Young people feel excluded from decision making. In a coming publication, The Fitzgerald Legacy, he argues that small groups control the Labor and Liberal parties, and thus Australia's destiny. Dynasties are emerging. Political debate is often spiteful / juvenile - which denies the electorate comprehensive, accurate information that is essential to effective democracy. Access and influence can be bought, and patronage is used to silence critics. The 'political class' now seeks power - not democracy. Mature democracies restrain self-serving activities by dividing power and imposing constraints. Our system allows the party in government to indulge its adherents, supporters and ideology. Special interests gain access and influence. Opposition criticism is muted, as all parties grasp opportunities when in power. The public is becoming cynical, apathetic and disengaged.

There is no doubt about the reality of the symptoms of political dysfunction in Australia's governments that you have reportedly criticised. Another appropriate way of describing the 'politics of deception' is 'populism' (ie gaining electoral support by presenting trendy sounding policy options, that may well not be effective in practice). Populism has become a major feature of Australia's political system (see On Populism, 2007).

However this isn't a problem that can be resolved simply by changes within Australia's political system. Arguably a major source of the problem (and the reason that political debate often degenerates into spin and juvenile name-calling) is that the complexity of public policy issues has increased dramatically (because issues are now far more interconnected than they used to be) and this complexity makes it impossible for political leaders to either: (a) comprehend the issues fully or (b) present the issues in simple terms to the public (see Complexity in Australia's Governance Crisis, 2003).

Other major factors in the degeneration of the political process seem to be:

  • the relative weakness of civil institutions (eg universities, associations, institutes) in presenting the public with up-to-date and practical understanding of the nature and functions of government, and the requirements for changes in those functions. This weakness is arguably a product of: Australia's colonial history and dependence on protector nations, and of the 'curse' that societies with abundant natural wealth usually suffer in terms of encouraging the emergence of political and business elites that seek to profit from that wealth, but provide poor community leadership. Weak civil institutions are undoubtedly a major feature in the dysfunctions that Queensland's political system in particular has suffered - because there is thus little raw material for Oppositions to use in (for example) making the Parliament more effective in constraining executive power (see More Competent External Support to Parliament); and
  • the politicisation of public services that has seriously reduced internal constraints on the abuse of political power (see Weakening Administrative Support in Australia's Governance Crisis). [Note added later: In this regard, Queensland's Goss Government might have won the 'politics of deception' championship given: (a) its pre-1989 election policy entitled 'Return to Westminster' (ie to the tradition of a professional independent public service); and (b) its subsequent enactment of legislation that (in the opinion of the Ombudsman's office) made it unnecessary to seriously consider merit in making 'senior' public service appointments]

Some suggestions about how these difficulties might be remedied (eg by simplification of the issues the political system is expected to deal with, and strengthening institutional support) are outlined in Challenges to Australia's Democratic Institutions in Australia's Governance Crisis.

I would be interested in your response to the above speculations.

John Craig

Feedback Feedback regarding the above email from an experienced former public servant (25/2/10)

"I think that the present system is encouraged by elites in this country to further their own interests, but also other older societies see the country as a free for all as in a colonial culture to be exploited.

Interestingly a lot of newcomers to Queensland that I have had dealings with are not at all interested in the enhancement of our society as we are seen to be a society to be exploited for personal gain. There is no public interest in any of their decisions. The pollies then reside in this culture and end up bent.  The militants and terrorists are just a subset of this culture of me, me, me ...."