Why does politics matter?

Author: Dr Geoff Gallop was Premier of Western Australia from 2001-2006

In tonight’s lecture I will be seeking answers to the following questions:

What is meant by politics and political commitment?
Why is political commitment important?
How does politics differ from other forms of commitment?
What does political commitment mean for the individual?

In exploring these questions I will refer to the career of Gough Whitlam and other prominent Labor leaders from the last century. I begin, however, with an account of what I mean by “politics” and ‘political commitment”.

By “politics” I mean electoral politics and all that is associated with it – organising, campaigning, and planning both in respect of the over-arching issues like policy and strategy and the more mundane issues like fund-raising and candidate selection. You can’t have one without the other and no one should ever underestimate the intellectual and practical commitment required to undertake these tasks efficiently and effectively. It is, as Ken Turner and Michael Hogan put it so well, a “worldly art”.

Politics, of course, deserves a broader definition than this. Indeed it could be argued that electoral politics is only one way of looking at it. We engage in politics by the way we live, the choices we make about consumption, travel and energy use and by the decisions we make about our health care and education. As individuals we can make a difference by the signals we send to government and register in the market place.

We also engage in politics by taking up issues in our community, be they local environmental controversies or broader national or international matters related to peace and war. We may attend meetings, distribute leaflets, and sign petitions. In this case we seek to put pressure on governments by moral and political force.

Both forms of activity are to be encouraged and are important in building a better world. However, they are limited in what they can achieve. The politics of personal choice can work but is all too often thwarted by collective decisions that push society in a different direction. Pressure from without can work too, but usually only in respect of single issues or local causes.

Whichever way we look at it elections and the politics that surrounds them is absolutely vital. It is the way we have structured and defined politics in our own Antipodean version of parliamentary democracy and representative government.

Approaching politics in this way has its critics on the revolutionary left and the populist right. To the former electoral politics is limited by capitalist reality whilst to the latter it is constrained by inbuilt checks and balances that constrain the popular will. The best reply to both has always been that of Winston Churchill:

“Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends the democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Secondly, let me make it clear that I approach the issue from a left-of-centre perspective. You might say that is not surprising given my occupation of the last twenty years. I say it tonight, however, to emphasize the point that if you are on the left and committed to a more democratic, just and peaceful world it is my considered view that involvement in electoral politics , and acceptance of all the compromises that this entails, is the best way to move from theory to practice. We simply can’t afford to be self-indulgent about our political commitments when there is so much that needs to be done.

All too often the left has worked with the assumption that history is on its side and that somehow events will turn out in its favour. That there is an unhealthy level of arrogance in this view is clear to see but what is not so clearly seen is the disabling effect it can have. History should teach us that power is always contested and that those to the right will do so vigorously. Indeed those on the right have an advantage in that they tend to see ‘power’ and ‘power relations’ not as problems to be analysed and addressed but as normal and inevitable parts of the human condition. For them concerns relating to the tension between means and ends are less pressing and therefore less restricting when it comes to the development of political strategy and tactics. It is a world of dog eat dog, of winners and losers, and what is important is to make sure you are on the winning side.

What both left and right often fail to see however, is that change is a constant. How often do we find that what is necessity today becomes unnecessary tomorrow. How often do we find that what has currency today loses value tomorrow? Our democracy is designed to facilitate and manage this process of change. To this end we have politics and the politicians who make it all happen.

However, politics is not only influenced by change, it influences change. Political leadership is a major factor in setting the terms and conditions of change. What is involved here is not just a set of relationships between government and people, but also interaction between governments and oppositions. By their strength or weakness oppositions can influence what governments do and the way they do it. From time to time you can see a strong opposition setting the agenda for a government that has become tired and out of touch.

The end-point of politics is leadership. Just as political leaders lose authority when they fail to recognise change, they gain authority when they understand change and offer credible solutions for its management.

This takes me to the person after whom my address is named – Gough Whitlam. He was a leader who applied his intellect and exercised his will in the cause of changing the Labor Party. He challenged Labor’s While Australia Policy and its opposition to state aid for non-government schools. Not only did he win these battles he was successful in opening up and making more representative Labor’s National Conference, with both federal and state parliamentary leaders being given automatic membership.

Just as importantly he saw how Australian politics was being affected by new social movements and aspirations and how the question of urban infrastructure had become vital for those living in our newly created post-war suburbs.

He was a student of modern society and the forces that were influencing its development and he understood that Labor’s traditional method of looking at policy through the prism of public ownership of the means of production was limited and limiting, both constitutionally and politically. In this respect he challenged his colleagues to take up the causes of social research and pubic policy.

Even though the Whitlam government was only in power from 1972 to 1975 its effect on national life was explosive and its achievements many. Australia would never be the same again as a result of the Whitlam years. “Whitlamism” became a benchmark for political comparison and those on the left and the right defined themselves in relation to it. Criticisms of Gough and his politics are many, and in many cases they are valid, but no one can dispute the enormous personal and political effort he put in on behalf of Australia, democratic politics, and the Labor party. His is a case study of the marriage of intellect and political will.

His career is a perfect illustration of the importance of electoral politics and what can be achieved by involvement in it. Note also, however, that he needed supporters for his cause of party and policy reform. The foot soldiers for the Whitlam revolution were many and varied in background and temperament but they all played their role.

Whitlam’s story also reminds us of how far his opponents on the right were willing to go to defeat him. Not satisfied with the regular process of accountability via election they manoeuvred within Parliament to bring a premature end to his government with the assistance of State Premiers, a Chief Justice and a Governor-General. As never before in our history the consensus that underpins our political system was put to the test. It survived but the memory lived on only to be revived as a nightmare when the Australian government refused the Norwegian freighter MS Tampa (and its 438 refugees on board) access to Christmas Island. For the Australian right the task of gaining and keeping power is a serious and uncompromising business.

There have always been two responses from within the democratic left to the dilemmas posed by the militancy of the Australian right. There are those of the “whatever it takes” school of thought who see politics as Machiavellianism.

On the other hand there are those who preach the politics of patience, hard work and democratic principle. They argue that Machiavellianism creates more problems than it does benefits, particularly in respect to the politics of duplicity and unscrupulousness.

All too often those of a left wing disposition despair of these complications and either drop out or limit their politics to community-based activism. With them go huge resources of intellect, energy and enthusiasm.

Max Weber has offered us a way through this problem in his essay “Politics as a Vocation”. He distinguishes between the “saint” who always turns the other cheek as instructed to in the Sermon on the Mount and the “politician” who is both passionate about his objectives and responsible in their pursuit. The politician will take account of the “average deficiencies of people” and accept responsibility for the foreseeable consequences of his or her actions. We should , says Weber, feel the responsibility of our actions with “heart and soul”. Politicians must be able to say “in spite of it all!” when faced with the reality of an unreceptive or untutored people. Weber put it this way:

Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer.

This argument holds for those who become involved in politics generally as much as it does for those who seek leading positions in political parties. In the modern world this is complicated by the fact that all politics is subject to comprehensive scrutiny by the media and increasing regulation by the State. There are guiding principles to assist in decision but no over-aching framework that removes ambiguity and uncertainty. This means that criticism after the event will always be possible not just in relation to the political judgements involved but also in relation to the moral calculations implicit within them.

Weber understood this very clearly and outlined the nature of the qualities that were necessary if one was to take up politics. “Even those who are neither leaders nor heroes”, he wrote, “must arm themselves with that steadfastness of heart which can brave even the crumbling of all hopes”.

These are not just philosophical arguments produced by academic philosophers they are day-for-day realities for those involved in politics. What distinguishes the Machiavellian from the non-Machiavellian is that the former all too often, and as a matter of acceptable practice, overlooks the moral tensions at the heart of the political project. Politics involves collective decision in a world of individual interest and aspiration. Politics involves distribution of burdens and benefits in a world of scarcity. Politics involves decisions involving peace and war.

Politics is about gaining power as well as using power. It involves that which separates us (gender, class, age ethnicity etc) as well as that which unites us as human beings. Reason often battles emotion just as minorities battle majorities and the future competes with the present. It involves loyalty and tribalism as well as objectivity and rationality.

Good politicians understand all of this but are not swept aside by it. It is when each of the tensions is ignored and politics reduced to a technique that we enter troubled waters. There is an important distinction to be made between the techniques that can assist politicians and politics as a technique. Politics requires research into both its ends and means but above all else it requires the capacity to judge and the will to decide in an imperfect world.

Let me illustrate this by reference to another great Labor leader John Curtin, Prime Minister of Australia from 1941 to 1945. Curtin came to the Labor leadership in difficult times. The party had split in response to the depression and was unsure of itself and divided on foreign policy. He held the party together and developed his own views on a defence policy of self-reliance and a stronger Air Force.

What particularly interests me about Curtin was his rejection of the idea of a national government of all parties which, of course, became a reality in the United Kingdom. He was put under enormous pressure to enter a national government but his belief in Labor as a force for good ran deep. His was a fight for social reform and national sovereignty not one or the other.

It was in a similar vein that he countermanded Churchill’s order to divert to Burma Australian troops returning from the Middle East. Curtin wanted them home to defend Australia against the Japanese. His was a fight for national integrity as well as a fight against fascism. This also took him to the American Alliance and support for new international institutions like the United Nations.

Curtin was certainly a pragmatist but underneath it all he had not just a strength of character, but a clear sense of Labor purpose. He recognised (and felt) the tensions involved in the circumstances he faced but was not afraid of decision. As Paul Hasluck said of his Prime Ministership.

His own dedication was complete. He held back nothing from his service to the nation.

What marked out Curtin and Whitlam was not only their strength of purpose but also their comprehensive account of the world and Australia’s place within it. They understood that political commitment required the big picture as well as the day-to-day tactics. Sometimes it means challenge, sometimes it means response; sometimes attack and sometimes defence. In other words politics needs heart as well as intellect.

In more recent times the Hawke/Keating governments also had a clear view of the national interest. They were governments of globalisation supportive of the free movement of capital as well as goods and services. They saw competition within and without as the key to growth and prosperity. This required a new balance between capital and labour to be achieved by an enabling state rather than a protective state and by the social wage rather than the living wage. They too challenged established interests and redefined social democratic priorities so they were relevant to the circumstances in which they found themselves.

When Labor’s domination of federal politics came to an end in 1996 it began to gain ground in the States and Territories. These governments have been pragmatic in style and reformist in content. They have brought ideas associated with strategic planning, sustainability and democratic engagement to their administrations. Some have embraced radical policies for the environment, incorporated charters of human rights into their legal framework and introduced many overdue changes to their political systems. Most recently WA achieved one vote value for its Legislative Assembly and Victoria proportional representation for its Legislative Council. State and Territory governments have been tough on crime but also keen to find new solutions to the causes of crime. They have governed from the centre and left little room for their opponents.

It was the Labor Premier from South Australia from 1967to 1968 and 1970 to 1979 who laid the foundations for progressive state government. Don Dunstan had a similar agenda to Gough Whitlam – Aboriginal land rights, sex and gender equality, urban amenity, electoral equality, multiculturalism – but applied it at state level. Similar reforms were introduced by the many State Labor governments that followed in the last quarter of the twentieth-century. These governments were part of a world-wide movement for devolution and regional and state innovation in governance and service delivery.

Bob Hawke understood what was happening with improved government at state level and developed the concept of “co-operative federalism”, with support from both Labor and Liberal Premiers. Through this model the States preserved their autonomy but agreed to pursue issues deemed central to the national interest, such as competition reform. Ironically it has been John Howard who has been pushing for more Commonwealth control to facilitate his agenda of Australian values and labour market de-regulation. His is not an agenda that is comfortable with the diversity that comes with federalism and pluralism. Nor is he comfortable with the Labor policies and priorities that have pursued by the States and Territories . One thing is for certain – he has never been able to convince the voters in the Labor States and Territories to vote out their governments.

This takes me back to the beginning and my definition of politics as electoral politics. There is, of course, a more general definition on politics as the process by which we peacefully resolve conflict. It’s all about negotiation and compromise and, in a democracy, it is underpinned by civil and political liberty and regular elections.

It is a messy business that allows for the expression and management of interests. Consensus is never assumed but is an objective towards which politicians need to direct their efforts. It is a worrying feature of much political commentary today that such processes are seen as inefficient and divisive. Impatience with politics and pluralism needs to be understood but ought to be carefully monitored by those committed to a free and creative nation.

To conclude. We need politics as a guiding principle for the way we govern our affairs. This is the definition to which I have just referred. It’s essentially creative and open to the future. It encourages debate and dialogue and promotes participation to the end of politically desirable outcomes. However you can’t have politics without politicians and this takes us to the main point of my lecture.

The very decision to become involved in politics is an act of leadership and certainly an expression of citizenship. Politics can’t just be an ongoing process. At regular intervals we need collective decision and political closure. Those of us to the left of centre would like to see those decisions favouring social justice, sustainability and peace. That won’t happen without political commitment and responsible leadership based on intellect and imagination or as Max Weber put it so well:

…all historical experience confirms the truth – that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.