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Gadfly 5 by Robert Macklin


There are times when you have to wonder whether Western democracy is all it’s cracked up to be. Now is one of them.

I don’t just mean the Americans electing whatshisname to the White House. That’s just their disgust with a system that’s been so degraded by money and gerrymander that Barack Obama himself said he feared the place was becoming ‘ungovernable’. Well, he got that right.

And I’m not talking about the silly Brits who voted for Brexit. They’ve always been happiest stewing in their own juice.

No, my real concern is with our own Federal Government where we are becoming badly served by the entrenched dynamic of competition. This idea that having the progressives and the conservatives at each other’s throats is the formula for good governance no longer operates, if indeed it ever did.

Its defects have become very apparent in the years since Tony Abbott became Opposition Leader and took the competitive syndrome to extremes. But it has always been with us. This was brought home to me in the research for my forthcoming book ‘DRAGON AND KANGAROO’ on Australia-China relations over the last 200 years. In the years following China’s 1949 communist revolution, the sensible members of the Menzies Government wanted very much to recognise the new government in Beijing. But the Coalition had made anti-communism such an electoral winner that they were stuck with Chiang Kai-shek, and good policy went out the window.

The best current example is ‘negative gearing’ where everyone knows that it’s a sensible measure to give new homeowners more of a fair go. But Malcolm Turnbull and his crew are opposed, simply because Labor proposed it.

Another is Bill Shorten’s crocodile tears over penalty rates despite his Party’s creation of Fair Work Australia and their choice of the commissioners.

The result is bad governance.

I hasten to add that I’m not promoting the Chinese system (perish the thought) much less the emergence of petty dictators like Russia’s Vladimir Putin or that turkey from Turkey.

But perhaps there is a way to protect Australians from the foolish excesses of their ‘democratic’ politicians. A very good template was provided by Treasurer Peter Costello in 1996. In the Reserve Bank Act he took the setting of interest rates out of the government’s hands and passed prime responsibility to the RBA. He recognised that it was too important to be the plaything of politicians so he gave it to the experts.

So, why not extend the same capacity to other areas – climate change policy, for example, where the experts would design and run an emissions trading scheme (by any other name) that gave industry security and protected the householder from excessive profiteering from the energy suppliers.

Immigration – including refugees - is another. It was comfortably bipartisan until John Howard militarised it with the SAS boarding the Tampa to gain a political advantage over Labor’s Kim Beazley before the 2001 election.

Aboriginal policy is another that deserves to be taken out of the political bearpit.

That still leaves the politicians lots to argue about. Indeed, it might even restore our respect for what Winston Churchill called, ‘the worst form of government…except for all the others.’

reprinted courtesy of robert@robertmacklin.com

Robert Macklin has carved out a unique place among Australia’s literary biographers and historians. He has won numerous literary prizes including the 2009 Blake Dawson award for business literature with Peter Thompson for their classic THE BIG FELLA – the Rise and Rise of BHP Billiton.His Kevin Rudd: The Biography was shortlisted for the ACT Book of the Year; and he has won three Critics Circle Awards for his military biographies and histories. He has completed a lecture tour of three Chinese universities based on his works and is presently writing a history of Australia/China relations over the last 200 years.Queensland born, he has been a journalist at the highest level, a confidant and biographer of two Australian prime ministers; a documentary filmmaker in 32 countries of Asia and the Pacific; and is also political columnist and commentator in the nation’s capital. He presently divides his writing time on fiction, non-fiction and screenplays between Canberra and Tuross Head on the NSW South Coast.You can follow Robert Macklin's excellent commentary at CityNews

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