Brisbane, October 8, 2015 (Alochonaa): The demise of the leadership of Tony Abbott started me thinking. It made me think of the downfall of Julia Gillard. That in turn made me think of the collapse of Kevin Rudd’s leadership. What is going on here? I know. It is about popularity. Can we be re-elected? We as back-benchers are being ignored. This government is not delivering. This government is breaking promises. So on and so on. Goodness knows where the boundaries of these sorts of motivations begin and end. However, are our leaders, our often converging and dysfunctional major parties and our institutions just as confused as we are and simply reflect these problems? No-one, just no-one ever seems to be happy. Do we just have useless politicians, or is it something in us?
A little while ago I opened up Laura Tingle’s Great Expectations: Government, Entitlement and an Angry Nation. I was familiar with her work on this issue from her Quarterly Essay of a few years ago. Her little book of 137 pages extends slightly on that Quarterly Essay, but the underlying themes remain the same. Australia is not a ‘comfortable and relaxed’ country, but instead its people by and large approach each day with a general sense of anger. Anger at other road users, anger that someone else may be receiving something more than they are receiving, and an almost unending anger against politicians and governments in general. The essay and the book were inspired by an initial dinner meeting between Tingle and Amanda Vanstone when Vanstone was the Australian ambassador to Italy in 2009.
Vanstone and Tingle discussed at dinner how there is a certain chaos with the driving behaviour of Italians, but it could be characterised more as opportunistic than aggressive. They agreed that the Australian driving experience was often one of angry people, deliberately speeding up to cut people off, possessively claiming their own piece of roadway. Vanstone is quoted as saying ‘yes, but you see I’ve always thought Australians had an inbuilt angry streak.’ This, of course, flies in the face of the ‘laid-back’ reputation that Australians are happy to foster. Tingle was slightly perplexed, and noted, ‘we might be moaners and whingers, but angry?’ Tingle says that Vanstone’s comments stayed with her and made her think about her fellow Australians. She argued that we were particularly hard on politicians in the country:
Someone, it seems, is always in the process of letting us down or telling us a lie. No one in politics is allowed to change their mind, or even adapt to new circumstances, anymore. In the day to day political discourse, this is put down purely to bad politics, badly conducted. But are we also getting angrier as a society?
Tingle again met with Vanstone in 2011 and raised this theme with her again. Vanstone enlarged on their arguments by saying that she felt Australians are so angry because ‘they have expectations that have not been met and a belief in entitlements they are due.’ As a result of the discussions Tingle had with Vanstone and the thought processes she undertook, she developed a hypothesis about Australians and their culture, contending:
… I make the argument that as a nation, a polity, we have not sat down and worked out what exactly we expect “the government “ – by which I mean its administrative side, as well as the politicians of the day – to be and to do. We haven’t settled the idea of what we think we are “entitled” to get from government. The only things we seem to have been sure about over the years are the government has not met our great expectations that it will look after us, and that we are nonetheless entitled to be looked after. … A friend of mine calls Australia and politics “aorta politics”: as in, “They oughta do something about it,” even if what “they” oughta do is not clearly defined.
Whilst Tingle’s work is effectively a work in progress she concludes the little red book (maybe an unfortunate reference on my part) by arguing that economic times will cause Australians to think again and that hopefully the right government will be in power at the time to deal with the challenges. I wonder about her optimism in that regard, I honestly hope I am wrong.
Politicians reflect what is good in us and some of things that are no so good. They work long hours, age prematurely and are often stripped of individuality and dignity by party machines. Yes, that is through personal choice, I understand that. Conversely we can name those who appear to be uber-competitive, self-interested and lack tolerance for the ideas of others. Unfortunately many in the community possess these same characteristics. Before we start embarking on a re-run of the last supper and say ‘surely not I’, I can put my hand up as someone who often needs to look at myself and how I approach the actions of others, including politicians. I am sure when you have watched episodes of The Simpsons over the years you have felt on occasions— maybe just a little—that feeling of familiarity. That maybe all families possess traits (however small) of Simpsons dysfunctionality. It’s funny to laugh at Homer, or Bart, or Krusty the Clown, but …
Maybe our politicians, our leaders and all that surrounds our government just reflect the traits identified by Tingle and Vanstone. That anger, that impatience, that sense of entitlement. Maybe that is why we find it so difficult when we see those characteristics in our politicians and why it is always ‘their fault’? We can see ourselves in the Simpsons, but not in the actions of our politicians. Maybe it is time to find that reflective ‘Simpson-self’ towards politicians. Be a little gentler, kinder and patient. Then maybe not … after all, The Simpsons are cartoons and imaginary aren’t they?
* Sean Barry is a PhD Candidate, School of Government and International Relations, Griffith University. Recently he won the prize for Best Student Referred Paper, Australian Political Studies Association Conference 2015.
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Categories: Australian Politics
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