Hope-less politicians are hopeless

Sean Barry*


Brisbane, October 22, 2015 (Alochonaa): The most remarkable thing about the election of Justin Trudeau as Canadian Prime Minister is how it may be an example of a triumph of hope over melancholy and ordinary. It is funny that so often when a politician loses office they make the point that the electorate got it right because, they say, the electorate always gets it right. I am not sure what it says about the politician who makes the argument? Maybe they should not have stood for election or re-election in the first place. Stephen Harper made this point in his concession speech, he also said the electorate always gets it right. In Australia we have heard this time and time again as a wretched politician who has just lost an election stands in front of hundreds of supporters. They attempt to be magnanimous when all the time they are just hoping a hole will appear on the floor to swallow them. These two issues, that of the electorate getting it right and a victory of hope over fear are two principles that no modern politician should ignore. Think for a moment about politicians who have been successful in the past—electorally, politically and legislatively. Despite crisis being the primary reason offered for the community allowing reform to occur, we should also never forget hope.

The recent replacement of Tony Abbott with Malcolm Turnbull in Australia offers onlookers with a stark contrast of the personalities of the two men. Overnight, the slogans such as ‘stop the boats’ and ‘death cult’ have disappeared from the government’s vernacular. Instead, Turnbull is using the language of hope. His current personal popularity rating in the community may be just part of the usual honeymoon period. However, it seems likely that Australians are also looking for hope. The curtains have opened into a two-year old dark and dusty political house and light is shining in. Time will tell. What is clear is politicians who project hope as a guiding principle in their everyday actions are politicians who are likely to be preferred by the community. Examples abound that speak about hope and the hope-less.

In Queensland the Newman government collapsed after one term. Analyses abound about what caused the downfall of the government. Underneath it all there was a feeling of paternalism and a government that disengaged from its community taking away hope for the future. Only this week, Australia’s ex-treasurer Joe Hockey gave his valedictory speech after losing his portfolio and his prime minister. Malcolm Turnbull noted how Mr Hockey had contributed to Australian life. He said in part,

This is a big day in the life of a big man. One of the giants of the parliament is taking his leave and all of us rose together and applauded him because we admire you, Joe, we love you, you have made an enormous contribution over nearly 20 years.

Mr Turnbull, this really remains to be seen.

In my experience few politicians rate more than a footnote in history, often not even ascending (or descending) to that honoured position. I fear Mr Hockey might later be missing off the page, rather than the ‘political colossus’ about whom Mr Turnbull hints. Why? I could mention savage cuts to foreign aid and social spending. I could mention his lifters and leaners’ references. It is difficult to forget his and his government’s 2014 budget, of which Mr Hockey still seems so proud. He devoted substantial time in his speech telling Australians about all the reforms we need to support. Many he failed to mention as treasurer or simply abandoned as too difficult. Where has been for the last two years (or even twenty years for that matter)? I confess to coughing and choking when he humbly referred to his own 2012 speech announcing, ‘I challenge all and sundry to name a speech in the last 20 years that has influenced the national debate in the way that ‘the end of the age of entitlement’ speech did.’ Good grief. He and his government offered fear to Australians when they should have offered stewardship. They offered slogans and mean actions and words, when they should have offered hope. Those who offer hope will be remembered, those who don’t will be forgotten—tossed away in the newspaper fish and chip-wrapping of history.

Alternatively, in New South Wales Mike Baird is a strong example of a politician who talks with the community (not to it) and what he says abounds in hope. He appears to have a clear idea of where he wants to guide the state. Strikingly in New Zealand is the government of John Key. New Zealand has been silently conducting reforms, whilst in Australia we just talk about them—and talk about them. In a recent Menzies Research Centre essay, Oliver Hartwich argues Key’s government has lessons for Australia. These are lessons about how change can occur, how trust can be enlivened, and how hope can become a guiding principle for government. According to Hartwich, the New Zealand government currently governs using ‘Key’s values’. Those values are encompassed in the four Ps—Patience, Preparation, Pragmatism and Principles. Patience in that the government will not try to do everything at once—it waits for windows of opportunity. Preparation in that consensus is built that allows a smoother transition for change to occur. Pragmatism for Key is making the most of opportunities. Even if a policy is not ‘perfect’ from the government’s point-of-view, that does not mean it should not be pursued. Principles in that the government has clarity over the direction it wants to travel, both now and into the future. It does not involve pragmatism that is simply ‘muddling through’. Contrast the four Ps of the New Zealand government with the actions of the muddling through by the Abbott government over the last two years.

It seems to me that Trudeau, Baird and Key are examples of governing with hope, rather than hope-lessness. There will always be those who disagree with the examples I have provided but the underlying argument remains the same. Governments who do not govern with direction, governments who try to govern using fear rather than hope may sometimes be elected. But fear and meanness does not work as a political aphrodisiac in the longer-term. They will not survive for long in a modern polity looking for oxygen rather than suffocation, looking for hope, rather than hope-lessness.

* 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.

**Alochonaa.com is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of Alochonaa.com’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at alochonaa@gmail.com

Categories: Politics

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