Opinion: our political arena is not fit for purpose in 21st century Australia

By Richard Hames

Monday October 12, 2020

Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Have you noticed how political parties in all democracies have differing views about matters that are of concern to all of us? Duh! Of course you have. Why pose such an irrelevant question! That is how politics is designed to work. Politicians in the same party have differing opinions too. We never ask why they constantly make matters more complicated than they need to be, muddying the waters and introducing trivial diversions, rather than simply towing the party line. Perhaps we should.

Coming from opposing ideologies across the left-right political divide, we expect the left to push dissimilar socio-economic agendas to the right when it comes to managing public affairs, just as we are not surprised if they aspire to achieve different goals when it comes down to the future of the nation. Why should we anticipate anything else? Is this polarisation not an integral aspect of the political status quo?  An inviolable component? Possibly not…

What if we examine the supposed divide between the left and right of politics from a fresh angle? Within the framework of formal logic, and logical types, as proposed by Bertrand Russell, both left and right sides have many more similarities than they have differences. It is a spectrum remember. The political left and right, however one might brand them, are two elements in a higher logical set. Let’s call this set political philosophy. While that is embedded within a higher, more complex, set, which I will call ontological discourse.

Let me ground this notion in a practical example. A movie is an extended sequence of images. It resists representation by any one frame. The frame is just one element. The movie is a different object entirely. A single image is static whereas the movie evolves in time. Although the semiotics of a single image can conjure meaning for the viewer, movies impose layers of narrative that no one frame can achieve. The movie, therefore, a whole set of frames, is of a higher order logical type to the individual frame. Movie projectors are a different kind of object once again, iterating the frames of any and all movies. They are thus of the class of all possible sets of frames – a third, different, logical type.

Thus the system of thinking and activities comprising political debate and policy-making, function as a subset of elements embedded within a higher-order logical set — political discourse. It is here that my initial question takes on substantive relevance. While skirmishes abound across the left-right political spectrum, continuously cavorting on the surface of our daily lives courtesy of media mania (e.g. via opinion polls, scandals, by-elections, policy campaigns, and personalities) there is a void of any deeper examination of issues, accompanied by a similar lack of appropriate tools and skills development, within logical sets characterised by higher orders of complexity.

If there were, such conversations might include analyses concerning the relative merits of direct and representative democracy; ways in which citizens can be engaged more effectively in policymaking; how incorruptible models of administration could be designed and deployed; and even how apparently contradictory ideological systems might unite to limit the possibility of war, and tackle planetary risks, from climate change or future pandemics, for example, from a perspective of mutual obligation and self-interest.

Clearly, these kinds of conversations are not occurring anywhere at the moment for three reasons. I find all three reasons disconcerting given that the conditions in which governments are required to operate are immensely volatile and unpredictable, requiring every institution or organisation to be open to rapid adaptation:

  • Governments are not prepared, equipped, or inclined to critique their performance at a systemic level in ways that open up the conditions for structural change. No other entities are charged with auditing government at this level. As a consequence, the prospect of shifting from current systems to others that are perhaps more relevant, comprehensive, and effective, remains off the agenda.
  • Politicians are unlikely to manage themselves out of a job even if that meant vast improvements to the effectiveness and efficiency of administering the society. Indeed it could be argued that they are psychologically incapable of doing so. The impulse to remain in power, and the potential to benefit from that personally, has become the overriding concern for many elected officials today.
  • The tools and methods most commonly used in the political arena — debates, inquiries, and analyses, as well as a few formal rituals like Question Time — were conceived in and for a previous era. No longer fit for purpose, they are inadequate for anything other than constantly patching up the present. Curating any form of deeper inquiry today requires new tools and a more sophisticated set of literacies. At a minimum, AI-enabled horizon scanning, immersive platforms to aid the visualisation of complex patterning, systemic thinking, policy solution simulations, continuously updated contextual intelligence, and modes of discourse able to probe far below the emotional surface of ingrained belief systems to allow fresh ideas to surface and thus inform policy design and execution.

Taken as a whole, the entire edifice of democratic government resists any attempt at reform, least of all reinvention, as things currently stand. Several years ago I was severely criticised by implying that China’s officials were far more able managers of their society than most Western politicians and that the PPC has actually advanced far more in the past 50 years than the Westminster model has in 500 years. But I still stand by that claim. Western elected representatives are amateurs by comparison.

Additional factors of concern range from the sheer challenge of understanding the dynamics of the world today, the unremitting propaganda, the gradual dumbing down of society, along with the general public’s inability to remain masters, rather than retainers, of those elected to serve.

We are unable to adequately voice our dreams and concerns in the clangour of populist turmoil. Politicians, quarantined from the pulse of customary human activities, sit in a bubble listening only to the tinnitus of their own nervous systems. Meanwhile, meaning is reduced to tweets while all other channels of communication are prescribed and physical access to officials constrained.

Yet no individual, and certainly no single political party, has the requisite ambient intelligence, wisdom, and socio-economic comprehension to govern in isolation. That is our biggest mistake. It is why our elected leaders seem to be increasingly out of touch with reality and confidence that their actions are above the law. Worse still many of today’s incumbents are the least among us in terms of intelligence, generosity, vision, and compassion. Western political systems must upgrade and re-boot if they are to remain viable in a world that is rapidly turning away from industrial age practices. But if these systems are so ingrained and so impervious to external intervention, where will structural change come from if not from the people? In such an impasse it is hardly surprising that civil disobedience is on the rise again as leaders cling to obsolete ideals while communities fracture along fault lines of racist rhetoric and anti-establishment hate.

If we examine democratic systems and practices closely, even among what seem to be profound ideological differences driven by vitriolic enmity, we are witnessing a masquerade of fabricated disunity. In reality, these displays of discord are none other than one family sitting down to the same meal and arguing about the niceties. Disagreements circulate around who gets the larger of several portions, who sits where, whether too much salt was added to the dish, why mum put her favourite Kraft concoction on the salad rather than olive oil with balsamic vinegar, and whether the desert should be cheese and coffee, fruit, or perhaps both.

Beneath all the hurled insults, angry quibbles, and criticisms of the cooking, this is simply a family in emphatic agreement over the basics of life. They just happen to pour a whole lot of sound and fury into tiny details where they have some inconsequential dispute. They do not for one moment entertain the notion that the family should not continue to exist. All of their issues, arguments, and histrionic complaints circulate around how it should best exist.

This is precisely how democracy is being used today. The show is designed to focus our attention on the mechanics of our lives. It aims to distract us from asking bigger, more daunting questions, posed from a higher-order logical type.

Questions like whether sustaining the political status quo will help facilitate the kind of engaged citizenship we so urgently need, or simply lead to further breakdowns in the fabric of our society. Or questions concerning how we might go about creating a world in which the exhilaration of being alive and human can be shared equally.

These questions are of a higher order than normally contemplated in the daily cabaret of politics. They have never quite been the reason for a discourse that anchors its priorities in managing. But just as the need for global leadership, in addition to management, is very apparent today, the philosophical basis, role, priorities, and practices of governments might need to change.

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