Risk aversion rejects government's greatest responsibility

By Bruce Muirhead

August 8, 2016

What is the role of government? It’s a question to which the answer for many defines their political views. It is a question that embeds a tension in the heart of our political system. Are governments to act as custodial guarantors of certain rights and freedoms, or do we expect more? There is no doubt that governments the world over are capable of implementing transformative change (for good and for bad). Australia has a history of rewarding those who undertake such brave transformative agendas with a favourable legacy, wiling to minimise the flaws and focus on this aspect of their governance, Gough Whitlam shines as the embodiment of this. This coupled with our willingness to give people a second chance and ingrained cultural tenet of “giving all a fair go” should see a culture in politics that rewards risk taking in the pursuit of transformative change.

Yet this is not what we see.

Rather we see risk averse governments, cautiously navigating the day-to-day of governance and seeing compromised agendas and reform flounder. If your viewpoint is that government’s role is to safeguard the progress of previous generations and defend the institutionalised freedoms and rights of the public then this type of government is more like to your suiting. Government in this sense aims to move the marker an inch so that it does not regress a mile. And this is a perfectly acceptable form for government to take. Indeed as I’ve pointed out, for many it is the preferred form. Yet for many this risk averse conservative (small c) form of government rejects the greatest power and responsibility that government has — that is to positively impact and shape the world in a way that transforms lives within the electorate for the better. While all politicians will argue that this is their goal, their actions belie their more humble, perhaps more realistic aims. In many ways there is a large role that media has played in perpetuating and popularising this risk-averse style. 24-hour news-cycles feed on small mistakes, often making mountains out of molehills not in the meaningful prosecution of journalism but in a dogged attempt to fill inches, minutes and headlines.

This risk aversion has filtered into our public service, where for many the worst thing that can happen is not that they will lose their job, rather that they will be featured on the front page of a newspaper, today’s champion of the trope of inept and inadequate government. This tension between our expectation and the political reality has translated into apathy and anger, disinterest and dissatisfaction. People have never had a louder voice, and in its volume is its strength. But anger and disinterest will only do so much to resolve this tension. In order to create the change we seek need to help promote it. Technology is beginning to give us a real viable alternative. We have for some time now been able to let politicians know our opinions in quantity via social media. Moving forward we are going to see more platforms develop that capitalise on this sentiment and build on it in a positive manner to involve more people in the developing the transformative agenda they seek.

It’s a well-worn trope, to be the change you want to see — but its never been of more real and pertinent application than now. We have the power to not only send a message, but to send our ideas and become involved at the deliberative not just determinative stage. We can send a message through our involvement that reflects the policies and agenda we want to see. What’s more through, our involvement we will become more tolerant and develop an understanding of the intricate processes involved in government.

This article was first published on the MindHive blog.

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