On Political Amnesia

84 pages – a nice length.

Laura Tingle, “Political Amnesia: How we forgot how to govern”, Quarterly Essay 60 (Black Inc., 2015).

Tingle’s essay is a lengthy investigation of the processes and mechanisms of current Australian government, especially of the way in which they enable or prevent the practical memory of political experience. She contrasts these with the history of these institutions – the public service, its organisation, and relationship with the Government ministries; the way in which Parliament operates; and the role of the media in reporting on politics and demanding information from politicians.

The judgement of the essay is that, since the late 1970’s, there has been a progressive degradation of the mechanisms that recorded and preserved institutional memory. As a result, new policies are regularly poorly conceived, with a lowered level of knowledgeable consultation, and executed in irresponsible fashion. Government has come to distrust the expertise of the public service; social policy execution has been massively outsourced to private businesses that have not proved trustworthy on frequent occasion; cabinet ministers are beholden to partisan advisors, and make late-hour, uninformed judgements; the Opposition is granted little space for collaborating; public service offices are moved and restructured in a way that fails to reward expertise, and degrades their knowledge base; and the economic pressure on the business model of journalism has reduced the space for reflective and investigative reporting.

As a consequence, Tingle argues, we have “forgotten how to govern”. That is, social policy, distinct from political debate, has been weakened in its foundations. We have a politics that is lacking in substance. The government’s ideas for Australian society are weaker than they have been for decades. Moreover, the politicians themselves, refusing to make the most of the public service, have also compromised themselves through lessening debate and consultation.

All of this is very concerning for Australia, of course. Several interesting philosophical ideas also emerge. The first is that of the dependence of political expression on the accumulation of historical experience. In order to imagine and create effective social policy, a curated archive of know-how is required, to know what is likely to work, what does not, and to generate new possibilities that are truly realisable. There is an expressive “art” to governing that has its own process of production. And that art has its traditions, which need maintenance for the end products to be good. That doesn’t mean conservatism, it just means learning from experience.

The second is the distinction between politics and social policy. Developing social policy is meant to be the role of an impartial public service – for example, the business of organising a school system so that every community has access to it; that there are teachers, who get trained, accredited and paid; and that there are curricula which are informed by well-evidenced pedagogy. Politics designates the debate and hammering out of the purposes and motivations that can take up available policy. The policy comes from a different source – the public service – while politics is the collective activity of working out which things to implement and why. Today, we have collapsed the two, and oppose all sorts of policies as inherently political. But this is belied by the fact that successive governments of different persuasions are able to put the same policies in place – with different political justifications. The what and the why can come apart. Which means that there could be different reasons available for agreeing on a given social policy.

A third idea is that today we face a peculiar kind of deficit: a deficit of certain types of “social memory”. Is this a new social pathology? Is it responsible for making people’s lives worse? In what ways? There’s more to think about here. Such memory, or history if you prefer (let’s not conflate the two terms too quickly), has little to do with the Australian history we learn at school. It’s sphere is rather the practical sphere of political understanding at work and in public debate. Tingle is right, I think, to highlight the role that news media plays in this arena. The media has its pedagogical role.

The essay was uplifting in a strange sort of way. It made me think ‘I can do that’, in response to the repeated observation of the public service’s need for ‘talent’ that would learn the art of good policy-making. It was hopeful in the end.

Of course, not all political tradition is necessarily good. Social policy can be political at its roots. These ideas don’t rule out the converse. Reform has its place, as does careful evaluation of the public service. Tingle’s essay is great as an insight into the mechanisms of government, I found I learned lots about just what happens in Canberra. Most of all, it demonstrates the complex machinery of government. We like to criticise the ‘political class’ today, as if just having the right kind of people might make politics better. But a strong institution of public service is surely a part of the picture. One that takes up the art of social policy, as a way to give politics some backbone.


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