Laura Tingle, Political Amnesia: How we forgot how to govern (Quarterly Essay Nº 60, Black Ink 2015)
As always with the Quarterly Essay I turned to the back section of this issue for the correspondence on the previous one. The responses to David Marr’s profile of Bill Shorten aren’t argumentative – they mostly praise, summarise, amplify and contextualise. My favourite paragraph is from Michael Bachelard:
The dilemma is that, though fascinating to insiders, the grindings of Labor’s factional machine – at once impenetrable, distasteful and apparently crucial – are to outside observers dull to the point of stupor. But without understanding and accounting for the networks of influence and patronage that bind the union bosses, the branches (more accurately, the branch-stackers), the ethnic warlords and the parliamentarians, there is no explaining the Labor Party and how it identifies and promotes talent.
Marr’s ‘Response to Correspondence’ doesn’t actually respond, but reflects on the timing of the essay’s publication. Its portrait of Bill Shorten as the man who might beat Tony Abbott for the Prime Ministership lost a lot of topicality when Malcolm Turnbull did the job on the eve of publication – but, Marr says, ‘Anything can happen between now and the uncertain date at which Australia will go to an election.’
Political Amnesia asks us to turn aside for a moment from politics as soap opera or contest of personalities, and look instead for structural changes underlying our current political malaise. She argues, convincingly, that there is a growing loss of institutional memory in Australian public life. ‘Without memory,’ she argues
there is no context or continuity for the making of new decisions. We have little choice but to take these decisions at face value, as the inevitable outcome of current circumstance. The perils of this are manifest. Decisions are taken not as informed by knowledge of what has worked, or not worked, in the past, or even by a conscious analysis of what might have changed since the issue was last considered. … Rational debate about the pros and cons of an issue becomes too hard for both advocates and audience. We slip into the habit of conducting our debates in the present tense.
Or worse, three word slogans. The rot has been a long time coming, she argues, and has had complex causes, including the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, where the media beast must always be fed something new (am I the only one who finds it unnerving that even on the ABC news bulletins often tell us about announcements that will be made the next day?), the politicisation of the public service (beginning in a big way when John w Howard sacked department heads he considered politically unacceptable), the blurring of the roles of political advisers and policy advisers (perhaps beginning as early as the Whitlam government, but reaching the heights with Peta Credlin’s role in the Abbott government). She sums up the extent of the problem:
[The] institutions which have made Australia’s political system so vibrant and successful have been changing profoundly over the past few decades. These changes include the rise of unstable executive government (because it has lost the capacity to build institutional memory) at the cost of the parliament (which has also lost its memory as it struggles for relevance); the decline in the influence of the public sector (as a result of a range of forces which have robbed it of much of its institutional memory); the relative rise of the national security establishment (which retains its influence and its memory); and the transformation of the media into a channel for present-tense information, rather than a reliable repository of the historical record. In the background there has also been a nibbling away at our civil rights, as relentless incremental change has left many of us unaware how far the law has moved in the last couple of decades.
The essay has a refreshing focus on systems and structures rather than personality. It ends on a tentative note of hope, and some general suggestions for how the erosion of memory could be slowed or even reversed. Though she can’t be much more than 50, it’s clear that Laura Tingle is one of the precious vessels of memory, a journalist auntie. Much of what she describes if familiar to anyone who has worked in the public service, or really to anyone who has been paying attention. We can hope that this essay contributes towards a change for the better.
If not for the challenge, I might not have noticed an element of the essay that would have been unlikely to been there if the essay had been written by a man. The essay pretty much begins with a quote from the ancient Roman historian Tacitus, which describes the Roman people as seduced by Augustus Caesar into preferring ‘the safety of the present to the dangerous past’. That could easily have been done by a man, but Tingle frames the quote in a story about helping her daughter study for an Ancient History exam: so the quote slips into the reader’s mind as something that anyone’s teenage child might know, with none of the elitist baggage that quotes from the ancients – and by extension arguments about institutional memory – might otherwise carry.