There has to be a better way

Note: This was published as my last column on Business Spectator on April 6th, but it’s now gone missing after News Ltd merged BS with its own in-house stable and changed all the URLs. Given the election and Elizabeth Farrelly’s excellent thought piece in the Sydney Morning Herald “The great tragedy of Malcolm Turnbull“, I thought it was a good time to revive it.

One of the disadvantages of growing up is finding in your old age that people you never took seriously in your youth are now running your country.

In my personal case, I’m speaking about Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull—but if I’d gone to University at the same time and place as Kevin Rudd, I’m sure I’d be speaking about him too.

I knew Abbott and Turnbull in their Sydney University days: they were both active student politicians, while I was one of the leaders of the student revolt against the economics curriculum there. Abbott and Turnbull both tried to play a role in this “Political Economy” dispute—and their approach then mirrors their styles today. One believed he knew the word of God, while the other believed he was God.

Abbott tried to defeat what he described, in his peculiar nasal drawl, as “the Maarxists” behind the protests. He went beyond speaking against us at meetings and voting against us on the Students Representative Council to, shall we say, robust attempts to stop us putting up posters in the dead of night.

He failed. He lost the votes in public forums and on the SRC. The posters went up, and most of them stayed up—my favourite stayed for years, because we cleaned it into the tarnished copper cladding of the library stack.

Turnbull tried to reach a negotiated settlement between the warring sides: a majority of the students and (a substantial segment of the staff) on one side, and the Professors Hogan and Simkin and Vice-Chancellor Williams on the other.

He failed too. At a meeting where I was one of two invited student speakers, the Economics Faculty voted, against the Professors’ wishes, for an inquiry into the Department of Economics. The inquiry recommended, against the Vice Chancellor’s wishes, that the Department should be split in two.  This occurred in 1975 with the formation of the Department of Political Economy, which still exists today.

So Turnbull and Abbott were bit players in that drama, but of course their eyes were set on a bigger role: that of becoming Prime Minister of Australia, as they both have now done. We knew those ambitions back in the 1970s too, and we laughed.

It turned out to be no laughing matter so far as their ambitions went, but for the country itself, their success—and that of Rudd before them, and frankly many others—was a crying shame. Their one qualification for the top job was the unshakeable belief that they deserved it. That self-belief, and the drive that went with it, carried them all—Rudd included—to the top.

But is that any way to select a country’s top decision-makers? I recently had an interesting conversation with another Rudd—Greg, not Kevin—who has been arguing that the entire structure of politics is a hangover from long-gone ages, when Big Men led us against the other predators in the African veld—the lions and the other Big Cats—or more recently, when class conflict shaped the formation of modern capitalism, and a certain Karl Marx forged his theories. Greg Rudd likens our current system—of voting between adversarial political parties vying for power, who then war it out in Parliament until the next round—to nominating someone as Managing Director to the governing board of a company, but also appointing another Board, led by a rival, whose sole aim was to block the Managing Director’s every move.

Surely, if the last decade of Prime Ministerial merry-go-rounds has taught us anything, it’s that we should throw out the merry-go-round itself, and adopt a form of political governance more suited to the modern complex world in which we live.

We should follow the other Marx—Groucho—and apply the rule that no-one who actually wants the top job should get it. The last person who should be making decisions that affect our lives so profoundly should be someone who believes he can’t make a mistake.

And it shouldn’t be a single job either: the modern environment that humanity has largely crafted is too complex in all its features—its economic and social systems, its ecological uncertainties, and the challenges of moving beyond our planetary boundaries which are now the province of entrepreneurs as much as governments—for any single ego to be able to even understand the issues, let alone make the right decisions about them. We need a team, not of God-complex sufferers and political hacks, but of experts in the many complex systems that make up our modern world. And they should be assisted by the expert computer systems we have now begun to develop to help us understand this complex world.

That’s dreaming about the future, but let’s hope it doesn’t remain a dream. However this year, we’ll face yet another round of the same old nightmare: a contest between congenital narcissists for the top job (I can’t claim any personal knowledge of Shorten, but he’d need to be a deviation from the norm not to fit that mould). Let’s hope it’s one of our last. This is no way to run a country.

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