Political Amnesia, How we forgot how to govern

04 Feb 2016

Amnesia, How we forgot how to governLaura Tingle is political editor of the Australian Financial Review. She won the Paul Lyneham Award for Excellence in Press Gallery Journalism in 2004, and Walkley awards in 2005. She appears regularly on Radio National’s Late Night Live and ABC-TV’s Insiders.

Written in essay style, Tingle argues that there is a growing loss of institutional memory about how things have come about, and, she says, more importantly, why they did.

She says that the public is angry about politics and unhappy and confused about legal rights and freedoms. She believes that “there is a yearning for the past” and a time when politics seemed to be in the national interest, when government policy was well developed and thoroughly thought through, and when the “media gave informed context for assessing events”. The essay describes the “dumbing-down of politics; the 24-hour news cycle; too much polling and poll-driven politics; the decline of community involvement in political organisations; the rise of the political professional; and the decline of “real-life” experience among our politicians. Without doubt, these all play a role”

How we forgot how to govern, Political Amnesia is about the role of memory in politics and policy-making in Australia. It is about the problem of having little, or no, memory of what has actually occurred before. Tingle believes that many of the institutions that kept these memories have collapsed and that there are very powerful reasons why politics have become distasteful and dangerous.

She makes the point that politicians still speak as if the frameworks from the past exist and that they work to expectations of an era when the economy was regulated and they could set interest rates and exchange rates and protect Australian interests from overseas competition. It “all changed with the deregulation of the economy that began in the 1980s. But politics did not. Politicians still promise, or else imply, that they can control events when they cannot.”

Tingle says that without memory, there is no context or continuity for making new decisions and that therefore they are made at face value rather than informed by the 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.”

She gives an example of the 2012 child-care “issue of the day” which the prime minister called an “emergency child-care summit.” One of the proposals put forward was to shift government subsidies from parents to providers. “For twenty-four hours there was much learned discussion in the media of the pros and cons of this idea, as if it were an entirely new shiny thing. I watched on, puzzled. “Am I the only person,” I asked a senior public servant, “who remembers that this is the way child care used to be funded?” “Probably,” was his sardonic reply.

At the end of her essay she says “It is telling that Malcolm Turnbull’s claim to return to the Coalition leadership in 2015 was so heavily based on a recognition that the lessons of good government – and good politics – have been forgotten, and on the need to restore the processes and institutions that help enshrine them. We are about to find out whether his memory is good enough to transport us out of the political wilderness in which we find ourselves.”