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The Fundamental Misunderstanding of Idealism and Pragmatism

December 4, 2010

As I outlined in the last blog, Labor was a highly competent government in their response to the GFC. While their budgets have always been very soft, promising severe austerity and making necessary decisions yet ultimately doing little more than fulfilling election promises, certainly there was little incompetence. A good government had nonetheless slightly lost its footing, but was still confident, if not with a little doubt. However, the next issue would certainly come to undermine its self-esteem.

Boat People. The first real failing of the Labor government, at least that we were aware of at the time. Kevin Rudd’s “tough but humane” stance, whilst epitomising the populist stance on such an issue by presenting a paradoxical mantra, ultimately rendered him unable to commit to any action, in a situation in which action was needed. Rudd’s fear of losing popularity, as with so many issues with Labor, became a self-fulfilling prophecy, with his approval rating dropping from low-70s to mid-60s. Admittedly still high territory, but a definite drop, as people perceived his inability to commit as lacking in leadership skills. Quite rightly, as the issue ultimately dropped from the political cycle due to Indonesia coming to rescue and detaining the refugees themselves. While there were presumably factional disputes over such a contentious (and incredibly unimportant) issue, the blame for inaction rests solely on Rudd’s shoulders in this instance, floundering upon the basic need for pragmatism.

I personally place a high value upon pragmatism. I believe key traits in a leader are the ability to delegate, careful and considerate listening, quick wit and the knowledge of one’s ability. Gifted intelligence and oratory, while of course admirable and politically beneficial in large quantities, aren’t necessarily top considerations. I reference Bob Hawke in this instance, whom I personally claim to be Australia’s finest Prime Minister since John Curtin. While Hawke was certainly an affable man, well known for his drinking world record (literally, I’m quoting Wiki: “[Hawke has a memorial] at the Turf Tavern for downing a yard of ale (2.5 imperial pints or 1.4 litres) in just 11 seconds in 1963 while at Oxford Uni, a record at the time, and entered in the Guinness Book of Records. The record was actually set in 1953”), his government attained its reputation based on its successful financial, industrial relations and diplomatic reforms, achieved through a highly competent ministry, not through the intellectual genius of Bob Hawke.

Yet, unfortunately pragmatism has become an end to itself. Tony Abbott’s claim of merely being a “competent government” captures this. In the end, the claim to government becomes being able to do things, but not having any key motivation or underlying ideology. While I would argue that considerable power has drifted from the public sector to the private sector as a result of market-based neoliberal reforms (notice I didn’t say deregulation, but that’s a matter for another article), the idea that government has some role or some purpose has unfortunately been lost.

This is anything but pragmatic. Idealism is an unfortunate word in today’s lexicon, automatically presumed to refer to ignoring real world circumstances for an abstract concept. This is certainly what Realists portrayed post-WWI Liberalism as, and we saw what happened to the League of Nations. But this is nothing but conventional wisdom. Ironically, the way in which idealism is perceived is nothing to do with the reality of it. It doesn’t refer to a complete withdrawal from logistics, it’s about having an encompassing ideological framework, about achieving certain outcomes.

And the interesting thing about politics is that it’s a combination of pragmatism and idealism. It’s about having ideals that you seek to achieve, whether it be about action on climate change, or lower taxes, or a more market-based economy, whatever your political spectrum. Of course, there are logistical concerns. A leader without any sense of pragmatism is a doomed leader, as he/she will alienate the very people they seek to benefit, as we saw very well with Gough Whitlam. Certainly my experience has been that most people refer to Gough as a good Prime Minister caught in the wrong time period – I don’t think any of us particularly envy his circumstances, being caught in the 1973 oil shock sparking a global recession, not to mention domestic stagflation. Unfortunately his inability to adapt was the end of him, but his reforms did become part of a grand vision for Australia, and Medicare is a shining example of that. And in his case, in what I suspect Malcolm Turnbull of trying to mirror, his ideology is well understood, and respected in spite of his political shortcomings.

Ultimately, it’s pragmatic to be idealistic. I wish Rudd had realised this before he agreed with Gillard and Swan’s (ill-informed, and frankly, retarded) decision to postpone the ETS to a far-off date. It indicated to the public that his ideals were curbed by a small obstacle. He no longer seemed half the Prime Minister he once was. He should’ve pushed the Double Dissolution trigger, but even if he didn’t, he should’ve tried to continually get it through, and built up public support, portraying the Coalition as an obstruction to the goal of combating Climate Change and trying to dupe the Australia people. Instead, he conceded, gave them the ground that they had been seeking. We all thought we knew what Rudd stood for.

I digress, volumes have already been written on such a topic, the media likes to pick and choose their topic of discussion of the month and stick rigidly to it. Regardless, the crucial misunderstanding of pragmatism remains. Pragmatism denotes a level of respect and competence, but it’s hardly the measure for leadership. Leadership involves a degree of vision, in which a certain path is to undertaken, reforms to be implemented, projects to be unveiled and policy to debate. If we lose the idealism inherent, the pure concept of ideas and intellectual debate, then there exists no basis for any action. And what does Government do if not to govern?

I’m heartened to see Julia Gillard write in the Herald today, stressing the importance of a Carbon Tax. It appears as if she got the memo, that Labor has been stigmatised with the “faceless men” concept, that it only seeks to be re-elected and nothing else. Ask anybody in the last election what Tony Abbott believed in, well it’d be a very slippery mish-mash, but you would have some idea. The Coalition had some clarity which Labor had none of in 2010, and little of in 2009. It was a true feat of the public’s dissatisfaction with the Liberal party that they were not elected outright, and that Labor managed to maintain government.

We’ve seen Labor win an election by being the Notliberal party. Who knows, if they gain some vision, they might discover that good governments are rewarded by voters.

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