Opinion Ideas do matter in game of politics

How our politicians view the world has a direct impact on people's everyday lives, writes Lindy Edwards.

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Dr Lindy Edwards

OPINION: Julia Gillard is languishing in the polls because she is seen to be cynical and to lack a coherent belief system. This doesn't mean ideas are irrelevant to modern politics, it means they are crucial to political success.

In his column on Tuesday, Nicholas Stuart said the argument in my book The Passion of Politics was wrong because it put too much weight on political ideas. He argued that the raw political calculation on display at Parliament House last week proved there were no principles in politics. He argued that leaders look for a political advantage, and then retrospectively justify their actions, and it is a furphy to suggest high ideas are at stake.

It's true that this cynical manoeuvring is always part of the political mix. In fact, it is at fever pitch at the moment, which is why the current leaders are so unpopular. However, successful political leaders like Hawke, Keating or Howard did convey a coherent world view.

They painted a picture of what our country was like, what challenges it faced, and the solutions to those problems. When John Howard got up to speak, you always knew what his position was going to be on an issue before he spoke. He had a coherent world view that he expressed consistently over many years. It was a world view that many people didn't agree with, but its clarity was essential to his leadership success.

When successful political leaders do battle over these visions it is not only politics at its most effective, it is also politics at its most noble. A certain amount of politics is a grubby exercise in people elbowing their way past one another for advantage. But most people who are passionate about politics are driven by an underlying idealism. They care deeply about how our community works and the values it upholds.

Competing political visions are based on deeply held assumptions about human nature, how society works and the kinds of values we should be aspiring too. The Passion of Politics seeks to expose these big ideas and the values clashes at their heart. The book contrasts the big ideas to highlight the points of conflict. It then goes through the major turning points in Australian political history to see how the different ideas worked out in practice. By the end the reader will know the history of issues such as gay marriage and feminism, egalitarianism and free markets, white Australia and immigration, rural Australia and climate change. They will also understand the principles at stake.

Understanding these debates is important, because even in a cynical age like this one, the competing world views have profound implications.

Our system of compulsory voting means that our politicians focus their efforts on winning over the small number of swinging voters. They are both speaking to the same audience, which means they tend to understate their differences. However the differences are actually substantial.

Despite impressions that the Rudd/Gillard governments have been driven by political calculation and spin, behind the scenes they have been classic Labor governments. Their policies have been hugely redistributive. Their changes to the pension, the tax-free threshold, the means testing of family payments, the means testing of the private health insurance rebate, and the compensation for the carbon tax have all transferred wealth from rich to poor.

They have also embraced big-government solutions to collective problems, whether it was the response to the global financial crisis, building the national broadband network, or the national disabilities scheme and bringing dental care into Medicare. For all the emphasis on spin, a very traditional Labor world view of collectivism and social justice has strongly steered its agenda.

Similarly, it does matter who leads the Liberal Party. The Liberal Party has always had a liberal and a conservative stream. Most of its successful leaders have been liberals championing the individual in the face of Labor's collectivism. However, in recent years the conservatives have grown in influence.

There is a huge gulf in the beliefs of liberals and conservatives. Conservatives tend to believe that human nature is flawed and that we need clear social norms to guide us how to live. They see a role for hierarchy and authority in keeping people in line.

By contrast, liberals tend to argue people are the best judge of what will advance their happiness. They argue that government should stay out of it, and people should be free to do as they choose as long as they don't harm others. As a result, it does matter for the future of the nation whether the opposition leader is Tony Abbott or Malcolm Turnbull.

These debates are important, because as with Labor, the conservatives have often implemented their agenda quietly. Most people knew that John Howard advocated the traditional ''bread-winning father, stay-at-home mother'' model of the family. People were less aware of the lengths to which his government went to enshrine that vision. It set up the tax and benefits system to encourage mothers to stay at home. At its peak, women wanting to return to work after the birth of a child faced effective marginal tax rates of as much as 85 per cent.

These policies changed the course of millions of women's lives. Economically they had little choice but to take an extended break from their careers, making it unlikely they would recover their professional standing or career trajectory. It ensured that large numbers of families conformed to the traditional model. It changed the cultural face of Australia.

It is true that it impoverishes our politics when our leaders behave cynically. But it also impoverishes our politics when everything is reported as being nothing more than self-interested manoeuvring. There are actually much more important, interesting debates going on in our politics, than is currently being reported.

Dr Lindy Edwards is a political scientist at UNSW Canberra and author of The Passion of Politics: the role of Ideology and Political Theory in Australia.

This opinion piece first appeared in The Canberra Times.