Ideas@TheCentre – The Centre for Independent Studies


Ideas@TheCentre brings you ammunition for conversations around the table.  3 short articles from CIS researchers emailed every Friday on the issues of the week.

If you don't care about the details, why would they?

Simon Cowan

03 June 2016 | Ideas@TheCentre

policy detailsWhat do the Shorten / Turnbull leaders’ debate, Julie Bishop’s stumbles on transition to retirement and Sarah Hanson-Young’s train wreck on superannuation have to do with each other?

Answer: they are all boring.

Partial credit only for giving that response. The full answer is they are all largely about policy details, while the fact that the public sees policy as boring is problematic, not funny.

And the Sarah Hanson-Young interview wasn’t boring, especially the part where the host offered to get her policy advisor in, instead of her, because at least they knew what they were talking about. If only minor parties like the Greens were held to account more often.

The major parties are, at least on occasion, held to account. One such occasion was the leaders’ debate, where journalists asked probing questions like whether Labor actually had an upper limit on how high the tax to GDP ratio would rise (which Shorten couldn’t answer) and whether either party had a plan to actually get people off Manus and Nauru (which they didn’t).

The fact that both leaders largely stuck to scripted answers that avoided the substantive issues is symptomatic of a broader political malaise.

The politicians know they don’t need to be across the detail because most of the electorate isn’t listening anyway — and the bulk of those who do listen only care about what’s in it for themselves. And let’s not overlook the twitter partisan armies, ready to repeat whatever inconsistent, inane nonsense their side serves up as gospel.

That’s why Q&A with the leaders attracts a million people and the debate only attracted half as many viewers as the third most-popular reality show of the night.

The policy detail should matter. It should matter more than the colour of Malcolm’s tie or Shorten’s zingers. It should matter much more than Richard Di Natalie turtleneck or whether David Leyonhjelm really is the Bond villain, Blofeld.

Yet it will only matter to politicians if it matters to voters, and right now it is clear that it doesn’t. It’s just too boring.

Simon Cowan is Research Manager at the Centre for Independent Studies and just wishes those kids would get off his lawn

Free debate more practised on the Right

Jeremy Sammut

03 June 2016 | Ideas@TheCentre

quadrantThere is a debate about public funding of literary journals, and other forms of middle-class cultural welfare such as the opera and the symphony.

But that debate is separate to whether the taxpayer’s money that does subsidise the arts and letters is distributed without political bias.

I’ve been vocal about the Australia Council’s decision to de-fund Quadrant magazine.

The Left loves to pay lip service to the ideals of diversity and respect for free inquiry.  But I have found that ideals are more often genuinely practised on the Right.

Ten years ago, Quadrant published an article by me on the White Australia Policy, which was critical of aspects of the book that Keith Windschuttle had written on the subject, and which prompted a typically combative response from him in a subsequent edition.

In the decade since, Quadrant, under Windschuttle’s editorship, has published a number of articles by me on a range of topics.

I can’t help wondering if someone who had criticised the work of Robert Manne, say, would get as good a run in The Monthly?

I think the reason the Right tolerates different answers to the same questions without recriminations, and doesn’t impose a political bar on those who differ, is that it is more interested in doing good, rather than seeming good by supporting the ‘right’ causes.

A good example of this may be my critical review in the June edition of Quadrant of Stan Grant’s new book, Talking to My Country ­ — a book universally acclaimed by the Left.

Grant’s book argues that entrenched Indigenous disadvantage continues to persist in Australia due to the failure to address the legacy of racism dating back to the original sins of colonisation.

The gist of my response is that Grant has got his history the wrong way round. The major cause of the worst Indigenous disadvantage has been the impact of the policies of Aboriginal Self-Determination, which were implemented in the 1970s to address the historic wrongs of dispossession.

If we take heed of Grant’s book, we will believe — as many on the Left argue — that the answers to overcoming Indigenous disadvantage lie in continuing to reckon with history by undertaking symbolic Reconciliation via the Recognition and Treaty movements.

To the contrary, the real answers lie in practical Reconciliation — as has been the central message of the revisionist literature that has reshaped the Indigenous debate over the last 20 years, much of which has been published in Quadrant.

The best path to public policy change

James Plaut

03 June 2016 | Ideas@TheCentre

path public policy changeWere you despairing at the state of your electoral politics on Sunday night? Well, stop feeling sorry for yourselves and spare a thought for us poor Brits who were subjected to a full four months of campaign tedium last year…

The much-lambasted debate did however typify the shallowness to which professional politics sadly tends to default. Conversely, while Messrs Turnbull and Shorten were having their make-up immaculately applied and their aides were polishing the bland soundbites, 30 students from across Australia and New Zealand were at CIS’s Liberty & Society conference — spending the weekend being exposed to, provoked by, and debating some of the fundamentals of classical liberal philosophy.

The contrast between the two occasions left me wondering if those of my generation with keen eyes for internships in politicians’ offices and aspirations for careers in the Rota Fortunae of party politics will find it is not the best path to influencing public policy.

Indeed, potent ideas and sound policies have a longevity that the majority of the ephemeral political firmament can only dream of. This can’t be illustrated better than by how the seeds of the two great shifts in the liberal political landscape of the past century — the planned economy statism of the 1930s and 40s and the market revolution of the 1980s — were sown far from the bright lights of the TV studio and cultivated in, often long-fought, intellectual battles preceding the events themselves.

In Europe today, we can see an example of this emerging in miniature with policy proposals such as Universal Basic Income (or variations thereon) gathering momentum long after its original proponents have passed away.

This ‘lag’ is hardly glamorous — and no doubt most ideas don’t take hold. But in an era grasping for answers to the challenges of globalisation, sustainable welfare and the massive disillusionment with increasingly reviled political classes, I would suggest this is where people’s focus should be. Politics can be all too short, shallow and transient.

Those who wish to influence may discover that the most powerful place to be in a minister’s office isn’t necessarily behind the desk, but in a folder labelled ‘ideas’, safely tucked away in the bottom drawer.

James Plaut is an Intern at the Centre for Independent Studies.