Culture is purpose framed through Identity.
Many words have been uttered about the toxic culture of Federal Parliament. So, what is the problem? Culture emerges out of a perceived or enforced sense of identity. The parliament breeds a sense of entitled identity. Many, but not all, including some women, have woven themselves around such identity and in turn have shaped the identity of their staffers. This became tragically clear in the lack of leadership exercised in response to this week’s march by thousands of women. It was not a privilege, as they were being encouraged to believe, for women to be offered a private meeting with the Prime Minister and Minister for women. It should have been an honour for the Prime Minister and Minster for Women to meet with the women on their turf, seek to hear them and address the issues they brought on behalf of half the population.
If the sense of identity worn by governmental leadership was more transparently one of service, not entitlement and privilege of office, it would have felt an honour. (How many Prime Ministers have had the opportunity to meet representatives of half the population in one meeting)? Political leaders are after all ‘ministers’, the root meaning of which is ‘servant’. The ambition of politicians should be to seek the betterment of society they serve. This is hardly rocket science. Sadly, the ambition of most morphs easily into remaining in power at the next election. Time spent between elections being spent courting interest groups with this ambition in mind.
How did we arrive in this unfortunate state? There are no doubt a multitude of factors, many of which the whole population must own, but one of the dominant driving factors is that an increasing number of politicians are recruited from the ranks of party staffers who inherit an identity with their party and its ideologies from their early 20’s. The world beyond this bubble remains outside their experience. In this bubble the party and its prospects are everything, scandals must be dealt with in terms of their consequences for the party.
It is said that some have nurtured an ambition to be Prime Minister since their school days. In what context was this ambition framed? Was it to finally address unfinished business in relation to our First Nations peoples? Was it to recreate Australia as a regionally based manufacturing country with a multitude of highly skilled job? Was it to safeguard our natural environment, to create an atmosphere in which species extinction is halted and ecosystems protected? Was it to imagine what a liveable city might look like in the 21st century? Was it to build a vibrant economy in a post carbon world? Was it to give effect to a broad based and liberal education for all, that all might have the opportunity to celebrate life in its fulness? Was it…?
Or was the ambition to be no more than becoming the most important person and the most powerful person in the land?
On either side of politics, but especially on the government benches, it is difficult to understand the reason they are there, other than to be important and protect the interests of those who share the same ideological aspirations. This perception is borne out by the flood of politicians who, when they leave office, carve out a lucrative future for themselves from the influence they were able to exercise while in parliament. Pyne and associates is the latest example who now have the arms company Elbit as a major client and this week lobbied on behalf of the company in parliament.
Politics should be about transformational leadership. Our Prime Minister has shown he is incapable of anything other than transactional leadership. Every decade or two it is necessary for the clock to be reset. In changed circumstance it becomes necessary to enable a fairer, more just, more sustainable, more liveable world. Reform is not easy. It almost always means convincing one’s own side that change is necessary let alone convincing the opposition. The last Prime Minister capable of this was Bob Hawke who managed the seemingly impossible task of convincing the Unions that reform required a different modus operandi from them.
There are currently many areas crying out for reform, for which the government is showing absolutely no appetite. Top of the list is the way Australia is (or is not) being led into a post carbon economy. Environmentalists remain important voices, but they are no longer the only, or even the main voices clamouring for reform. To the voice of scientists can now be added, the market, the insurance industry, the National Farmers, State Governments, the nation’s youth, yes, even those employed in the mining industry who know the life of coal is at an end and want transition to a productive post mining life.
There must also be reform of monetary policy which currently allows those with assets to flourish while those on salaries stagnate. Growing equity gap is alarming. If further proof of this situation were required a cursory examination of the fate of Australians during 2020, the year of covid, will amply illustrate. Many large companies, shareholders and property owners flourished, many above the level they would otherwise have expected. At best those dependent on salaries stagnated and at worst either lost their jobs or suffered severe reduction in hours and income.
Aged Care, Health and Education are at various levels of crisis, under performance, or lacking the capacity to deliver. A conversation about how Federation can most efficiently work in 2021 with an honest debate about the relative value of private and public delivery of services is long overdue.
So, let us return to the problem of a toxic culture. If federal politics is to remain at the basement level of party, even intraparty rivalry and jealousy and holding onto (or achieving) power as the only ambition, then frankly there is little chance that the toxic culture can change. Toxicity and vacuousness are soul mates. If on the other hand transformational leadership can emerge with a more noble aspiration, this will energise a transformed culture with a more nourishing and noble reason for existence.