Opinion- 29 September 2007




pdf file-available from Australasian Science




Harry Robinson

In Case You Hadn't Heard, There's an Election in the Offing

    Elections arouse reflections. Are they mere sideshows? Or national turning points? Whoever said "Change the government and you change the nation" was plain silly -- a change of government alters priorities and policies, not holus-bolus the nation. Are elections fair? Never. Do they deliver the right answer -- the wish of the people? Nobody knows but they often seem to go close. Do we know what we are doing when we go to the voting booths? Hardly. We know little about the inner personalities of candidates, their deeply personal drives, their conscious and unconscious controls. Those blanks in public knowledge make democracy fragile and frail.

When John Howard's coalition was elected in 1996 it seemed to be a fair alternative to Paul Keating's "Captain Whacko" style. It's a fair bet that most voters had no thought of putting in a government to stay and stay and stay for almost 12 years and maybe more. It's another fair bet that they thought of John Howard as a rather frowsy, reasonably safe politician who might balance the books and not do much harm. Few expected an adroit and determined authoritarian who would eventually have to be dug out with a crowbar, who would retard scientific effort and deny the most urgent challenge of the age -- climate change.

What now do we know about Kevin Rudd? Everything and nothing. We have had the pop bios and the personal interviews and the spotlights on character such as the awful revelation that he called in at a strip club. All the silly superficial exposes of his contacts with Brian Burke in Perth. Through all the circus events Rudd has kept a smiling face and a good bloke mask. His actions in politics have won scant attention --- how did he conduct himself in China? What did he actually do for Wayne Goss in Queensland? Was he merely a good servant to Goss commands? Or did he initiate campaigns, policy directions? If so, what did his work indicate about his own leanings and methods of getting his way?
The media commentariat have not told us so the people who vote for Rudd or his party won't have a clue as to whether he will be a bureaucrat in a politician's job or a man hell bent on making a big difference. Or something else again.

We trust our democracy to people we don't know.

Americans are now wondering how they managed twice to elect George W. Bush -- well, the first time around they allowed him into the White House after dodgy counts but the second time they deliberately chose Bush. During his reign Bush has diminished the national asset base and it is in hock by trillions.

 That takes talent of a perverse kind. By the same talent he has pushed his country into a disaster in Iraq and enfeebled the world's most powerful military machine. He has

Winston Churchill, when Leader of the Opposition, in a speech before the House of Commons on the afternoon of November 11, 1947 put it this way:
We accept in the fullest sense of the word the settled and persistent will of the people. All this idea of a group of supermen and super-planners, such as we see before us, “playing the angel,” as the French call it, and making the masses of the people do what they think is good for them, without any check or correction, is a violation of democracy. Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time; but there is the broad feeling in our country that the people should rule, continuously rule, and that public opinion, expressed by all constitutional means, should shape, guide, and control the actions of Ministers who are their servants and not their masters.

 held back stem cell research, denied the danger in the global atmosphere. One could make a long list of horrors. The central point is that they all spring from the kind of person George W. Bush is. He was not forced to run the US dollar down, he was not compelled to invade Iraq without a plan to secure the place when the shooting stopped. He chose those catastrophes by his own will. He executed them by his own perverse talent. Could American voters have foreseen their nation's downturn?


Democracy is a fragile and frail plant.

It is impossible not to mention that John Howard and George W. Bush are on similar trajectories. The media story that they are personal friends is probably as much myth as fact: they have scarcely had enough time together to make friends but they recognise the attitudes they have in common. In brief, both are anti-intellectual, both love authority, both prefer to force rather than persuade.

Voters who chose both did not have retarding bosses in mind.

Our forthcoming election holds risks. The Ed-Sci community will hope for a renewed commitment to stoking up our universities, our R&D labs, our devotion to the pursuits of the mind.


From Mr Howard's coalition side we are told, through loyal spokesperson Julie Bishop, that the unis have never had so much money, that education is on a roll from pre-school to doctorate and if we will only vote her side in there may be a few more cookies in the jar.

From the Rudd-ALP side we hear declarations about an eduction revolution with plans for a big dedicated fund but at time of writing it is all profile and no bones. If Mr Rudd is short on detail there may be a tactical reason -- disclosed too early blueprints would invite the close attention of departmental staffs such as Treasury to prove every detail impossible, idiot and proof of disaster. Incumbency pays. Still, more clear signposting would be welcome. We are back at the beginning because we still don't know the inner Rudd. Does he mean it? Can he do it? Can he ride the union donkey and point the party along a high road? Does he really want to?

By now we do know that Mr Howard has difficulty envisaging a future beyond election night. We know also that he is a man of extraordinary stamina, will and endowed with an extraordinary sense of purpose. Trouble is we also know that his strength is inclined to be directed along low roads. Perhaps, now that he has had an electoral shock, he might discover a sense of adventure. Perhaps. Then comes the next question: how much do we know of Mr Costello? Do we really want to trust our frail and fragile democracy to him?

Democracy is a risky business but a life without risk is not worth living.




Harry Robinson -- for 25 years worked in television journalism in Oz and the US and was for several years air media critic for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun-Herald.