Leaving it to the Experts

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Lindsay Tanner and other Ministers involved in the distinctly unglamorous project of budget-cutting are no doubt discovering the truth of Max Weber’s miserable definition of politics: "drilling through hard boards".

But Weber also referred to politics as conflict between "warring gods". As well as the quotidian business of governing, politicians need to invest their arts with a certain glamour, courageously pointing a direction forward. A "light on the hill" or the "vision thing".

Kevin Rudd has certainly mastered the art of the symbolic gesture in his short time in office. Signing Kyoto and going to Bali were highly significant, and the apology to the Stolen Generations and the 2020 Summit have blazed into the heavens over the past week, distracting attention from otherwise dour economic and political news.

If considered only in public relations terms, the announcement of the 2020 Summit could hardly have been more successful. The cover of last Monday’s Courier-Mail featured an almost full page Kitchener-like portrait of the PM. "This man wants your ideas," was the gist.

Although the gloss has started to come off a week later, press coverage has been overwhelmingly positive, even laudatory. The odd contrarian, like Chris Berg in the Sunday Age, might be arguing the virtues of division and argument (and he has a point, but it’s not a popular one), but the talkfest is still being, well, talked about, and almost universally praised to the skies.

Interestingly, the blogosphere has provided something of an exception to this rule. And it’s not just about cynicism.

Rudd’s first community cabinet meeting demonstrated his intention to avoid being perceived as out-of-touch, which plagued the Howard Government in its final term. It’s a play straight from the Peter Beattie textbook, and one so successful that politicos were quick to point out that Steve Bracks did it too, and one of Rudd’s colleagues in the Goss Government, Tim Grau, felt sufficiently moved to dispute Beattie’s ownership of the idea.

But there was a striking contrast in discussion of the community cabinet and the 2020 Summit in two threads at Larvatus Prodeo. Many commenters downplayed the meaningfulness of public meetings and direct involvement by voters, inclined to dismiss it as a stunt and an opportunity for cranks to have their say. Leave governance to the experts, was the theme. Intriguingly, many of the same folks were over the moon at the prospect of 1000 selected experts descending on Canberra and putting the country to rights over the course of a weekend.

There were in fact two contrasting ideas of governance being played out in the blogosphere on these two issues. One sees it as important to tap the lived experience of individual citizens, and believes that there is something profoundly democratic about the idea that people, sufficiently empowered, can suggest solutions to their own troubles which won’t have occurred to policy wonks. A lot of what was good about Mark Latham’s leadership tapped into this vein of sentiment.

One thrust of criticism from this group was the exclusionary nature of the 2020 Summit – the fact that summiteers are to pay their own way was highlighted.

The other perspective suggests that policy dilemmas are so intractable and complex that expert and trained minds need to get on with the business of sorting them out. There’s a strong sense that such expertise often bangs up against political ratbaggery, and the Howard Government was correctly reviled for putting populism above policy purity.

It is, of course, possible to combine both – as Tim Dunlop, a blogger who also has a political science doctorate in deliberative democracy, has suggested – and the 2020 Summit seems to gesture to both poles, as more information about how it will work becomes available. Glyn Davis will be selecting some participants off his own bat, but choosing others on the basis of self-nomination. So citizens who think they’re among the "best and brightest" will get the chance to push their claims. And we’re assured that it won’t be a corporatist gabfest dominated by "the representatives of large organisations".

So, what’s not to like?

It’s here that Weber returns to the picture. The great German sociologist was one of the deepest thinkers about the nature of modern politics. In a complex society, he feared, government would be reduced to the "administration of things" – to borrow a notion of Karl Marx’s. Putting the demos back in democracy implies a vigorous contest of ideas, sure; but ideas about ends, not means. Unless there really are some brilliant gems to be sifted from the 2020 Summit, it may well end up being about technocratic tinkering.

This leads to two questions, one of which Kevin Rudd has answered. The first – and most obvious – is why the existing sources of expert advice to government are inadequate. Rudd’s response is that the public service was demoralised by the Coalition’s 11 long years. So the 2020 Summit is, on one level, a way of geeing up the bureaucrats to get on with some genuinely fresh thinking. There’s something to this, and it’s of a piece with Rudd’s praiseworthy action in declining to throw overboard senior public servants closely identified with the Howard regime, and his restraint in foregoing administrative re-organisation in favour of putting the governmental machine to work and getting on with the job.

But the second – and more important – question is: what are the Summit’s goals? Is there such a thing as non-partisan "ideas for Australia" or do all solutions carry with them an ideological component? To adopt a Kevinism and answer my own rhetorical question, I come down on the latter side of the divide. The notion that ideas alone will suffice, if enough experts can be locked in a room and told to get on with it, is unsatisfactory from a democratic perspective. It plays deeply to the tune of managerialism so beloved of left-of-centre parties over the last couple of decades. No one ever accused Margaret Thatcher of being short of an idea.

It might be retorted that social democratic parties achieved their major goals – a welfare state and universal provision of public services – in the post-war era. It’s often been observed that the failure of these initiatives to bring about the millennium led not just to the rise of neoliberalism but also to an exhaustion of left-of-centre thinking and a defensive posture on the part of social democrats. But this is to fall into the trap of believing that there will ever be a utopian end to politics. The task of social democrats is constant vigilance to ensure that true equality of opportunity can be secured in order to maximise individual liberty.

One criticism that has been mounted of the 2020 Summit is that it lays bare the lack of the vision thing on the part of the Rudd Government. That’s slightly unfair – before the election there were occasional flashes of social democratic light among the soundbites, memorably from the PM’s own pen in his piece on Boenhoffer in The Monthly. But much ideological differentiation was sacrificed to the vital task of winning power.

It may well be that the 2020 Summit is designed to shift the public debate and put some wind behind the sails of social democracy in the service of navigating the electoral waters towards a second term. That, in my view, would be a good idea, but it would be an even better idea if Kevin Rudd were to articulate his own vision in advance of the Summit to give it a clearly defined ends.

I could, of course, be wrong. But I’d hate to see the fruits of this Summit being a disconnected grab bag of micro-solutions mixed up with motherhood statements signifying not very much. Among other things, that would be a very bad result for democracy. The administration of things isn’t much of a vision.

New Matilda

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