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Sunday, 09 February 2020 23:45

The Wages of Spin

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The Wages of Spin Photo by bruce mars from Pexels

When the dissing of a stalwart figure of good governance and sensible policy like the late Roger Scruton can lead to his reputation being shredded, and have that shredding rubber stamped by a “Conservative” Government and its standard bearing ministers committed to, above all else, “public relations”, we need to stop and think about what drives our modern governments. 

There is not only great sadness at the recent death of the conservative philosopher Sir Roger Scruton.  That other twenty-first century conservative titan, the Canadian force of nature, Mark Steyn, is “still angry” after Sir Roger’s passing.  Steyn’s anger is the result of the attempt to destroy Scruton’s career and reputation by the New Statesman last year. As Steyn says:

I'm afraid my anger has yet to subside: Nine months ago the greatest conservative thinker of our time was fired by a so-called "conservative" government for, as Andrew Roberts puts it, a thought-crime he didn't commit. Those of us who have been on the receiving end of campaigns to "de-normalize" one will recognize the toll on Scruton of last year's assault in his plaintive query to Douglas Murray when it was all (supposedly) over: "So do you think I still have a career?" Thus the attempted vaporization of half-a-century's work, and not merely by the left but by Brokenshire and Mercer and Osborne and all the other tuppenny-ha'penny twerps of a pseudo-conservative party. God rot them all.

(Brokenshire is Tory MP James Brokenshire, who sacked Scruton after the social media mauling that followed his entrapment by the New Statesman, only to have Scruton re-employed later in the year by a new Tory Prime Minister, one who has at least heard the term “conservative philosophy” even though he doesn’t always practise the detail of it.  Mercer is one Johnny Mercer, another Tory upstart who weighed in against Scruton.  Osborne is Dave Cameron’s mate George Osborne, former Tory Chancellor, who said this against Scruton:

“Yesterday, leading Conservatives rightly ask what they can do to reconnect to modern Britain.

“Today, these bigoted remarks from the man they bizarrely appointed to advise them on housing.”

Osborne, one of the least Tory salary claimants of his generation, will be remembered (if he is remembered at all) for sucking up to the Liberal Democrats, being on the wrong side of history on Brexit, and achieving very little outside being a Cameron hack.  His intervention against Scruton was in equal measure ill-informed and thuggish, and ultimately reflected very poorly on him). 

Mark Steyn was far angrier, I think, as was I, at the Tory establishment than at the tawdry leftists who merely set up the kill.  The Scruton takedown was also correctly interpreted as the result of government giving in to the dictates of “public relations”.

This take on Scruton’s 2019 travails reinforces an essential truth about the modern polity and a sad truth at that.  It is that optics trump principle, that political – for political, read electoral – outcomes trump philosophy, and that public relations in the service of holding power determines all.  The abandonment of scruples and the adoption of a public relations approach to holding power at all costs means that other, formerly worthy principles of politics, principles upon which the Australian system of government was founded, get lost in the modern political game.  They have been parked and forgotten.  I am thinking in particular of ministerial responsibility and of the need for vigorous, civil debate to achieve good policy.  We ignore these permanently at our peril.

Two very recent examples from the Antipodes between them demonstrate (yet again) the abandonment of both these principles and neatly reflect the flight from basic Westminster parliamentary practice.  They each demonstrate the apparently unmourned passing of political virtues, of even the postmodern facsimile of virtue, “values”.

The first, of course, is the community sports grants affair and (till finally, she had to go) the elongated brazening out by the Nationals Minister, Bridget McKenzie, and her Government protectors.  It shows that taking ministerial responsibility for the corruption of proper process, indeed that perpetrated by ministers themselves, is dead in Australia.  McKenzie had to be dragged, kicking and screaming, from the political battlefield.  The adventures of Bridget McKenzie, indeed (with apologies to Barry Humphries and Smacka Fitzgibbon).

The second is the bullying of Coalition MP Craig Kelly by Scott Morrison minders over his (Kelly’s) continued, quite sensible and soundly reasoned insistence that so-called climate change has nothing to do with bushfires.  This case shows that shutting down debate within political parties is seen as more important than achieving good policy.  It also shows that the continued pretence by the Government that it can alternately tug the forelock to both sides of the climate debate and somehow keep everybody onside, trumps truth and first-best policy. 

Both cases demonstrate that public relations and spin relegate good governance to the sidelines. 

Margaret Thatcher’s long time press secretary, Sir Bernard Ingham, even titled his autobiography The Wages of Spin.  This book was published in 2003, at the height of the much-derided and spin driven government of Tony Blair. 

The blurb on the book noted:

Only in 1990 did spin-doctors appear on the horizon. But, within a few years, they came to dominate and discredit the British political scene. They became an addiction which the body politic found difficult to break. 

How very appropriate to our own times, and place, despite the fact that the word “spin” is not now such an automatic descriptor of our own politics.  Spin is so much a part of the operating manual that we no longer much use the word to describe what has happened to us.  It is embedded in the DNA of the 2020s politician, and of governing.  The primacy of spin driven politics covers over that which we have lost, and causes us to forget what were the earlier, and cherished, elements of the old parliamentary DNA.

First, the McKenzie case.  It all started some time back with the Auditor General’s report on the Government’s use of sports grants to bolster its electoral prospects by the corrupted targeting of political rather than community need.

… The auditor-general's report backed up the claims of bias and raised questions about the legality around the scheme…

… Its report found the minister's office ran its own assessment process, which funnelled funding towards targeted seats.

The award of funding, the report noted, "was not consistent with the assessed merit of applications".

This is a $100 million program, so definitely not chicken feed.

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-01-22/everything-we-know-about-sports-grants-so-far/11888620

There is nothing much about modern democracies that can surprise, such is the utter gall of our politicians, from Jackie Trad to Sussan Ley, in flouting ministerial codes, conventions and traditional norms of decent ministerial behaviour.  A mere two decades ago, John Howard as a then neophyte prime minister felt it was incumbent on him to enforce ministerial standards, even to the point of ending the political careers of emerging stars like the Nationals’ John Sharp, over ministerial misdemeanours.  In twenty short years, the rules have changed beyond recognition.  Resignation or sacking, once regarded as the first, right thing to do, is now a last political resort.

So we have a minister using a community grants program to feather National (and, indeed, Liberal) Party nests in marginal seats.  This is nothing new, as some have pointed out, and the current contretemps calls to mind a very similar set of events of 2005 – the so-called “regional rorts” affair, and yes there was a scathing Auditor General’s report then too – and yet another set of allegations of allocating grants politically after the 2013 election.

https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/coalitions-regional-rorts-make-a-comeback-says-labor-20140828-109o7y.html

I have argued before that one of the very core purposes of the Nationals has been to “get stuff” for the bush.  But things changed fundamentally when it occurred to governments that they could make budget program allocations, then themselves strategically control the spigot.  They now get to decide the when, the where and the projects rewarded. 

This is now how the spending manual operates.  And it is in my old field of regional development that this all works.  As a voter in the Lismore (NSW) electorate, approaching the 2019 State election, I flipped through the press releases of the local Nationals member (of long-standing, and by 2019 retiring) Thomas George.  A year’s worth of media releases read as one long list of local grants.  (Who knows how effective this all is, electorally, by the way?  George’s successor lost to Labor, one of the few seats that changed hands in that election).  But this is the way politicians, and not only those in the country, do business.  How can it surprise anyone that ministers steer funding to electorates where they think their largesse will yield the best electoral rewards?

Ministerial overreach, not announcing grants awarded till an appropriate time to publicise them, overruling civil servants’ or “independent” board decisions about grant allocations, managing local media to achieve maximum electoral impact, and toughing out allegations of politicisation, are all now routinised as part of the policymaking manual. 

Indeed, Christian Porter has claimed in the context of the McKenzie case:

What I fundamentally don’t accept is that ministers should not be involved in final approval for projects. That’s their job …

Then there was Minister Greg Hunt, some weeks back now:

The minister made no apology for “advocating for projects” in his electorate and said there was no reason for Senator McKenzie to resign.

Today’s political mantra is “funding, funding, funding!”  All else be damned.

Notwithstanding the Prime Minister’s initially quiet referral of the McKenzie matter to his most senior public servant (he being, of course, a former political staffer of the PM’s, and handily available to whitewash those parts of the affair that may have impacted the PM’s own career and those of his staffers involved), and despite McKenzie’s ultimate resignation extracted in the manner of removing hen’s teeth, and that these cases typically do NOT evince anything more than a ho-hum “they all do it” response from the punters these days should give us all pause for reflection.  Oh what we have lost.  Ministers just assume they can do it, on our dime, without pushback.  Yes, McKenzie has now gone, but the point is she thought all along she could get away with it (and given the “grounds” on which she was sacked almost did).  Because that is what they all do.

Our parliamentary democracy has been described as a “fragile instrument”.  Walter Bagehot would be spinning (no pun intended) in his noble grave.  Ministerial responsibility has been termed a “safety valve” that safeguards the system.  Oh, dear.  Does anyone care, anymore?  We all know that political necessities and optics drove McKenzie to go, not concern for the proprieties of ministerial government.  Similar considerations would have driven the behaviour of each and every other player in this sordid affair.

Sydney Daily Telegraph journalist Eliza Barr writes:

It’s astonishing that Bridget McKenzie thinks she can pork-barrel sports clubs and no-one will hold her to account. How ignorant does she think voters are?

Well, perhaps not ignorant but merely cynical after decades of this sort of thing going on.  This one only makes the papers because of the targeting of marginal electorates for political gain.  But what about all the largesse receiving not-so-marginal electorates that get these goodies in the game of local development bingo?  That is no less a travesty of parliamentary democracy.

Apart from the stench, the embedding of what are essentially corrupt practices causes massive civil service and electoral cynicism and diminishes the whole parliamentary process.  It also kills good policy.  The methods used by McKenzie, and by Ros Kelly, for that matter, all those years ago – we all remember the white board, and no doubt she will take that stigma to her grave – take control away from the electorate and disenfranchise us all.  The farce of it is that no one knows whether it actually helps local community and regional development!  And this was, once, a rather noble aim of a National Party created to ensure a measure of equal treatment for the bush.  But not for specific electorates so that we can retain power.

What about the quaint notion of ministerial responsibility?

In general terms, the doctrine states that ministers are individually responsible to the Parliament for actions taken under their authority. In particular, this relates to the actions taken by the portfolio department and agencies for which they are responsible.

These were once Westminster norms, along with “responsible government”. 

The Westminster system of responsible government, under which ministers must be members of the parliament, is seen by many people as the most developed and the most democratic. 

The basis of the whole thing, the stuff of old-style political science 101 courses.  Unlike the US system, where each administration makes Cabinet Ministers out of whomever it likes, we get our ministers from the parliament.  So far so good.  But when we have rule by grants funding, it all gets very blurred.  Ministers come from electorates, and every electorate is now a candidate for largesse in competition with all the others.  Who gets to decide how the goodies get allocated?  This is, at best, highly bastardised ministerial government, highly compromised responsible government.

When did it all go wrong, and how and why? 

There are a number of usual suspects – ever-growing ministerial staffs (John Stone’s “meretricious players”); the introduction of short term contracts for “permanent” heads of department; the 24-hour news cycle and the constant demand for politicians to be doing things;  the coming to prominence of marketing and public relations as disciplines and careers, and their embedding in ministerial staffer activity; the introduction in around 1990 of policy “packages”, linking budget funding to timed announceables; enabling technologies (software) that allow politicians easily to measure how much every electorate “gets” from budget programs. 

Then, of course, there is the massive growth of government.  In saner times, who would have thought that a primary role of government would have been to give our money away to sporting clubs?  Whatever their merits.

Is there something larger at work, though?  Wherein now lies a politician’s honour, his or her sense of propriety?  This age of criminalised bankers and fireground looters might also be the age of middle-finger-to-the-electorate pollies.  There is something of this in the tone of the remarks by both Hunt and Porter.  Worst of all would be that politicians have simply come to believe that the electorate is indeed so dumb as to think that endless trinkets will win them over and guarantee their own career longevity.  Much to journo Eliza Barr’s horror, perhaps Bridget McKenzie and the conga line of her peers engaged in this endless, unseemly game show do actually believe the electorate is ignorant, and therefore not owed fundamental decency of behaviour in high office.  If they can get away with it, they just will. 

Party factionalism doesn’t help.  NSW Emergencies Minister and Minister for being overseas during emergencies, David Elliott, is said to be basically unsackable because he is in the other faction – well one of them – from the NSW Premier.  Therefore a protected species.  Voters deserve better than this pigswill.

I said it was not new, and not confined to one side of politics.  Yes, they do “all do it”, which, of course, doesn’t make it right.  This has been a feeble defence indeed these past weeks.  Ros Kelly’s whiteboard is merely the most memorable example.  It has been the currency of elections since the early 1990s.  Possibly even before this.  There was a public service body in Canberra in the Keating years called “OLMA”.  This stood for the Office of Labour Market Adjustment.  We practitioners and policymakers all knew it simply as the “office of lots of money available”.  Civil servants then, and no doubt now, simply roll their eyes at the politicisation of grant monies for the regions.

The excuses are, no doubt, that they all do it and that the grants can have positive impacts on communities.  First best policy requires much, much better than this.  And when ministers override their own created professional boards and civil servants to create party political opportunity, the whole pond takes on a considerable stench.  In a former professional life I termed this “the tyranny of the announceable”.  And as that canny old operator Neville Wran used to say, “if something is worth announcing, it is worth announcing seven times”.

This is not just a whinge about the largely unlamented (not least by her fellow Nats) Bridget McKenzie.  It does go to the issue of ministerial responsibility though.  Own up that “yes we did it”, and walk, early, like honest old time batsmen.  Oh no, we don’t “walk”, not over something as minor as – debauching the role of government, bastardising decision making, governing fairly and creating good policy!  We wait for the umpire to give us out.  And then we still don’t walk.  The decision has then to go upstairs.  Then we will question the decision process, probably.

The second case study relates to the shutting down of debate, when holding power is all.  The MP Craig Kelly has shown himself to be a take-no-prisoners climate sceptic.  He says what he believes to be true.  At a time of heightened climate sensibilities due to the tragic bushfires that have achieved global notice, Kelly has called a spade a bloody shovel, agreeing with any number of the well informed who recognise both immediate and remote causes of the incidence and impact of the fires, and also dismissing popular green-left fantasies about global warming’s influence on the fires. 

So, following a controversial interview with Piers Morgan on CNN, Kelly got the call from the Prime Ministers’ minders.  Back off.  We have our corporate lines.  We will have no debate on this issue!

The Liberal Party has learned the wrong message from the “disunity is death” days of both the 1980s and the 2010s, where the Party was torn down the middle by personality and egos –  first with Peacock-Howard than Turnbull-Abbott – rather than by debates over policy.  Yes, the Labor Party is indeed correct.  The Government is divided over climate change.  Everyone knows this.  But the bullying of Kelly by prime ministerial minders  - for bullying is what it was – goes beyond this divide.  It is an instance of executive power at the expense of the core idea of parliamentary democracy.  That we debate policy.  We listen to our backbench.  We accord them respect.  They are elected, after all, and we, the marketers and public relations millennials in the PMO, are decidedly not.  I hope, too, that it has not escaped anyone’s attention that it seems the Prime Minister didn’t have the decency, or cojones, to pick up the phone himself to call Kelly over his climate change remarks.  I’ll just let the minders do it.

The bullying of Kelly and anyone else who might vent on climate change – outside the parameters of the agreed approach of “climate policy slithering” – shows that, again, public relations and the will to power trump all.  They certainly trump good old fashioned policy debate.

So, where does this leave our institutions, and our now seeming tenuous hold on parliamentary democracy?  When the dissing of a stalwart figure of good governance and sensible policy like the late Roger Scruton can lead to his reputation being shredded, and have that shredding rubber stamped by a “Conservative” Government and its standard bearing ministers committed to, above all else, “public relations”, we need to stop and think about what drives our modern governments.  It ain’t pretty, and it is shown to be a matter of concern in Australia as well as the UK.  Recent and not quite so recent ministerial practice in Australia on all sides shows our fragile democracy to have been taken over by managerialism, marketing, public relations and a cynical drive for power.

Oh, and even now, after the tumult and shouting are over, Bridget McKenzie and many of her colleagues, it seems – including the “neutral” reviewer from Prime Minister and Cabinet – still do not believe there was any wrong done in the actual disbursement of the grants.  Quod erat demonstrandum.

 

Read 614 times Last modified on Monday, 10 February 2020 00:08
Paul Collits

Paul Collits is a freelance writer and independent researcher who lives in Lismore New South Wales.  
 
He has worked in government, industry and the university sector, and has taught at tertiary level in three different disciplines - politics, geography and planning and business studies.  He spent over 25 years working in economic development and has published widely in Australian and international peer reviewed and other journals.  He has been a keynote speaker internationally on topics such as rural development, regional policy, entrepreneurship and innovation.  Much of his academic writing is available at https://independent.academia.edu/PaulCollits
 
His recent writings on ideology, conservatism, politics, religion, culture, education and police corruption have been published in such journals as Quadrant, News Weekly and The Spectator Australia.
 
He has BA Hons and MA degrees in political science from the Australian National University and a PhD in geography and planning from the University of New England.  He currently has an adjunct Associate Professor position at a New Zealand Polytechnic.