Wednesday, 9 October 2013

The Paradox of Power

As usual I'm late catching up with my periodicals and so I've just read the Spring 2013 edition of Zadok Perspectives, an edition focused on the election we just had.  Too late to help me make up my mind about the election, but it did help focus my mind on something I've been thinking about since the election, which I call (perhaps not originally) The Paradox of Power.  Two articles helped focus my thoughts - Gordon Preece's editorial on Kevin Rudd's Christian socialism, and Bruce Wearne's extensive review of Lindsay Tanner's book Politics with Purpose.

The Paradox of Power is especially strong in democracies although it also affects people in other political systems, and can be expressed in a few different ways.  The more political power you have, the less able you are to use it.  The higher you climb the tree the less freedom you have to act on your convictions.  A visionary in opposition becomes a cautious conservative in office.

No-one illustrates this problem better than Kevin Rudd.  When he was first elected Labor Party leader in 2006, Rudd nailed his colours to the mast in an article in The Monthly in which he expressed his admiration for Dietrich Bonhoeffer's ideal of Christians fully engaged in the political process and redoing politics "from below", allied with the reforming zeal of the European Christian Socialists.  The result was an idealistic reform program which included strong action on climate change, a more engaged and enlightened approach to internationalism, humane treatment of asylum seekers, an apology and justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, a solution to homelessness, a comprehensive taxation review and so forth. 

His vision and passion struck a chord with the electorate, and his government was elected with a substantial majority.  Even in 2013, after a three year campaign of vilification by his Labor enemies, he was still the most popular political leader in Australia.  However, by 2010 his reform program was a mess.  His asylum seeker policy was as inhumane as Howard's, his apology had not been followed up by meaningful reform on Aboriginal issues, his climate change strategy was blocked by the Senate and then abandoned, his taxation review had morphed into a single abortive tax on big mining companies, and he only had a few baubles to show for three years of government.  It became a favourite sport of journalists and Christian commentators to ask what Bonhoeffer would say about Rudd's various actions, and the answer was usually not very complimentary.

Lindsay Tanner presents a more in-depth and nuanced, and perhaps in some ways more traditional, version of the same thing.  Tanner sees the Labor Party as part of a global social democratic movement, with a long term commitment to social justice both locally and globally.  He laments that during his time in politics the party seems to have lost this sense of purpose, that nothing else matters but winning elections, the party has been swamped by careerism.  "We are slowly transforming," he says, "from a party of political initiative to a default party, which seeks power on the basis of managerial competence...."

Here we see the Paradox on full display.  While Tanner never had Rudd's profile, he was one of the most influential people in the government, serving as Finance Minister and a member of Rudd's "kitchen cabinet" along with deputy Julia Gillard and Treasurer Wayne Swann.  Why, with such committed reformists at the helm, was the Labor Government able to achieve so few of the ideals it treasured?  Why was Rudd hounded from office while Tanner resigned in disillusion?

My sense is that the problem is not one of ideals, it is one of method.  The Labor Party wants to achieve change from the top.  It wants to get hold of the keys to the Lodge and use them to further its program.  However, there are strong vested interests which resist the kind of program they want to introduce and these interests have control of many of our key institutions - our mass media, our financial and business hubs, our banks, even our large public corporations.  Labor's reformist program, even in its most conservative form, is contrary to these interests, and so will meet resistance.  Look at what happened to the mining tax!

The Labor Party's response to this seems reasonable - they moderate their goals, take on board much the agenda of these powerful interests, in order to neutralise their opposition and win the election.  "After all", they say, "you can't implement your program from opposition."  What Rudd and Tanner show, however, is that it is extraordinarily difficult to implement it from government.  By the time they got there, much of the program had already been jettisoned, and most of the rest of it went by the wayside in those first three years.  Gillard succeeded in clawing some of it back with the help of the Greens, but she and her colleagues were extraordinarily ungrateful for this help.  Over the six years of their government their various compromises succeeded in alienating much of the reformist base which should have provided the impetus for the changes they professed to support.

Perhaps the best way to start to see through this issue is to join the chorus of those applying Rudd's words on Bonhoeffer to his own and the Labor Party's, practice.  In his Monthly article of 2006, Rudd says this about Christian engagement with the state.

I argue that a core, continuing principle shaping this engagement should be that Christianity, consistent with Bonhoeffer's critique in the '30s, must always take the side of the marginalised, the vulnerable and the oppressed.

This implies a conscious and costly choice.  It is hard to take the side of the marginalised and oppressed and at the same time seek the favour of their oppressors.  This is even more so if you spend time with the oppressors and keep the oppressed at a distance.  If Gina Reinhardt has open access to the Prime Minister while the door is barred to homeless people and refugees, how is it possible to take the side of the latter?  If you can only achieve power by appeasing the oppressors, this power is an illusion and best abandoned.

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