Laura Tingle
Political Amnesia: How We Forgot How to Govern

Laura Tingle does not cite Orwell but his spirit pervades her new Quarterly Essay, Political Amnesia. Here is her perceptive take on a word so beloved of politicians: “ ‘Reform’ has become a hollowed-out word which you attach to anything you think voters won’t like in the hope that it will make you appear a strong and decisive government ... Nobody ever takes a decision in government to cut spending, or increase spending, or raise or lower taxes anymore. They ‘do reform’.”

As Tingle points out, today’s “reform” agenda is driven by special interests on the right. For three decades the “economic rationalists” have pushed to contract out community services, often to monopoly suppliers who are guaranteed taxpayer-subsidised profits (e.g. private health insurers, merchant bank-run airports, the disastrous ABC Learning childcare).

When the self-styled “opinion leaders” at The Australian speak of reforming taxes and employment rights, you can be reasonably sure they are following the crib sheets from the business council or the employers’ federation.

Much of Tingle’s essay mourns the haemorrhage of expertise from what was once a world-class bureaucracy. Why would brilliant scholarship boys and girls such as “Nugget” Coombs – whom Chifley promoted in the late 1940s to shape our postwar prosperity – enter the public sector today? They now risk being sacked by an incoming government that believes public servants who have simply implemented the policies of an earlier, democratically elected government are somehow tainted.

Tingle is a leader in the Canberra press gallery, although far less inclined to the conventional wisdom, which itself has become an ideology – private, good; public, bad; deregulation, definitely – and her profession does not escape this critique. Today’s newsrooms have been denuded of specialist reporters who can explain, even enliven, difficult policies on tax, welfare, health and education. Instead, we have about three “generations” of national political reporters every 10 years and they see every policy through the prism of leadership.

It doesn’t help that three recent prime ministers – possibly four, because Turnbull is another careful political construction – have also crafted much of their platform for a tabloid agenda. The entire political class, as Tingle points out, has forgotten how to govern.  PT

Quarterly Essay, 108pp, $22.95

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 28, 2015 as "Laura Tingle, Political Amnesia: How We Forgot How to Govern ".

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Reviewer: PT