James Brown
The truth about pragmatists

In food marketing, they’re called “passionate pragmatists” – consumers who watch TV programs such as MasterChef or My Kitchen Rules and have the best intentions of lovingly crafting their next pasta sauce from scratch. But when it comes down to it, their puttanesca is poured from a shop-bought packet just like most people’s. They are time-poor, and though they appreciate the lofty and exquisite, they will readily sacrifice it for the pragmatic. The passionate pragmatists are a fast-growing group in Australia.

It’s no surprise that Australians are so pragmatic. After all, it’s in our country’s political DNA. The very bricks of the Australian nation are lined with the grout of pragmatism. Federation itself was not a revolution of political ideals, nor the birth of a triumphant expression of identity, but rather a pragmatic evolution that moved a handful of disparate colonies on a fledgling continent towards the economic opportunity of a common market. The first Australian government’s mandate was entirely practical: remove trade obstacles such as incongruous rail gauge, fund some sort of defence force. If that meant cutting a deal to give the Tasmanians a little more democracy than everyone else, then so be it.

The constitution itself is no home for soaring rhetoric. Nor are the series of constitutional amendments designed to embed principled expressions of who we are, what we stand for, and what we expect. Instead the changes made to the Australian constitution, with the notable exception of the 1967 decision on Aboriginal citizenship, are entirely routine: the retirement age of judges, how to fill a senate casual vacancy, a referendum on referenda. Mobilising the political power of the nation for a series of administrative nips and tucks.

We’re pragmatic when it comes to the symbols of our parliament, too. In the US last month, a case on the opening of a New York local council meeting with a prayer was fought all the way to the Supreme Court. Yet in Australia, a secular nation, we are relatively untroubled by the fact that parliamentary standing orders call for each session to be started with the Lord’s Prayer. Could this be contested? Certainly. Could it be prejudicial to those who don’t share in that particular strand of religious observance? Possibly. But what would be the point of a long and unwieldy campaign to remove prayer from parliament? It wouldn’t boost productivity, create jobs, or improve the health system. In short – such a fuss wouldn’t be practical.

In the US a national flag is the most revered of symbols, with an extensive code detailing how it is and is not to be handled. In Australia our flag is an accessory. A cape for non-crime-fighting super- patriots, a T-shirt, a barbecue apron, even the motif for a baby’s nappy. Attempts to recast the flag are largely pragmatic, too – designed to incorporate representation of all elements of a multifaceted community, rather than choosing one symbol to stir strong emotion.

Australians don’t truck much with symbols. That’s why support for the republic has waned. Our current system of government entrenches the view that the Duke of Cambridge’s baby, by virtue of birth, is somehow better than my own. More entitled and qualified to lead. Less prone to be swayed by the heat and light of everyday politics, and eminently more trustworthy in a constitutional crisis. That very notion undermines our democratic values, as well as the egalitarianism at the core of our people. But most Australians are largely untroubled by this. These grievances are theoretical, esoteric. They don’t impede our everyday life and are therefore not worth much worrying about. They don’t trouble our pragmatism.

In a paper published by the Australian parliament a decade ago, then parliamentary fellow Dr Maurice Rickard sketched a picture of an Australian electorate tending towards what he termed “partisan disalignment”. He argued that voters were less inclined to automatically identify with a particular ideology, less motivated to vote based on the symbols of the major parties, more inclined to vote for different parties in the house of representatives and the senate. 

As parties have had to chase an increasingly swinging vote, their policies have become more pragmatic, too. Ours is a polity in which a recent Liberal government presided over the expansion of social welfare and big government, and a recent Labor government expanded military ties and established harsh immigration detention centres in Papua New Guinea. Ideological arguments seem less likely to cut through in an environment in which voters assess policy based on what it can do for them, rather than what it says about them. A trustworthy political leader appeals to voters, too, because he or she is less likely to surprise, more prone to be predictable. And pragmatists love predictability. 

All this pragmatism doesn’t get in the way of Australians dreaming. A report released by the Australia Council for the Arts last month shows that more of us engage with the arts than half a decade ago, see the arts as less elitist and more approachable, and believe that the arts are an important part of daily life. Those findings make sense in a country that has steadily been growing richer. Voters less worried about their jobs and standard of living can afford to be more visionary. But as the mining boom ends, and a bitter Commonwealth budget bites, the ranks of the pragmatists are beginning to swell.

Australia’s passionate pragmatism is most apparent when it comes to our foreign policy. We are enthusiastic supporters of the United Nations system and want to be a good international citizen – engaged on issues and crises from the Sahel to the Solomons. But our latent anxiety about our place in the world has resulted in what The Australian’s Paul Kelly has called an “agnostic and pragmatic strategy of building forums or coalitions” to achieve strength through numbers. The Chief of Army, Lieutenant General David Morrison, speaks of preferring “the pragmatic to the doctrinaire”, describing Australia’s pattern of military deployments as “improvised expedient strategic behaviour”, a constant line of “intuitive pragmatic strategic practice”.

Our foreign policy pragmatism can verge on the ruthless. The 2014 Lowy Institute Poll, surveying Australian attitudes to the world, found that an overwhelming majority (78 per cent) support the US alliance as important to our nation’s security and future. Yet a majority of Australians are neither willing to support US military action in Asia nor the Middle East – wanting all the benefits of an alliance with none of the costs. 

Sometimes the implied immediacy of pragmatism can muddle long-term thinking: 31 per cent of Australians view China as our best friend in Asia, a view born of the immense prosperity that economic relations with China has brought in recent years. Yet 48 per cent of us, with an eye to the worrying aspects of Chinese nationalism, fear that China will become a military threat to Australia within the next 20 years. It is perhaps abroad where the passionate pragmatists will run into difficulty first. Values and vision matter to our friends and allies. Not for nothing do we often refer to our military deployments as “symbolic”.

Values and vision matter at home, too. Values help place where we are, vision helps place where we want to be in the future. A new senate dawns within days and navigating its eccentricities will require patience. At the helm is a government currently oscillating between the ideological and the pragmatic, selling a tough budget as both a step-change in principles of entitlement and a practical response to swelling government spending, neglectful that its supporters now worry for its predictability. Along for the ride, an opposition itching to reciprocate the tactics of obstruction and somewhat marooned from its historical principles. In the middle, new senators aligned to the Palmer United Party, and eager to conclude deals – once they work out what their policies are. Pragmatism will triumph, but perspective will be important. After all, the passionate pragmatists don’t just want political arithmetic – they want that little bit more.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 21, 2014 as "The truth about pragmatics". Subscribe here.

James Brown
is the research director of the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.