Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 15, 2016

The Long Haul, Lessons from Public Life, by John Brumby #BookReview

The Long HaulPeople often tell me that I should have gone into politics, and sometimes I think I might have made a good politician, but reading John Brumby’s book The Long Haul reminds me why I never made that choice.  Teaching, especially in disadvantaged schools where you can really make a difference, is enormously satisfying work: it is a privilege to be in a position where the work you do can change a child’s life, and if you are a good teacher, you can feel a sense of achievement many times over in a day.  But politics – as the title of Brumby’s book warns us – is a long haul.  It’s an enormously complex business, inextricably dependent on dealing with people with whom you must find common ground.  For good people who want to make a difference, it looks like a very frustrating job, even when in government instead of Opposition…

The Long Haul is a sort of handbook for good politics, written by a Victorian Premier who was part of a successful government.  John Brumby was Premier from 2007-2010, but before that he was part of the core leadership of the Bracks government which unexpectedly unseated the seemingly indomitable Kennett government  in 1999.  He is also the man widely credited with having put the Party in a position to have had that unexpected win because of the work he did as Opposition Leader.  This book is (of course) partly about legacy building, but it’s also about how they achieved what they did, and why.

But why should we read it?  Why, if not interested in a political career and not likely to have anything to do with political processes, should any reader be bothered?  Well, I think the answer to that question lies in the worldwide political mess that threatens to derail us all.  Here in Australia we have a government riven by Conservative/Moderate factions so much so that they have almost no coherent policies, and we don’t know what they’re going to do now that they’ve scraped back into government.  Equally worrying is that populist malcontents hold the balance of power in our senate.  Overseas, which affects us too, there is Brexit in the UK; in the US there is the frightening spectre of Donald Trump, and in Russia there is Putin.  The electoral success of people who don’t deserve it happens because ordinary citizens don’t assess the readiness of parties to govern.  We fall into the cynical trap of despising all politicians as being in it for themselves and we think ‘they’re all the same.’  And some people, the sort of people who vote for political malcontents, think that all a politician needs is an armoury of strong opinions and that they will get what they want merely by shouting their slogans.

The Long Haul shows that there’s much more to it than that.  In Chapter 2, Brumby talks about the Four Ps:

  • the Parliament: everyone in the team needs to be committed to the goal of winning a majority of seats in the parliament, and thus the government.  Well, of course, you might say, but that implies a willingness to compromise with others in order to govern.  Shouty slogans or lofty idealism don’t achieve much.  (As an aside, Anne Summers at the Bendigo Writers Festival compared the long term achievements of purist American feminists and their more pragmatic Australian counterparts, and came to the conclusion that Australian women have had more gains long term because they built incremental change instead of demanding major change from the outset).
  • the Party: a healthy party is one that is perpetually opening itself up to the world around it: to new people and to new ideas.  This means persuading long-standing members with nothing left to contribute to move on; it means having mechanisms to find good new people to bring in.  (Anne Summers noted that all the vacant safe seats in the Liberal Party went to young men,who will thus be there for decades, entrenching the gender inequity in the Parliamentary Liberal Party).  It’s also essential to engage the wider party membership especially in regional areas.
  • the People: it’s self-evident, but too often ignored.  Political parties need to listen to people outside the party.  There is always something to learn from an election loss or a long period in Opposition, but you have to get out to the people to learn it.  You have to move past the media noise and opinions of the commentariat, and reconnect with those whose votes you need and whose interests you are elected to serve.  This means seeking out those who are geographically or socially hard to reach.
  • the Policy: Politics is a battle of ideas: beneath the sound and the fury they are the real currency of our system.  Parties need to develop a culture that is open to new ideas, and to seek out sources of expertise such as universities while also listening to everyday people like parents at a local school.  What Brumby doesn’t say, because it’s not a blaming sort of book, is that ordinary voters don’t often look beyond presidential style campaigns to evaluate policies before an election.  Sure, voters will kick a party out if they don’t like surprise policies, (witness the demise of the Democrats after they reneged on their GST policy) but IMO we could as an electorate save ourselves a bit of pain if we scrutinised policy offerings before an election.  #JustSaying…

Brumby also lists Mark Madden’s Seven Deadly Sins of Government (originally attributed to Mike Kaiser from the Qld ALP)

  • disunity
  • arrogance
  • defending the indefensible
  • governing bureaucratically
  • failing to communicate your achievements
  • running out of ideas
  • underestimating your opponent. (p. 63)

So true, eh?  And yet we the electorate see ’em commit these sins time after time.  That is because politics is a human business, and it’s a lot more difficult than we give politicians credit for.

The chapter on reform is interesting. There is what Brumby calls ‘housekeeping’, not glamorous, but essential:

Over time, legislation accumulates, and unless it’s regularly reviewed, redundancies begin to emerge, duplication occurs, and a drag is felt on both the economy and the broader society.  This drag can be measured both in terms of efficiency loss and missed opportunities.  (p. 64)

And then there’s the more interesting stuff, the strategic reform that introduces new directions.

Either a government is reform-minded, has its finger on the pulse of change in the world and determines to take a forward position based on anticipated needs and opportunities; or else reform becomes imperative due to economic circumstances beyond the government’s control.  (p. 65)

Negotiating the barriers to reform is the tricky part.  The reform has to get past the party and its constituent groups (power bases such as unions or business); past the parliament (which has a vested interest in making the government look bad); past the media (which is increasingly tabloid) and past vested interests, who are advantaged by leaving things as they are.  The mining tax is a classic example of that, but Brumby gives an example closer to home.  To cover the cost of transport, schools and health services in new suburbs, his government brought in an infrastructure charge on land newly zoned for urban development.  The people who campaigned against that new tax are the ones now demanding more investment in urban infrastructure…

Brumby thinks that meaningful reform might be becoming more difficult today.  The things that were easy to do are done, and we are moving out of a period of unprecedented prosperity making it harder to cushion the impact of any negative effects.  Yet as Australia confronts the end of the mining boom we have to make changes in how we do things. Sharing information, responsibility and the benefits of reform makes public support more likely, and that’s not just a lesson that politicians need to learn, the electorate needs to learn it too.  (Another reason why I would have been no good at politics is that I have no patience with NIMBYs!)

The chapter on leadership is especially instructive in the light of our revolving prime ministerial door, and there’s a lot of wise advice.  What most of us forget is that the make-up of a parliamentary party has more in common with a team of volunteers running an association or club: the leader doesn’t get to choose the best people for the team, he or she has to work with a motley bunch, in the case of a parliamentary party, as elected by the voting public. Over time, a leader can steer his team towards gender equity or diversity or more like-minded souls but may have to work with a bunch of troglodytes in the mean time.  (*chuckle* That’s my word, not Brumby’s!)

I particularly liked the chapter titled ‘Frank and Fearless’ and not just because once long ago I worked in the Victorian Public Service.  For as long as I can remember I’ve been listening to politicians bleat about culling the public service as a cost-cutting measure and it is refreshing to read that the public service is not a disposable commodity. 

Waste should always be avoided, but those who dedicate their careers to serving their state or country should not be used to score political points…[…]

In an ideal world, the public service transcends politics and adopts the good of the country as its sole concern.  It is not beholden to electoral cycles; it takes a long term view. It holds the corporate memory of a nation or state, and it is the repository of the accumulated wisdom of many decades of policy success and failure.  But in fact none of this helps much unless the public service is allowed to be what it was intended to be: frank and fearless in its advice, and unbiased and impartial in its actions. It is up to governments to encourage this. (p. 83)

And if these days there’s not enough of them to answer the phone or respond to requests from ordinary people like you and me, it’s because politicians have used them as cheap targets in cost-cutting!

There is lots more in this excellent book including a chapter on conscience votes that is especially thought-provoking in view of the forthcoming plebiscite, a chapter about governing the whole state and decentralisation (especially interesting after a weekend in the vibrant city of Bendigo) and of course my favourite chapter, about education, even though there’s quite a bit with which I strongly disagree.  Even if you think you’re not interested in politics, you might surprise yourself by reading this book because a lot of it is about bringing the common sense of ordinary people to bear on government.

And I think we’d have much better governments everywhere if we were all willing to invest a bit of effort into making sure that we get good ones…

Author: John Brumby
Title: The Long Haul, Lessons from Public Life
Publisher: MUP (Melbourne University Press), 2015
ISBN: 9780522868531
Source: personal library, purchased at the Woodend Winter Arts Festival where John Brumby was a speaker in a selout session called ‘The Politics of Power’.

Available from Fishpond: The Long Haul: Lessons from Public Life


Responses

  1. The Long Haul – politics? Damn, I was looking forward to a review of a trucking book. However I ploughed on. I have a problem with your dichotomy, I think conservatives Are moderates. Today’s politicians are divided between the Radical right (mostly Liberals) and the moderate right (some Libs and most of Labor) and particularly for the Radicals, truth does not seem to be an issue.
    And I think the real issue voters have with politicians is that they are more interested in continuing their student politics point scoring than they are in governing. I liked Brumby, may even have voted for him, but perhaps if Policies was the first P and Places in parliament flowed from there …

    • LOL I think I should leave reviews of trucking books to He Who Knows More About Them Than I Do! (Though I did have an uncle, once, who drove long haul trucks. He was only about five foot four and although he was a nuggety bloke, I wonder now how he ever managed the loading in the days before all the health and safety equipment that’s around now.)
      True, mainstream politics has shifted to the right, and true the real radicals are on the right, and true there are some very immature people in politics these days – but what can we do? Only make the best choice we can from what’s available.
      Have you read Lindsay Tanner’s book Sideshow, about the media’s role in all the puerile politics that goes on? That’s a very good book IMO…

  2. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  3. Very interesting. Lots of the things you quote seem pretty relevant to British politics at the moment.

    • I wonder if that’s anything to do with having the same kind of newspapers?

  4. Laura Tingle had an excellent Quarterly Essay a while ago about the loss of corporate memory and unbiassed expertise in the hollowing-out of the public service and the increasing control of ministers, which leads to decisions that are overwhelmingly political. Much as I dislike the tendency of the right to talk about running a country as if it were just the same as running a business, there’s a lot to be said for running a country by making hard-headed decisions ton the advice of people who really know what they’re talking about – i.e. public service experts with an understanding of history. Then the minister could just be the pretty face that announces the decisions and the PM the prettiest of the pretty faces!


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