It seemed like a good idea at the time…

One reason why I have never gone into politics – despite the interest I have in it – is that governing a country is a damned difficult job. It requires something in very short supply these days: wisdom.

The problem comes with developing policy and knowing what actions to take to assure that country is governed wisely. When you enact a policy on this or that, there will always be repercussions – often unexpected, but nevertheless predictable enough if the policy is wisely and thoroughly thought through before hand. The analogy doesn’t quite work, but I have often thought of “the system” as a balloon: you poke it here, and it bulges there.

One example would be the proposed mining tax which brought Kevin Rudd down as Prime Minister in 2010. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but it had repurcussions that not even Kevin anticipated. Another would be the free insulation policy that Kevin’s government brought in – and which also brought in a lot of unskilled, untrained, and unscrupulous installers, with the result that there where several deaths involved in the process of and as a result of faulty installations. It too seemed like a good idea at the time…

A current example would be the knee-jerk response to the ABC Four Corners expose on the live-stock trade with Indonesia. Howls of protests at the treatment of the cattle in the Indonesian abattoirs resulted in the Government bending to popular pressure and suddenly and completely halting the trade. A big win for the animal’s rights activists, but a big loss in other areas. Not only were many Australians suddenly without a livelihood, but the poorest of the poor in Indonesia were suddenly reduced to destitution (see this article in today’s Age).

So the animals win, and the human beings loose. But wait, not even the animals win, as one stock owner had to face the possibility of having to shoot 3,000 head of cattle because he had no feed for them and he had no buyer for them. I have been in a situation during drought on my own family’s farm when my father had to start shooting sheep (because the price for sheep fell so low, it would mean selling them would actually cost us money). My father is one of the most humane farmers I know – he really cares for his animals – and that experience was certainly a low point in his whole life as a farmer.

Another, much greater threat, is facing societies in the western world: the legal redefinition of marriage to include same-sex unions. I wonder if one day we will all look back and say “It seemed like a great idea at the time…”? For 10 reasons why this is a very, VERY bad idea, see Jeff Mirus’ comment here on CatholicCulture.org.

I remember as a child prayers for our Queen and governors that they may be “granted wisdom” to rule rightly and justly. When did you last hear an elected goverment official or politician described as “wise”? Do we still even expect “wisdom” of our governments? It seems to me that popular democratic government structures are in fact structured in such a way as to preclude truly wise government. The pressure is on to do what is popular, what is current, what “seems like a good idea at the time”, rather than to sit down and have a really good think about the consequences of the policies they are pursuing.

What a difference it would make if God really were to grant our prayer, and give us “wise” governors…

Almighty God, our Heavenly Father, we pray for our Queen and the Royal Family; The members of Parliament and all in authority; that they may govern our country with wisdom and understanding and for the good of your Church and all people. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

About Schütz

I am Catholic, married to Cathy, father of Maddy & Mia. Since 2002, I have been the Executive Officer of the Ecumenical & Interfaith Commission of the Archdiocese of Melbourne. I was once a Lutheran pastor, but a "year of grace" and soul-searching led me into the Catholic Church. It was a bumpy ride, but with the support of my (still Lutheran) wife, I was finally confirmed on June 16, 2003.
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9 Responses to It seemed like a good idea at the time…

  1. Matthias says:

    The problem as I see it Schutz is that we have a Prime minister ,who lied about the carbon tax : who is politically allied to the Greens who’s policies are :
    -economically illiterate
    -sociopathic when it comes to Australian workers and their families,such as shutting down the coal industry quickly and support gay marriage
    – appeasers worse than Chamberlain,the hate our Defence Force
    -anti human in their pursuit of environmentalism, euthanasia and abortion.
    Former ALP MP Gary Johns wrote an article in the OZ yesterday basically saying that although it seems the Greens have usurped the ALP,the True believers will never let the ALP pursue the antihuman goals of the Greens.

    • Schütz says:

      The link is: Anti-human Greens won’t usurp Labor.

      I like it when Johns says:

      The Greens, by contrast, will never defend humanity against nature. Brown regards humans as tellurians, inhabitants of the earth, along with plants and animals. The Greens care little for our most important gift, our intelligence, or for our most important human achievements, such as our families and our nations. On these grounds, the Greens can never be a mainstream party.

      He is spot on. I hope he is spot on with this too:

      Labor toys with population policy, it toys with gay marriage, it toys with euthanasia and it toys with animal rights. But if, at the margin, there is a choice to be made between people and nature, it will, if it knows what is good for it, remain wedded to a human conception of history.

  2. Jim Ryland says:

    David,

    It used to be that one could explore lands and nations, other than one’s own, and be treated to new ideas, new viewpoints, and differing styles of government. Sadly, we’ve followed in the steps of the mainstream Protestant denominations where one is hard put to tell what denomination the parish belongs to. Governments today, regardless of professed ideology, are largely dominated by hubris, avarice, greed, and an uncaring attitude toward the populace it supposedly serves. It seems to be all about politics and getting re-elected or holding onto one’s position.

    We’ve lost that ancient ethic that tells us that the higher one rises in office, be it church or government, the more lowly one’s servitude should be. Our Lord was the model and, thankfully, a few have followed that example throughout our rich histories.

  3. Alexander says:

    The problem as I see it is that people are up in arms about the prime minister “lying” about the carbon tax. She was clear about wanting a carbon price, and as it happened we elected a parliament that would barely function (if at all) with any other combination than allying one group which wanted a carbon price put through in the irresponsible form of a bubble trading scheme, and another group who wanted a carbon tax.

    I do not like our current political leaders, but they will never be able to govern wisely if they cannot lead. Expecting them to make promises about precise policy details, and then stick to them, will only achieve the worst sort of populism, which is why we have the worst sort of populism at the moment.

    In this respect, the blogosphere helps immensely, because it is largely volunteer-driven and small, so it is possible for the readers to have a dialog with the editors and combine in ways that are not seen in what are now described short-sightedly as “traditional media”. (Blogs are, I think, far more traditional than the mainstream media….)

    I gather that before the latest social developments, the Kings and Queens of Britain despite having prime ministers still contributed in some form to government policy and practice. I wonder if Australia might not be better served not only by having our own Monarch, but each state having one too. Plus the tourism dollars would be excellent for the economy (how many Americans will come and see Government House? How many will come and see the Royal Palace of Melbourne?). Save money maybe on governors’ pensions, too. (I disagree with David’s “elected monarchy”; the point of a monarch is to have someone educated in history and government, but to the extent possible separated from the latest fads.)

    It’s never going to happen, but I can dream.

    • Stephen K says:

      I respectfully disagree that “people are up in arms about the prime minister lying”: that is Coalition-driven mantra. I don’t think it’s too sweeping to say that most people think most politicians will bend truth, lie outright or evade tricky questions much of the time – hence the widespread, if sometimes selective, cynicism about and disrespect for homo politicus. By the same token, in other moments, many people pause to reflect that politicians are not so different from the rest of us, and if they do they will hesitate before casting any particular group or individual into a role of pure villainy or nobility as is often the case.

      I do agree that expecting politicians to never change their minds or original comment is simply silly and unrealistic and leads to populism and superficial analysis of problems.

      Mind you, populism – to an extent – is also in the eye of the beholder, and the resulting policies are both meat and poison to different people. So even there, we have to be wary of reading what we want to be the case in political affairs. Which is not to say that we should abandon the notion that some ideas are better than others, else why are we commenting here?

      David raises the issue of political wisdom. [I hope it’s only coincidental that he chooses three examples of a Labor government to criticise, because otherwise one might conclude that he thought wisdom had taken a vacation only on one side of the Speaker.] He rightly points to the various long-term repercussions that decisions can have. To determine whether a decision is “wise” however seems to me to be something we may never be able to agree on even after the event or at least until a really long time has elapsed. If we, as historians or armchair critics can only see things most likely when we are old and gray, then how can we expect politicians to know such things at the start?

      Well, one way would be to imagine that politicians and potential leaders had to be steeped in history and philosophy and be of an inclination to spend time thinking things through before acting. I think it was Plato who came up with that idea. And how likely is that? How reasonable or realistic is that when events (natural disasters or crises of any kind) and the demos insist on politicians giving them what they want NOW.

      I venture to propose that no-one – and I mean no-one – is exempt from wanting our politicians making the decisions we think are right and that ultimately either benefit us, our loved ones or the societal environment we want to live in (never mind what other people want).

      In other words that elusive wisdom in politics can only come or be assured when we generally are wise, and my reading and observations are that most wise people happen to be old and living in monasteries or ashrams!

      • Alexander says:

        Stephen, you may be right that people are not up in arms about this particular instance of lying. I am not in Australia and can only trust what I read in blogs, on the internet, and in comments on Q&A. However it is my experience that people do go off about “lies” whenever the media or the opposition encourages them too.

        The reaction you describe, however, especially the bit about people putting themselves in the pollies’ shoes, is one I would describe as quite wise. I must conclude, therefore, that you live in a monestary :)

        As for populism, it is a process of generating policies, not a policy itself. Australia has many good policies—and in fact, I begin to suspect from living in Europe, that we may have the best country in the world (aside from the climate and our population distribution, which are easily bettered in many countries throughout the world).

      • Schütz says:

        I hope it’s only coincidental that he chooses three examples of a Labor government to criticise

        It was only because I chose recent examples – I could have gone back far into history otherwise.

        I sympathise with your statement that we will only have “wise” leaders when we, as a nation, are “wise”. That is indeed a tall order, but I think you might have hit the nail on the head.

    • Schütz says:

      Expecting them to make promises about precise policy details, and then stick to them, will only achieve the worst sort of populism, which is why we have the worst sort of populism at the moment.

      I agree entirely. Policy cannot always be determined ahead of time, as the context changes so rapidly. Policies need time and consideration if they are to be wise.

      As for having our own monarchy, I agree on that too. But here I think is the virtue of my “elective monarchy” model. Hereditary monarchy is clearly no guarantee of a wise monarch. At least in an elective monarchy, the head of state can be chosen on a proven track record. In my system, this does not lead to a popularist president, because the sovereign isn’t elected by a popular vote but by a select group of statesmen who are themselves appointed for their abilities rather than their popularity.

  4. Tony says:

    [Re-enters the fray with some trepidation]

    I think we have an obligation to assess the decisions of our leaders with some wisdom too, David, not just looking at the current situation and reacting to the media.

    In the case of the cattle ban, for example, it was not all about ‘the government’. That industry has many stakeholders and, just about since day one, has been controversial. In that context it would have made sense for the growers, their representative bodies and the exporters to be on the ball in making sure there were no excuses for people who are against the trade to make a fuss. It would appear that they haven’t done that given that (apparently) they were not ignorant about these practices. I’m not excluding the government (both this one and previous ones) of blame, but a ‘wise’ perspective tries to see the whole.

    I also think that if the ban is knee jerk, so is the reaction to the ban. The ban was put in place to try to improve the whole process from ship to abattoir, not just to fix the bad practices at the end of the line which made the news. If they do that, the short term pain will mean that everyone wins and we can hope that all stakeholders no longer take the trade for granted.

    How do we wisely assess the elements of the government stimulus (including the insulation and BER programs)? I think we start by asking what they were set up to do. My understanding is that they were a quick, temporary response to an almost unprecedented financial crisis which, on the one hand, protected vulnerable sectors of the economy (eg, building and construction) and provided useful infrastructure for the future. On that basis, I believe that reasonably objective assessments say they were very successful.

    Now you may not agree with the ‘what they were set up to do’ bit, and that’s fine, but I think time has shown that all the anecdotal criticism, important as it was, didn’t give the full picture. School buildings and insulation will be ‘gifts that keep on giving’ for generations.

    Again, this had to happen quickly — the need was immediate — so the government used the state administrative frameworks to deliver the money. Where the frameworks worked well, the programs worked well. So this state’s Catholic Education Office apparently got great ‘bang for buck’ with its BER program. Our state building regulations were also amongst the best in the nation in terms of the building industry, so the insulation program proceeded with few hitches. Other states didn’t fair so well, but even then, the assessments seemed to be based on anecdotal evidence rather than ‘big picture’ stuff.

    On the carbon tax, Gillard has undoubtedly handled it badly. But the Labor Party’s position has been consistent for a number of years now: restructuring the economy to reduce our dependence on carbon. On the other side, we have a leader who can only just hide (most of the time) his contempt for the very idea that we need to do something about climate change on the one hand and, on the other, has a multi-billion dollar program to do somthing about it anyhow. If that’s not cynical, then the word has no meaning.

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