Review of The High Road (Quarterly Essay), by Laura Tingle

First published in The Weekend Australian

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Laura Tingle’s Quarterly Essays are about politics in the narrow sense. Unconcerned with Big Ideas – ideas of human flourishing, or of the status of the great political traditions – they take politics as ‘the art of the possible’ and judge its practitioners on their mastery of it. A key word in the essays is ‘pragmatism’, which entails working with the grain of events and placing ‘ideology’ to one side in the name of compromise and steady reform. For Tingle, this is the essence of good leadership, and in Great Expectations (2012), Political Amnesia (2015) and Follow the Leader (2018) she argued (amongst other things) that the last ten years of political ‘churn’ attest to its absence.

Tingle’s fourth Quarterly Essay, The High Road, is written in a similar vein, but differs from its predecessors in one crucial respect: rather than using the politics of the past as a point of comparison with contemporary Canberra, it focuses on our nearest neighbour. Subtitled ‘What Australia Can Learn from New Zealand’, it provides what Tingle calls a ‘sliding doors’ view of Australian politics over the last fifty years, taking the Land of the Long White Cloud as a sort of living counterfactual, as a road (however ‘high’) not taken. Having declined to federate in 1901, but sharing many of the same challenges as Australia, New Zealand is the settler colony we might have become but for a few missed trains.

That Tingle’s comparison of Australia and New Zealand is largely flattering to the latter country is obvious from the title of her essay. But New Zealand doesn’t get it all its own way. On the question of neoliberal reform, for example, the Labour government of David Lange (1984-1989) is a study in belligerence as compared to the governments of Hawke and Keating. Named for Lange’s Minister of Finance, Roger Douglas, ‘Rogernomics’ was more in keeping with the temper of Thatcherism and Reaganism than with the more conciliatory approach of the ALP administration, whose ‘liberalisation’ of the economy was achieved in negotiation with the wider labour movement and hedged around with social-democratic safeguards. As for New Zealand’s decision to adopt a more independent foreign policy than Australia’s US-centric stance, Tingle appears to be broadly in favour, but notes that one unintended consequence may be a greater vulnerability to China as it consolidates its power in the region.

Though Tingle is rarely explicit about her politics, it is clear that in most other regards she considers New Zealand’s political record as akin to its record in the Bledisloe Cup, i.e. vastly superior to ours. She notes, for example, how mixed-member proportional representation (adopted in 1993) forces political parties to negotiate clear positions before they form a government and effectively edges out extremists, who are represented but rarely relied upon. Such arrangements mean that New Zealand’s Prime Minister will tend to be a more conciliatory figure than his or her Australian counterpart – a virtue of which Jacinda Ardern is taken to be a paragon. Then there is the fact that New Zealand’s founding document is a treaty with its Indigenous people, which Tingle is surely right to emphasise as the biggest difference between the two countries. God knows, if the Wallabies prepared for a test by performing an Aboriginal balyunmirr, certain commentators would be calling for a Royal Commission.

Though these are important differences, The High Road suffers from its author’s rather managerial view of politics. Here, as elsewhere, Tingle identifies ‘the high road’ with political pragmatism, but she never tells us where the high road leads, or on what basis her comparison is ultimately being made. Pragmatism is important, of course, but it is a means to an end, not an end in itself, and its assumed incompatibility with ‘ideology’ is symptomatic of a cruising distrust of ideas beyond the run-of-the-mill. Habituated to the Canberra bubble, and hostage to a spatial metaphor, the press gallery reveres ‘the sensible centre’ as the place where canny operators congregate. But the character of the centre changes over time, and an analysis that has so little to say about how, why and in whose interests it changes is bound to look a little thin – less an argument for ‘high road’ politics than a politics of the middle lane.

The opposition of pragmatism and ideology is a false one. Ideology is not a synonym for ‘dogma’; it denotes the common sense of an era, and it follows that one is never as ‘ideological’ as when one is cleaving to ‘the centre ground’. There are some interesting comparisons made in The High Ground, but it shares with much mainstream commentary a fundamental confusion on this point.

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Laura Tingle, QE 80: The High Road: What Australia Can Learn from New Zealand

Black Inc.; $24.99; 154pp.