Strategic Futurists; Value Systems Specialists


Australian Election 2007 - 20/20 Hindsight

Sunday 25 November 2007

"When you change a Government you Change a Country" the deposed Prime Minister John Howard said in the final days leading up to the election on Saturday and a theme his Foreign Minister Alexander Downer echoed. So given the 'economic boom' and years of strong growth and low unemployment, what exactly did Australia want to change? There will be many pundits in the media offering analysis of the reasons for Australia throwing out the Prime Minister and his Government. The common theme already emerging in many media circles is that Australians were itching for change. For me this is an all too simplistic and inaccurate representation of the reality. Australians are a surprisingly conservative lot and despite our innovative tendencies do not opt for change all that often. So why given the apparent good times and piles of cash did the vast majority of Australians seek an alternative? In brief - it was because at a very deep level, Australians felt that their identities were under attack and, like they have done on every other change of Government, were not prepared to stand by and let that happen.

Australian political history suggests a very interesting theme - Labor Governments are more likely to be elected for the first time when there is a crisis that needs to be fixed and more likely to be thrown out when the perception is that the crisis has passed.  But that is a brief take on history that doesn't assess how we have evolved as a society.

That History suggests Australians seek change when there is a perceived crisis needs to be assessed further because it is not just ANY crisis - the crisis must be directly related to the essence of Australia's self identity.  Anything that attacks our fundamental beliefs of who we really are is something that we will rally against.  Stanley Bruce discovered this in 1929 when his Industrial relations agenda appeared to attack the 'fair go' psyche.

Whitlam was elected on the back of a belief that Australia was losing its identity and morphing once again into 'little Britain' but shaded with Stars and Stripes.  Sure Vietnam was an issue and arguably a distracting sub-text but it was the threatened loss of 'self' that mattered.  Whitlam was thrown out for the very same reasons - the credentials for running the country in the manner he did didn't seem to equate with who we were and the 'too many changes too soon' destabilised the psyche - we do value competence after all.  Keating too was desposed because the huge structural changes in Monetary policy were a step too far for the Australian people to keep pace with especially with things like floating the Australian dollar and import protection and export tariff support - we led the world in creating a 'level playing field' when no one else had started to.  So "throw out the Government before they change us" is our response.

And now too the people have cut a swathe through the Howard legacy.  The policy decision made regarding Workchoices was the undermining element.  Not so much because it affected so many people at the time of the election (with apparently less than 9% of the workforce on Workplace Agreements) but because it had the potential to fundamentally change how we saw ourselves.  Conservative people don't let that happen and so it proved to be the case.  Despite the economic boom, despite the low unemployment levels, despite low interest rates the fact is that Australians do not appreciate having their identities messed with at a speed greater than they can accommodate.  They were simply pushed too far and recognised a crisis of identify and responded like ALL people do when their view of 'self' is attacked.

There was much potential in the Workplace Agreements in terms of generating greater flexibility for both employee and employer, something I have previously written about in the recent article in Fast Thinking ('What Employees Really Want') and the delivery mechanism used was clumsy, brutish and poorly handled.  This was not the GST - something that Australians could see coming and had plenty of time to absorb.  This was an attack on the 'Fair Go' identity like nothing we had seen previously and was rushed through.  Australians don't like being deceived and we certainly won't allow our images of 'self' to be attacked.

In the end however, perhaps the biggest failing was that the Howard Government lacked anyone who was prepared to say 'No'.  Like the previous Kennett Government in Victoria, the attraction to an all powerful leader with a great track record of success is a great way to ensure that your assumptions are not tested for validity and that your expectations for the future remain unrealistic.  It is the classic case of 'strategic myopia' and 'strategic scotomas' where blind spots and short sightedness prevail the senior management team rendering them unable to see alternative possibilities.  They simply lacked the 'strategic futurist' view of the world in which they operated and paid a heavy penalty because of it.

On Saturday night as the result was confirmed Michael Kroger suggested that the Liberal Party needs some structural changes and that a lack of representation across the country would make fundraising difficult in the immediate future.  Whether the existing structure is close to work or not is ultimately neither here nor there - any structure that lacks a sounding board - what I refer to as the 'Court Jester' role to challenge the 'yes, your majesty' mindset, will remain flawed.  Many shooting star businesses and CEO's have found this to be the case.

In the end Howard's legacy may be less about a decade in Government successfully riding the global economic boom fueled by China's and India's growth and more about condeming the Liberal Party to a decade or more in the political wilderness because the door really is opened to something with spectacular potential - an opportunity for a consensus driven state by state and state to federal partnership that has never been seen.

From a 20 20 hindsight perspective the final scare campaign of the previous Government's fear driven advertising campaign - 'Wall to Wall Labor' has the potential to become the mantra for never needing to vote Liberal again.    From a 20 20 Foresight perspective, imagine what would happen if the Labor Governments across the country have the discipline at the State and Federal level to work so well together that many of the current big issues - water, global warming, carbon credits, workplace effectiveness, economic resilience, innovation and health are resolved with a consensus driven partnership model.  Australians are essentially a conservative lot.  'Wall to Wall Labor' may well become the mantra for proven success of collaboration and an end of the 'us versus them' mentality that still pervades so many areas of our society.  If that happens, Howard's legacy will not be the decade of a Government successfully riding a global economic boom - it will be the full stop at the end of the final chapter in one of Australia's most successful political parties.

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