Politics: symphony or hypocrisy?

There is little doubt that a future Australian Government will, out of necessity and urgency, price carbon.

I recently had the opportunity to experience the Australian Chamber Orchestra playing Mahler and Sibelius at the Adelaide Town Hall. The music was beautiful beyond belief. The intricate exercise in precise and perfect collaboration was remarkable. Human beings are capable of extraordinary things. Why is this incredible human potential not reflected in politics, which is perhaps the least cultivated of all human endeavours? The ‘carbon tax’ was recently abolished. The urgent need to address climate change was agreed in 2007. Carbon pricing is a responsible economic policy designed to address the ever increasing level of emissions into our environment. Supporters were moved by a commitment to empiricism and a sense of responsibility to future generations. Public policy has completed a full circle in the intervening period. Three prime ministers and two opposition leaders have fallen largely because of positions taken on the issue. A romantic would see in politics a distinct, savage beauty. Politics is a sublime human endeavour because it is a contest for values. Unlike a musician, a politician aspires to more than the evocation of feelings. Winning in politics opens the door to the opportunity to realise ones aspirations – an election victory should not be considered the ultimate success. Those who have allowed Sibelius to pluck the strings of their hearts would see politics as an inferior art form because it is a contest. In any contest, no action is taken without considering what reaction it may inspire. At its most base, however, politics is a battlefield on which power alone is the object of the contest. Without power, values serve the cause of protest rather than politics. But without values, power in politics becomes nothing more than a clanging cymbal. The contest for power has caused a string of contemporary leaders to oscillate on climate change policy. John Howard belatedly committed to an Emissions Trading Scheme but later admitted that he did so because of political pressure. Kevin Rudd felt the wind change direction in Copenhagen and changed with it, as did his successor when negotiating a hung parliament. Tony Abbott claimed that the science behind climate change was “absolute crap” and used the issue to condemn his pure but now impotent predecessor. Abbott, the great suppository of modern politics, now asserts a belief that climate change is real. In politics, circumstances always impose themselves, testing the extent to which the contest remains focussed on values, rather than a cheap gambit about winning, or retaining, power. Harold Macmillan came closest to explaining why politics cannot rise to the rare beauty, intricate and meaningful collaboration of a symphony: “Events, dear boy, events.” It is often difficult to hear any meaning or purpose in the political debate that led to the rejection of a price on carbon, such was the din created by the clanging cymbals. Nineteenth century Prussian military strategist Helmuth von Moltke once sagely noted that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. In politics as in war, one is often left with the impression that that contest descends into turmoil and madness. Greatness lies in the ability to rise above the muck and bullets to express poise through conviction and a steadfast attachment to values. Traditional orchestral music does not accommodate improvisation. It is a practiced art, the music delivered without any influence of external circumstances. Musicians who ascend to the Australian Chamber Orchestra have spent their lifetimes perfecting techniques. The performance of an orchestral piece requires a strict application of the music. Only when technique has been mastered and the music thoroughly learned can the art lend itself to interpretation and reflect the character of the respective individual musicians. In an ideal world, a leader’s attachment to values, and commitment to the execution of an agreed strategy, would be similarly steadfast. Political parties attempt to maintain shape and structure in the face of efforts from opposing parties to disrupt. If our public leaders consistently adjust values to suit circumstances, however, they will produce nothing more than a symphony of hypocrisy. Strategies – not values – can be altered to suit circumstances and events. Mahler’s legacy lives over a century following his death. It is brought alive through the seeming perfection of those musicians who spend hours in the service of his music, such as those members of the Australian Chamber Orchestra who performed so meaningfully at the Adelaide Town Hall. Although its performers may often appear to practice an inferior art form, the practise of politics has an immediate and enduring influence – even when its audience is disengaged. There is little doubt that a future Australian Government will, out of necessity and urgency, price carbon. In the interim, let us hope that our political discourse is not denied the harmony and rhythm that only an unwavering attachment to values can provide. Andrew Hunter is Chair of the Australian Fabians fabians.org.au

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