Since when did ideology become a bad thing? It seems like the last thing modern politicians want to be accused of is an ideological approach to policy. In September 2010 Labor frontbencher Chris Bowen accused Tony Abbott of an ‘ideological opposition to superannuation’. Sadly, he couldn’t have been more wrong, as the Abbottled federal opposition recently waved through the government’s costly promise to increase compulsory superannuation contributions from nine to 12 per cent. But it begs the question: would a non-ideological opposition to superannuation have been better? Would we think more highly of Tony Abbott if his opposition to superannuation was purely pragmatic?
When asked about his approach to industrial relations, the opposition leader is often quick to proclaim that his approach will not be based on ‘ideology’. Instead, he tells us, his approach will be based on ‘problem solving’.
But in an ideology-free zone, is it even possible to identify what ‘problems’ are? Public policy ultimately comes down to competing visions. Readers of the IPA Review probably value liberty more than the average subscriber to The Monthly. What one group sees as a serious problem-the decline in individual freedom presided over by the Fair Work Act-the other group may see as a completely justifiable act to enhance equality. You can’t possibly assess whether policy is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, unless you have a view about inherently ideological concepts such as liberty versus equality.
In 2008, the Rudd government lavishly funded a new think tank, the Grattan Institute. Melbourne University, the Victorian government, and some large corporates also kicked in to start them off with a purported funding base of $50 million.
Grattan’s key selling point was said to be its absence of ideology. Founding Chairman Allan Myers proudly told The Age, ‘This is not going to be an institute that is promulgating particular ideologies or political positions’ and insisted the new think tank would simply use ‘fact-based research’ to find solutions to policy problems. On their website, they claim they have an ‘independent stance’ and ‘do not bring a pre-determined view about the appropriate role for governments, markets, and other institutions’.
Oh really? So are taxes too high or too low? Should government protect people from their own choices? Is freedom of speech more important than the right to not be discriminated against? Without an ideological framework, these questions are impossible to answer.
This ‘management consultant’ or technocratic approach to politics, where you just gather a large group of really smart people in one room, crunch the data and work out the ‘solution’ offers no useful guide to the vast majority of public policy debates.
In reality, even the anodyne and cautious recommendations of the supposedly non-ideological are informed by values. Take just one area of the Grattan Institute’s research: climate change. Judging by their reports, they’ve drawn the conclusion that preserving the environment justifies a considerable increase in the size and scope of government. According to Grattan, Australia should ‘substantially reduce its greenhouse gas emissions’ and solar energy is definitely a worthwhile investment.
All of these judgements are loaded with assumptions that would be different for people who don’t share their values, sometimes vastly so. Classical liberals, for example, might believe that a major increase in the size of government and infringement on individual liberties is not justified under any circumstances.
Ultimately, the supposedly value-free, ‘independent’ approach to public policy relies just as much on ideology as everyone else, despite their protestations to the contrary.
Modern politics is often rightly derided for being too poll driven and shamelessly populist. Voters have no confidence that their representatives would stick to their guns if the political winds changed. And they doubt that many politicians have any sincerely held beliefs. This has bred cynicism with the political system and parties and it drives voter disenchantment with politics. The clear alternative to a populist approach to politics is a deeplyheld, genuine commitment to a political philosophy. We need more ideological politicians, not fewer.