August 18, 2012
George H. W. Bush (the sire, not the scion) famously called it ''the vision thing''. It was about whether he had a coherent and settled idea of where he wanted to take America, and what it might look like if people followed him. It was his ability, or lack of it, to relate ideas, comments and proposals to a single unifying story of what he was on about.
Gough Whitlam, leader of the opposition in the late 1960s and early 1970s, called his vision thing ''the program''. He had policies on every conceivable area of government activity. The added genius was how he stitched all of this - from the sewering of Brisbane, the recognition of China or the abolition of a luxury tax on the Pill - into a single overarching narrative of what Australia could be - should be - like. For a while the punters bought it, then, of course, it all came crashing down.
By contrast with Whitlam, Billy McMahon, then prime minister, had never been strong on the vision thing. This helped a surprisingly narrow majority of Australians to conclude in late 1972 that, after 23 years of coalition government, it was time to give Labor a go. Interviewed once by Time magazine, McMahon was asked about his vision for the future, but as the interviewers said, fumbled about in his briefing papers, could find nothing under F or V, and asked to be excused from the question. He once said, ''Our position is perfectly clear: we have not yet made up our minds on what our position should be.''
After Gough, the next Labor Messiah, Neville Wran, arrived at state rather than federal level, though he might have managed the transition had not another Messiah, Bob Hawke, been waiting to descend from heaven. Wran's hero status was magnified by the fact that Labor's standing around the nation was, if anything, worse than now. A cult of personality developed around him, but he was slow on vision, and impatient with those who wanted him to spell out his idea of a perfected nation: ''If the greedy bastards want spiritualism, they should join the f---ing Hare Krishnas,'' he said once.
Bob Hawke, if at times wildly popular, was also not given much to apparitions. But Paul Keating was given not only to trying to spin a national narrative of itself - particularly noticeable for the way in which it sought to incorporate Aborigines - but also a Labor narrative of itself, one which incorporated a way by which the party could stumble, fail, but also be reborn, still subscribing to the same same broad ideas and ideals.
John Howard and Kevin Rudd sold images of themselves and what they stood for, but did not sing high notes.
The Republican candidate for the US presidency, Mitt Romney, may have political abilities and capacities, but has never even tried with the vision stuff. He couldn't: he's simply incapable of inspiring. By contrast, Barack Obama may be all vision, all apparition, but simply ethereal, intangible, a disappointment for those who expected heaven on earth, and now.
No one would accuse many of our modern politicians of being over-obsessed with the articulation of clear goals, enduring persuasive narratives, statements of things as they should be, or even constant reiterations of unifying ideas and ideals.
Julia Gillard tries, and her writers salt her speeches with phrases meant to evoke emotional responses from true believers. Alas for her, it is particularly true believers who do not believe in her, or many of the suits with whom she surrounds herself, described recently as trade unions led by people who have never worked, and party officials who have never been ordinary party members.
Abbott's constant reiteration of a few simple slogans - about stopping the boats, stopping the tax and stopping debt build-up - is a mnemonic for a supposed coalition vision of lean government, with surplus budgets, in a secure Australia. But this could hardly be said to have clothes, not least because there are genuine differences in the Coalition fold, even between Abbott and some frontbenchers, about the role and size of government. Anyway, though Abbott obviously must do more - much, much more - to sell a positive vision of himself and what he and his colleagues would do in government - he has a full-time job describing, or alleging, all of the bad things Gillard is doing at the moment. That's not entirely his fault.
The traditional wisdom has it that the
vision thing is not as important at state or territorial level. What sells, it is said, is more the notion of competence and good stewardship. At this level of politics, some say, there is no great ideological divide - about, for example, schools or hospitals - but there are many practical issues of management, distribution of resources, and arguments about how generally accepted ideas and policies are put into action.
Yet many of Australia's best regarded politicians have emerged at state level, even if the last three people to make a successful transition from state to federal politics were Ted Theodore, Joseph Lyons and Bob Menzies in the 1920s and 1930s.
Over the past 40 years, for example, there's Don Dunstan and Lyn Arnold (South Australia), John Cain, Jeff Kennett, and Steve Bracks (Victoria), and Wran, Nick Greiner and Bob Carr (NSW), just to name a few. One does not have to admire any or all of them to admit that they have made a lasting mark on national as well as local politics.
Canberra politicians may not have commanded all of the attention or respect of premiers of some of the bigger states, but all of our chief ministers since self-government have been of high calibre: there have been three each from Labor - Rosemary Follett, Jon Stanhope and Katy Gallagher - and the Liberals - Trevor Kaine, Kate Carnell, and Gary Humphries. Carnell and Stanhope are probably the two whose influence extended further from ''mere'' ACT matters - and, certainly, in their capacity to inspire irritation from prime ministers of their own political party.
With none of these has there been much trouble in divining where they stood on most issues - or about the sort of differences they had gone into politics to achieve. Yet none ever said much on the vision front.
During the past week, I lamented to a Canberra audience a want of vision - in two senses of the word - of Canberra. Excepting Parliament House, I asked, could anyone think of a physically attractive thing that had been conceived or built in Canberra in the past 40 or 50 years - say, since the National Library? (I'm no great fan of it, as a piece of architecture, but I do not vociferously object to it, as I do to all of its neighbouring buildings erected after it).
Someone cut in immediately: the Arboretum. She was right; I had not thought of it. But it was an exception which (in the old sense) proved the rule. The glory of the arboretum idea - which has had Stanhope as its greatest champion - is that its greatness will probably not be evident until Canberra's second centenary in 2113.
What worries me, however, is the relentless dedication, by so many of our administrators, to the cheap, the nasty and the second rate. The only glory of this, I suppose, is that their offerings can be pulled down, without remorse, when we have governors of higher quality and breadth of vision. But we actually want our grand buildings, and structures, to last 200 years.
The National Capital Authority, whose predecessors at the least stood for quality planning (if not, since about 1965, quality architecture) has completely lost the plot even in the clearly national parts of the city. The ACT government, under whatever party, is preparing to build a new town called Molonglo. It will not be, as new Canberra towns and suburbs once were, a model of how Australians can live well, and inexpensively, with high quality services. It will be instead a national embarrassment, of lower average quality than anything Alan Bond ever built - a monument to the ACT government's incapacity to manage its conflict of interest between its greed for as much land revenue as it can grab and the long-term need for an ideal national city. Meanwhile, other dreary and uninspired planners and politicians are preparing to complete the ruination - probably for ever - of Civic Centre. The redevelopment of the ABC flats - which in a New York or a Paris would be recognised as an opportunity to put a signature on the city that might be recognised around the world - will commemorate everything that is most banal in city management. It will, no doubt, be coordinated by those who have authorised the ruination of Ainslie Avenue, the desertification of Garema Place and much of the old city centre, the unpunished conscious rundown of some city streets by developers, and the general awfulness and want of inspiration of the Canberra Centre - the black hole into which everything is collapsing.
I do not blame particularly the Labor party or the Liberal Party for this. It's not immediately a political thing, and certainly reflects nothing out of direct ideology. It reflects market failure as much as Stalinist control, but, in particular it reflects the want of some leader with an idea of how we might have a more beautiful, more workable and more human city, even as we prepare for a celebration of the centenary of the very idea and ideal of a great national city. In a host of fake issues in a coming election for ACT government, there are no competing visions about the national city to choose from. Meanwhile, decisions being made over the next four years will pretty much resolve whether a very salvageable city gets to a point of going beyond economic repair.