It has been a year scarred by deeply visceral events – record bushfires and a global pandemic, confronting conceptual assaults, the peddling of grand fantasies, dangerous untruths, and toxic politics. How can we all emerge better and stronger from these encounters?
The government-sponsored pitch for Mattias Corman to become the next head of the OECD has been opposed by some British politicians on the grounds that his previous support of climate denialists renders him “unfit for the job”.
The refreshing clarity of the term, its summary judgement after decades of endless microscopic political analysis, warrants its revival in this post-pandemic, post-Trump world of urgent recovery.
But why and how did the term “unfit to govern” re-emerge. Here’s one account.
The American s…t show
Both a boon and bane for comedians globally, the last four years has been a wild ride for Americans.
Likening their nation to a long-haul flight, its disgruntled passengers selected an orange-hued brat as their change-over pilot.
Some cheered when he chucked the plane into a dive, then a spin, then up into a stall, all the while tweeting angry childish inanities. While other flights steered well clear, he regularly ran naked from the cockpit to fling his over-filled nappy at disgusted passengers. Oxygen masks swung wildly; carry-on luggage rained down; children screamed; people got sick, some died.
It was a kind of “Lord of the flies” re-enactment, but by an entire nation.
Then all of a sudden it stopped.
Adults are soon due to regain control. Normal tray service will resume. The plane did not quite crash. What possessed us, many now ask? Only the brat and his ilk seem to believe he-wuz-robbed.
During this period, the rest of the planet looked on astonishment. How and why did the richest most powerful nation on earth squander its global leadership – its manifest physical, financial, human and moral assets – so wilfully?
Dissecting the s***show
Most commentators agree that Trump articulated and amplified pre-existing popular resentments that arose from widening gaps between the lived experiences of many Americans and the unevenly delivered promises of globalisation, all too often unreflectively pressed by governments of both hues.
But for the purpose of this discussion, the Trump era possessed three characteristics:
Firstly, where conventional candidates usually presented systematically organised offers-of-service (policy platforms) Trump proffered more of a belief system. Comprising a jumble of resentments, attitudes, and promises, a significant feature was the ascendancy it ascribed – demanded even – to fervent belief above reality.
Thus, churchgoing mums came to adore a self-confessed “pussy grabber”.
Trump’s misty-eyed and resentful re-imagining of the past gloved neatly with many arch-conservative perspectives that consequently gained succour, vigour and legitimacy from the POTUS office.
A second feature, shared with other belief systems (think Chinese communism or religious cults), was that it required constant persuasive re-iteration in order to sustain popular support.
This helps explain the incessant campaigning by a charismatic leader, the purpose of which was to re-reconcile preferred beliefs with emerging unruly and inconvenient truths.
With Trump, this entailed systematically undermining the whole notion and basis of truth itself, substituting it with “alternative facts”, “deep state” conspiracies, a host of malign “others”, “fake news”, and plain old-fashioned outright lies.
Admittedly, belief was sustained by lashings of audience credulity.
It was a kind of a Ponzi scheme of the intellect; the constant mining of alternative future possibilities in order to sustain a plausible present.
This conduct helps explain the third feature. When reality eventually and emphatically contradicted the dissembling and fabrications of executive government the whole structure of plausibility started to collapse, again much like a Ponzi scheme.
Mounting COVID-19 deaths – a disease initially dismissed by leaders as a mild cold – and the rotting confabulations began to sink. “Make America Great Again” became a typo of the “Fake America Shake-Down”.
This was the “s***-show”.
The idea of “fitness to govern”
As pesky fact-checking scrutiny exposed gross governance shortcomings, public affections shifted from valuing belief to valuing evidence and expertise.
It is suggested here that a significant line was crossed in this shift.
If the COVID-19 crisis destroyed the magic of denial as a truth management strategy, commentary also changed, from endlessly detailed examinations of untruths to summary judgements, like a fundamental “unfitness to govern”.
The executive was no longer merely accused of possibly being “unfit to govern”; it was emphatically declared to be so.
Could “unfitness to govern” be usefully applied in Australia?
Before the pandemic, poor political behaviour was conceptually treated merely as just another register of virtue on a spectrum ranging from the very good to the obnoxious.
The idea of “unfitness to govern” put a line on this spectrum; it redefined the spectrum as a dyad [something that consists of two elements or parts].
This is the usage employed by objectors to Mattias Corman’s election to the OECD.
Many governments currently get away with poor behaviour fully aware that electorates have short attention spans.
Even otherwise good governments hope to survive revelations that they cynically attempted to bribe electorates, as it appears the Berejiklian government has done.
So, the great utility of the term “unfit to govern” is that it seeks to reproduce for public governance what increasingly is expected in private governance – a limit beyond which permanent exclusion awaits.
Good, bad and “unfit” government
Many will be aware of the large murals “Allegory of good and bad government” by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the Sienna Palazzo Publicco (town hall), which are intended to convey to that city’s governors the breadth and importance of their responsibilities.
The title image, a detail from one of the murals, is the bad prince” whose poor governance and wrecked city are depicted around him.
The Trump fiasco and pandemic responses both illustrate the contemporary global relevance of the allegory. Fundamental “fitness to govern” really matters.
As noted in the introduction, “fitness to govern” is now being linked to that other 2020 disaster, the climate crisis.
The urgent need to address post-pandemic global health challenges, promote economic recovery, and halt the accelerating climate crisis all requires serious global cooperation at the very time when global alliances have been shattered by an “America first” president and climate denialists like our own government.
Though its handling of the pandemic is generally admired, this government’s persistent long-term resistance to real climate change abatement measures now risks reversing its fortunes, regardless of what it does next.
Unlike the pandemic, climate change is for keeps and its unaddressed impacts have long been known as a great threat to the entire nation.
British, German and Liberal NSW conservative governments are making emphatic commitments to climate change.
Set against this prospect, tactical withdrawal of fossil fuel support from coal to gas just looks like mealy-mouthed rhetorical deflection, favouring a few to the detriment of the many.
Serious policy attention to climate change mitigation is no longer a politically partisan issue. British, German and Liberal NSW conservative governments are making emphatic commitments.
Already, trade sanctions against nations not taking strong climate abatement pledges are being discussed internationally.
China too has committed to carbon reduction targets.
Though currently reflecting recent political tensions, China’s embargo on Australian coal could well in the future be firmly grounded on a concern for our inadequate environmental commitments.
Thus, Australia’s speaking exclusion at the next climate summit hints at our more extensive marginalisation.
The PM’s indignant rejoinder – that Australian climate policy will only be determined by Australians – sounds hollow simply because it sidesteps the more fundamental issue that we refuse as a nation to pull our weight on abatement measures, despite our abundant capacity to do so.
Thus, international perceptions of our national government’s record of persistent stalling on real climate change action is rapidly changing from adverse detailed commentary on its energy policy to the broad conclusion of “unfitness to govern”.
The objections to Mattias Corman’s election illustrate that memories are now longer than many politicians give electorates credit for. It is to be hoped that our electorate develops a more discerning, longer ranging, and less tolerant view of political leadership.
As Trump so handily demonstrated regarding merit, not everything that rises to the top is cream.
Whether or not our PM cares about these perceptions is another matter. Whereas Germany is notable for having a leader with a scientific background, our leader’s background is in marketing.
Indeed, it is tempting to wonder if the PM’s professional expertise and long-term indifference to serious climate change abatement might embolden him to reprise his lump-o-coal stunt on behalf of natural gas by releasing a litre of methane into parliament following a bean-heavy lunch.
Mike Brown has worked in NSW local and state government in planning, urban design, and strategic roles for 15 years. He is also a graduate of the Masters of Urban Policy and Strategy program at the University of NSW.