Politics, Pragmatism and Pandemics
Australia has made the news all over the world for the past two years due to its pandemic response, both for the good and the bad.
Australia’s pandemic experience has been unique in many ways, not least because there has been not just one as each state and territory has had its own response.
On one hand, Australia has been incredibly successful, particularly at the start of this pandemic where the strict border closures - something that only a high functioning sovereign island nation could accomplish - did much of the heavy lifting.
On the other hand, our early success led to incredibly harsh policies driven by an “anything to eliminate COVID-19” mentality that has been reasonably criticised as cruel and tyrannical.
Both Australia's success in curbing the spread of the virus and our slide into madness is a result of what has been asked of many governments around the world over the past two years. It is just that Australia actually did it.
The New Machiavellianism
Niccolò Machiavelli gets a bad reputation as an advocate for political power without principles, but he is far better understood as the arch pragmatist that treats the realm of politics like a science with facts that can be observed, and by calling the political era that COVID-19 ushered in the new Machiavellianism I don’t mean the leaders were after power, though many politicians that could ride the wave came out more popular (and powerful) than ever.
The new Machiavellianism refers to the calls to do away with politics in its entirety and replace it with science and pragmatism as embodied in the heads of the public health bureaucracy all over the world.
Those that screamed the loudest didn't want to know about trade-offs or policy decisions. They wanted to know that science wasn’t just advising but also deciding the way forward.
To insist that there needed to be a proper weighing up and deciding between multiple important things (what we previously voted politicians and leaders in to do) was a kind of heresy that instantly got one accused of wanting to kill Grandma for the sake of the economy.
The old Machiavellians wanted to take a scientific approach to politics, the new Machiavellians want to do away with politics altogether and replace it with science. People didn’t want political leaders but medical technocrats in charge as tangibly demonstrated by the new action figure of Anthony Fauci.
Even those countering the wave of calls to follow the science were brought into the new paradigm. Instead of making political arguments, they pushed back with contrary scientists such as those that signed the Great Barrington Declaration. The views of these scientists deserved to be heard, but many of those pushing them forward in the debate were trying to get a hearing for things not quantified by science, such as liberty and tradition.
The anglosphere, in particular, gave into a moment of reductionist thinking when there was only one goal worth pursuing (stopping the spread of COVID-19) and one metric to measure it by (case numbers) and anything that stood in the way of achieving the goal - be they individual rights or institutional traditions created to provide checks on power - had to be moved or bent to achieve this ends.
Australia, more than most counties, answered this desire. At every press conference (and there were many of them) the Chief Health Officers featured prominently, the case numbers were read and the new health orders announced.
Pragmatism and Australia’s Institutions
Australia has always been a pragmatic country. Our institutions were not born out of stories of toil and struggle like many other nations. Our institutional founders took an IKEA flatpack approach where they took what worked from elsewhere in the world and erected it in Australia.
It is for this reason that our institutions just work and why, to the aghast of many from other countries, Australians trust their government more than most. They simply haven’t had much cause not to trust it.
It is why when a pandemic was announced Australians continued to trust their government to respond pragmatically to this new virus, and that is exactly what it did.
The problem is that Australia doesn't have a brake on its pragmatism. There is nothing about our traditions or institutions that is sacrosanct and therefore can’t be thrown out or altered - no matter the peril. The very institutions that Australians trust to claw back powers when they are no longer needed have been bent and changed during the last few years in the service of the end goal of eradicating COVID-19.
Many countries will recognise ways in which Australia’s response to COVID-19 rhymes with their own (both the good and the bad) but whereas other countries merely professed allegiance to the new Machiavellian instinct of government by science - Australia in large part actually did it.
Australia today is an example of what happens when politics is replaced entirely with pragmatism, particularly when it is combined with a lack of civic education as to how institutions are meant to function when they go seriously awry.
Checks and Balances
The separation of powers that characterises the system of checks and balances familiar to both US and UK readers is based on two truths that political pragmatists once understood: absolute power corrupts and conflict between humans is inevitable. By splitting power up and pitting different arms of government against each other, the power each wields provides a natural check.
The declaration of a public health emergency harnesses the power of the executive towards one end - responding to the emergency. Most public health legislation has time limits that were meant to protect against extended usurpations of power by the executive branch. But as we have seen time and time again, these powers get extended and in the most extreme case in Victoria, allowed to go on indefinitely.
Meanwhile, courts and parliaments have been curbed in their function, cancelling sittings, going virtual and many other measures that the executive brought in for these institutions to stop the spread of the virus but in doing so handicapped the two branches of government that are supposed to check the executive at the very moment it had more power than ever.
The view of those that want to continue the rule by pen is that parliaments with their debates are messy and the courts are slow, the executive just needs to sign an order and it can respond in a time of crisis.
This type of thinking characterises the pragmatism of the new Machiavellians, in their mind the separation of powers is a waste of energy when all the power could be directed towards a singular aim.
The problem with this thinking is it shows no sign of stopping. There will always be important things that could justify directing the executive towards a singular end, but the whole point of the separation of powers is so that there is so that the government can’t be singularly captured.
At its heart, Australia’s Federal system, created by making one country out of several British colonies, was a practical union. So, naturally, when being a union became impractical (or not expedient) Australians retreated into their state identities and put up borders to stop those from other states from entering and bringing their diseases.
At the height of a problem that required solving (COVID-19), the Prime Minister, Scott Morrisson decided to run an experiment in government to try and get the states to cooperate - the National Cabinet.
In the Westminster system, the cabinet is the inner-ministry. One of the conventions is that communication between cabinet ministers is secret or ‘privileged’. The utility of privilege is clear when the people in it are all part of the one government (and usually one party) and there is an inherent incentive to cooperate. It allows for the full and frank discussion of policies behind closed doors so that kinks and disagreements are ironed out before the policy is presented to the public.
Not so much when it comes to different state governments which have absolutely no incentive to cooperate, and more than that, competition and policy distinction is a sign of a healthy federal system.
Federalism however has been eroded over time with the final nail being the National Cabinet. The federal government has sucked too much power from the states such that policy failures are not born by those that created them. This led to prolonged extreme measures being rewarded at the expense of moderation.
Throughout the pandemic, it was the Premiers (the leaders) of various states that were shutting down businesses and blaming the federal government for being stingy with welfare payments when people complained. They got all the kudos for being tough on COVID-19 but paid none of the (literal) costs.
Incredibly cruel policies such as border closures that saw newborn babies separated from their mothers and daughters deprived of spending the final moments with their fathers were applauded.
Policy wonks did little to discourage the harshest policies, instead favouring the new Machiavellian view.
To the medical technocrats, different states having different policies was intolerable. The emergence of different policies meant that someone was not following the science and was therefore wrong (not that perhaps there was a different priority being considered).
As with our horizontal separation of powers described above, our federal system (or vertical separation of powers) was warped into a machine with the sole purpose to keep COVID-19 out of each state and therefore Australia, not to run policy experiments as originally intended.
The fact that our institutions have been so bent without Australians even noticing is a worrying sign particularly as those are the very same Australians that are putting trust in the institutions to deliver back our freedoms and function normally once this pandemic subsides.
This is partly caused by Australia, like much of the anglosphere, having a declining standard of civic education, but also caused by the fact we don't have a mythology about how our institutions were built.
The new Machiavellian thought can only make sense in a world where keeping our institutions functioning normally is something the populace doesn’t understand or care about (or both).
People may be happy to forgo freedoms and traditions in the short term to respond to an immediate threat, but they expect it to return to normal soon, even if they can’t articulate what that normal is.
The way I hear this expressed during conversations with ordinary people is their concern of a lack of accountability and representation. They have no idea who to contact when public health orders have unintended consequences (which all of them do) and see no one held to account when they fail.
The lack of accountability also provides fodder for conspiratorial thinking.
One such conspiracy is that the secrecy (or privileged communication discussed above) of the National Cabinet is somehow planned and nefarious. This is a strange accusation because the person who is made to look bad from this stupidly constructed new institution is the one who created it - the Prime Minister. But you can hardly blame people for reaching to conspiracies when the institutions seem to be malfunctioning but they have no idea how and why.
The fact that conspiracies can run rife is an indictment on rule by pen and its lack of transparency and accountability.
Return to Politics
The most serious pitfall to the new Machiavellian mindset is that things less easily measured are left out of the equation when making policy decisions.
The ease with which data can be collected and quantified has no bearing on how important something is. Tests can tell you how many COVID-19 cases there are but there is no instrument that we can use to predict the effect that altering institutions have in the long run. Likewise, how do we measure how many incursions on liberty are too many?
It isn’t the role of scientists to go out and collect data for these decisions, that is the role for politics and leaders and is why science can never truly usurp the realm of the political.
Beyond COVID-19 there are many more challenges that one could feasibly see the call to shut politicians up and replace them with decisions dictated by science.
Even now the debate around the issue of climate change rhymes with the debate around COVID-19. On one side there are cries to devote all the power, time and energy of the state to solve it and those that oppose the policy do so by bringing out heterodox scientists.
But this approach misses the point.
The unspoken (or maybe not even understood) reasoning behind an attempt to find people in lab coats that say things that one agrees with is not because they want to be led by that scientist rather than the other ones but because there is something important that will be missed if the only thing informing a policy is science in that domain.
A climate policy based entirely on climate science definitely could be just as harsh and uncompromising as a lot of the COVID-19 policies over the last few years.
What the original Machiavellians knew and understood that those of today don’t, is that a true leader is a jack of all trades. Decision necessarily involves trade-offs and compromise between competing important considerations, both easily quantifiable and not, and, crucially, a leader needs to take ownership of their decisions - the buck has to stop somewhere.
Emblem of Hope
The hope is that pragmatism can save pragmatism from itself. Australia’s coat of arms has both a kangaroo and an emu on it. These animals are both iconically Australian but symbolically they are there because neither can walk backwards.
Australia has gone further than most in single-pointed policy aimed at controlling the pandemic. Hopefully, we can move forward from the pandemic quicker than most other countries as well.
By focusing on how Australia’s institutions have been deformed during the last two years is not to excuse the cruellest policies that have been pursued by my country (or at least parts of it) for the sake of stamping out the virus such as the 111-day lockdown in Melbourne in 2020 or the terrible consequences of border closures (both international and internal). By focusing on the institutions I merely attempt to diagnose the tendency that leads to the worst of these decisions.
In many ways, the COVID-19 experience for Australia was like many others, just more so. Both our successes and failures are the result of following the new Machiavellians that were present all over the world during the last few years. Australia just followed this line of thinking to its logical conclusion.
If there is one lesson from the Australian pandemic experience it is that politics and the art of trade-offs and compromises is still very necessary and the experiment of replacing political science with natural science should not be repeated.