Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Solving the Ruddle

This is how the madness begins. I preface what I am about to say with the caveat that I’m pleased as one of Muhammad Ali’s finest left hooks that Australia elected Kevin Rudd as its new Prime Minister. It certainly made for a far less gloomy homecoming for me. But watching and reading reportage of last weekend’s 20:20 Summit, involving a self-selection of a thousand of the country’s most earnest do-gooders has left me with the worst kind of retro headache. I have lived it all before and have all the threadbare tee-shirts to prove it.

I worked for nearly fifteen years, on and off, on big community projects in Britain. I started out being involved in the lofty and exciting sounding field of ‘regeneration’ and ended up in the anally retentive labelled niche of ‘performance management’. The thing is, I hadn’t moved. As more and more billions were wasted on follies, fads, fetishes and the implementation of ill-conceived and untested theories, the primary focus of the job shifted from identifying and solving socio-economic problems to a pathetic hunt for positive results to report from the intermittent flurries of directionless activity that occasionally took place in short intervals between visioning, scoping, planning, strategising, outcome focusing and target setting.

The end result, after eleven years of catastrophically costly hand-wringing, is that by any measure of equity you care to apply, the gap between the haves and have nots in Britain got a whole lot bigger. In the fine tradition of compounding insult with injury, many of the intended beneficiaries of those ‘quality of life’ interventions now feel a whole lot worse for being cajoled and corralled into active participation in ‘community-led’ projects that were simply facades. After falling prey to manipulation by vested interests that saw many of them starved of relevant information and tricked into spouting conditioned responses for fear of looking stupid, they also doubled as convenient scapegoats when it all, inevitably, went the way of the pear.

Now I find my lungs, newly escaped from the political pollution that is Bullshit Britain, collapsing under the toxicity of flipchart drivel all over again. The problems in Australia are real enough – increasing poverty and inequality threatens to undermine community solidity and, by extension, the welfare of the nation. The zeal to tackle these problems head-on is naturally the heart’s desire and prerogative of a brand new government after over a decade in the passenger seat. Chomping at the bit hardly covers it.

The cycle begins, where Australia is now, by gathering up all the old bathwater and tossing it out along with its incumbent babies. Fresh, bold ideas are what’s needed, the influential opinion formers agree. How many times have I been locked in a room with a flipchart for two days? I couldn’t even count them, my ability to count being irreparably and permanently damaged I shouldn’t wonder. I could have written those flipcharts in a coma, and I think I probably did for at least the last two or three years. The aspirations never, ever change and they are never, ever achieved. It’s the phoniest, laziest way of tackling serious problems it’s possible to imagine. You might as well have a nice game of pin the tail on the donkey. By the end of day two formerly innocuous words like measurable, outcome, inclusion take on the gravity of Satanic cant as participants struggle to regain their sanity.

So what did come out of it? Australia should become a Republic – a big idea whose time has come and gone so often it has its own key - and a dozen pictures of Cate Blanchett holding her baby. They should never have celebrities at these things because they just mesmerise people. I’m more than a little susceptible, I admit. I was, after all, the person who nearly choked on my own dribble in conversation with Ian McEwan in Jaipur. He’s not even vaguely charismatic but still managed to rob me of the ability to do anything but scream internally, ‘that’s Ian fucking McEwan, that is’. How is anyone supposed to think let alone populate post-it notes with grand plans for the betterment of humankind with the Virgin Queen and Wolfman looking on?

Seen in a sensible context, a consultation exercise like the 20:20 Summit might have been perceived as a gesture to announce the Rudd Government’s openness to new ideas, willingness to listen and commitment to the principle of democratic participation. But its not going to work out like that. In an effort to deflect media dismissal of the event as ‘just a talking shop’, Rudd has already had to inflate the importance of what has come out of it. The policy wonks, funding starved NGOs, vested interested ‘bizoids’ as Kevin likes to call them and celebrities intoxicated with their own importance will be expecting to see their ideas rolled out across the nation by Christmas. Those whose precious plans are shoddily rushed through for appearances sake will complain they were set up to fail. Those whose ideas fall by the wayside will be cross too. The media will wonder at the over-reaction to its sincere efforts to be a critical friend and mutual suspicion will grow, undermining the ability of the two parties to co-operate. The population will have trouble working out what is actually going on as the two sides start to tell very different stories.

This is where the spiral of delusion and disappointment begins. It’s difficult for many of us to remember now but Tony Blair once represented hope too.Why doesn’t Rudd learn from the considerable and very visible mistakes of the Blair Government? What comes off the top of people’s heads when you stuff a lot of them into a warm conference room is dandruff. Everyone knows that so why pretend otherwise? In no other area of life except shopping do we simply grab at whatever is put in front of us without stopping to scrutinise its value. Tony Blair was undermined by his arrogance, vanity and a pathological refusal to countenance any and all criticism, even in the face of blindingly obvious supporting evidence.

There are worrying signs that Kevin Rudd has already succumbed to the allure of imported lustre. Being a people’s prime minister isn’t just a matter of removing one’s tie and posing for pictures with celebrities. This is how Cool Britannia started – and look at how cheesy all that appears now. The steep and slippery slope begins right here. First they annex themselves to the limelight via pop and movie stars and next thing you know they’re sequestered under a cone of secrecy with a sinister cohort of market research gurus, pop psychologists and retail giants, the latter being a bit like seeking advice on Grandma’s welfare from the big bad wolf. When they start looking decidedly sheepish, you know it’s too late…


Andrew said...

I poured myself a large drink for this one Pants.

Your next stage is almost a 180 deg turn from your youth. You become socially conservative and start ranting about the homeless who had such grand ideas but actually no idea of how to put a roof over their heads, the poor who never work because they are too effing lazy. Even the disabled could do a bit more towards society. As for druggies, let them top themselves and we will all be better off.

Keep the faith girlfriend, it is all we have to cling to.

Dame Honoria Glossop said...

Another illusion shattered. I always had this lovely idea that Oz was a bullshit-free zone. Just wait till he tells you he's a pretty straight kind of guy ...

phil said...

Because I spend a fair amount of my working life doing exactly this, I....

...felt very empathetic...

I rate it E for Excellent.

Wisewebwoman said...

Oh Pants:
Is there no hope for the world at all?
Disillusion has set in with us Canucks too as PM Harper holds behind closed doors meetings. Us poor plebs could never understand the machinations of the exalted on such matters as our water and our tarsandy oil.
Where are we all going and why are we in a handbasket?
Keep bitchin', baby.

Ann O'Dyne said...

"and a dozen pictures of Cate Blanchett holding her baby" ... one could safely bet the ranch that more than several
terminally-bewildered voters actually think the Summit was held to make That Baby the PM for 2020.

Iggy Upton - we salute you.

cusp said...

I lurk here but don't often comment but Gawd this rings bells.

The only good thing to come out of being too unwell to work these past 8 years is that I don't have to put up with all the regurgitated cr*p in meetings anymore. Growing older and more experienced means you see everything that's 'new' and 'exciting' as the same old stuff in new clothes.

I sit back and watch my successors in what was my area of expertise (arts and disbaility). They think what they're doing is cutting edge, challenging and yet they are doing excatly what I did 10 years ago --- no real development, no building on any past success (or failure), but just a waste of public funds and time and effort. It's just putting on a show.

Pity a vast and energetic country like Oz cannot apparently learn from the mess we have made for ourselves here in UK with all the false promises of the past 10 years.

[Right, that's me done in the commenting stakes for another year ;-) ]

That's So Pants said...

Hi everyone and welcome Cusp.

Yep - that's about the yin and yang of it.



R.H. said...

You're right. And what sort of representative body is this when from a thousand only ONE votes against a republic.

This isn't Australia talking, this is shopkeepers, bum poets, and shit academics.

And a celebrity holding a baby! Wow!

So what can low-income people expect from a crowd like this?
A crowd of limp-wristed latte-talking obedient little bastards.

Sal said...

actually, australia already IS a republic. read the constitution. it was more cunningly designed than any i've ever seen -- we managed over a century before the self-appointing aristocrats started to make any serious inroads on formalising a political elite.

cusp: with you all the way. with age comes the realisation that most of youth's causes were led by people with quite different motivations, and while they did quite well for themselves, the nominal goals of those causes didn't.

hi Thats So Pants -- here via Ann Dysthymiac's link on my blog.

i have to agree with you mournfully and enragedly about what's going on. but it's not new. it's only just another example of how the status-neediest infest and parasitise other people's earnest good intentions.

you might like this post of mine talking specifically about that, with notes re Writing as a career.

and with specific regard to looking at australia's ACTUAL deep political structure, i think you might like this very old post: "Like a parachute or insurance, it's a complete waste of time and space, until you need it."

>"[from the culture and time which created the constitution] We have all sorts of little political and institutional oddities which you discover upon study and thought and growing age to be incredibly intelligently designed with an eye to human behaviour and the long term. Most of the socialist institutions were torn down by the Labor governments, but the political ones remain."

R.H. said...

Australia's a republic? Is that so? Well cop this:

"Liberace played at a Royal Command Performance and was thrilled to discover that the Queen had sung along with the rest of the audience when he played 'You Made Me Love You--I Didn't Want To Do It!"*

-Scource: 'The Glittering Liberace. Album cover.

And who does our prime minister look like?


And who appoints him?

The Queen.


And here's a little secret; our national anthem will soon be changed to CONCERTO No.1 IN B Flat Minor. Which is from the same album.

Okay? Chew on that. Pom.

(Apologies for upper case)

That's So Pants said...

Hello Sal and welcome - thanks for all the info. And you've already got into a fight with RH - well done!