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Back to the future

21 February 2017

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Quentin Grafton is Director of the Centre for Water Economics, Environment and Policy (CWEEP) at Crawford School of Public Policy. In April 2010 he was appointed the Chairholder, the UNESCO Chair in Water Economics and Transboundary Water Governance.

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History teaches us that the world can climb out of its present sorry state, so long as we demand more of ourselves and leaders, writes Quentin Grafton.

Many people who care about truth, evidence and values are concerned about what is going on in the world today. They see a gun-toting President in the Philippines who offers bounties for dead criminals, an expansionary Kremlin that is willing to use its hard power to get what it wants, and a President of the United States who is focused on ‘alternative facts’. To some, this may seem like ‘the end of days’, but many are worried that ‘old truths’ may no longer hold true and they simply do not know where the world will end up.

While the events of 2016, and 2017 as it unfolds, are of concern, looking back can help us understand what might be coming our way.

First, it is worth highlighting that the world has been in sorrier states before and managed to climb out, and we will again. Second, if we are concerned about the direction our city, country or the world is heading, we must be part of the solution and not bystanders to what is unfolding before us. Third, a focus on our values and the behaviours of those who lead us, as well as how we treat each other, especially the less fortunate and vulnerable, is key to the change needed to remedy the problems we face.

First, a quick history lesson. There are many examples of leaders from both the left and right who have used a mix of populism, nationalism and a desire for change to get into or to stay in power. They tap into people’s fears, often fuel these fears, and offer simple ‘solutions’ to what are, typically, complex problems.

Some of these leaders were initially put into power through the ballot box (such as Adolf Hitler) and then subsequently dismantled democratic structures. Some, so long as such leaders did not invade other countries, were able to stay in power for long periods of time, such as Spain’s General Francisco Franco who ruled his country from 1939 to his death in 1975.

In countries that are democratic there have also been periods where basic principles of human rights have been subverted, typically during war, but also in peacetime. Notably, US Senator Joseph McCarthy used the power of his position to make false accusations and destroy the lives of prominent and law-abiding Americans. Yet McCarthy was, himself, eventually censured by the US Senate at the end of 1954 as his excesses became too much. One of McCarthy’s closest associates, Richard Nixon, used the attention he garnered with his ‘red-baiting’ to become first Vice President and then later President. Again, his excesses and lies were his undoing, but his impeachment only happened because a few individuals were prepared to put their jobs, and possibly their lives, on the line.

What history teaches us is that only when lies and disrespect for the law are confronted, can they be diminished. Bullies are only strong when no one stands up to them. Simply put, there is no natural law that means good always beats evil. Where wrongdoing is bested it is because people, often at considerable risk to their lives and livelihoods, have chosen to speak out and be heard and to mobilise others to do likewise, in their own ways. Hoping, or wishing for the best is, often, simply not good enough.

As the famous saying goes, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. This means that everyone should care about the truth and hold others, and especially their leaders, accountable for lies, half-truths, factoids or alternative facts. Indeed, it is the attitude of ‘say one thing and do another’ of past and present politicians that provided the opportunity for self-serving populists to prosper.

The next history lesson is that values really do matter. Notably, because he was a conservative, the great 18th century philosopher and politician Edmund Burke fought against the mercantilism and special privileges of one of the largest companies of his day, The East India Company. He insisted that private actors be held accountable to public authority. For him, a society was not simply a collection of individuals with their wants satisfied by government and markets. Instead, he believed that governments should act in the best interests of the present and future members of society.

To this end what we do as individuals is important. If all that matters to us is what government can do for me, regardless of the costs it places on others, today and into the future, then we should not be surprised if we end up in a ‘self-service’ world. A place where those with power or influence get what they want and everyone else waits in line for what’s left.

It is this ‘look after myself’ attitude of some elected leaders, with little thought or care for the vulnerable, that has led to the rise of self-serving populists who can then point out that ‘business as usual’ is not working for those ‘left behind’.

The path ahead will always be uncertain, but if we are to benefit from the society we live in we must be prepared to work towards better leadership and real solutions, rather than accepting the emptiness of slogans and celebrity. Many of the world’s most intractable challenges need a process where people work together across divides to create the pathways that lead to better decisions and outcomes. This is the essence of good public policy, and it’s not something that happens in the splendid isolation of the academic ivory tower or a Mandarin’s office.

We have a narcissist in the White House and would-be leaders elsewhere flexing their muscles and pandering to our fears. So this year, more than ever, we need decision-making based on the public interest and, importantly, decision-makers who understand and care about the trade-offs and the consequences of their decisions. Only by demanding more of ourselves, and also our leaders, will we succeed in building a great society.

This article was first published by Policy, the website of the Asia and the Pacific Policy Society and Crawford School.

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