Recommended by Declan Hunt

Laura Tingle’s essay about the art of government is part defence, part lament. Political Amnesia traces how Australian politics lost its “institutional memory”, the impacts of this on good governance, and how we might put things right.

Tingle focuses on the impacts of decisions made by recent federal governments that have obliterated corporate memory from the public service – to such an extent, that the public sector no longer has the content expertise to formulate good policy and to provide timely and wise advice. In recent times, governments have shuffled departments and laid-off senior bureaucrats they thought unsympathetic to their shade of politics. This has resulted in a loss of irreplaceable institutional memory, a loss of continuity, and loss of experience. Hence, departments generate apparently briiliant ideas for reform that were actually tried in the recent past, but which everyone remaining in the department was unaware of.

Drawing on interviews with key departmental figures, she shows the long-term harm that has come from undermining the public sector as a repository of ideas and experience. She tracks the damage done when responsibility is “contracted out,” and when politicians shut out or abuse their traditional sources of advice.

In addition to considering the public service, Tingle also examines changes that have occurred in the way executive government and the press gallery function, both of which are also affected by losses of institutional memory.

Tingle quotes philosopher George Santayana who famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Importantly, that’s not the whole quote. The full – and strikingly more relevant – quote is, “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

This essay is an important contribution to the debate on what needs to be done to create a better politics in Australia – a politics that currently only considers the immediate present, and knows little of the good (and bad) policies and practices of the past.

Full Book Details
Political Amnesia: How We Forgot How To Govern
Laura Tingle
Quarterly Essay, 60ed

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