Senior Fellow Mark Kenny from the Australian Studies Institute. Photo by Lannon Harley.
Why did the journalist cross the lake?
Q&A: Senior Fellow Mark Kenny
Former political journalist Mark Kenny has become a Senior Fellow at the Australian Studies Institute. But he still goes to Question Time. He spoke to Ross Peake about his new role.
Why did you come to ANU?
There are certainly people who believe western democracies really are fraying.
I’ve been covering federal politics now for the best part of two decades and that’s a real privilege, but it struck me that being on the treadmill of daily news, while thrilling, has its limitations.
I really embraced the idea and the opportunity to step back from it a bit in the daily sense and look more deeply at what’s going on, both in Australian politics and, I guess, comparatively speaking, what’s happening to democracies.
We hear a lot about the rise of populism, we see the election of Donald Trump, the calamity of Brexit, tendencies toward demagoguery in polities similar to Australia.So I think this is a fascinating if troubling time in history and I want to look at some of that and do it a bit differently from the usual quick turn-around requirements of journalism.
What is your role here?
I’m with a relatively new ANU body, the Australian Studies Institute, which looks to focus on Australian politics and public affairs. It has a brief to do that as a discrete field of interest but also to place that in the context of the world. So we’re very interested in how Australia fits into the world, how things are trending compared to other democracies.
It’s always struck me as intriguing that we have the national parliament on one side of Lake Burley Griffin and, on the other side, there is the national University – there is only one of each and there’s no doubt this is an extraordinary University.
Here, you can study law, finance, economics and political science and public policy and, over on the other side of the lake, they’re doing all of those things, with varying degrees of success. They’re making laws, they’re developing and applying policy, they are materially affecting the economy and peoples’ lives. So there is a natural symmetry and potentially a great complementarity between the theory of it and the execution.
I’m very happy to be able to take the expertise that I’ve developed over many years by being very close to the political process and proximate to political leaders, travelling the world, reporting on them at international events and so forth, and bring that expertise here and apply it in a different way.
How do you plan to apply that expertise?
As I said, I’m particularly interested in phenomena like populism, and what I see as a crisis within conservatism where many who claim that mantle have lost sight of what it is they are trying to conserve. On the face of it, we are at a really dangerous fracture point where it’s not just political individuals and political parties that are at risk, but the institutional architecture that until now was mutually accepted.
There are certainly people who believe western democracies really are fraying, that what we thought was the triumph of liberal democracy might have turned out to be a relatively brief moment before a return to instability and authoritarianism.
I’m interested in understanding how similar political systems work elsewhere in the world and what sort of solutions they are coming up with to deal with this. It’s not all bleak, there are positive trends going on as well, with technology, with the new generation of voters coming in, with demographic changes. There’s so much of interest happening in global politics and in comparative political systems that I think this is great to study.
So there’s that aspect of it but, going to your question, there’s the profile that I have as a political journalist of some long-standing who’s been around for a while, so what I hope I can bring to the University is real-time participation in some of those ongoing debates.
One of my functions is to continue being involved in contemporaneous analysis of events which is a bit different from what a lot of academics do. So I am continuing to appear on a variety of broadcast media and writing for The Conversation and writing op-ed pieces and these sorts of things. I should stress though, I don’t speak for the University but rather as a University academic.
Will you be working on long-term projects?
Yes, that’s what I’m hoping to do. It’s early days yet, there may be some other things that come up. There may be research projects that other academics are doing that I can participate in.
I’m having to teach myself a skill that many of the brilliant minds around this institution seem to handle with unnerving ease – writing two or more quite different projects simultaneously. I suspect most journalists are more linear than that – we tend to write one thing at a time, whereas right now I have two book chapters in early stages and a couple of pieces in train for The Conversation.