There has been considerable discussion of late concerning the 1975 dismissal of the Government by the Governor-General. See here for discussion by the former Head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet in the years when Gough Whitlam was Prime Minister.
Professor Jenny Hocking, in her new book The Dismissal Dossier: Everything You Were Never Meant to Know about November 1975 has the potential of bringing the Whitlam sacking back to front and centre of our public political discourse. A review and a 10 minute video from the Sydney Morning Herald 23/10.2015 is found here.
These are significant contributions to this polity’s consideration of politics and in particular how we view what presents today as a deepening crisis in our system of representative and parliamentary democracy. Those events of the 1975 constitutional crisis can easily be part of a “baby boomer” retrospective that
“I once was found but now am lost, Could see but now I’m blind.”
Indeed how we today understand ourselves as citizens of this Federal polity, with its three levels of public governance, does have much to do with how we view the 1975 constitutional crisis and how, if at all, it was resolved.
Nurturing Justice considers that the issues that are raised by the sacking of the Labor Government are still unresolved in the sense that the country has ever since lacked a clear political direction for understanding that vital association we know as a political party.
The sacking of the Whitlam Government needs to be assessed in terms of how it has effectively transformed our understanding of political parties and hence how we construe our own role as responsible citizens who are still accountable for the system of parliamentary democracy we say is so much a part of the democracy to which we are committed. We need to ask ourselves whether we have become blinded to the true role of political parties in our system of government by allowing political parties to become the electoral, vote-harvesting machines that they now have become. It is the view of Nurturing Justice that rather than simply delving nostalgically into the highly questionable, if not disgraceful, conduct of Malcolm Fraser and the Liberal Party, as they out-foxed their Labor opponents back in those halcyon days, that such political discussion as proposed here now needs to become “front and centre”, and stay “front and centre” as a crucial part of our own Christian citizenship.
This appeal is therefore made to fellow Christian citizens of Australia and this region – we have simply ignored the responsibilities laid upon us by our Christian profession to love our neighbours with public justice. We have been too content with adapting our political views as those who follow Jesus Christ, first this way, then that way until finally we have come to the view that going around in circles is the best we can offer. But are we ever to help (re)develop genuine political discussion in this polity? And how is our Christian profession to be translated into a coherent and viable political perspective without tearing itself apart? If we are to develop a Christian democratic option for the South West Pacific then there is considerable revisiting to be done.
For the remainder of this post I wish to explore some of the reasons that political parties have now become so problematic for our political life and public governance.
There is another side to the ongoing consequences of the Whitlam sacking and Malcolm Fraser’s willingness to co-operate in the Governor-General’s proposed actions. Despite the fact that it is not often discussed, there was another significant “constitutional crisis” taking place concurrently when all the newspaper headlines were focused on the internal disarray of the Whitlam Government, the blocking of supply and the scandals involving Dr Jim Cairns and Rex Connor.
What had begun to emerge was a trend that has been confirmed to this day; the chronic inability of the Parliamentary Liberal Party to honour its own political viewpoint and promote a principled understanding of a Parliamentary Opposition. Of course, the “surface issue” was the Parliamentary Liberals’ willingness to run against their own party platform by refusing its own conventional political wisdom, held by rank and file in the party, as well as some prominent MPs, to allow the Government that commanded the majority in the lower house to rule without a Senate threat to block supply.
But slowly, slowly the political party that was became the Liberal Party electoral machine driven by their celebrity politicians at the top i.e. in Parliament. We now know this only too well driven from the ongoing conduct of this party’s parliamentary wing, at both Federal and State levels as they proceed to massage press releases that fabricate a bogus “unity of purpose” brought to the voters by a “leader” claiming to bring their “plan” to the audience in the theatre of politics. And so it is a matter of staying as the occupants of, or regaining, the Treasury Benches in Parliament that has become the Liberal Party’s raison d’être. In fact if this were its original constituted aim – instead of promoting a particular liberal political philosophy – then it should have always said so. But it simply does not have the accumulated political courage to do so. Its pragmatism, its parliamentary ends justifies the public-political means, dominates whatever it and its spokespersons say.
It has been the actions of the Liberal Party and its leadership in the immediate years after the Labor election victory of December 1972 that has been a decisive turning point in our political history. The Liberal Party is committed to a reduced understanding of parliamentary democracy, willing to allow the machinations of the vote-harvesting political machine to take the lead, as public relations stunts manufacture its own view of public governance measured by the enhancing of opinion poll numbers.
We can see the parlous state in which we now function by looking at the garbage that comes into our letter boxes at election time. And we electors pay for it! It’s outrageous. I guess we could say that November 1975 was icing on the cake to the earlier efforts of Snedden et al to bring on the 1974 double dissolution. They lost the double dissolution election but that only fuelled their political bitterness, their deep resentment about the responsibility that had fallen to them as a party of a parliamentary Opposition. The Liberal Party has ever since been spectacular in its inability to properly and with a principled outlook take on the important Opposition political role for our Parliamentary democracy. Ever since 1975, the parliamentary Liberal Party ruled the party as if those elected are the Senior Executive Officers of a corporation that is in the business of producing a “product” which electors can “buy”.
Is there any remnant of genuine accountability to the party rank-and-file as in former days? It doesn’t look like it. And it should also be noted that the accountability of elected members to electors has also lost one of its necessary supports.
It is good that we are being encouraged to reconsider our “politically correct” dogmas about 1974-1975 because in doing so we begin to plumb the historical roots of our current parliamentary crisis – this is not just a matter of the hopeless and dishevelled Labor Party but more particularly with the Whelan the Wrecker type of politics advocated by the Liberal Party run by its parliamentary wing. “Unity to keep us in government” (in recent times the Malcolm Turnbull mantra) presupposes its twin-born counter-point of “getting us back into government” (a posture which Tony Abbott maintained even as PM).
Rather than allow their PARTY to develop as a genuine political party, with a genuine contribution to forming the character of Parliamentary Opposition for all in the country, the Liberal Party is now little more than an electoral machine in which its artificial constructed parliamentary unity prevails against the crying need for genuine political debate – within its own ranks and wider in the community.
There is indeed much to discuss if we are to promote a genuine Christian political option for the South West Pacific region.
We shall continue to discuss this in subsequent posts in this series.