Fitness for public service? – 2

The initial post in this series raised many questions. The hollowing out of the political party contribution to political education is not limited to Australian politics – still the trend is alive and well in this polity with its distinctive “two sides”. The emergence of this trend can be confirmed by an analysis of developments over decades that have shaped the way we tend to conceive of our political responsibility. (see here).

The “two sides of politics” are simply offering two slightly divergent ways of implementing political insights derived from the same underlying neo-liberal world-view. Both Labor and the Liberal-Coalition seek to make their political contribution as a (slight) variation from each other within the neo-liberal political economy paradigm. The Australian Greens accommodate this view in terms of how they see themselves as a “third party”.

This is to identify the underlying ideological agreement shared by Labor and the Liberal-National Coalition, but that is not exactly what we are wanting to focus upon here. Here we are concerned with how political ideology of “left” and “right” converges in an almost complete agreement about the character of political parties themselves; they are, in effect, privileged and tax-payer funded public relations firms committed to having those representatives aligned with it elected to parliament. And in the context of this shared view of party as electoral machine, we confront other closely related dogmatic prejudices that neither side is willing to confront openly or have openly debated as part of their electoral platform. One of these is that it is no longer necessary for political parties to aspire to provide the electorate with comprehensive political education about the grounds of their preferred policies and their ongoing political programme in state-crafting. But “state-crafting” is not a term that sits comfortably with the two “sides” that dominate our polity.

What is left is merely the ersatz political education of election campaigns in which alternative left and right policy “options” are thrown at electors accompanied by the mantra: “Don’t vote for them they are hopeless!”, or perhaps “They do not know how to manage public finance and balance the budget!” or even “They are not committed to ensuring equality for all!” 

“Both sides” view political education as a necessary task of the party only when it can show forth the differences between them as the two major players – they see themselves, after all, as the representatives of what are presumed to be the only valid political options available. The parties presume to define what is “right” and what is “left”. This shared ideology of the “two sides” is part of a self-serving attempt to maintain their presumed elite standing, as much as it preserves their “careers” as politicians.

The exercise of political judgement by electors,, as much as by those they elect, is reduced to variations on “why our side is better than them on the other side.” Meanwhile “they” on the other side of our two-party divide do not differ from “us” in fundamental terms about the goal of politics. “They” share “our” goals but have shown time and again that “they” do not know how to implement policies to enhance our nation’s attainment of them. Therefore it would be better that you vote for “us”. 

These sentiments come from both “sides” sharing a common goal – it is in these terms that they seek a mandate from the people to govern. Since they are in agreement on this, they lapse into a practical orientation that concedes that what is common (the neo-liberal world-view) is self-evident and in no need of justification. Is not this the perspective of our “western” civilisation that puts us so far ahead of the “rest” of the world?

The public relations task of parties is defined in terms of showing why policies from the one side will deliver whereas policies from the other side will not. The election campaign therefore becomes the high point from which each of the two electoral machines put the case for their respective “side” to the electorate; it is presented not in terms of political philosophy nor of world-view but in terms of policies and costings. Casting a vote in this deeply flawed (and if truth be said demeaning) political system becomes the centrepiece of a voter’s responsibility and so to engage in further political education is redundant. 

Yes, those elected with the help of these privileged electoral firms will confirm that election campaigns confuse as much as they enlighten. They may even concede that as a genuine political exercise, it borders on the ridiculous; they can hardly deny that. (See review here Zadok Perspectives review p. 15). But having conceded that the party’s role will be defended by taking upon the prevailing sceptical sentiment and simply using it to say that next time our “side” (i.e. public relations firm) needs to do better by showing the basic policy differences. That may be weaselling, but it is a fudge coming from both sides. “Both sides” are confident that the purpose of government, the character and contribution of political parties, the grounds for justice and equity, as well as the pros and cons of various “hot issues” have already been part of the electorate’s education in schools if not in political science courses at universities, let alone the Australian Government web-site. Somehow the electorate is enlightened enough about public governance to still cast a vote despite the bruising impact of outrageous election campaigns. The retort will be: what possible grounds could we put forth to suggest that political parties should impose themselves as political educationalists upon the electorate?

The above is my attempt to describe the difficulty we now face politically now our political parties have become completely compromised by their departure from their educative function. Why should they have to be pushed to explain their existence, their constitution, their political orientation, let alone justify their privileged place in our polity? Why should they not be taken to task for failing to assist electors in making politically-informed judgements about who should represent them in parliament and with what state-crafting programme they wish to be represented? The parties-cum-public-relations-firms have entrapped themselves in their misconceived self-interest and as a polity we suffer politically.

Nurturing Justice seems now to have taken on the irksome task of political undertaker. Our ongoing efforts by these posts will endeavour to show how both “sides” are careering down a path by which they are burying themselves by their political arrogance when in their juvenile misreading of their political work they dismiss the vital importance of political education. They are in large part the political children of Pink Floyd who sang “We don’t need no educashun!” except their tweak of this is “We don’t do political education ….”

Political debate has been decisively turned away from discussing normative questions about what a political party should be, how it should promote public justice for all. The “two-sides” maintain the narrow-minded paradigm that they can represent the entire electorate without engaging in the most elementary of political tasks: explaining their political outlook. For “both sides” to admit that they cannot represent the entire population would be tantamount to admitting they have been following a myth since at least the 1970s.

A political party should be in support of elected representatives so they can be a heard and relevant voice in parliament for all the nations electors, not simply those who share their political credo. Herein lies the problem for Australian politics. Despite our subjugation to “two sides” and despite the proliferation of parties (including Christian parties) which are all seeking to get a slice of the parliamentary action, other important matters still need attention.

Voters are citizens who need to be educated. This is a normative and complex responsibility. Our calling as citizens coram Deo is to seek public justice for all. When that is understood, we can move on to the question of how best to represent all electors at all three levels of public governance. 




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