OUR PRAGMATIC POLITICAL LEGACY
To continue from where I left off last time: let us look at the Liberal Party’s effort, if not commitment, to maintain party unity. It is an approach to politics in which policies and political principles are contained within a commitment to party unity.
Back in the early years of this century, I had email correspondence with Malcolm Turnbull and thereafter followed a brief but substantial telephone conversation. This was when he was beginning to throw in his lot with the Liberal Party and had begun to publicly advocate “family values”. He evidently believed that he had the best chance of having his views heard on the Liberal-Coalition “side”.
I still have those emails and I recently looked at them again. Around that time I had become aware of a Dutch newspaper article reporting on the public barnstorming of a bio-researcher from a prestigious Dutch institute, telling the Dutch people that the European ban on cloning could be side-stepped because they were “importing embryos from Australia”. In other words, Australian universities and researchers were already involved in and contributing actively to embryonic stem-cell research long before the matter came before the Parliament, some time before the PM began to promote such research on “spares”.
We were discussing how, in the weeks after his election, the PM re-assigned his “never ever” electoral promise to his electors, concerning embryonic stem-cell research, to the status of a “non-core promise”. We were instead now being presented with a Parliamentary “conscience” vote that, as with so many other “body politics issues”, confirms an entrenched unwillingness of our major political parties to do the hard yards in public policy research.
And the result? In my communication with Mr Turnbull I asked why the Liberal was not developing a coherent policy on this bio-ethical issues. His response was that to do so would be to threaten party unity. I’ve pondered that ever since. It sounded then and still sounds like an important point even if it is thoroughly specious. I will discuss my reflections on this next time. But for the moment I will consider the consequences of consigning such important policy issues to the vagaries of “conscience votes”. The consequences are still with us and we might even say that politics is now structured in a way that allows or encourages the nation to be split unnecessarily because the political parties of the “two sides” refuse to do the public policy research work. As a result we, as a polity, in the way we continue to understand public governance, and the policies we develop in the context of that understanding, have failed and are failing. We have not properly and adequately discovered how to ensure that citizens with radically divergent world-views, even views that disagree with such legislated endorsements by our Parliaments, can keep on talking to each other publicly about these issue. These sensitive bio-ethical issues are continually with us. Our responsibility for national state-crafting depends upon our ability to freely engage in such difficult discussion in an open and civil way.
And so the country was faced then, and has been faced since, with a “committed lack of commitment” to coherent policy-platforms on bio-ethical issues by the major political parties. The parties had not then already worked out their policies on this issue. They contributed nothing but instead continue to indulge their individual candidate’s personal promises to electors so that a vote might be cast for their “side” at the ballot box. But then, as we have noted, such an individual promise is easily over-turned when the pharmaceutical companies send their lobbyists to Parliament and make their bid for massive research investment by Federal and State Governments after modelling massive returns to public coffers. And these pseudo-messianic claims were endorsed – over the heads of electors – by the PM and the three eastern State Labor Premiers (Bracks, Carr, Beattie) at the next Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting. It’s all on record. I’m not making this us. It’s not only “Where did the money come from?” it’s also “Where has it gone?”
The same failing is now being played out with respect to our political inability to have genuine political debate about the consequences of legislation to endorse a specious “marriage equality” between marriage and those two persons of the same sex who are involved in committed permanent relationship. It should not be forgotten that Australia is now confronted by the prospect of a deeply confused plebiscite, (or a change due to legislation as per the Labor promise), after both “sides” overwhelmingly endorsed the changes to the Marriage Act of 2004. We are still waiting for these respective parties to explain the stance taken by their parliamentary members back then and how it related to their overall policy orientation. Moreover, we are now waiting for a detailed account of the reasons for the subsequent changes to party policy and why there has been such a change. From the political party’s point of view, just what are the issues? This, of course, would be beyond the pale. What would such public discussion do to party unity and party membership? As I wrote in the earlier post: we all know these two “sides” are responsible for the political shambles we are in, but there is no way that they are going to address it. They probably do not even know how to do so.
When greater political importance is ascribed to party unity than to policy then proper debate must be stifled. Then it is no longer possible for appropriate and accountable representation to flourish. And so, we now live on in constant danger of demanding a most undemocratic silence from those in the electorate who may disagree with whatever it is that is silently confirmed by such a cowardly confirmations of legislation, even though they are doing so from a principled commitment to an alternative way of life. Obviously, we need to find a new way of “doing” political representation so that views are not only heard (i.e. in blogs like this or in Letters to the Editor columns or in Op-Ed pieces), but so that alternative comprehensive policy frameworks embodying conflicting commitments can be properly understood, compared, contrasted, respected and adequately debated.
We should also not forget that this PM, Malcolm Turnbull, made his initial foray into national political life as an advocate of genuine political reform!