Australia’s Impending Election (3)


Back in August 2002, I had a brief email exchange and telephone conversation with Malcolm Turnbull about the Prime Minister’s insistence upon a “conscience vote” with respect to embryonic stem-cell research. He supported the Prime Minister’s view and referred it as a wise parliamentary strategy. Splits in the Liberal Party were to be avoided at all costs. Turnbull had been affirming “family values” as the chair of the Menzies Research Centre, and I was trying to point out to him that the Liberal Party’s affirmation of the family was being compromised by the Prime Minister’s reassigning his pre-election promise against embryonic stem-cell research to the “non-core promise” category. Unity was basic to the Liberal Party, Turnbull said. Splits had to be avoided. I considered then, and consider now, that what the Australian electorate needs is the formulation of comprehensive policies, that remain alive in political parties even if defeated in parliament. The aim of politics is not winning but good governance. This issue needs to be considered in the context of all bio-political issues and a party should be aiming for a comprehensive policy in order that legislation continue to give due respect to the family.

     But what was his response?  Such an approach to policy matters that include embryonic stem-cell research and the other contentious bio-issues, would be very unwise, he said. They could split the party down the middle.

     The late Hugh Stretton (1924-2015) has adroitly observed that it is the conventional family, the household, that remains the key economic institution in our national economy. And that is also attested by the ways in which Government services are provided. Such a basic fact puts the policy ball well and truly in the court of the political parties.

     But the instinctive political reflex that consigns bio-ethical issues to “conscience votes”  is a viewpoint that is in danger of putting party unity above genuine policy. But what did this appeal to “party unity” maintained by “conscience votes” tell us about this person’s taken-for-granted view of parliamentary democracy? At that point he had just recently spoken out in favour of the Liberal Party as the party that can and should safeguard “family values”. Whether he was to become a parliamentarian or not, let alone become a future PM, is not the issue. What we are dealing with here is a taken-for-granted understanding of how the role of parliament has evolved in our system of democratic governance. This is the man who, in the wake of the Whitlam dismissal of 1975 and the “constitutional crisis”, the consequences of which are still being played out, had promoted wholesale reform of our political system through the advocacy of a “republican Australia”!

     Does not this insistence upon “party unity” at the expense of “public policy coherence” fit hand-in-glove with a view that it’s more important to keep “them” out of office by “our” (albeit artificial) parliamentary unity, than it is for the party to develop its own comprehensive policies on vital issues for which parliamentarians remain accountable for their parliamentary contribution to their electors? This appeal to “party unity” in the context of what we thought was our system of parliamentary accountability is nothing short of self-interested pragmatism, sidestepping proper accountability, and pandering to any elected politician’s desire to maximise the chances of his or her re-election.

     Are not bio-family issues of vital interest to the voters, as marriage partners, family members, workers, members of local communities and schools, as they too seek the common good? Let us also keep in mind how scientific research relates to our health, to caring for each other and for facilitating the lives of those severely disabled. Our political responsibility consists of promoting justice for all, and this responsibility comes to expression also in how we form the debate about such issues which are vital to the needs of our fellow citizens and neighbours. We cannot avoid them.

     Do not citizens also, in some sense, require moral leadership on these matters  from political parties?

     Do not political parties have a vital part to play in genuine political education in the electorates in which they are active, in explaining the political consequences of legislation about these issues of “body-politics”?

     Do not prospective voters on “our” side have to know where their preferred party, and they themselves stand, when legislation is debated before the House?

     So, this conversation with Malcolm Turnbull told me then, and suggests to me still that, even before he obtained a seat in the Federal Parliament, he had somehow made his peace with the structural ambiguities we have inherited in our system of parliamentary democracy. The idealism of The Reluctant Republic (1993) has evaporated. In that sense Turnbull’s affirmation of his particular modality of liberal conservatism leaves him with little choice other than to affirm the Liberal Party’s unity not only at the expense of genuine policy development, but it’s “party unity above all” ideology then also becomes a major hurdle to opened-up public debate. It sidelines those with a comprehensive political perspective. Instead it sets off in the direction of a one-step-at-a-time pragmatism that is always keeping an eye on public opinion in case a new set of words is needed to groom the public’s acquiescence. What, we might ask, has become of Turnbull’s 2002 attempt to publicly affirm the Liberal Party’s commitment to “family values”?

     I’m prone to ask myself this: in his exchange with me had he (albeit unintentionally) let slip the insipient elitist dimension of his political viewpoint? Was he not also underestimating the role of political parties in nurturing incisive political debate across the country? How is his involvement in politics from the Liberal “side” related to the earlier “republican” promise of an open and frank discussion nation-wide about the kind of polity we should aspire to be? Or are we simply confronted with a young idealist who has found it all too difficult and all that is left is a residual noblesse oblige? He seems to have decided to “take a second best option”. Now, with a degree of political resignation his Prime Ministerial realpolitik is but a  liberal version of pragmatism.

     How will a commitment to “party unity over all” ever bring grass-roots structural reform of any political party let alone the one he joined? It will simply confirm the parliamentary wing’s elite standing in the party and if it wins the next election its elite status across the country is endorsed. Government is rule by elite. The elite on this “side”, like its alter-ego on the other “side”, insists upon “unity above all”. Public policy debate suffers. A view of political parties is set forth that keeps any comprehensive political vision at bay as unrealistic. It is taken for granted that the party cannot consistently stand by its promises and commitments to electors.The long-run tendency in this former merchant banker’s contribution to the parliamentary wing of the Liberal Party has been to confirm the “privatisation” of such vital bio-ethical debates within the Liberal Party. “Conscience votes” in Parliament presuppose party debate behind closed doors, and meanwhile the voters, even the most loyal, are left pretty well in the dark.

     Watch therefore how “family values” emerges as an election theme. Note that from the PM’s side the concern about maintaining negative gearing is very much about keeping house prices at current levels or higher – where’s the discussion from him about how this impacts government policy for households? What about the droves of young married people who will never be able to buy a house for their family’s home? Look again at his 2002 “marry and multiply” suggestion. For Malcolm Turnbull the multiple house owner, it’s all about returns from increasing real estate values (and we have good grounds for suspicion because this sounds very much like the discredited leveraging that brought on the GFC). Shorten’s promise is that Labor will look again at the impact of negative gearing across the entire economy. Maybe both “sides”  would benefit us if they absorbed a good dose of Hugh Stretton’s economics.

     “Family values” will not survive unscathed when our two “sides” announce their policies with respect to the 900 detainees in limbo on Manus Island.  Mr Shorten has pledged a “unity ticket to defeat people smugglers”, while the other “side”, closing ranks on its “they shall never settle here” policy, expresses glee at some Labor parliamentarians demanding that the Australian Government submit to the rule of international law and extend justice to the detainees.

     And then of course, there is as another dimension of “family values”, an elephant in our voting booth. There is the Liberal-National promise of a plebiscite on “same-sex marriage”. Meanwhile, the USA, Canada, UK, NZ and elsewhere plod on and now confront the “consequences” down that mistaken road – but who in Australia is going to remind us that a “Noe” vote will involve a political commitment to persuade these oh-so enlightened polities of the west of the error of their ways? Who is going to say we should “Noe” in order to stand with Polynesia and Melanesia and resist the neo-colonial imposition of our western sexualised fashion upon our regional neighbours? Not the Labor Party. It has at least told the electorate that after 2019, “same-sex marriage equality” will be entrenched in its party platform. That seems like another way of saying to those who dissent, and any who may wish to develop comprehensive “family” policies without compromising the definition of lawful marriage, that they had better look now for another political option rather than waiting three years.





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