Doing Justice to Political Debate?

At least one matter of vital importance has been raised by the debate that now rages. The Liberal-National Coalition Government is conflicted about whether to go ahead and honour their commitment to hold a plebiscite about (so-called) “Marriage Equality”. But with that conflict, an important issue is now before us – it concerns the character of political debate itself.

How should we seek to engage in political debate?

How should we be encouraging both those with whom we agree as well as those with whom we disagree to enter into public debate about the public-legal principles according to which we should be governed?

Make no mistake; the debate about “Marriage Equality” is also very much about how we should be governed, and how our political disagreements need to be given due respect in the context of public governance.

And so, whether we have been conscious of it or not, we find ourselves in the midst of serious efforts to find a just, fair and coherent path for just public debate through the thicket of conflicting interests, newspapers articles and editorials, interest group brokerage, propaganda by militant and repressive ideologues and the apparently ubiquitous Twitter feeds that trend along on the 24 hour Twitter-cycle.

As an example of efforts to form this debate about political debate consider this Eureka Street post by Frank Brennan; the comments that his post has brought forth provide an interesting cross-section.

This is a question that needs to be considered carefully, not just by those brave souls entering the political fray – whether by standing for election or writing letters to the editor – but by us all: by citizens, by all active players whether we are individual persons in various roles and offices, members of political parties, in our work-place, commuting, or involved in corporate or associational contributions to public life and to its governance.

There is much blurry thinking going on about this, and much of the blurry thinking has to do with fact that as citizens we are also much more than just citizens, those who, as fully accountable persons, are also accountable for how we are governed. We are also husbands and wives, family members, members of associations, members of schools and class-rooms whether students or teachers, members or adherents of churches, employers or employees in workplaces, depositors in banks, next-door neighbours, members of local streets and communities, commuters, friends and much more besides.

And all of these “hats” have some or other political aspect to them; some or other aspect of public governance.

So, can Malcolm Turnbull marry his commitment to party unity with his desire to bring the Marriage Act into line with an arbitrary statement about same-sex marriage that was seemingly dropped arbitrarily into the 2013 judgement of the High Court? See last time.

The PM may prevail via a plebiscite but just as dissent did not go away when the Marriage Act was amended last time, so also this debate will still be around long after advocates for “Marriage Equality” proclaim that the issue is resolved “once and for all”, whether it be by this parliament or the next.

The deeper political need is for the reform of the ongoing political debate about marriage (and everything else) that has to be part of our political life even though it has been so malformed by the political parties championed by Messrs Turnbull and Shorten.

Despite the disparaging of marriage that has been part of popular culture for decades, those who so evidently dissent from the view of marriage that the Marriage Act seeks to uphold have not been prevented from making their views known, even if, in recent times, Parliamentary “conscience votes” haven’t exactly encouraged citizens to join in public debate – and the prospect of a plebiscite is already distracting many from open debate, with many resorting to accusations about the hateful views of those with whom they disagree, even if these opponents haven’t yet had much opportunity to develop their views, let alone correct such misperceptions.

So, we have to figure out how to keep on talking respectfully with each other even when we profoundly disagree.

We need to turn away politically from a politics that panders to the political cowardice that thrives on conscience votes and plebiscites. These are but symptoms of a dogged unwillingness of major parties to advocate policies that might lose them votes. Instead we need political debate – even public debate supported by these publicly funded “public relations firms” that still usurp the term “party” for their organisation – that reckons with the importance of encouraging political opponents to commend their comprehensive public justice policies to the electors.

We need political debate in which major political players are willing to stand by their principles even if that means LOSING an election. And each one of the legally-trained group of Parliamentarians, who now find themselves taking their seat in the House or the Senate, as a significant sub-group within it, should be taking a lead and giving themselves the task of arguing and putting forward, as strongly as they, can the case with which they disagree. Only when they show they can do that should they then disclose their own political views.

What did these otherwise highly qualified jurists learn about building and arguing a coherent case in law school? What did they learn about ascribing justice to argument?

The important thing for those advocating a policy platform is whether they are going to be willing to stand by their political beliefs and continue to argue for these even when they have to face overwhelming disagreement which may seriously marginalise their own parliamentary (or even prominent public) contribution.

We have noted how in the 2013 election, the Greens made a much-to-be-regretted video that told opponents of “same-sex marriage” to “get out of the way”.  They would have been better advised to argue that if the Liberal-National Coalition or Labor are unwilling to develop comprehensive marriage and family policies in line with what they believe these central institutions to be then they would better off going into political receivership.

Of course, to say this, can be construed (in Kevin Rudd’s terms) as “hairy chested” grandstanding; but the important point is that electors should be given the opportunity to judge what a party stands for and a political party cannot stand for anything political if something of deepest political significance like marriage is simply “kicked down the road” as not integrally related to public justice (i.e. whether such kicking be by conscience votes or plebiscites). That way the major parties have effectively capitulated to the view that public justice is what they, who have become pre-eminent in public debate, decide is necessary to maintain their party’s pre-eminent standing in the polity. Sorry, this simply will not do. This is not democratic. It is an avoidance of political accountability.

It is, in fact, an avoidance of the political party’s own responsibility to itself and an avoidance in comprehensive terms. But if parties have given up that kind of self-denying political debate within their own ranks, preferring to safeguard their own overgrown sense of self-importance, what hope is there that they will be able – as part of elected Government or even as Opposition, or maybe even as a cross-bencher whether in a rump or as a lone independent – to promote the kind of political debate that this country so sorely needs?






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