Can political parties be saved?

The Treasurer, Mr Morrison, has gone on record to say that should a national plebiscite come out in favour of amending the Marriage Act in terms of “marriage equality”, he will vote for the legislation in the Parliament even though, as a Christian, he disagrees with the idea that a same-sex relationship can be a marriage. His is a good example of the political complexity that confronts us at this time.

So rather than ask about the kind of Christianity that is implied by such a stand, let us just look at the kind of political perspective he is signalling. He is, like others on his side, trying to tell us that politics doesn’t really have anything much to do with what one believes in the privacy of one’s own heart. Religion is private. Morrison is confirming the (liberal) view that Christian or other religious belief should be considered as private property and in the interests of social inclusion we should accept that public life is “secular” ruled by majorities. So religious beliefs have to be laid aside when parliament subjects itself, as it would do in this case of a plebiscite, to the “vox populi”. And then, presumably, there is nothing left to say politically about the matter. Or is there?

In articulating this viewpoint of “parliamentary piety” Morrison is only signalling his adherence to a pragmatic line that still has to be believed if he is to take part in  implementing it as the right approach to parliamentary legislation – he is in line with the former Liberal PM’s view of balancing what is desirable with what is achievable. It is a persistent Liberal Party line, more a political apology for incoherence than anything else.

Before Tony Abbott became Prime Minister, he admitted he was committed to the same principle. Once Parliament has decided on a matter of conscience, be it “abortion” or “embryonic stem-cell research” that is the end of the matter, or more accurately at least that is the end of the matter for the Liberal Party in this phase of his dance with populist opinion.

The Nurturing Justice archives from 2006-2007 (ten years ago!) reveal something of the the way in which we have responded to our emergent parliamentary ethos tolerating this declension by the Liberal Party as it and its political rivals in the parliament seek to dispose of vital and uncomfortable political issues by labelling them as “ethical” (hence somehow “non-political”) and as worthy of “conscience” or “free” or of plebiscites.

Thursday, 19 October 2006,

Hon Tony Abbott, Leader of the House, Minister for Health and Ageing, Parliament House, Canberra ACT 2600

Dear Mr Abbott:
I refer to the letter, penned on your behalf by Adrian White, 10 October 2006, in answer to my communication with you of 28 August 2006.
The reply is very disappointing. To allow this form letter to pass without comment would mean I was joining your office in appearing to ignore the serious matters I have raised with you. Mr White’s reply contains nothing I didn’t know before and read alongside of my original communication seems to imply that your office hopes the facts I have raised will go away. They will not. They are very relevant to the just consideration of the relevant legislation and more besides.
To repeat: Australia was already in support of embryonic stem-cell research prior to 2001 when this became a political issue here. Human embryos were being exported from this country for research in the Netherlands. At that time there were no import or export controls on human embryos.
Does your office concede the serious situation that these facts reveal? Is the Australian Government going to allow human embryos to be used for commercial gain under the rubrics of “national interest”, free trade and commercial confidentiality? This matter deserves much more than the superficial gloss that the PM and state and territory leaders have given by appeal to the need for “nationally consistent arrangements.” Moreover, the Lockhart Review failed to convey the true gravity of this situation which your office must still now address.
Is the export of human embryos from Australia still legally possible? Should the law, for whatever purpose, allow human embryos to be sent out of this country?
To reflect upon these matters is to begin to address this issue, and all complexity notwithstanding, the Government must ensure that these matters are known and discussed openly, and laws framed so that justice can be done and human life protected fully and comprehensively in public law.
That is why the October 10 letter is unacceptable. It does not address these matters and be assured they will not go away.
Yours sincerely,
Bruce C Wearne (PhD)



Mr Abbott was happy enough to receive my “views” but there’s seems no way he was going to address the issues I had raised. The compromising NRC article revealing the ongoing Dutch-Australian research endeavour was ongoing before the issue became a political issue in Australia. The debate in Australia arose when the PM, having promised his electors one thing before the election, changed his “views” once he was elected.

The Minister may have given a “view” that sounds like that of a responsible Minister. However, the problem is that my letter raised issues about the way his own party, if not his own contribution, was incoherent from the standpoint of political belief. And the seeming lack of political belief on these matters of “body politics” in my reading signals a deep problem for the Liberal Party. Without “coming out” with a coherent statement of policy, based upon their political beliefs, the Liberal Party becomes reliant, as it is now so fully committed to its own belief in the necessity of its parliamentary “unity”. Hence this is the “core” of its current incoherence.

We recall the former PM brushing aside questions of public trust with his all too neat distinction between “core” and “non-core” political promises. In other words, what we deal with in the current Liberal-Coalition Government cannot properly be understood apart from the outworking of this “core/non-core” unity principle that has been at work for over 15 years. And hence, we have grounds for suggesting that though there should be a future for political parties, a political party that can only retain its unity by belief in the necessity of its own unity is in deep trouble.

It sounds very much like the house swept clean as described in Jesus’ parable of Luke 11:24-26.

We’ve asked the question: Can political parties be saved? I guess the question should be Can political parties be reformed and with them parliamentary democracy itself so that there is a greater level of electoral justice distributed throughout the polity? Political parties do have an important part to play in our system of parliamentary government. But if a party has been taken over by self-serving elites, having neglected their basic task in serving and forming just political engagement among citizens, willing to lose political debates as they seek to convince fellow citizens of an alternative political direction, then, sadly, their days as a positive political force are numbered.








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