A Christian Political Option at the Tipping Point of Australian Parliamentary Politics

Pragmatic Party Politics as the Root of Parliamentary Mayhem

Nurturing Justice has been featuring “readings” of Luke’s Gospel. This is an exegetical exploration of how a reading of the Gospel with the conviction that by giving full respect to the political context of the teaching and action it describes, a decisive light is thrown on how we should proceed on our political path today. Such a disciplined re-reading of the Biblical revelation has to be a pre-requisite for any Christian political option for the South West Pacific and for that matter anywhere else of this earth. We offer it to our readers with that in mind. Without such sustained re-reading of how the Bible is a lamp to our feet and a guide to our path we simply run the risk of not knowing what we are getting ourselves in for.

But some readers seeking some political perspective may well be somewhat bemused by this trajectory of our blog. Have we not seen the descent of our Parliaments, especially our Federal Parliament, into mayhem and legislative uncertainty in recent years? Shouldn’t any blog wanting to “nurture public justice” be given this our concerted attention? Of course, we confront significant political turbulence, and it is not just in the Federal parliament but at the State level and in local government administrations too. We hear on all sides complaints that we are being over-run by arrogant political actors who are said to be in it solely for the own self (business, power) interests. Even if some candidates run for office with a coherent and principled political stand, it seems that once they get elected they are tainted, they soon become compromised. There may be some truth in that widespread cynical observation, but Nurturing Justice would also observe that the wiseacres proffering this interpretation of politics (“Oh that is just politics, what do you expect?”) rides on the back of a widespread refusal to engage in political self-criticism and a scrupulous, cynical avoidance of the need for careful study of the demands of public office.

Whatever games the recently elected  American president may be playing, hiding the true state of his understanding of  the state of affairs, trying to close things down until “we can know what the hell is going on” we have not heard him advocate the need for the disciplined study of political science or of increased emphasis upon training for public administration and assuming the responsibilities for public office. Likewise in this country there is no such political efforts to suggest that the corruption of politics, the judiciary and public administrations needs to be countered by a new emphasis upon adequate training to enhance the skills for civic and public service.

Whether or not our readers agree with our diagnosis that the transformation of political parties into public relations firms is a central cause of our political crisis, they will yet recognise, if they have been following us, that we are committed to the view that political parties – as associations bound by political conviction – should be a positive and vital part of parliamentary politics. They should be playing their part in a thorough root and branch reformation of public governance, not only here in our polity but elsewhere across the globe. And international alliances of such parties should also be active in public education concerning international law and justice in international relations. Without them doing so, we fear, we are simply heading down a path towards further authoritarian  denial of what we once thought was an inherited system of democratic parliamentary law making and governance. Political parties should be major public education associations that facilitate the political discussion between citizens, even when such citizens have diametrically opposed political views and incompatible world-views.

Internationally our global aspirations are in the balance. But then, as we have pointed out with respect to a blatant case of the corruption of the “separation of powers” for local government, the possibilities of local citizens having an impact upon the decision-making in their own communities are also seriously attenuated when political parties refuse to reform themselves. In the above-mentioned case, the local Liberal Party has shown itself, (we would say once again) to be an unprincipled, pragmatic rabble that is simply wanting to increase and concentrate its presumptive power at the expense of the democratic space that should be ascribed to all citizens. It is, to a very large measure, such corruption of a principled political viewpoint in our political parties that has brought us so decidedly to today’s political cross-roads.

And yes, Nurturing Justice does not deny in the least that we need to carefully assess the dangerous “America first” antics of the much over-loved American president whose abdication now might well cause less mayhem at home and abroad than his dogged egoistic resolution to see it through.

Nurturing Justice has only some affiliation with a loose connection of Christians of “reformational” persuasion around the world in Europe, UK, Africa, South America, Mexico, North America, Korea, Japan and Indonesia, as well as the South West Pacific.  It would seem that a concerted effort in Christian sociological theorising and political reflection is called for. Could not such a global “community” develop insights vital to a renewed understanding of the positive and normative contribution that political parties should be making wherever citizens can associate to bring the understanding of public justice to public notice? So how is it that political parties world-wide have degenerated into public relations firms? And then how should a Christian political option be developed to avoid the implicit denigration of political parties that we can witness in the public and legal wreckage of once noble institutions as a result of our taken for granted western, materialistic and individualistic pragmatism? There is significant political educational work to be done. If it is not a task to be undertaken by political parties how are citizens to ever understand the various approach and ideologies that contribute to public governance? How are we ever to understand public justice if political parties do not work at expounding its requirements in an ongoing way?

We have pointed out in a previous post of Nurturing Justice, that before he even entered politics, Mr Malcolm Turnbull was giving voice to the view that for him party unity was the sine qua non of Liberal Party politics. Unity must be maintained at all costs. But such a commitment is simply a convenient avoidance of the difficult question that needs to be answered in all efforts to be politically engage. What is public governance? How is government to justly do its work in maintaining public justice? When I asked Malcolm Turnbull why the Liberal Party, with its alleged commitment to “the economy” was not developing a coherent policy on all bio-ethical issues, his response was that to do so would be to threaten party unity. For him, clearly “the economy” can isolated from ethics, no matter how ethical he maintains his own action and how much he advocates ethic behaviour. The problem for Malcolm Turnbull’s view of (liberal) politics is this: you can’t have a coherent political commitment to “the economy” without articulating a clear and and also unambiguous viewpoint of the central institutional nexus of “the economy”. This central institution is not the “free market” and it is not the banks and finance. It is “marriage, family and the household”.

And so that was back at the time when Turnbull was Director of the Menzies Centre (2002-2004). And so the “hard yards” of developing a public policy that integrated the Liberal Party’s commitment to marriage, family and household has simply not been attempted. The result has continued to be a mealy-mouthed appeal to “traditional values”, but when difficult bio-ethical issues arose there just had to be a “conscience vote” – which actually was implemented to get the former Liberal PM, John Howard, off the hook after he reneged on his pre-election promise before the 2000 election concerning embryonic stem-cell research. (We have referred to that “tipping point” ad infinitum in Nurturing Justice since then and readers are invited to explore our archives on this.) The Labor Party could not call him to task for that and his Treasurer, and heir apparent, simply did not require him to hold to his pre-election commitment to his electors. (So much for the then Treasurer’s aspirations for getting the top job.)

The other day, we also heard how that other former Liberal PM, the one Turnbull replaced, now with a back-bench barracking role on the Government side, wants a referendum to be held to allow as he says “elected Governments to govern”. Such is Mr Abbott’s pragmatic opportunism, he doesn’t seem to recall his hectoring of the Rudd/Gillard Governments – and he hasn’t realised just how much he is driving a tractor into the Liberal Party’s house. To try and create a political principle he seems to be wanting the Australian Constitution to give a “rock solid” commitment to the view that majorities in the Lower House should be allowed to govern. Note that he says little, if anything, about how this view of the functioning of Parliamentary democracy in this country should be reflected in the Liberal Party’s own constitution. It is that constitution that needs reform first, and then, if he and his party have the courage they should put it out there in next election’s party platform – that is that the Liberal Party is committed, on the basis of its own principles, to allow elected Governments (i.e. who command a majority in the House of Representatives) to govern and hence will not block supply. Oh really? Wasn’t that a founding principle of his beloved Liberal Party, that is until his parliamentary predecessors decided that their party was to be run, not by the paid-up rank-and-file members as Menzies and F W Eggleston (1875-1954) had envisaged but by the privileged elite who had got themselves elected. And so in 1974, under Billy Snedden’s leadership, the Liberal Party (the party of good old Australian values) violated its own party’s constitutional principles with the threat to block supply. This departure from its own constitution became the party’s own faux precedent under Fraser another 18 months later. And as they say: the rest is history. It is that “constitutional crisis” that the Liberal Party along with its own political opponents the Labor Party, have never truly addressed. The “good old Australian values” that the Liberal Party has confirmed therefore goes something like this: you can make an electoral promise to get into office but really parliament’s members, when elected, should do all in their power to use their seat in parliament to ensure that they, and their side, gets onto the treasury benches next time.

And so that is where we are. The Liberal Party, and their Labor opponents, are now merely rival public relations firms having unhinged their commitment to appropriate electoral accountability. They refuse to look again at Proportional Representation, intent upon maintaining their elite control of parliament with 40% of the primary vote (60% of the seats) and their parties financed to a large degree by public funds that they accrue from elections. Accountability to electors means being willing to be voted in next time. One can almost forget the party’s manifesto, except of course when new and controversial legislation (witness how the Victorian Government appeals to the fine print  of the party’s manifesto last time to justify controversial school’s initiatives).

Yet when it comes down to it, all they have to say about their policies concerning political parties in our system of public governance is that they have to be bound by their belief that they should be bound – a broad church it is said – because if that unity fractures then the “enemy” (on the other side of Parliament) will be let loose to wreck havoc on the country. The fact that the Immigration Minister can talk in these terms simply confirms the analysis I have put forward. We don’t have parties – we have electoral machines that use policies as sticks with which to whack electors in order to safeguard the incumbency of their members.

This is the tipping point in our system of democratic parliamentary politics. It is such underlying now indeed “traditional political values” (i.e. since 1974) that brought us the Palmer United Party, One Nation and the most recent attempt by one disaffected Liberal Senator to launch his own new party without resigning his seat.

The doyen of Australian federalism, Alfred Deakin (1856-1919), often referred to as the Liberal Party’s historic inspiration, provides a good example of how elected members should see their representation of their electors. Deakin’s won his initial election to the Victorian legislature in 1879 by a mere 79 votes but since:

a number of voters [were] disenfranchised by a shortage of voting papers, he used his maiden speech to announce his resignation; he lost the subsequent by-election by 15 votes, narrowly lost the seat in the February 1880 general election, but won it in yet another early general election in July 1880.

This was the man who subsequently served as Prime Minister for three terms. Those thinking of trying to wangle their way into parliamentary leadership, especially those claiming to be “Deakinite liberals”, should be giving this some serious reflection. Their party is a long, long way away from such principled representation of electors. It is surely time for the Liberal Party to stop fooling itself about what it stands for. It is politically bankrupt and should, with its apparent ability to read the signs, face facts.

And a Christian political option in this polity, at whatever level, needs Christians citizens – inspired by a Biblical view of justice (i.e not a liberal-humanistic view, no matter how much both the Liberal-National and Labor public relations firms claim that they are “broad churches”) who will work hard at understanding the system of public governance we confront, the confused political traditions we necessarily inherit, and our need to keep trust with our fellow citizens as they too seek to promote policies that will deliver public justice for all.

BCW 8 February 2017

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