Public Discussion, the Decline of Genuine Political Debate and the “Party Room”.

In our previous post we expressed concern that in otherwise competent journalistic overviews, two leading journalists of The Australian (Rupert Murdoch’s Australian “flagship”) made no mention of the mass media’s contribution to the global political crisis. Instead, these two writers, notwithstanding their respected  journalistic skills, continue to write as if they are conforming to the dogma that the task of newspapers is to “stand above the fray”. Even as they try to emphasize their “evenhanded” analysis, they persistently refer to their political convictions. Public discussion is difficult and taxing. It is made all the moreso by the obsessive appeal to this dogmatic disposition that in political debate those involved must strive to keep their convictions to themselves. Such a view ensures that what is already difficult becomes confusing; and what becomes confusing simply encourages people to avoid political discussion.

One professorial journalist who makes no secret of his bias toward the “libertarian right side of politics”, has recently opined that the Liberal Party’s current problems derive from the failure of John Howard to hand over to his then deputy Peter Costello back in the early 2000’s. What this journalistic academic (another writer for The Australian) conveniently forgets is that Costello’s failure to take over the reins was consistent with the Liberal Party’s inability to maintain the kinds of political standards that are presupposed by our system of representative government. A member of Parliament does not, first of all, represent that member’s party but that member’s electors. In Costello’s case, although he made a big play of voting “Noe” in the conscience vote brought on by his Parliamentary leader’s change of mind about scientific research on human embryos conceived in IVF, his proper parliamentary response should have been to advise the Prime Minister to resign his seat and seek re-election on his (i.e. the PM’s new platform). He would take over the reins. But this step he did not take, and neither did the Deputy Leader John Anderson nor the Special Minister of State, Senator Abetz for Tasmania. Instead they accepted this change to the standing of the Member for Bennelong in his own electorate, a principled declension from our “Westminster system”, choosing instead the Machiavellian strategy of hoping the voters would not understand or if they saw a problem would merely forget.

And so, the Liberal Party’s principled commitment to a difference between “core and non-core promises” prevailed and remains to this day. In the meantime, as with Labor, the “party room” (where frank and fearless debate is said to take place) becomes the locus of our failing parliamentary democracy. And as Nurturing Justice has opined – again and again – this was the moment in recent history when the Liberal Party began its decline into what we have today – a rabble that assumes that authority for the conduct of a party in parliament does not derive from accountability to electors but to a discipline that derives first and foremost from keeping itself in power by pious deference to, as we now hear it chanted, “the party room”.

The Archives of Nurturing Justice reveal more of this decisive moment. Those wanting to search therein will also find reference to the view given to this blog’s author by the Director of the Liberal Party thinktank, The Menzies Centre (i.e. the current Prime Minister). In his view, the parliamentary Liberal Party most decidedly needed a conscience vote on the issue because to develop a coherent view of bio-politics – i.e. one that gives systematic and coherent public legal attention to marriage, family and household – would split the party! And so, the principle, if you can call it that, is keeping the party together as a united parliamentary force since this is more important than developing coherent and consistent policies that represent electors. Such issues, need to be left to the individual consciences of elected members; and in the meantime the viewpoints of electors, and the need of electors for political education on this matters is completely ignored, or at most left to the newspapers!

And so – once again – the party of Menzies’ “forgotten people” decides to forget electors, continuing down its dogmatic elitist path. The party of Menzies and F. W. Eggleston has been left behind – Don Chipp said so in 1975; some said it was 1974 – and that path has not been challenged transforming the Liberal Party into what it is today – a public relations firm for a self-proclaiming elite that manipulates the electorate to maintain its own dominance over against another self-proclaimed elite with its public relations firm. The rest, as they say, is history.  I guess many within the Liberal Party’s membership are now asking whether the Liberal Party is history or whether the Liberal Party is Over.

The immediate former PM claims that the Liberal Party is not conservative enough. The current PM contradicts this by saying that the party of Menzies was never intended as a conservative party. Today a front-bench minister says the important task is to stop arguing about what the party stands for and instead concentrate on keeping “Bill Shorten out of the Lodge”. One hears this and meanwhile the Labor Party remains quietly in the background waiting for the next poll. It is still far from clear as to what political direction either of these major parties are taking other than setting sail in a direction opposite to each other, opposite to the “other side”. And that is about all that is left.

It is ironic in the extreme that the Minister’s call to drop public discussion of what the party stands for in order to prepare to fight the next election against the Labor Party, coincides with his valiant attempt to support his leader’s London address by saying that Menzies “didn’t want our party to be a reactionary party”! Come again? Not a reactionary party? But he’s just said that the party has to cease arguing about what the party for to unite against Labor! Is he listening to what he just said? We are left to conclude that he thinks he knows what he is saying. But for all else there is confusion.

So, now the Liberal Party can no longer define “liberal”. But try formulating their views of “conservative” and “reactionary”. With that you might also throw in “party room”.

And in the midst of all this confusion we have a Liberal Senator proposing a private members bill on same-sex marriage when his party gained Government with an election commitment to a plebiscite. He wants to bring it to the “party room” to get the go ahead to bring it before the parliament. “The bill is important,” this Senator is reported to have said, “because it will allow the Liberal Party to revisit the issue of marriage once and for all before the next election.”

What is he suggesting? The “party room” is being asked to allow a “free vote” even while these MPs have been elected on a platform committed to holding a plebiscite. The Senator follows the tried and true path initiated by Prime Minister Howard, that was then confirmed by the Menzies Research Centre director. Their view is that matters of bio-politics now require “conscience votes” rather than the party doing the hard yards of ethical and legal research in order to come to a political, logical, coherent and unified policy on issues of marriage, family, household matters. The “party room” becomes the place to plot the next election. [And here is another “trickle down” and bizarre consequence of this anarchic liberal mayhem!]

Presumably this recent push suggests the political strategy that by yet another avoidance of its responsibility to electors, the party will be able to disentangle itself from its previous election promises, and with same-sex marriage legislated before the election, avoid the impending electoral defeat! QED. Game, set and match.

Let me emphasize that this blog’s aim is not to confuse. In the midst of sceptical, cynical and superficial discussion, and reporting, it is difficult to avoid political confusion. When such political incoherence is served up as “natural” the response seems to be: “well that’s politics isn’t it?” No. We need to find a new path and as disciples of Christ Jesus seek God’s Kingdom first of all in order to identify the path of public justice for all. This includes being just in our political discussions; giving political discussion its due means carefully and respectfully trying to understand the political views of those elected to our parliaments to serve us in our nation’s legislative work. But the danger these days is that the electors are being shut out of the political process by a determined effort to afford the reform of our system of parliamentary representation.

BCW 12.7.17

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