Beyond Individualism’s Parliamentary Dead-End
Out of this current political mess – will there be a plebiscite? will there be a voluntary postal vote? will parliament have a conscience vote? – Australia’s polity is faced with its now perpetual inner weakness. Our system of public governance is in trouble. It is not so much the Commonwealth Constitution and it is not only what we have inherited in our system of parliamentary democracy as that has been morphed into its current neo-liberal mould since the 1970s.
The Constitution has to some extent served pretty well to maintain a workable federal system of antipodean representative democracy since the Colonial Governments federated in 1901. The subsequent life of the Commonwealth of Australia has witnessed a viable experiment in co-ordinated, federated state-crafting of these far-flung British Colonies have come together politically on this massive , ancient desert island continent, with Tasmania and other islands too. Yes, it took far too long to extend justice political rights to the descendants of those who have peopled this turf for thousands of years. And there is still cumulative injustice built into the structures of our polity requiring continued legislative redress. Australia is a regional power although, despite the Mabo judgement of 1992, still a long way from proper political acknowledgement of our South West Pacific location as a polity that is also Melanesian! We rarely think of that even as the Torres Strait Islander flag has flown officially, also from local council offices across the nation, for 25 years!
Yes, there is the emerging question of whether the mentality of “white Australia” has somehow reappeared, morphed into a mythic nationalist “society”, as loud and belligerent defenders of “Aussie values” find difficulty in explaining what those values are and fail to explain in cogent political terms how our system of government should respond to our political community’s amazing kaleidscopic diversity. There is continued “home affairs” nonsense about the need for migrants to be fluent in English even as most of us continue our day-to-day lives in blithe ignorance of the first Australians who speak in many different languages, and some of whom would not pass an English test. The anomalies can stack up once we go looking for them.
But now? As we wrote yesterday, one initial step to genuine political reform is for those who have aligned with the two major political “sides” to face up to the political reality they have given us. The Parliamentary difficulties we now face are due to a continued failure of the Liberal and National coalition and Labor parties to justly form public debate in the public interest. Their failure makes genuine Australian state-crafting from here on problematic. We are increasingly susceptible to what may well be a populist demagoguery. These parties of the “two sides” are broken cisterns that no longer hold water to slake the political thirst of citizens on a political landscape that has been subjected to their self-interest “scorched-earth”, winner-takes-all politics.
But it can’t just be the “coming out” of individual members of these “electoral machines” or those who vote for these elite public relations firms, publicizing their dissent, crossing the floor, quitting to form new micro-parties or whatever it may be. It is the parties themselves, as political associations, that need to reform themselves by stepping back from their ongoing misshaping of our polity. How are they to do this? How are they to enact an ordinance of political self-denial and stop pretending that the future of this country’s parliaments is in the direction that they continue to set, from their politically privileged position, even as they career along, taking the country with them into … ?
The first political step of these parties is to reckon with the fact that the Commonwealth of Australia does not actually need their political machines as they continue their false claims to represent all Australians. (This first step is actually reminiscent of the difficult task of bringing genuine reformation to a thoroughly compromised Christian church! Not so very different – similar difficulty with dogmatic religiosity.) This first step will need further explanation, which subsequent posts will explore and then set out further possible steps.
Suffice to say that it is a political step requiring courage and the sad thing is that there is every indication from the Parliamentary leadership of both sides that such a step is unthinkable, simply not on their horizons at the present time. They present themselves to their electors as two fellows who are simply unable to see what is happening to them. Theirs is a politics of obsession that Australia “needs” them, that somehow their public lives will be gross failure if they change course.
The children’s story “Bill and Ben” has more coherence than the joint sounds of the aria being sung by “Both Sides of Politics”, with lead singing from the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition.
Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men of “both sides”, with now a middle-ground competition to see who can displace Weed – Will it be Greens, One Nation, Xenophon or others? – growing up between them.
It will not be an easy for the political parties to take such a step since they identify themselves so rigidly with this “both sides” dogmatism. They need to be reminded that “both sides” are not mentioned in the Constitution. Nor are their parties. But once the step is taken and the political shambles faced – to the mess that they too have brought us to as a polity – then we can begin to address the deep political issues that confront us.
This will mean discussing politically the significance of other political views diametrically opposed to our own. It will mean examining the detail of well-elaborated legislative programmes that arise from the diversity of political perspectives, those that arise from our political opponents, and finding ways to reckon with their just points and dissenting carefully and forcibly when we are convinced they are wrong.
It will thus mean a recalibration of what it means to embark upon political compromise in legislation, taking seriously the ways of life that differ from our own and the ways of understanding political responsibility that are antithetical to our own understanding. It will include, we hope, a coherent Christian political option that seeks a legislative programme of justice for all. It may take decades but this then would be what Nurturing Justice has in mind for a Christian political option among the various political options that are evidently present in our polity today. With such an approach to our political responsibilities we can hope to then set about the task of reforming our system of parliamentary representation in order to extend due respect to all citizens. We need to refresh our commitment to a thorough and fair system of proportional representation in parliamentary representation.
Unfortunately, our state-crafting responsibilities are now hostage to the perceived electoral fortunes of “two sides” dogmatically incapable of reckoning with other ways of organising Parliamentary representation and the making of laws. They have effectively given up the task of state-crafting and instead have assumed that they are the ones to possess sufficient elasticity of political principles to speak for everyone (which they obviously cannot). And do they not present themselves with an arrogance to the citizens who elect them, that we should only ever give form to our part in the God-given state-crafting task when either of them are in control of the Commonwealth’s legislative apparatus. This view needs to be dispensed with.
Our subsequent posts will speculate on further steps that these two “sides” should take. The political reality staring them in the face is evident in their lack of comprehensive legislative programmes and policies to put to electors. They both need to appreciate that their future contribution is not in winning elections but in showing the way to genuine political contribution for political parties and for justice for all.