The Rearrangement of Parliamentary Deckchairs and the Crisis of the West.

In trying to commend a Christian political option one will often meet accusations like the following:

Why are you so cynical? Why do you have to be so negative?

Over the years, my attempt to respond to such views with civic respect has led me to reply:

Well actually, I am opposed to political cynicism. But we need to discuss the cynicism we can all taste; it is a bitter part of our public life and it seems to be imbedded in all our political debates.

Neither am I wanting to be negative. I am trying to point in an alternative direction, to suggest how a greater measure of public justice might be achieved.

Of course, entering the political fray is not about “winning arguments” and I concede that often my views leave the “other guy” confused. On many occasions greater insight comes from turning my “hard hitting” rhetoric back upon my own views (Luke 6:42). And the literary effort to write Nurturing Justice blogs since 2005 has confirmed me in the view that “politics” is not a career but a dimension of all of our lives  as adult citizens. Those who claim to be seeking a career in “politics” get it wrong. “Politics” is not to be defined by what “politicians” do and achieve. “Politics” is an opportunity to respond to the God-given reality of the call to love one’s neighbour with public justice. That misunderstanding – i.e. that politics is what “they” do – may be at the root of our widespread and embedded political cynicism.

The newly installed super-minister of the newly super-merged Department of Immigration and Border Protection (embracing home affairs) is obviously revelling in his recent elevation. This weekend he has put himself forward as the promoter of bright ideas.  He claims that a postal plebiscite will get the issue of same-sex marriage resolved before the next election. But in our view his approach is evidence of deep cynicism, and a misunderstanding of Parliamentary responsibility.

What does “before the next election” tell us? Is it significant that he doesn’t say “once and for all”? Obviously, conservative defections in Liberal and National ranks are on his mind. Is not this his attempt, as a rising star through the ranks, of keeping the show on the road, the fragmenting party united. The Liberal Party’s electoral problem is that the promised “marriage equality/same-sex marriage” plebiscite hasn’t happened. He has let it be known that he believes same-sex marriage is inevitable. But he stands astride the barbed-wire fence on both sides because he is opposed to same-sex marriage. So then Peter what do you propose to do about electors, across the Commonwealth, who do not believe that a same-sex friendship can be marriage, who believe that such “inevitability” is flying in the face of reality?

Obviously Mr Dutton is not addressing that issue, and he should be. Instead he’s putting himself forward on both sides at the same time. He has been in parliament for how many years? How many times have we heard that simply getting the legislation through will solve the problem? But then what is the problem? Is there no problem with marriage, qua institution, in this polity? Or are we being presented with a fudge, a fudge that resolves the Liberal Party’s ongoing existence, or more precisely of Liberal-National “unity” on the Treasury Benches. For all intents and purposes their major political purpose is no longer what they stand for but rather safeguarding themselves and ensuring that their “side” stays in power as government?

No, this will not get the Liberal Party off the barbed-wire fence. The Liberal Party is already committed to fudging any residual political commitment it may have to marriage, family and household and has been so committed since the fudging was set in concrete, pardon the metaphor, when it gave full rein to the former PM, John Howard, to reneg on his electoral promise to his electors 16 years ago of “no legislation to enable embryonic stem cell research”. Then of course such a fudging was dismissed because it was only a “non-core promise.”

It is not only Peter Dutton MP but also that other former PM on the back-bench, as well as the current PM, who are forgetting that that fudged viewpoint is now set in concrete as an implicit part of the Liberal Party’s evolution, it is basic to its electoral modus operandi.

Mr Dutton’s attempt to show “leadership”  has an echo – “So that we can get this matter off the parliamentary agenda and get on with the rest of our parliamentary responsibilities.” What Mr Dutton and his party colleagues are ignoring is the political character of parliamentary representation itself. What about the parliamentary representation of electors who may reject this “inevitability”? Do they count? They certainly cannot rely upon Mr Dutton to represent them, not least because they do not live in his electorate. But his solution is highly questionable anyway – he wants to get the issue “out of the way”. It is an historical reprise of what the former PM said in his public resistance to the legislative opportunities of the 1992 Mabo judgement that arisen in the 1997 Wik case:

If [those opposing the “10 point plan” in the Senate] want this thing off the agenda of Australian politics, pass it before Christmas and then we can all get on with the future” (The Age 22/11/1997).

This is the Liberal Party’s view. Resolve the uncertainty and then we can all get on with the future.

This is nothing else than maintenance of political nonsense, put forward as sagacious political wisdom. When did, for instance, the needs of Australia’s indigenous population ever “go off the agenda” of public justice? Has not the needs intensified since 1998 after have of the 10-Point plan was legislated? Or, in this case, when will the Liberal and National Coalition, (not forgetting the Labor Party), face up to the fact that it is their respective failures as political parties that has contributed to the crisis in marriage, family (think of the rise in family violence), household. These are supposedly associations that have their standing in our political community because they have the public resources granted them to develop comprehensive and coherent (?) political ideology about the political future of the Commonwealth. These issues of public justice are systematically avoided by the political machines, the public relations firms of “both sides” and they are not going to go away. The way in which we already converse, as a polity, about marriage, about procreation, about sexual relations, will simply be further confused by any legislated mis-representation of marriage based upon an empirical error that says that a same-sex relationship is a marriage – this confusion will continue anyway in this polity whatever our Parliament decides and whatever some or all other “Western polities” may decide. Ironically, we are now back to the issue of our former posts on the “crisis” in the West. (Moreover, this week, will not Twitter accounts be chatting like never before as the Vatican No.3 takes his stand in the dock?)

“So we can all get on with the future” – this is nothing but a mantra of the parliamentary self-interested who no longer know how to formulate a coherent and comprehensive policy for marriage, family and household justice for its “side” of politics. Instead the aim of politics is to stay in power. The problems will be still around and exacerbated because, as the insightful juristic analysis shows, any legislated “marriage equality” is not going to remove the deep legislative and public policy confusion and ambiguity that pertains to marriage and family and household life across our Commonwealth.

If we were to have a plebiscite because the “two sides” are simply incapable of developing coherent policy on marriage – however the votes were cast – might it not be better to ask the preceding question of the voters: Should Australian law henceforth consider marriage merely as a matter of civil rights? This is an issue NJ has raised previously.

As it stands, the efforts to make Parliament into the public advocate of same-sex marriage is already lost (here and elsewhere) by persistent libertarian attempts to redesign reality by the imposition of a “politically-correct” symbolism. Mr Dutton’s suggestion is more a case of a suggestion for yet another round of Liberal Party deck-chair rearrangement.

But as far as deck-chair rearrangement goes the Liberal-Coalition “side” does not have it on their own. Almost on cue, the Labor leader sends a signal that would seemingly remove some of the uncertainty and instability about our political system by suggesting four-year terms. Yes, this is a good idea. And the PM knows it. Good ideas are needed in this context of crisis and uncertainty. BUT will it make any difference to the declining public trust in our system of government? Are the major parties going to set out on a new course and become parties again, and even willing to lose elections out of political conviction? Or will the proposal for 4-year parliamentary terms become yet another “public relations” stunt? Could this good idea dissolve into yet another example of corporate narcissism, as the major parties equate the national interest with their dominance over parliament?

BCW 24/7/17

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