July 2012

The Nation Reviewed

Comment: Australian Democracy and the Right to Party

By Amanda Lohrey
Schoolies in a Surfers Paradise polling booth at the 2007 federal election. © Fiona Hamilton / Newspix
Schoolies in a Surfers Paradise polling booth at the 2007 federal election. © Fiona Hamilton / Newspix

News footage of Egyptians queuing patiently for hours to exercise their first free vote in decades is a sobering sight. Even more sobering is the whining of those Australians who currently complain about having to vote at all. Our political culture has never been more cynical; it is fraying at the edges, mired in ignorance and negativity.

Is ignorant too strong a word? I don’t think so. Here is a typical question from the popular ABC panel show, Q&A: ‘Why can’t members of Parliament be independent and speak their minds instead of toeing the party line?’ Well, that would be because of a thing called ‘the principle of majority rule’, which binds the members of a party’s parliamentary caucus to a particular position and, in the case of the ministry, an even more stringent Westminster principle of cabinet solidarity.

Two recent surveys have highlighted a scary lack of political literacy in the broad electorate. In April, the Age reported some findings of the research firm Ipsos, in which members of focus groups complained that politicians are power hungry (who would have thought?) and “squabble” too much. Well, yes, the Westminster system is adversarial, it is institutionalised squabble, and we are the beneficiaries of this, but the Ipsos survey highlights one of many areas in public life where a great deal of sanctimonious moralising is propagated. Must we remind ourselves that politics is the continuation of war by other means? The genius of our political system is that it has evolved a civilised machinery for keeping blood off the streets. It’s called Parliament, and political leaders are warlords in harness. Conflict is not in itself bad; it is the motor of worthwhile change. To paraphrase Heraclitus, conflict does not interfere with life, but rather it is the precondition of life. It is how we manage conflict that matters.

A second recent survey on attitudes to democracy was conducted by the Lowy Institute in June. It revealed that only 39% of Australians aged 18 to 29 thought democracy was preferable to any other form of government. Almost a quarter, or 23%, believed that “for someone like me, it doesn’t matter what kind of government we have”. The institute’s executive director Michael Wesley declared surprise at “how lightly we take our democracy”. But why would he be surprised? What are we doing, and what have we ever done, to ensure that things are otherwise?

Three years ago I was invited to speak to a group of high school students about writing. The students asked me what I was working on at the time and I told them I was researching a piece on civil celebrants. They were amazed to discover that celebrants had first been appointed in 1973; they thought we had always had them. It further emerged that they thought we had always had no-fault divorce, equal opportunity and anti-discrimination legislation, Medicare and a raft of other relatively recent reforms. It’s not surprising that a group of 17 year olds would feel that anything legislated before their birth was ancient. What is of concern here is that their sense of the way in which politicians can shape and advance a culture was almost entirely absent. Politicians did bad things, they thought, or failed to do good things. Politicians were dubious characters who fought and argued and were only out for what they could get.

It occurred to me then that the need for a concerted program of political education in our schools was overdue. The students I spoke with were in many ways impressive: collectively, they were gifted musicians, fluent in Mandarin and prodigies of mathematics. How scandalous then that they knew almost nothing about the Westminster system they are privileged to live under. They had absorbed the cynicism of their parents and received little if any civics education to counteract it. But civics education in schools has long been a fraught battleground, dominated by the fear at both state and federal levels that it will lead to ‘ideology’ and brainwashing (even if it is currently considered value neutral to teach courses on how to manage your hypothetical share portfolio, but ‘ideological’ to teach a history of trade unions and your rights in the workplace). Better to leave students at the mercy of a shallow and sensationalist media which continues to purvey old shibboleths as folk wisdom, the underlying message being that all politics is inherently corrupt.

In his address to the HV Evatt Memorial Dinner on 28 April this year, titled ‘The Price of Political Fear’, Senator John Faulkner expressed his concern at the corrosive effect on Australian democracy of an increasing distrust of politicians. What bothers Faulkner is the fact that this widespread cynicism appears to be leading to the erosion of trust in the political process itself. Characters like Peter Slipper and Craig Thomson are sideshows to the main game, he warned; individual politicians and their frailties come and go, but the system we live under is a complex balance of forces that has evolved over centuries, and on the whole it serves us well. But public trust can only be based on a realistic understanding of how politics works, and that includes the sheer complexity of government and the difficulty of accomplishing anything amid a welter of competing interest groups. As Faulkner observed, “the politics of distrust are easy” and, he might have added, based on a number of facile assumptions.

The first of these is that politics is a uniquely dirty pursuit largely confined to political parties run by ruthless scoundrels. People who routinely cheat on their tax returns think nothing of asserting that politicians are only in it for what they can get. This is the Australian way. But politics is everywhere and inescapable; as soon as any group forms, no matter how small, the nature of the relationships between members is inherently political, a competition for influence on behalf of self-interest and strongly held points of view. And I wonder about those people who routinely disparage politics and politicians. Have they never sat on a company board, or the committee of a sporting club, or a school’s parents and friends executive? What lotus land are they living in, and when can I move there?

Faulkner addressed this naive distrust of deals and fixers in his speech. He made the point that Australia is now experiencing its fourteenth period of minority federal government since Federation and during none of those governments has the federation collapsed. Yet the current Liberal leadership, supported (it has to be said) by significant sections of the media, continues to foster a climate of hysteria around minority government as if, in Faulkner’s words, “failure to engage in negotiation and deliberation is either virtuous or possible”. “Such purity,” he adds, creates “an atmosphere in which any actual progress or achievement becomes seen as evidence of cynical manipulation and grubby deals”. 

The deal – the political compromise with shared spoils – is not an invention of the devil but the mechanism that keeps the system on the rails, and the deal-maker or fixer is essential to effective government. A visionary who cannot negotiate an outcome is a waste of political space.

As if to aggravate this situation the modern media has turned politics into a contest of heroic personalities, a vulgarly mounted version of ‘Old Talent Time’. (‘Yes, Malcolm, your leather jacket looks stunning, but you don’t seem to have enough mongrel in you.’) In a still largely male-dominated political sphere, the favourite type has long been the macho headkicker and at times this can reduce political commentary to the cartoon level of Erik the Viking in which, say, former ALP leader Kim Beazley lacked ‘ticker’ and former Liberal treasurer Peter Costello hadn’t the cojones to challenge John Howard. Next to the macho type and sometimes merging with it, as in the case of Bob Hawke, is the Aussie larrikin, and for a time a version of this seemed to work for Julia Gillard. As the deputy prime minister, Gillard was the media’s pet larrikin: the red hair, the quick wit, the warm amiability in social situations and the love of AFL. Even Alan Jones chortled at her quips in radio interviews as if she were some harmless and endearing wag. But when Gillard deposed Rudd, thereby displaying more ticker than Beazley and Costello combined, overnight she transformed into a witch. Since then her remarkable accomplishment in holding a minority government together has been portrayed as the work of a devious fixer.

One of the reasons we need a civics program in schools is because we learn so little about the complexity of government from the Canberra press gallery. From the hierophantic condescension of Laurie Oakes to the stolid obviousness of Michelle Grattan, what we mostly get is a repetitive loop of myopic opinionating with scarcely any factual analysis of policy, never mind depth of historical context. To take a current example, one piece of the pundits’ received wisdom is that the decline in party membership is due to factionalism and the dominance of apparatchiks. Politicians used to be real people, the story goes – train drivers and corner-store grocers – but now they are young functionaries, university-educated versions of the sorcerer’s apprentice who have alienated the grassroots. Little mention is made of the historic changes that have transformed the social function of the modern political party. When there was no television or internet, citizens came to branch meetings to observe their politicians and sometimes, because it was a night out, catch up with friends and hear the local gossip. Political parties organised dances, picnics and sporting events; they offered a network of information and a social life. As a child I listened to my great-grandmother’s account of how, as a young miner’s wife, she and her friends attended the public meetings of the legendary member for the Tasmanian mining town of Queenstown, King O’Malley. In winter, O’Malley addressed his constituents in the town hall, dressed in a white suit and white Stetson; in summer, he harangued them from the balcony of the town’s largest hotel while they nursed their beers in the crowd below. It must have been more fun than watching Q&A.

The late Donald Horne once remarked that the role of the politician is one of the most difficult imaginable. Any politician worth his or her salt, wrote Horne, must of necessity be a combination of huckster and prophet, and the one is useless without the other. The best politicians are dogged political warriors; flawed they may be, and unglamorous, but they are stayers, bulwarks of experience and stability in the system. It takes enormous nerve, patience and stamina to do the job under constant and often hostile scrutiny. There is no time to step away from the dogfight and reflect from a distance; as Paul Keating once opined, politicians have no sabbaticals. When I was an undergraduate, one of my lecturers told me that he had moved from one city to another because he had been promised a safe federal seat. When the time came to nominate, he confessed, his nerve failed him: he simply could not face that degree of public scrutiny. He was a decent man and I didn’t think less of him, but it’s a reminder that our system depends on people of quality being prepared to put themselves in the firing line.

Do we have a passion for our democracy? The American philosopher Richard Rorty thought democracy the only religion worth having (not least because it guaranteed the freedom of all other religions to co-exist). He argued for “pragmatic, anticipatory” optimists as opposed to “spectatorial” critics and doomsayers. An unrealistic culture of negativity, he writes, leads not merely to passivity but ultimately to a disabling fatalism, and fatalism is anathema to the American temperament. Indeed, it has long been an American practice to speculate on what it takes to foster a democratic personality type, but in our own more cynical culture we are better advised to talk about democratic competencies. Keating must have thought so, because he agreed to inaugurate a program of civic education called ‘Discovering Democracy’. This set of school materials eventually became available in the Howard era on an optional basis: the nominal take-up was around a mere 30% and the degree to which students were actually taught remains unknown. More recently, attempts have been made to formulate a civics component of the new national curriculum, but it’s still early days.

I have been known to ask people if they remember not their first sexual experience but their first vote. Hardly anyone can, and I am considered eccentric for asking. It’s not surprising, I suppose: Donald Horne said that ‘citizen’ was one of the most boring words in the English language. Still, I like a proposition put to me by one of Australia’s leading civil celebrants, Rona Goold. She thinks a little more civic ritual might be good for the national psyche. She would like to see a public ceremony where 18 year olds are presented with a formal token of citizenship and encouraged to celebrate their right to vote – no bunting, no brass bands, just a good old-fashioned party. Democracy has to be worth that much.

Amanda Lohrey

Amanda Lohrey is the author of The Reading Group, Camille’s BreadA Short History of Richard Kline, and the Quarterly Essays Groundswell and Voting for Jesus.

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