The Politics    Thursday, December 1, 2016

Closed government

By Michael Lucy

Closed government
Disparaging protest won’t do much for the parliament’s public standing

This morning, protesters from the Whistleblowers, Activists and Citizens Alliance – a pro-asylum seeker group who oppose offshore detention and boat turnbacks and who were behind yesterday’s interruption to Question Time – strolled up the gentle grassy slope of the Parliament House roof and hopped over the edge to abseil down the front of the building and unfurl a banner above the entrance that read “CLOSE THE BLOODY CAMPS NOW”. At the same time, co-agitators in the forecourt below dyed the pond red and stood in it, holding signs that read “Turnbacks are MURDER”, “World leaders in CRUELTY” and so on. It was a good protest – a small number of determined people used a bit of civil disobedience and a well-designed photo opportunity to get attention for an issue they care about, even if the content has since been overtaken by debate about the methods.

In a coincidence that also feels like a rather heavy-handed piece of symbolism, the legislators inside Parliament House today voted to approve a series of security measures that will include large fences to restrict public access to the rooftop lawns. These lawns were designed – in a no less heavy-handed piece of symbolism – to let the people walk above the heads of those who govern them. Malcolm Turnbull also said that, after yesterday’s protest, a glass barrier between the public gallery and parliamentarians would be considered.

Turnbull also expressed surprise that the protesters had apparently not been charged with any crime. Bill Shorten called yesterday’s protests “the exact opposite of democracy” (which sounds like nothing so much as “You can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”), while “outrageous” and “selfish” were Barnaby Joyce’s words of choice. Our leaders do not have a great deal of tolerance for dissent outside normal channels.

In the last day or two you might also have read about a report on the state of the ideological underpinnings of democracy in several countries, including Australia. Among other things, it makes the case that younger people in many countries are much less likely than older people to say that it is “essential” to live in a democracy. In Australia, for example, around 75% of people born in the 1930s believe democracy is essential, as opposed to around 40% of people born in the 1980s. (Others argue that the situation isn’t quite as bad as the report makes out.)

One of the researchers says that, while the Australian situation is not as bad as in some other countries due to our greater sense of egalitarianism, “People don’t have the same negative experience of authoritarian rule and that has led to complacency regarding democracy and democratic stability.”

It’s true enough that as World War Two passes from living memory, the reflexive fear of authoritarianism is fading. It may also be the case that young people, in particular, don’t have positive experience of feeling represented in a democracy. In 1993, a third of voters were over 50; now it’s about half. That’s a lot of power shifting up the population pyramid.

If people don’t feel that this actually existing democracy is doing a good job of serving their interests – and it’s hard to say that ours is, for under-30s who can’t get a decent job or buy a house, who will have to live with the consequences of our failure to address climate change, and yes, whose desire for minimal ethical standards in the treatment of asylum seekers is ignored by the powers that be – then how long will they keep admiring the ideal of democracy?

This is a large problem – young people are hardly the only ones excluded by the worsening failure of our political parties to serve as a link between the people and executive and legislative power – and it is not one that will be addressed by letting people walk on top of Parliament House.

But it is a problem that will be worsened by the symbolic and practical exclusion of unapproved voices. If our parliamentarians have an interest in the ongoing success of the democratic project, the least they could do, when someone goes out of their way to grab them by the lapels and make them listen, is to pay them a bit of respect.


Today’s links

Listen to The Politics Podcast, with Rachel Withers

Michael Lucy

Michael Lucy is a writer based in Melbourne.


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