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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 on current affairs, 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 small 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, a Westminster principle of cabinet solidarity that applies even more stringently.

Two recent surveys have highlighted a scary lack of political literacy in the broad electorate. In April of this year The Age reported some recent findings of Rebecca Huntley’s Ipsosorganisation in which members of focus groups complained that politicians ‘are only interested in power’ ( who would have thought?) and ‘squabble’ too much. Well, yes, the Westminster system is adversarial, it is institutionalized 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 moralizing is propagated. Must we remind ourselves that politics is war by other means? The genius of our political system is that it has evolved a civilized 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 the first half of 2012. It revealed that only 39 per cent of Australians aged 18 to 29 thought democracy was better than other forms of government.  Almost a quarter or 23 per cent believed that “for someone like me it doesn’t matter what kind of government we have”.  The Lowy Institute’s executive director Michael Wesley declared himself surprised 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 senior 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 surprised to discover that celebrants had first been appointed in the seventies: they thought we had ‘always had’ them. It further emerged that they thought we had ‘always had’ Medicare, no-fault divorce, equal opportunity, anti-discrimination legislation and a raft of other relatively recent reforms. It’s not surprising that a group of seventeen-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 the best politicians shape and advance a culture was almost entirely absent. Politicians did bad things 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 is 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 fear at both state and federal levels that it will lead to ‘ideology’ and a form of 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 of which is that all politics is inherently corrupt.

In his address to the H.V. Evatt Memorial Dinner on 28 April this year entitled ‘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, in his words, ‘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 that dominate Australian political discourse.

The first of these is that politics is a uniquely dirty pursuit largely confined to political parties which are on the whole 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 will become 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 speaks to this naïve distrust of deals and fixers in his Evatt address. He makes 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, ‘create(s) an atmosphere in which any actual progress or achievement becomes seen as evidence of cynical manipulation and grubby deals.’ He might well have quoted the culture critic Lionel Trilling who defined the liberal imagination that animates democracy as a faculty based on moral realism, by which he meant an openness to contradiction, paradox and complexity, along with an acceptance of the possible in any given situation while striving to make that possible as good as it can be.  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 who can make a deal stick 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 sphere the favorite type has long been the macho head-kicker and at times this can reduce political commentary to the cartoon level of Erik the Viking in which, say, former ALP leader Kim Beazley Labor lacks ‘ticker’ and former Liberal Treasurer Peter Costello hasn’t the cojones to formally challenge John Howard.  Running parallel to the macho type and sometimes merging with it, as in the case of former Prime Minister Bob Hawke is the Aussie larrikin, and for a time a version of this seemed to work for Julia Gillard. As 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 in his radio interviews with Gillard chortled at her quips 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 a Laurie Oakes to the stolid obviousness of a 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 of the favoured shibboleths of the pundits is that the membership of the major parties is declining because of factionalism and the dominance of apparatchiks.  Politicians used to be real people – train-drivers and corner-store grocers – but now they are young functionaries, university educated versions of the sorcerer’s apprentice who have alienated the grass roots. Little mention is made of historic changes that have transformed the social function of the modern political party.  When there was no television or internet citizens rarely got to observe their politicians, unless one came to visit a local branch of the party or give an address in the community hall. People came to branch meetings to form an opinion of their politicians, and sometimes because it was a night out, a chance to catch up with friends and hear the local gossip. Political parties organized 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. It takes enormous nerve, patience and stamina to do the job under constant and often hostile scrutiny. The best politicians are dogged political warriors; flawed they may be, and unglamorous, but they are stayers, a bulwark of experience and stability in the system. 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 up to that degree of public scrutiny. He was a decent man and I didn’t think less of him for this 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 it the only religion worth having (not least because it guaranteed the freedom of all other religions to co-exist within the one state). In his bookAchieving Our Countryhe argues 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 thirty per cent and the degree to which they 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 once said that ‘citizen’ was one of the most boring words in the English language. Still, I like the proposition put to me by one of Australia’s leading civil celebrants, Rona Goold.  She thinks we take our civil rights and responsibilities too lightly and that a little more civic ritual might be good for the national psyche. She would like to see celebrants officiating at a public ceremony where 18 yearolds are presented with a formal token of their 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.

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Amanda Lohrey is a writer. Her books include Reading Madame Bovary, The Reading Group and Camille’s Bread. Reproduced with permission of The Monthly