Tasmanian Times

Education

Loving Our Democracy

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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

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18 Comments

18 Comments

  1. A.K.

    September 2, 2012 at 9:42 am

    #16,
    Garry #17 explained it quite well, in fact it would get to the stage where we wouldn’t need politicians, councilors or useless senior bureaucrats, saving hundreds of millions a year and heaps of economic and red tape time waste. All we need is people elected management for each department, to ensure implementation of decisions. These people would apply to run departments at 1-3 year elections according to their legally accountable business plans, making it simple for the people to decide who should run what and throw those out failing to do their job.

    It may require a couple of reps for things outside the state, but they would also be subject to the peoples decisions. With the number of online access centres we have, it gives those not on line the chance to be involved. If we made sure every house in Tas had the NBN, our state could easily be run so we get sensible informed decisions by the people, and not the useless ideological clones currently forced upon us by the primitive minded elites.

    On line discussions would empower the people to get involved, bring in new thought patterns and idea’s, add time limits for discussion and formulating policy wording, then we get real outcomes by the majority and not by small minded minority vested interests.

  2. Garry Stannus

    September 1, 2012 at 3:39 pm

    I’d welcome an Australia where we had a Bill of Rights existing as part of the Constitution at Federal, State and Local levels. I’d welcome Parliaments and Local Councils where our elected representatives discussed bills that came before each House/Local Govt body, following which all relevant stakeholders in the matter could vote on the particular bill. That is, you and me. The Parliament would be a forum for debate, then the citizens would decide. Votes could be submitted online, or at electoral offices.

    Those that didn’t want to vote, wouldn’t have to. If Karl or David (for example) didn’t care whether or not the IGA Bill for the forestry restructure and creation of reserves succeeded or failed or passed, then they could just ignore it. If they wanted to, they could suggest amendments, (just as can happen in most organisations). The politicians would once again discuss the pros and cons of the proposed amendments, then we’d decide on them and finally we’d vote on the Bill as modified. We could govern ourselves by letting those interested in particular issues, decide those issues. Perhaps, if the going got too tough, we could nominate one of the pollies to exercise a vote on our behalf, if we declined to exercise one ourselves. It’d be fun to sit down and devise a legal/social mechanism by which we could achieve something along these lines. I think we could do away with the Upper Houses – they wouldn’t be of much use in such a system. Of course, it goes without saying, that citizens should be able in the present system, (and also in my wished-for model), to introduce bills for consideration by the Parliaments, or Councils. It must have been a wonderful (and challenging time) time prior to Federation, when all those blokes with the long whiskers were drafting and arguing the Constitution that now binds us together!

    In short, I want a vote on policy, not the narrow choice we have now, where we just get to determine who’ll become our political leaders. In the meantime, I’d settle for Citizen Initiated Referenda and a Bill of Rights.

  3. TGC

    September 1, 2012 at 1:54 am

    #13 Explain “referendum style of government”
    or do you mean ‘CIR’?

  4. A.K

    August 29, 2012 at 11:19 pm

    #14
    They certainly won’t want either, change is something ideologically controlled humans fear most, yet they demand it. Nothing will change, just putting forward logical alternatives, no one will take them up or any others, unless they fit with the current status quo of politics. History proves that, over and over. All that changes is the kings new clothes and we all know what they are.

    People don’t want real change, you’ll still get the same complaints over and over on the same subjects, but nothing happens because no one actually puts forward, supports or does something logical other than whinge ans stick with the same failed approaches. They then dismiss everything other than what they are moaning about, the system and it’s outcomes. Merry go round society, in a revolving door lifestyle, propped up be denial.

  5. Justa Bloke

    August 29, 2012 at 1:09 pm

    Yeah, #13, but what happens when they don’t want either?

  6. A.K.

    August 28, 2012 at 9:46 pm

    #12
    Create a political system that gives them what they want, a say in what happens in our state. That can only be done with the introduction of a referendum style of government, then it is the peoples decision and no one else to blame.

    The only other options are more of the same, which in reality is a 3 faction ideological dictatorship. When you consider the number of members of all 3 parties, would number less than 10000, it’s obvious we are controlled by a small majority who use the accumulation of donated money to make sure the corporate elite get their way and bugger the future of the state and people..

  7. Justa Bloke

    August 28, 2012 at 2:18 pm

    How do you solve the dilemma which arises when a majority of the people reject democracy?

  8. A.K.

    August 28, 2012 at 1:16 pm

    #10
    Why would you be embarrassed by peoples right to think and determine for themselves, the majority of those fleeing their countries is because of the cultural and religious ideology they follow, which by definition and outcomes are violent destructive and suppressive.

    Yet these same people who want to come here, still wish to bring with them the same debauched suppressive practices, then contaminate and destroy Aus even more than the christian cult already has, to this once pristine island and country.

    It’s the sane future of this country we should be thinking of, not turning it into another cesspool of cultural and religious violence as we see encompassing the planet. Humans are only important if they are being progressively positive for the future, when you believe in mythical war gods, there is only one outcome and that is historically recorded around the planet.

    As long as unfettered human population growth at the expense of other forms of life continues, there is only one logical outcome, the collapse of the ecology and food chain. When that happens, will you be embarrassed at how shortsighted you are.

    Bringing more ideological humans into this country, will only accelerate the problems we are now facing and as these people contribute nothing but a burden on our welfare system, it creates an economic, welfare and health services black hole.

  9. Felicity Holmes

    August 28, 2012 at 11:55 am

    The SBS show “Go Back To Where You Came From” showed on SBS on Tuesday August the 28th 2012. Six Prominent Australians featured on this program and are being sent to war torn areas of the world to experience what it is like to be in these challenging cities.

    Some of the chosen Australians make me embarrassed to be Australian, so embarrassed to be a human being. I am sad and disgusted. These people are merciless and arrogant. There is no help for us when so many well known Australians are so openly racist and bigoted. I am so ashamed.

  10. john Hayward

    August 27, 2012 at 1:54 pm

    Party politics is a fairly vicious form of tribal warfare over the wellheads of power and wealth. As such, it doesn’t tend to attract the ethically refined.

    And it’s still evolving, as demonstrated by the Tas Libs’ proposal to legalise paintball warfare. From there, it’s an incremental step to swapping the paint for something a bit harder, suitable for the looming Gotterdammerung with the forces of genuine liberalism.

    John Hayward

  11. Robin Halton

    August 27, 2012 at 4:16 am

    #5 David I suspect the Greens having their annual conference at Forth last weekend thought there might be some gate crashing visitors challenging their increasing authority over the forests.
    The Liberal’s doors were open to all at their recent weekend turnout.

    Quite a big vote from the bush in the NT elections on the weekend, its amazing to see aboriginal Liberals! Benefits of greater shires (council amalgamations) pushed onto remote communities by Labor have not worked.
    After two centuries of settlement the government of the day fails to recognise distinct tribal values as a part of aboriginal culture!

    Good to see our PM finally asserting her leadership after the recent 50 minute interrogation re. past events when she was a union lawyer.
    I think that Tony Abbott is out of the race when Lee Sales got him the other night over his reasoning for the stalling of the Olympic Dam project. Tony and his Carbon Tax mantra again!

    Tasmanian politics seems to be failing us at all levels. Young Will needs to learn a few more tricks before becoming Premier taking away that ghastly woman Lara and those two Greens!

  12. TGC

    August 27, 2012 at 1:50 am

    The benefits of voting ‘informal’ are greatly overstated.

  13. Karl Stevens

    August 27, 2012 at 1:47 am

    David Obendorf 4. Interesting revelations. According to the writer of this article Australians should be queuing for hours to vote for leaders who will do anything except ‘sell their arse’ to be PM. Kinda reinforces my statements about the article.

  14. David Obendorf

    August 26, 2012 at 8:15 pm

    John Faulkner talks of the widespread cynicism in the electorate leading to an ‘erosion of trust in the political process itself’.

    In the recent Melbourne district Victorian by-election about one third of the electorate either did not bother to vote or voted informal. That’s 15,000 people out of 45,000 eligible voters decided not to vote or voted informally (by accident or design).

    As John Faulkner has been saying about politics in Australia [and Tasmania], it is on the nose. Party politicians are generally mediocre, inauthentic and populist.

    Gatekeeping is the order of the day in Aussie politics. Even the Greens don’t allow their Party Annual Conferences to be public; the Greens of all political Parties have closed doors.

    I will be deliberately voting informal at the next State election because of ‘the erosion of trust’ in the personalities and governance on offer in Tasmania.

  15. David Obendorf

    August 26, 2012 at 6:11 pm

    Karl Stevens if you want to research the hidden lives of politicians then you need go no further than Australian Liberal Prime Ministers William McMahon and Harold Holt.

    An articled clerk in Sydney law firm in 1967 was advised that wife, Zara was about to divorce Prime Minister Harold Holt. He saw the divorce papers. The novelty was Zara had named a man as co-respondent, not a woman.

    That political scandal was about to become public when Mr Holt disappeared. He was reported to be at a gay party the night before his disappearance. At the time none of this made the general press.

    Ironically, the Melbourne humour magazine, Tom Thumb, jokingly predicted a few months before his disappearance that Holt would be taken by a shark in January, 1968 while snorkelling off Portsea.

    Billy’s life may be revealed at another time.

    Now, back to the future… who was the federal politician who told the Independent MP for New England, Tony Windsor in 2010 the only thing he would [b]not[/b] to do to get into the Prime Minister’s job was ‘to sell my arse’. Perhaps a most unfortunate comment in the circumstances!

  16. John Biggs

    August 26, 2012 at 4:37 pm

    Amanda is so right on many issues, especially the role of the media in fouling the political process. However, I’m not so sure that the Westminster is in itself so democratic. First it is adversarial, which works when we have a clear two party system in which the two parties stand for two fairly equally balanced sections of society, such as the employers and the employed: one party standing for the former’s interests, and the other for the interests of the latter. Then you have a creative tension, which swings either way. However that is no longer true. Now both parties espouse neoliberalism, which allows market forces and brute strength to carry the day. That may be in the interests of shareholders but it is not in the interests of the general public who are left disenfranchised on so many important issues: Margiris, asylum seekers policies (Malaysia or Nauru – as if this were the main issue), forestry, mining, fracking, domination by two massive supermarket chains over the price of food, alcohol, damn near everything. Given this hugely powerful force that is common to both parties, the Westminster adversarial system is reduced to politicians finding differences where none exists in order to keep up the pretence of a two party system: thus the play on personalities, the quarrels and muckraking that marks current politics and the field day that a sensationalist and destructive press makes of it. Meantime, there are real issues that are not being addressed, or worse being marginalised: climate change is a terrific example, where 3 years ago the majority believed it was a vital issue, until first Rudd out of weakness and Abbott out of sheer bastardry coupled with an ultra right wing press turned public opinion right around. Likewise environmental issues hardly get a look in (ok, the marine parks but then look at what government is now allowing) and social justice, once the major plank in Labor’s platform, is now widely regarded as belonging to the Greens as a constructed loony left.

    The adversarial system in Westminster is now killing democracy and disenfranchising people. Society is now much more complexly structured, with more complex issues to address across a wide spectrum, than was the case when Westminster was derived. We need government on an issue by issue basis with alliances being formed across a multitude of representative areas. Oddly enough Hong Kong had something like that with its functional constituencies, except that there were many constituencies at the low end of town that weren’t represented and were non-functional, but that kind of model would work better than the shambles we now have.

  17. Karl Stevens

    August 26, 2012 at 3:00 pm

    This superficial piece by Amanda Lohrey goes nowhere towards informing the general public. Amanda may remember that Australia voted to be a monarchy as well as kind of pre-school democracy in a childish attempt to keep the past but hold on to the future as well. If she wants to know why people are cynical look at the RBA bribery allegations, the failed Iraq invasion, the overblown super top-ups for politicians, the endless coups and intrigue in parties as well as the sex lives of members coming back to haunt them. One thing I know is that the government can’t control what I do in a secret ballot. I’m a really informal person.

  18. A.K.

    August 26, 2012 at 1:22 pm

    How can you have a supposed democracy when you have preferential voting, the selling preferences for power gains and society under the control of a dual faction dictatorship.

    The only real democracy is when the people have a real equal say and not bribe (donations) paying vested interests and ideological elitist hacks.

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