This the first of a two-part essay on the current Australian political system.

When I was first interested on politics in the 1950s, it all seemed pretty simple. There was Labor and Anti-Labor, with the Country Party serving as the rural tail of the Liberals. You were Protestant or Catholic. You left school at fifteen,  or you went on (in consequence you were blue-collar or white-collar). You were probably a union member if you were a worker. Your sympathies were to the Left or to the Right. Republicans were just about invisible. You probably inherited your family’s political sympathies, as you ingested many other of their habits, opinions and prejudices.

We called ourselves a ‘democracy’, and our leaders called on us to recognise that we had the best political system in the world. I knew no better, and hadn’t yet travelled. It was probably true, I thought. Actually, just about every country called itself a ‘democracy’, but we knew what the word really meant. My grandfathers were  miner and a railways blacksmith, my parents were teachers in the NSW public sector, so my family sympathies were towards Labor. But I grew up in a country town set in the heartland of the Country Party, and I recognised the contrast between City and Country whenever we went to Sydney, where a lot of my relatives lived. In Rugby League I was, and still am, a Country supporter, though that match has been completely overshadowed by the State of Origin series.

I became a student of politics, and eventually taught it at university. In my view parties did a most useful job for us, in sorting out the manifold issues that faced our society, processing them so that they made some kind of sense, and implementing policies that flowed from the issues. So the question became ‘Which party would do this best?’ A common claim from the knowledgable was that the best government was a Coalition one putting Labor policies into practice.

That was forty years ago. Things had changed a great deal even in the 1970s. The feminist movement was gaining strength, contraception in control of women allowed them to decide when to have a baby (and with whom, as well). More and more people went to university; television became widespread; many more Australians travelled overseas. The voting age came down to 18; fewer people went to church; Marxism became intellectually respectable; universities moved slowly to the Left.

A lot more has changed since then. Globalism, intensified by new and powerful communication technologies, has made it seem, for many at least, that our country is almost irrelevant in the wider scheme of things. We now have 23.5 million people with an extraordinarily wide range of interests. A decently large newsagency can have as many as 2,000 different magazine titles on sale at the same time. Marriage is now an option for people who want to live together, and if they are from the same sex, well, so what. Manners are a matter of choice, as are dress, food and drink. Drugs? Whatever.

In place of Christianity have come environmentalism and internationalism, creeds which are sometimes passionately adhered to. Well-educated, relatively well-off and self-confident people are now much surer that they are right, about whatever they are now speaking, than their parents would ever have been about most things. And social media allow people to form alliances and protest groups without having to meet one another first. ‘Protest’ is the new thing. If you aren’t protesting about something it is plain that you don’t have a life.

I have only sketched the important changes here, because my real focus is on the political system, which I think is having a hard time of it. It seems to me that single-issue politics has taken the place of party politics. Few people belong to the ALP or the other parties compared with the situation half a century ago. But there must be a thousand or more single-issue groups, and all of them seem to want ‘government’ to do something for them, while governments and opposition parties look to them to provide electoral support in return for services rendered, or promised.

We have had a bountiful twenty years since the World’s Greatest Treasurer warned us of the recession that we had to have, and there seems to be a feeling that budgets don’t matter. There’s always money, and there has to be money for what this or that group wants. Politicians have not been greatly liked in my time, though a good local member will always have wide  support both through the numbers of people he or she has helped, and the reputation that flows from that work.

But the animosity towards politicians of both sides that I have seen in the media since Kevin ’07 fell from grace has no counterpart that I can remember. Mr Abbott is now garnering the same kind of media treatment that he helped to generate for his predecessors as PM when he was the Leader of the Opposition. He had a splendid opportunity to set out why his Government would be different, and to show it in action; so far he has fluffed it.

The major parties themselves resemble professional football teams. What exactly do they stand for? When we know what that is we might be able to see to what extent they practise what they preach. My view is that they stand for very little other than the absolute need to be in power.

Managing a national government is not easy anywhere, at any time. But for the last few years we have seen a lot of disorganised government, sometimes almost chaotic. It’s not enough to have adults running things; the adults need to have a clear and consistent view of what they are doing, and why they are doing it. That we don’t have.

Join the discussion 11 Comments

  • Malcolm Miller says:

    Power is far more important than policy, it seems. Since when has an Australian political party gained government because of support for its clearly stated policies?

  • whyisitso says:

    Contrary to what Don implies, Rudd was no means our first hated politician. He was fairly lightly treated compared with John Howard, the hatred of whom was poisonous, particularly within left-wing professions such as journalists, teachers, public servants and academics.

    At the moment Australia has no federal government. It has a coalition with a majority in the House of Representatives, and this enables it to manage laws that already exist through the public service, but not to implement new laws or change existing laws.

    There is some advantage for us with the coalitions’ majority in the lower house, in that we no longer have to put up with the destructive law-making of the previous government. For that reason alone I hope we don’t have a DD, which would almost certainly bring us back to the Rudd/Gillard era, and I think Bill Shorten would be worse than those two.

    Australia is essentially a socialist country, whose citizens expect “government” to solve all our problems, including personal one.

    I’m old now (although slightly younger than Don), and feel I’ve seen the best Australia has had to offer. We appear to be going downhill from here.

  • Mike O'Ceirin says:

    Why is it that governments now think they can implement without explanation. Blatant lies from Labor and do as you told from all.

  • Gus says:

    What sort of political system do we have?

    Well, I’d say, the system is pretty much still the same it’s been for half a century now: multi-party, with two leading parties and smaller attachments that play within the Senate, but less so in the House, the Nationals excepted, as they are in coalition with Liberals and comprise a good chunk of it. A more important aspect of the system, I think, is how the executive branch of the government is formed. In Australia, following other parliamentary systems based on the British tradition, the executive branch arises from the House: every government minister must be an elected representative, including the Prime Minister, who has to be a house member too.

    This is different in the US, where the executive forms around a single nationally elected figure, the President, and his “ministers,” called “secretaries,” are nominated, not elected. Since the President can represent a party that’s different from the House majority, a conflict arises, and this has been pretty much what we’ve seen in the US politics for decades. This is then compounded by a conflict between the House and the Senate. Whereas an underperforming Prime Minister can be replaced by his colleagues, or sacked by the Governor General, the US President cannot be removed this easily. The impeachment is only the same as indictment. This must be followed by a Senate trial and 2/3rd of the Senators must agree if the President is to be removed from office.

    Both systems, however, are similar in their federalism: the country is divided into states, each with its own local, democratically elected government, attending to local affairs.

    But what Don writes about in the article above is… customs, morals and the prevailing culture of the day. Of course, they affect the society’s values and choices, which, in turn, project on who is elected to the Parliament. But have things really changed also regarding the Left-Right division of the society?
    We still have employers and employees. We still have owners and the disowned. Ownership of the means of production is as important today as it has always been. People who have to work for living are as trapped and as dependent on their employers and land lords as they have always been.

    Amongst the capitalists of the society is the State, oftentimes one of the most powerful influencers and drivers of the country’s economy. But this has always been so in the past. The Crown in Britain, for example, influenced the country’s economy by its great wealth, and, of course, political power it held. But there is one factor that differentiates the State from other capitalists. The State is financed by tax-payers money, which all country’s citizens and residents are *forced* to pay. So, the State is quite isolated from the consequences of its economic decisions: it may fail to sell its goods, but the money will come in anyway. Obviously, this is not the case with other capitalists: if they make wrong decisions and lose the market, the company and their investment in it goes down the gurgle. They do not have a guaranteed source of income, unless… they are a monopoly, like the State.

    Now, what about the new customs and morals? They are all intellectual garbage of the Hippie generation of the 1960s and 70s, brought to life by the simple fact of their ascendancy to power, not by merit, but because the older, better generation, retired and died out. Broken families, abandoned children, perversions, single mothers dumped by their partners, drugs: this is the hallmark of the Counter-culture Revolution, a Revolution that produced perhaps the worst, the most useless generation in centuries. But whereas this generation has its impact, they do not have the whole world to themselves, luckily. Not even in the countries where they are most numerous. As they bring their societies to ruin, which is inevitable given their dilettantism, incompetence, and the damage they’ve inflicted on their societies already, other societies, with better people and less corrupt culture, will ascend.

    Within the US, the divorce rate is astronomical. The country has never had so many single mothers before. The drug use is endemic and it drives drug-related violence in the US and in Latin America. Less than a half of the US adults have a full time job. But the country does have its conservatives too who have been fighting this blight for decades and sometimes they do get the upper hand. The US Tea Party movement, rooted in the constitutional traditions of the country, is a visceral reaction to what goes on, to the insatiable growth of the Federal Government and to the culture of debauchery and permissiveness that permeates the Left side of the US politics today.

    In the US, the Culture War is real, as is the War on Terror. It will not end by one side declaring foolishly that “the war is over.” This is *not* how wars come to end. A war ends only if *both* sides agree to not fight it any more.

    • dlb says:

      Talking of wars, who were the individuals in the USA that thought they could bring peace and stability to places like Iraq and Afghanistan? This doesn’t sound like the leftie, hippie generation to me.

      And we talk about the Greens being deluded.

      • Gus says:

        I’d say, not only Iraq and Afghanistan were in a much better shape when W. left office than they are today. The whole world was way more stable and in a better shape too. What we’re seeing today in the world, the result of 6 years of mismanagement, escapism, incompetence and plain stupidity on the side of Obama’s leftist administration, is total mayhem. I can’t remember, and I have a long memory, the world, the US and America’s allies being ever in such a perilous situation, and so threatened with general instability since the end of the Vietnam War.

    • DaveW says:

      Hi Gus,
      You make some good points, but I don’t think causality is so easily inferred and blaming the ‘hippies’ is misguided. Some good came out of the 1960-1970s, e.g. the end of racism as an appropriate behaviour, increased environmental concerns, decreased air pollution and lots of great technology (and possibly some great music). The current drug problem is very reminiscent of Prohibition in levels of violence and corruption and the cartels and their bloodshed are mostly a post ‘counter-culture’ phenomenon.
      Hippies were always a minority, a rather small minority in their generation, and more libertarian-anarchist than anything else. The basic hippie ethos was ‘do your own thing and let others do the same’. Maybe they can be blamed for more drug use, they were for legalizing dope, but they weren’t responsible for the unending growth of government power – Eisenhower was warning about this long before there were any hippies. The Counter-Culture was against government power. Its practitioners thought racism was bad and being gay was okay, but would have been against racial vilification laws or forcing gay marriage on everyone. I never met a hippie who thought you could legislate morality.
      You are blaming the wrong generation – the boomers are mostly over the hill or dead. Clinton was part of that generation, but no hippie and his moral laxity was no worse than JFKs. He even managed to balance the budget now and then. Obama isn’t a hippy, just a flaky party apparatchik and ideologue. Blame his generation and ideology. They are the ones that, for example, infiltrated the Environmental movement, forced out the hippies, and turned it into the corporate monster it is today.
      There is nothing ‘counter culture’ about crony capitalism; the revolving door between government, industry and academia; or the strident harping of academic marxists. That is where the moral decay comes from and it arises directly from uncontrolled government growth abetted by the rise of a powerful urban elite (from Hollywood to New York), the failure to curb judicial activism, and the difficulty of throwing out the bastards out because of the power of incumbency and media hegemony.

      • Gus says:

        “Clinton was part of that generation, but no hippie and his moral laxity was no worse than JFKs.”
        I never said anything positive about JFK. A rich, spoiled kid. Such people are never any good. His presidency was an unmitigated disaster.
        Now, when you talk about “strident harping of academic Marxists…” I’d say, it wouldn’t be so bad if they were really Marxists. But they aren’t. The New Left today, as Albert Langer points out, and who is more Marxist than himself, is very different from their Marxist predecessors. The New Left’s obsessive environmentalism, bordering on fascism, their assault on traditions and morals of the western society (somehow they see nothing wrong with how Moslems treat their women and how Moslems impose their cult by force and terror), their war against family, their permissive attitudes towards drugs and sexual perversions, and, first and foremost, their war against prosperity, rooted in their environmentalism… no, real Marxism wouldn’t have any of that.
        The goal of Marxism always was to bring prosperity to the masses. Where Marxism failed was in its belief that state ownership of means of production would do better than private ownership. It’s interesting and pointing that the Chinese leadership abandoned this doctrine and, effectively, returned China to capitalism. There is more capitalism in China today, both in absolute and relative terms, than in France.
        The New Left doesn’t care for the masses and for prosperity. It is an elitist movement, contemptuous of working people and their aspirations, Green Gentry, as Joel Kotkin calls them. On the contrary, seeing the failure of Marxism, their new doctrine is that affluence itself is sin, it shouldn’t be aspired to, and that societies should be de-industrialized, de-populated and impoverished: basically, they want to see the return to some kind of a utopian, medieval society, of course, with themselves on top. It wouldn’t be fun otherwise, would it? Khmer Rouge is the closest that I can think of. The New Left hates China for their success, for their growing affluence, for their turn to capitalism.

        • DaveW says:

          Hi Gus,
          I agree with you about the academic marxists. That’s why I use lower case. Most seem to hate the working class, even the trade unionists that prey on them just mouth the words while they steal their pensions.

          The Green mythos is very strange, but slightly reminiscent of the hippies and their ‘Turn on, tine in, drop out’ mantra, but rather than dropping out, they want everyone else to disappear.

  • […] would be talking about his ‘five-year plan? — shades of Joe Stalin! I have written before (here and here) that the old assumption about our long-lived two-party system — that it sorted out the […]

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