Commenter ‘Gus’ has neatly appropriated the opening to my second essay on this subject. He says that the Australian political system is as it has been for at least the last half-century. What has changed is what he has called ‘customs, morals and the prevailing culture of the day’. Exactly so, but from my perspective not quite in the way that ‘Gus’ has presented his case.
There has been some media amusement at the political naivety of the incoming new Senators, especially those from PUP, and I saw only one or two comments to the effect that isn’t that what you’d expect from real representatives of the people? Politics and government have to be learned on the job. My first book was about a first-class political leader who was so innocent that on his first day he even mistook the building that held the NSW Parliament, and went to the wrong place.
Our current political parties are much less representative of the people than was the case fifty years ago. Most MPs and Senators today have entered Parliament though having served on the staff of an earlier politician, or through service as a union heavy of one kind or another. Some of them, I mention no names, seem to me to flexible enough to be on either side of the Speaker’s chair.
What do they stand for? I raised that issue in the first essay. The ALP has always been an undeclared coalition of those unhappy with the status quo, driven by Marx, Methodism, the very Irish Catholic Church in Australia, or the union movement. It has, and always has had, real problems of internal cohesion as a result. Its members agreed that they wanted a ‘fairer’ go for the ordinary Australian — rent control, access to medical care, a higher basic wage, unemployment insurance, and so on.
Today’s ALP seems to me to take the improvement in the economic standing , health and education of ordinary Australians for granted. And indeed a good deal of the old Labor Party’s concern for the ‘downtrodden’ has been achieved, by governments of both sides and through the hard work and enterprise of Australians of all kinds. What is Labor for today? Gay marriage. Emissions trading schemes and their outriders. ‘Restoring the rivers to health’. Saving the Barrier Reef. More benefits of all kinds and lower taxes. Help for those who care for the disabled.
If we set benefits and lower taxes aside, most of the rest are not, I think core concerns of ordinary Australians. And even ‘benefits’ turn out to be for this special group or that special group. I would be surprised if anyone much believed that Labor was a low-taxing party. There seems to me to be a real ‘disjunct’ between the way Labor presents itself and the daily concerns of ordinary Australians.
On the other side, the Liberal Party in Opposition throughout the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd period exemplified L. F. Crisp’s description of it sixty years ago simply as ‘Anti-Labor’. Yes, these were not Labor’s best years, but all anyone could reasonably take away from the politics of the time was that the Liberals wanted to stop the boats, end the carbon tax, and fix the budget. These are essentially negative positions. What were Liberals for? And why were they for it?
There is a decently positive position that a conservative, low-tax, small-government political party can put forward, and R. G. Menzies did it well nearly seventy years ago. So far the current Government has not done it at all well, and some might say, not done it at all. I wrote a piece about this recently.
Our current political system, in my opinion, is not functioning well. No one much wants to join a political party. What passes for political debate in Parliament is low-level stuff. The single-issue groups are alive and well, and their number grows. They know how to attract people, and how to gain media attention. Yes, there is a role for them, but they should not dominate politics.
There are important aspects of our system that are not receiving support. In whose interest is it to support tolerance of dissenting views? Who wants real political discussion and debate? The way in which ‘climate change’ has been addressed in Australia says it all. Shaddup! And we weakly go along with it. It seems to be agreed that in the division of labour that characterises modern societies politics is left to the politicians, while we go about our own lives.
The trouble with that is that we elect the politicians, and they are in an important sense responsible to us. Yes, we can kick them out if they behave badly, and that is what happened to Labor in 2013. I still think that there is an ‘Australia project’, whose point is the building of a more self-reliant, more creative and more tolerant society, and Australia has the experience, the talent and the wealth to be able to continue to do it. But neither side of our politics is engaged with anything like that, or so it seems to me.
If I’m missing something I’d be glad to have it pointed out. Maybe I’m just having a Grumpy Old Man moment.