What sort of political system do we have? II

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.

Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • DaveW says:

    Hi Don,

    The political malaise that you point to is also characteristic of the morass of US politics and possibly also in the UK (I can’t figure David Cameron out, but he doesn’t seem especially attached to traditional conservative values). I would agree that the rise of a class of professional politicians with little experience of life outside of politics is likely a major cause. Another is the interweaving of the professional politicians, corporate boards, media and academia. The public broadcasters and universities in all three of these countries have been captured by the party of choice of the urban elites and are used to promote their causes and to crush any dissenting views. It is rather like a Soviet style Nomenklatura. It’s no wonder we get incompetent and corrupt government.

  • Gus says:

    Don: “Exactly so, but from my perspective not quite in the way that ‘Gus’ has presented his case.”

    Me: Well, I expanded somewhat on “customs, morals and culture of the day…” in my comment on your previous article, and rather in this (traditional) sense, but I see what you’re really driving at in this one. Let me add some additional comments then.

    Don: “There has been some media amusement at the political naivety of the incoming new Senators…”

    Me: You know, in the US, we have a President like this, but most media seem rather oblivious to it.

    Don: “What were Liberals for? And why were they for it?”

    Me: Good question. I always wondered about this, when I lived in Australia. So, it’s not new. Back then, in the glorious days of the Hawke-Keating government, the Liberals were in the opposition and so, they opposed. But they never opposed effectively, because they never projected their own convincing, or *any*, come to think of it, alternative. They never said what they would do that would be different from what the government was doing. Later, when Howard became the leader, upon his Lazarus style resurrection, they talked of small business more, but eventually when people voted for them it was because they got bored with Keating. Literally: I asked a colleague, a distinguished professor at the ANU, why he voted for Liberals at the time and he said, well, let’s give the other lot a chance.
    Is this any way to vote?
    A party should have a well defined ideology. In countries such as Australia and the US–though not recently in the latter case–parties tend to shy away from it, for fear of alienating swing voters, so their image tends to be wishy-washy. But the result is that when you enter the electoral booth, you seldom have a good enough reason to vote for this rather than the other lot, so you either throw a coin, or say, “let’s give the other lot a chance.”
    In contrast, the US conservatives, nowadays, who do constitute a good portion of the Republican Party, are quite ideological, as are, more recently, the Democrats. And this is pretty much in response to each other: as Democrats pull more towards environmentalism, larger and more intrusive federal government, open assault on the society’s traditional values, reclusive foreign policy, extensive social wage, and the like, the conservatives pull strongly against it and… FOR small, un-intrusive government, support for traditional family values, balanced budget, more involved foreign policy (though not all conservatives are for it), smaller taxes, social support for the truly needy only, and so on.
    Consequently, when you go to the booth you do have to make a choice, because you know that whoever you elect will pull in this or that direction. They may not get all they want, they may not get all YOU want, but they’ll try. There is a well defined political polarization in the US, at least today…
    It is interesting that this happens in spite of there being no real party discipline in the US politics and no real party leadership. At the same time, in Australia, there is party discipline and all parties have their leaders. Everybody knows who they are. And the leaders define party politics and party image. So the parties in Australia are pretty much what their leaders want them to be.
    This is why Australian Liberals (not to be confused with American Liberals, an umbrella term for America’s Left) have always appeared to be so wish-washy. They don’t want to *look* ideological, because, I think, they perceive Australian society to be un-ideological, like my ANU colleague. The positioning is such that the electorate is expected to turn back to them when it becomes clear that the country needs to be professionally managed and the time for silly experiments and political grand-standing is over.
    As to Labor, do I detect a particular gripe in this direction?, they lost the last election so brutally and deservedly because they have become all you say about them! Indeed.

    • PeterE says:

      The Labor Party was once the party of the working man, seeking to ensure that he had the necessities for a happy life. It then became the party of’ ‘vision,’ with great big ideas for the collective future that required heaps of new taxes. The working man was forgotten. The core of the Liberals, as propounded by Menzies, was good, practical management of the things that Governments have to manage leaving great space for the individual to carve out his own prosperity. This remains the case, although those Libs calling for a ‘broad church’ stray into the vision thing and spoil the message. When either party becomes ‘ideological’ it is punished. This was the case with the carbon tax and before that the attempt to free up industrial relations with ‘work choices.’ Abbott is going in the right direction. More power to his arm.

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