The first time I voted in a federal election was in December 1972. I had just graduated from university. In three undergraduate years, as a member of the turbulent Monash Association of Students, I had learned that there was deep artificiality in a political view that reduces debate to two sides. I cast my inaugural vote knowing that if the McMahon Liberal-Country Coalition were returned, I would have a National Service obligation to deal with. But then they lost to Gough Whitlam’s Labor and conscription was scrapped.
My judgement is tbis: ever since that 1972 loss, the Liberal Party, as well as their Country Party/ National Party allies, have persistently avoided the steep political learning curve that has been challenging them. The question is: how are they, as a party, to reform their contribution to Parliamentary democracy?
Oh yes, their parliamentary members are vocal advocates for the “Westminster” system, when it suits them, and they emphasize this, most notably, when Labor is sitting there opposite, as they smugly occupy the Treasury Benches. But since losing in 1972, the Liberal Party (and its coalition allies), have made a decisive shift away from their former Parliamentary modus operandi. Their political contribution in Opposition has been largely negative, and it involves a significant transformation of this polity to which Labor, to its ongoing discredit, has also capitulated. To put the new rule in simple terms: a Parliamentary party has one major purpose and that is to ensure a victory for its “side” next time!
So, the Opposition’s contribution to public governance has been transformed and the seats occupied in Parliament have become the springboard from which to eventually take over the reins of Government.
Do we need reminding about the conduct of the former Liberal Leader of the Opposition during the former Labor administration? And now many are rightly asking: what kind of party is it, that has countenanced such conduct? Allow such bullish tactics to be directed at political opponents and sooner or later members must expect similar tactics among themselves on their own “side”!
So Parliament is as much about winning elections as it is about public governance; no longer is it about keeping strictly to the promised legislative agenda of a party’s election platform. Flaunting the party’s platform is simply about winning next time; following the former PM’s core promises and non-core promises formula is par for the course. The main game in political deed – whether behind the scenes, in the lobbies and partyroom, giving interviews, tweating nonsensical tweats, and by oily words spoken in parliamentary debate – is simply to win next time around.
So this is how I, as a “baby boomer”, understand the strange political bewilderness that confronts us. “Revisiting” my experience as a first-time voter, I am reminded of trends that have developed and given shape to the dilapidated state of our political life in 2018.
My second time of voting in a federal election was in the double dissolution of May 1974. The victorious Prime Minister said the election result confirmed that from then on there would no longer be any “third parties” interfering with Australia’s Parliamentary politics: henceforth, there would be Labor and whomever would join forces to oppose the championing of progress and social justice. So much for Gough’s prophetic powers!
That Labor victory brought on a youthful political uneasiness which, I would learn later, was shared by Don Chipp and others. Had not the Liberal Party’s taken-for-granted ethic about parliamentary representation been compromised? The Liberal Party was changing its view about Parliamentary representation and that meant a change in its view of itself as a political party. There were Liberal Party dissenters. They emphasized that in our system the Lower House has work to do and its integrity should not be compromised by Opposition threats to supply. But that dissent did not carry the day and the Liberal Party’s new philosophy about itself as a party did not become part of political debate.
In the former view, the Parliamentary “wing” of a political party consists of elected MPs who are accountable, not firstly to their party, but to their electors. The Parliamentary process should not be used by the parliamentary wings of any party to further entrench it in our political system. Nor is it the task of Parliamentary members to jointly impose their preferred policies on the rank and file membership of their own party. It is not the task of the Parliamentary wing to usurp the task of the party membership to decide the principles upon which endorsed successful candidates should conduct themselves in the Parliament.
And the Liberal Party’s “crisis” was its departure from that view. That “crisis” would later on be overshadowed by the 1975 constitutional crisis that was unleashed by yet another Opposition threat to supply. To this day, the Liberal party’s “crisis” has seemingly remained outside the realm of political debate. And sadly, Labor has not seen fit to open up this glaring disparity.
Instead and sadly, Labor has joined in a bi-partisan failure to draw public attention to the principles upon which political parties should be making their contribution. Indeed, in our polity political parties are indispensable to statecrafting. Should they not be open and transparent democratic associations in conducting their affairs? Should they not be active in political education of the electorate? Why else are elections publicly funded?
For this Commonwealth, any political party should develop, in its own way, an organisational structure that prefigures the structure of our Federation. Our political federation is not a top-down system; it is a grant up from the states, (from the originating colonial governments); – or, at least, historically, it has been so. Since 1974-5, however, we have seen concerted efforts from “both sides” to transform politics into a top-down operation, and in that sense our political life has been persistently running against itself, against what is assumed by our federal constitution. In the process “both sides” are a kind of established church. This polity badly needs disestablishment!
The departure from a coherent parliamentary philosophy has been blatantly manifest by one recent leader, who complained that the people of Australia had “elected” him to the Prime Ministerial office. Such is the blurring rhetoric that condones political ignorance.
And then there was December 1975, following hot on the heels of November 11th of that year when the Governor General sacked the Labor Prime Minister. And so the Parliamentary Liberal-Country Party Coalition found themselves on the same political trajectory in which they have ever since been incapable of functioning as an Opposition. And, more’s the pity, they have been allowed to do this by a docile Australian electorate that now sees political parties as, at best, necessary evils.
Of course, the above is only part of our political story and needs further detailed elaboration and justification. And there are other issues, apart from the reform of political parties, that need consideration. But our tasks as accountable citizens must include efforts to find ways to tell our political story to encourage positive statecrafting for public justice for all and by all.
Bruce Wearne (BA, 1972), a former Monash University lecturer in sociology, lives in Point Lonsdale, from where he seeks to contribute to his local and wider community and by informal conversation on Point Lonsdale’s sea-side walking path.