IAN McAULEY.  Reminder to Peter Dutton and Scott Morrison: Australia is a parliamentary democracy

On the last sitting day of Parliament, the Government took extraordinary measures to block a vote on a bill to ease the medical evacuation of asylum-seekers on Manus Island and Nauru. The Government’s terror of losing a vote on the floor of the House reveals a dangerous misunderstanding of the workings of our parliamentary democracy.

The 2018 parliamentary year ended in chaos. On the last sitting day Morrison filibustered and called an early close to the House of Representatives, promising to do “everything in my power” to prevent a vote on the bill to speed up medical evacuation of refugees and asylum-seekers in Australia’s offshore concentration camps.

That means we have to wait until Parliament resumes on February 12 to see the fate of this bill. If no crossbenchers change their mind, and if there are no deaths or defections from Labor and the Greens, the bill will almost certainly become law.

Journalists will hope for high drama. Many have already suggested that passage of this bill would be, de facto, a vote of no confidence in the Morrison Government. They point to the last occasion, in 1929, when after losing a substantive bill in the House, the conservative Bruce Government interpreted it as a vote of no confidence and went to an election, which they lost.

No doubt there are many Australians, fed up with the Morrison Government’s political and policy performance, who would gladly see this crowd thrown out of office – the sooner the better so that a new government, run by adults, can get to work on shaping responsible public policy. There’s a mounting backlog of work to be done on energy, taxation and other matters which have been unattended since the Dutton-Morrison coup in August. Six months is a long time to go without effective government.

But Labor has wisely refused to define the issue as one of confidence. The situation in 1929 was entirely different, because the bill in question was a serious one. In a monumental conflict with the unions the Bruce Government’s Maritime Industries Bill was promising to do away with all federal awards and to abolish the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. Stanley Bruce (“First Viscount Bruce of Melbourne”) lost the vote because of rebellion in his own party, instigated by the irascible Billy Hughes.

By contrast the bill drafted by Phelps and other so-called “crossbenchers” is hardly a major policy shift. In relation to border security it maintains the “turn back the boats” policy, and even maintains offshore processing. It puts some constraints on the operation of that policy, in line with the general moral principle asserted by most religions and by secular philosophies, that people should not be subjected to cruelty in order to achieve public policy ends.  (That’s a deontologicalrather than a teleologicalmoral framework in the language of political philosophers.)

Passage of the bill could result in some minor weakening in our border protection, but as Abul Rizvi, former Deputy Secretary of the Department of Immigration points out in Pearls and Irritations, Dutton’s political obsession with boat arrivals masks a general weakening of our visa control system – a weakening revealed by a huge number of “unmeritorious” asylum-seeker applications from people arriving by conventional means and aggravated  by staff budget cuts in his portfolio. If you’re an asylum-seeker arriving on a leaky boat you’re sent to indefinite offshore detention, but if you’re an asylum-seeker who has shopped around and contracted with a smarter people smuggler who lined you up with a seat on a Boeing 777 you are allowed to wait it out in Australia.

A conspiracy theorist might see Dutton’s decision to cut back on operations by Border Force vessels as a bait to entice a people smuggler’s boat to turn up on our shores. That would be politically convenient, but it’s unlikely that such a conflict-ridden government could manage such a conspiracy.

Perhaps Labor’s motives for not pushing the confidence issue is driven by a calculation that it’s in Labor’s interest not to call an early election, because it sees the possibility of tough economic times in the coming months. There is general economic uncertainty internationally and locally there is concern that our high household debt and falling housing prices will have adverse economic consequences. Because our debt-fuelled housing boom has been driven by the Coalition’s irresponsible policies on “negative gearing” and capital gains taxation, it makes sense for Labor to wait until the consequences of that irresponsibility are known to the electorate.

As a footnote to the 1929 situation, if only Labor had held off, the Bruce Government would have still been in office as the Depression developed. The Scullin Government would therefore not have borne the blame for the misery of the Depression, and would have been re-elected in 1932, saving Australia from the destructive austerity of the conservative Lyons Government. It doesn’t want to suffer the fate of Scullin, Whitlam and Rudd in being assigned the blame for economic failures resulting from the policies of conservative governments. Scullin, Whitlam and Rudd have all had the bad luck of being elected just on the brink of bad economic downturns.

Whatever Labor’s political motives, the most important principle at stake is to allow Parliament to function as the nation’s law-making authority. Australia is a parliamentary democracy, not an elected dictatorship. Executive government is subservient to Parliament – a fundamental aspect of our democracy not grasped by Morrison who is so terrified of losing a vote. Nor is it grasped by Dutton who said, in relation to the bill, “I’ve always seen Parliament as a disadvantage, frankly, to sitting government”.

At least Dutton is honest about his contempt for our system of democracy.

If Morrison and his cabinet have respect for parliamentary democracy, come February they will not try to thwart passage of this bill. It’s quite reasonable that they might argue against the bill, but they should not see it as a make-or-break issue. They would be helped if the media weren’t to beat it up as a confidence issue and if they didn’t use such silly terms as “hung parliaments”, “crossbenchers”  or even “crossing the floor”, implying that anything that departs from the Westminster model of competing rugby teams is an aberration. We elect people to parliament, most of whom belong to political parties (with varying intensity of attachment), some of whom do not.

At the federal level, the Gillard Government understood the nature of parliamentary democracy, as have a number of state governments, Labor and Coalition, but it seems to be a hard concept for the Federal Coalition.

If Morrison persists with his petulance in relation to this bill (or any other bill not initiated by his cabinet), it would be remiss of our elected representatives not to move and support a separate motion of no confidence – not on the substance of the bill, but on the overarching issue of contempt for Parliament.

Over six years the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison Government has been undermining our democratic institutions. Most of these institutions have had to succumb to budget cuts and partisan appointments. Parliament, at least, has the authority and capacity to stand its ground.

 

Ian McAuley is a retired lecturer at the University of Canberra and a fellow of the Centre for Policy Development.

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