Aristotle’s citizens and the Constitution

The renowned British economist Martin Wolf, writing in the Financial Times last weekend, has warned that a possible consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic is that “Democracy will fail if we don’t think as citizens”.By citizens he is thinking of a stable middle class without which the state, any true democratic state, risks succumbing to plutocracy.

For this insight he cites the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle:

“It is clear then that the best partnership in a state is the one which operates through the middle people, and also that those states in which the middle element is large, and stronger if possible than the other two together, or at any rate stronger than either of them alone, have every chance of having a well-run constitution”.

This is a timely observation for Australia where we have again witnessed the operation of a dysfunctional constitution and a down at heel party political system. The descent of the middle classes since their heyday as the ‘forgotten people’ as spoken for by Prime Minister Menzies in founding the Liberal Party after WW2, is a profound illustration. It also affects the Labor Party, as once the idealism of political parties wears off they are captured by apparatchiks who stealthfully acquire and consolidate unassailable power positions in a party, in the Parliament and eventually the electorate.

So much so that the people’s normal political instincts may be smothered, leaving little interest or incentive to participate in the system. Currently in a national electorate of some 16,540,800 eligible voters, the Liberal Party has some 50,000 members and the Labor Party some 53,000 – mere fractions of the population who control parliamentary preselections and public policy making in their respective enclaves. What drives the parties is power through electability. The latter does not require honest argument through leadership. It requires skilful manipulation of public opinion, promising the people what they think they want using scare tactics where possible.

Looking back over half a century or more at half informed electorates fed with stories of Soviet/Australian communists under the bed, the downward thrust of Asian communism through Vietnam, and equally fearful threats emanating from the whole of the Middle East, cementing as it did the US alliance as an existential necessity – regardless of misdirected military campaigns, high costs in funds, and more so in human tragedy. Much of this has gone down well in a celebrity culture driven by identity politics where at regular intervals one or other party is delivered government, tenuously in terms of their stated policy platforms. The Labor Party can hardly be excused from this degenerative process for at no time in recent decades have they dared seriously to challenge conservative government dogma on defence and foreign policy. Too comfortable it seems with outcomes as they are.

So one might observe that all this time business has prospered, trade has flourished, and living standards by and large have risen and risen. These were the good times for which some had to pay but not too many. The system has remained intact, the left and right of politics have tended their gardens, and even a Constitutional crisis like that of 1975 was allowed to fade away without significant challenge or national soul searching. Any dangerous implications were put on the back burner to await another time should it come.

Well another time, a truly serious time, has come, hosted by a viral pandemic. Could we have seen it coming? Should we have reformed our Constitution and placed it better to deal with federal complexities in a world much changed since 1901? For instance, the confusion surrounding the operation or otherwise of Section 92 of the Constitution, concerning freedom of movement and internal border controls as they affected particularly health management in the States. This confusion should not have arisen as it did, prejudicing the demanding work of medical teams and their associated workers, noble citizens writ large, who with the community deserved better. The purposes of Section 92 should be redefined, otherwise further encroachments on human rights in that area will remain ungoverned.

Reverting to 1975, the Constitution’s fragility was vividly revealed by the recent release of “Kerr’s Palace Letters” whereby it was shown how a Government with a majority in the House of Representatives could be removed under extraneous Palace influence over the exercise of an unspecified prerogative power devised originally for the British Raj and unleashed here on an unsuspecting public – essentially to preserve the ‘prerogatives’ of the ‘ruling classes’ as Aristotle might have put it. This was condoned even though the Senate’s obstruction of Supply was possible only because of clear breaches of the convention relating to the replacement of deceased Senators. Even if Kerr’s motivation was partly due to concerns on the part of the security/intelligence services about losing their too intimate links with America’s CIA, it was not for a Governor-General to usurp the role of a Prime Minister on that matter by exploiting a colonial power deemed for another purpose. This was the ‘dark state’ at work.

Coming back again to Aristotle, where does this leave the strong middle classes, still effectively under-represented? Their treatment during the pandemic has been poor enough. But the fallout due to lost employment, destroyed businesses and, at times, intrusive police enforcement is a starting point for a review. The income support measures initiated by the governments partially reflect the notion that the welfare of the people is a primary responsibility. But that fell away somewhat when the going kept going and got tougher. There has been insufficient thought given to, or acknowledgement of, the fundamental change of circumstances that is occurring in Australia’s economy and society.. This is indicative of old-think about social welfare, based on ‘just’ deserts and the assumption that the poor or needy (the invisible people) should only get their just deserts, if that. This approach should break down when their predicament, their loss of jobs, homes and security are destroyed by exogenous factors, through no fault, such as is the situation today with respect to pandemics, bushfires and similar national disasters.

This too is where a strong and large middle class should step in and see that these situations imply a community wide duty, not to cavil at but to provide adequate material and moral support wherever it is required. Citizenship is not zero-sum in its being.

Perhaps this is what prompted Laura Tingle, a leading ABC and Australian Financial Review political analyst, to ask of the Government (AFR and ABC Digital, 18/7): “…what is an adequate level of support for almost two and a half million people receiving the (present welfare) supplement who may well need it for a lot longer? “If it goes”, she says, “all those people will find themselves living in what is officially classed as poverty, including more than a million children”. That kind of number, she concludes, should not be invisible.

Nor should it be invisible to Aristotle’s citizens either.

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Andrew Farran is former diplomat, trade adviser to government and senior academic (public law including international law).

Writes extensively on international affairs and defence, contributing previously to major newspapers (metropolitan and rural). Formerly director of major professional publishing company; now of a major wool growing enterprise.

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