Bruce Wearne. Politics for Government or Politics for Politics?

At the election of December 1975, the Australian electorate confirmed the sacking of the Whitlam Government. It was an implicit “thumbs up!” to Malcolm Fraser and those on his “side” of politics. Whatever the actual cause of the constitutional crisis that engulfed Australian politics, the result of that election meant an implicit electoral endorsement of the conduct of Malcolm Fraser and his “side” in that crisis. These were the parliamentarians who were elected to get us beyond the political instability they had engineered.

Well may we remember “It’s time!” Those events of 40 years ago continue to resonate today. The Liberal-Country Party’s theme for that poll was: “Turn on the lights!”? But recent publications indicate that the country been kept in the dark about what went on. There is at least one other “dark secret” that needs to be brought into the light. It concerns the character of the Liberal Party itself.

By electing Malcolm Fraser’s Coalition Government we were supposedly responding to the bright light that was to be shone on all the dark dealings of Labor’s many-sided economic incompetence. But since then responsibility for Parliamentary budget deficits and fiscal blow-outs have been shared on both sides. And the alert historian of Australian politics will also ask: how can you blame a Government for fiscal mismanagement when they have to live with persistent threats to block supply bills?

But what was this “other crisis” of those years? After December 1972, Labor controlled the lower house Treasury Benches for the first time in 23 years. We might have expected a “crisis” of sorts among the Labor parliamentarians who must have been used to being in Opposition. Even so, we did not expect that their time in Government would end as it did.

The Australian people voted for a Whitlam Labor Government not just once (December 1972) but twice (May 1974). After 23 years in Government the members of the Liberal-Country Party coalition were plunged into a deep crisis of their own. They knew how to apply their own party rules and governing principles to their political vocation as Her Majesty’s Government but how were they to conduct themselves as Her Loyal Opposition? It is sad to say the Liberal Party has never really learned to do so. Since losing in 1972 they have persistently seen public government in terms of their side of politics “winning”. When they are Opposition they are “losers”. Bypassing the view of parliamentary democracy enshrined in their own party constitution, they have, like Lemmings, continued to miss the opportunity to form a new style of Opposition, an Opposition for the sake of Government. Such a contribution could have been of great benefit to our parliamentary democracy. But sadly it has never emerged.

The bumper stickers of the time said of Whitlam “He’s had his chance and he’s stuffed it!” But in truth they come back to stick it on the Liberal-Country Party coalition that failed then, and has continued to do so. Under Snedden and Fraser they reduced their parliamentary task to one political end: winning the election next time. Opposition then meant pragmatic strategic obstructionism.

There were senior Liberals like John Grey Gorton and Don Chipp who were disgusted with the direction that the parliamentary party had usurped in the party, quite in opposition to what was implied in their party’s constitution. That then was the other “crisis”, the one that was not examined by “turning on the lights”. This is the other persistent crisis that the Australian electorate needs to hear about and discuss.

The December 1975 election meant that the Australian people effectively endorsed this change in the Liberal Party’s conception of itself. Why should we worry? And those remaining “loyal” to the now “winning is grinning Liberal Party” also thought they need not worry and so they continued on. It would henceforth be a party in which the accountability of its parliamentary wing to the membership would be measured in terms of whether the party was winning elections. No longer was it an accountability to the party’s constitution concerning the way in which Parliamentary democracy requires principled politics, in their case the politics of Liberal principles. No. Now it was not so much a matter of publicly debating policies based on the party’s principles; victory in policy debates could only make sense if the party was either retaining its hold on the Treasury Benches, or moving towards doing so at the next election.

And this change in the Liberal “side’s” view of its parliamentary contribution has been a decisive factor ever since in our form of parliamentary democracy. It tumbled out with the threat to block supply in May 1974. Since then the rest, as they say, is history, public relations history. The Liberal Party is a political firm for its elected candidates; the idea that it is a party in which elected members are accountable to its rank-and-file to articulate and promote a comprehensive view of public governance according to its constitution’s principles has long gone. This is the pragmatic liberalism that the country has had to endure since 1974.

Recently we have read of the efforts of the new Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, to hasten publication of the private letters of Sir John Kerr to the Queen. What is his concern? Does this canny politician have some new development in mind for his side of politics? Recent disclosures about the deceitful, if not seditious, manoeuvring of powerful politicians and jurists in bringing about the downfall of the Labor Government could not have escaped his notice.

But then, Mr. Turnbull has also distanced himself from the actions of Malcolm Fraser in 1975. Could he have concluded that something in the underlying ethical foundations of the Liberal Party has cracked beyond repair, something that the artificial party unity he has long supported simply cannot overcome? Is his attempt to have Sir John Kerr’s correspondence with the Queen made public his attempt to stay ahead of the game?

So the recent published revelations about the 1975 “crisis” can also help us see how the internal crisis in the Liberal Party in the 1974-1975 years was only seemingly resolved by the election of the Fraser Government. The subsequent 40 years have continued this revolution in the Liberal Party and, as well, we do have a Federal Parliament that is now dominated by contending pragmatic political machines and their aligned public relations firms, and barely a genuine political party is left.

Obviously there is much more to discuss about restoring political parties to our parliamentary democracy. The question is not just a question for the PM. It is this: is it going to be politics for government or politics for politics? I cannot believe that such a conundrum has not at some point crossed Mr. Turnbull’s wide-ranging Liberal mind. Could he be about to embark upon a “New Liberal Party”, in order to return his side of politics to the ranks of genuine political parties rather than these self-perpetuating electoral machines? Are we going to see Mr. Turnbull try further, from his “side” of politics, to avoid complicity in the substantial political disgrace that occurred with the sacking of the Whitlam Government on November 11th 1975?

 

 

Bruce Wearne, a PhD in sociology (LaTrobe 1987), lives quietly at Point Lonsdale, in order to contribute to political debate, while also advising students and conversing with the people he meets while walking along the coast.

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