JERRY ROBERTS Parliamentary reform needs external drive

Dec 1, 2017

Privatisation and corporatisation of government services such as Australia Post have reduced the power and influence of the Parliament and made it less relevant to our daily lives. Parliamentary reform is important but needs to be seen as part of a bigger picture – much bigger.

The question is what sort of society are we to have in Australia and where do we stand in the world.  As Andrew Farran wrote on these pages (15 November), we need deeper culture.  We are unlikely to find it among our crop of politicians and our mean-spirited major political parties – the Liberals and the ALP, of which I am a member.

Even the most cynical political observers must be shocked by the failure of representative democracy we are witnessing today.  The Americans have reverted to looking for Russians under their beds but it was not Russia that gave America the finest democracy money can buy.  It was the United States Supreme Court granting to corporations the same rights as individual human beings.  In Australia the High Court has proved to be so completely useless that it could not even sort out a ridiculous constitutional anomaly that has cost us our best parliamentary talent, indeed our only parliamentary talent in the person of Scott Ludlum.

In the last month of the recent marriage postal survey I had the misfortune to find myself seated at a dinner table with two religious conservatives and a redneck. No matter how hard I tried to change the subject they maintained their rage on sex and marriage, which just goes to show Freud was right.  I had already posted off my yes vote without giving it a second thought, apart from wondering if it was any of my business.  Eventually I could not stand it any longer so I said rather forcefully that marriage was nothing to do with the Church.  It was a legal contract under a Commonwealth Act and it was about property, inheritance and succession.  It was always thus, before, during and after the life of Christ.  Moreover, the Church needed to get its nose out of people’s underpants and preach on more important matters, in particular, kicking the money-lenders out of the temple and squeezing fat cats through the eye of a needle.

That put a lull in the conversation for all of 30 seconds, then they were back at it, hammer and tongs.  What a democracy we would have if the general public could bring the same level of interest they have taken in sex and marriage to the major issues of the political economy, national development, social equity, defence, industry and foreign policy.  Surely the masses have reached saturation point when it comes to watching celebrity chefs cooking fancy dinners and home renovators belting bathrooms to bits.  Democracy, after all, is about the involvement of the people in the government of their own country.  The general thrust of parliamentary reform today should be to bring government down to earth, away from the elites and vested interests and back to the commons.  The rise of diverse political parties is one way of dealing with the issue and Pauline Hanson attracts much attention. Pauline is a charismatic individual and a genuine political talent.  I have not met her but we spoke on the phone during her earlier parliamentary career.  She impresses me.

All the recommendations put forward by John Menadue make sense but we may not be in a hurry to promote four-year terms.  We have grown used to them at the State level in Western Australia and there may be some truth in the effect of reducing constant electioneering but our federal MPs have been so feral for so long that we would need to see radical improvements in behaviour before giving them another year. I sometimes wonder if there is a conspiracy between my old trade of the media and our parliamentarians to avoid discussing anything serious and to reduce politics to silly personality assessments such as Shorten versus Turnbull.

Perhaps the most disturbing trend in Australian politics at present is the turn to religiosity.  Australians generally prefer to keep Bible-bashing out of politics and I expect Cory Bernardi and Michael Kroger’s little mates in Victoria to come a gutser.  I hope so.  We surely don’t want to go down the American path.  Americans long ago handed over the government of the republic to the crooks of Wall Street, the spooks in Virginia, the generals in the Pentagon and the imitation royal family in the White House. American politics consists of variations on the marihuana, abortion, homosexual debate, a Bible-bashing, moralising, hypocritical pandemonium designed to cover up the reality of American dog-eat-dog capitalism.

The heroic success of the gay community in fighting for rights and recognition is part of a continuum going back to Black Power and Women’s Lib.  People who have been put down, stigmatised, stereotyped for hundreds and thousands of years have fought back using traditional political methods.  They have succeeded through individual courage and collective solidarity.  For people interested in politics their campaign is inspirational.

Is there a political issue that can engender among the Australian people generally a degree of involvement comparable to the current sex and marriage debate – a common cause that will have us all thinking about Australian society and our place in the world? It may be time to have another go at the Australian Republic and bring parliamentary reform into that framework.  Surely any Australian who has read Jenny Hocking’s research on the role of Mountbatten and Prince Charles in the Whitlam dismissal would want to cut the ties with Buckingham Palace immediately.  I wish we could do it tomorrow afternoon, like a Mexican divorce.  Yet we have just seen splashed over the front pages news of a young pommy prince’s engagement. News editors are good judges of the popular taste.  That’s how they sell newspapers and lift television station ratings.  If they are right and the Australian people are that stupid we are done for because Australia is running out of time.

We are a small population on our continent, all on our own in the South. No longer can we look to the mother Britain, nor to Uncle Sam.  We have to stand up now as an independent people or we will be swallowed by the Chinese Communist Party whose compradors are doing well for themselves as I write.  We are now seeing the sharp end of this reality, as Hugh White writes (28 November) but it was there for anybody to see who looked at a map of the world.  The dominant feature of planet earth is the land mass known as Eurasia.  China is sewing up this space with the New Silk Road, now known as the Belt and Road initiative.  America’s aircraft carrier fleet is the most awesome armed force assembled by man but it is irrelevant against the Eurasian land mass.  Donald Trump appears to have figured this out and American corporations are lining up to make a dollar along the New Silk Road. The USA is a fertile country with vast resources.  It does not need the rest of the world. The game is up for Australia.  We can no longer look to America.  We must look to ourselves.  The days of small government and low taxation are over.

Meanwhile Australian politics crawls along in the gutter.  It was disappointing to see Labor stand a candidate in the Bennelong by-election, making political capital out of a constitutional nonsense.  I seldom comment on today’s politicians because I don’t think they are important, certainly not as important as they think they are. The debate that matters is taking place upstairs at the great lecture theatre in the sky between Keynes, Hayek and Polanyi.  As the new Gilded Age reaches what we hope is its peak of greed and corruption Karl Marx is invited to the microphone. However, I would like to comment on Malcolm Turnbull who is scapegoat of the month.  I admire Turnbull’s performance in today’s circumstances.  He reminds me of a champion ruck-rover in a losing Australian Rules football team, running at full pace from one end of the ground to the other, plugging holes in defence, directing play through the middle and kicking a goal or two.  I believe him when he says he is enjoying the time of his life.  But he is a one-man band.

The Liberals are about to be annihilated.  They planted the seeds of their own destruction long before Turnbull’s time in their Wars of the Roses between the Wets and the Dries.  Prominent Wets were Ian MacPhee and Fred Chaney.  Among the Dries were Liberal front-bencher Jim Carlton, West Australian wheat-belt farmer, John Hyde, and the young MHR for Tangney, Peter Shack.  They were joined by Labor’s wheat-belt farmer, Peter Walsh, then in Opposition, and they sat at the feet of Alf Rattigan, chairman of the Tariff Board, that became the Industry Assistance Commission. The Dries preceded the full onslaught of neoliberalism introduced to Australia a few years later by Keating, Hawke, Dawkins and Walsh. I liked the Dries personally and I read their publications and took them seriously.  They were going to be influential.

The most eloquent response to the Dries came from Tom Fitzgerald in his 1990 ABC Boyer lectures, ”Between Life and Economics.”  He described them as farmers turned politicians turned economists and his central criticism was that the Dries over-simplified the dismal science of economics. Rattigan’s memoir, “Industry Assistance, the Inside Story,” is also a good read.  Politicians conveniently forget his stipulation that governments, before “restructuring” industry, as we saw when the affable idiot Joe Hockey destroyed Australian car manufacturing, should have alternative employment lined up for displaced workers.

How do we restore decency, humanity and, above all, a sense of public duty, to our degraded parliament and our bean-counting bureaucracy?  John Menadue stays within the boundaries of existing institutions in his parliamentary reform agenda.  So did Gough Whitlam despite his betrayal by the institutions of Governor General, Buckingham Palace and the High Court.  I was thinking of the Athenian system in relation to the selection of a President of the Australian Republic.  We take turns to be President for a year, selecting a citizen at random from the electoral rolls.  We need to get decent, normal people into public life but our public life is now such a zoo that it requires a strong stomach.  Not many people want to do jury duty but it has an ancient history and we accept this service as part of our civic duty.  A year as President would be more than enough for most people.

Then I read Nicholas Gruen’s essays on citizens’ juries with his idea of crowd-funding to get something going along these lines independent of government involvement.  There’s nothing to stop this happening, just as there is nothing to require government to pay any attention but it is a brilliant idea.  We need to hear voices from outside the Establishment.  I am indebted to Nicholas for the 1942 quote from Vance Palmer.  This goes to the heart of the matter, an egalitarian Australia as a model for the world.  For me, this is what it is all about.

All the concerns under discussion – parliamentary reform, foreign, defence and industry policy – suffer from a missing ingredient.  We don’t know who we are.  We need to be more than a multi-cultural crowd swirling happily through a shopping centre.  Australia needs to stand for something – something good.  This is Andrew Farran’s deeper culture. Then we can stand up as a nation in our own right, not a bunch of Britishers in the south seas, certainly not America’s deputy sheriff and not the peasant labourers for China’s Australian compradors. We need a closer understanding of our own country and I don’t see how we can do it without a programme of national service.  By relating the programme to environmental rehabilitation and other non-military pursuits we reduce the risks inherent in heightened nationalism and patriotism.  I’ve been advocating such a programme all my life.  I call it The Australia Project, but that’s another story.

Jerry Roberts is a former parliamentary reporter


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