JOCELYN PIXLEY. Are the Liberals “born to rule”?

Jan 9, 2020

Australia’s tragedy has brought a scandal about hard issues: Morrison separated politics from government too publicly.

Although not new, politicking is more specific, I think, to the Liberal Party, which are often accused of being “born to rule”. If the terms are incorrect since “dominating” Liberals rarely “rule”, the phrase is telling. The public’s contempt for politicians, perhaps improbably, is tracked to the Whitlam Government’s Dismissal.

The tragedy of Malcolm Fraser’s alleged ‘coup’ is that Parliament was debased, and it boosted the Liberal Party sense of entitlement. That is, the Dismissal gave tools to traduce Parliament. Jenny Hocking shows the unseemly steps: The Senate refusing supply to fund the Government; a High Court and other justices defending various manoeuvres of Fraser, and the Governor-General’s copious letters to the Palace. The Commonwealth Archives is suspiciously keeping the Queen’s replies secret, but in any case, the record shows that the Head of State failed, constitutionally, to keep Prime Minister Whitlam informed of G-G Kerr’s decision. As well, Fraser got caretaker government despite the House of Representative’s contrary vote of confidence.

A brief story, open to subtractions/additions, also shows Murdoch dumped the ALP; PM Hawke faced huge job losses after Fraser’s term and, despite great popularity and informed opposition to neoclassical prescriptions, endured overseas financial threats. Keating followed the last through but left a legacy of industry super funds and the non-market solidarity policies started by Whitlam.

I cannot specify where John Howard traduced Parliament. Lying is not new, since Menzies lied about Vietnam; wedging Labor and secrecy are typical but sank to further depths in destroying bi-partisan refugee, Indigenous and migration agreements. The strangling of the RBA Act went further under Howard; climate change arguments did manage to impose limits on Howard’s bitter denials, but privatisations started by Keating became Howard’s catchword. Australians would have a ‘democracy of shareowners’, while selling the family jewels short. Howard did manage to traduce usual constitutional procedures with the Republican referendum, by confusing it with two options for Republicanism. He also forced the Navy to ignore its core value – to rescue “those in peril on the sea”.

These unpleasant manoeuvres made Labor cautious and more reliant on popularity to near presidential and thus unconstitutional depths (Abbott followed on that). Still, Howard’s Ministers had to resign on accountability principles. Opinion polling became the marker, and less any informed criticism of government policies. The dominance of party politics over the public interest became more pronounced with Abbott. Dirty tactics became Turnbull’s cue.

Then came the traducing of Parliament – ably led by Christopher Pyne. The constitution only specifies that Parliament must meet twice a year. This is unlike Britain without a written (or federated) constitution, yet Boris Johnson was unable to prorogue Parliament. In Australia, Parliament’s sitting days were truncated when numbers were against the LNP. Following the leadership chaos, Morrison deploys the constitution similarly. The Executive has changed to secrecy, stacked agencies and biased policing, and we could add his failure to have the gravitas of Turnbull, and appeals way beyond Parliamentary government to base politicking.

Labor before the 2019 election tried to reverse the neoclassical and authoritarian trends in the LNP. It even had policies resembling the Curtin-Chifley era. It only lost one more seat to the LNP than Turnbull’s near loss who, recall, accepted late to denounce “Mediscare”. As I said, opinion polling ‘ruled’, Medicare was further white-anted, and Morrison scraped in.

Why Caucus and the Labor Review saw a huge disaster in its pre-election policies is beyond me. The new Opposition leader has used the time since to foster a dithering Labor with little national interest entailed. This makes the Parliamentary process weaker, hands over to anyone in the LP – which is such that were Morrison were to be dumped, I’d be hard-pressed to see an alternative there.

An interesting parallel to Dominic Cummings – a non-Tory playmaker – who obsesses about Bismarck, helps (London Review of Books 26 Sept 2019). Playing public opinion off elected assemblies was Bismarck’s speciality. Here it is similar but different to Boris; Royal Commissions are ignored, and the US impeachment power is not available. A Parliamentary majority is the ‘only’ thing and here needs a strong opposition, perhaps an alliance between Labor and the Greens. ALP Victorian Premier Dan Andrews did not politicise his urgent call to the ADF; ALP opposition leader Jodi McKay bravely tackles the NSW government. It is beyond comprehension that the Commonwealth opposition hardly criticises the LNP’s long-term negligence while Australia is swiftly being destroyed. It’s not all PM Malcolm Fraser’s fault but …

Jocelyn Pixley is Honorary Professor in Sociology, Macquarie University. These are her own views.

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