ROGER SCOTT. Wentworth byelection – tale of two (other) cities.

Oct 22, 2018

Events in Canberra over the past weeks call into question the quality of governance which Australians can reasonably expect from our politicians. By contrast the Queensland political system and its parliamentary processes can be seen to offer the Westminster model functioning in optimal fashion. Could this be attributed to the relative significance of female politicians at the core of decision-making?

In a recent contribution to Pearls and Irritations, the ever-admirable Mungo MacCallum suggested that Morrison bore more resemblance to Joh Bjelke-Petersen than the usual suspects like President Trump. I offered an on-line response which will have escaped the attention of all but the tardiest readers of Mungo’s contribution.

Here is that I said then: ‘I agree with Mungo about the unsavoury triple mixture we face when a PM combines (1) marketing skills, albeit often banal in choice of headgear and props; (2) patent opportunism as demonstrated in decisions about embassy locations; drought relief recipients and grass-root sporting facilities; and (3) vigorous identification with Christian fundamentalism tempered by a carefully nurtured hostility towards refugees incarcerated on distant islands. One important difference from Joh was Joh’s willingness to embrace the idea of change, in particular being mocked about his promotion of the idea of a hydrogen-powered car.’

In the intervening period, significant media attention has been given to the willingness of the Prime Minister to prove hyper-flexible – to contradict his previous stand on a range of issues, from the international to the highly parochial, in order to derive a presumed short-term benefit, often by hinting about a sudden softening of previous certainties. Then, right at the end of the week, he sought to manage the impact of any subsequent defeat with risible assertions about the responsibility of Wentworth voters who should punish people outside his Liberals backers. They, not Morrison, had caused all this instability and intolerable uncertainty. 

In the seat of national government, his presumably loyal lieutenants were doing their bit for creating instability. They were giving considerable air time to Pauline Hanson’s gyrations in the Senate by forcing the indignity of a second vote on the virtues of whiteness. The six Ministers who initially lined up behind Hanson scrambled to find convincing explanations for a sordid deal, presumed amendments to wording which apparently persuaded all the Liberal and National Senators initially to vote for Hanson. Queenslanders found it unlikely that any motion attributed to Hanson could get onto the notice paper without being closely read by someone in authority and equally unlikely that all those Coalition Senators would follow sheep-like the instruction from the Whips and ignore the noise from across the chamber. 

Then the leaks started on the Ruddock Report on religious freedoms, requiring further fancy dancing by the Prime Minister. Finally, another of his Ministers chose to abuse and impugn the motives of a visiting Pacific dignitary in front a number of credible witnesses and at first claim she had been misreported. It required a certain Machiavellian intelligence to say that this was all a plot to avoid having to discuss the issue of climate changes which threaten in the near future to swamp his native Kiribati. 

Contrast the experience of unicameral Queensland. In Brisbane, the conservatives had handed the rest of Australia a reminder of their earlier potency. In a narrowly balanced unicameral parliament, there had been a hotly contested internal debate about whether the National Liberal Party would allow a conscience vote on abortion law reform overturning the ‘morality’ section that had stood for 119 years in the state’s criminal code. A response was needed after a parliamentary committee supported the abolition of the law which had criminalised abortion for longer than women had held the franchise. 

This debate was followed by heavy media interest, with the newspapers mainly resisting reform and facilitating the activity of women’s organisations which held the same view. After mass demonstrations outside the Parliament, both for and against the changes, then extended emotional debate inside, the reform bill passed, with the support of three LNP members – all Liberals in the old currency, all from seats in the south-eastern corner. The head of the LNP party apparatus had warned in advance that there would be disendorsement repercussions for deviant behaviour and these were repeated after the event.

This all looked like textbook Westminster-style politics in action: competing interest groups on the streets, predictable media bias against reform, committee-stage analysis, a debate in which almost every member spoke, minority and majority parties themselves divided on the issue, and a party apparatus mobilised seeking to maintain discipline. It is not coincidental that Queensland’s leadership is overwhelmingly female – female leaders on both sides of the house and an equal representation with men in the ALP Cabinet. 

Reflecting on the contrasting shambles in Canberra suggests that the coalition parties are afflicted by toxic masculinity. Everywhere you look there are men behaving badly. The most admired woman in the Liberal Party – indeed the most admired person in the post-Turnbull Liberal environment, Julie Bishop, – was never previously been regarded as a serious leadership contender and was then humiliated when she served as a stalking horse for Morrison. Marketing requirements meant a rearrangement of the seats in Parliament to provide a misleading feminised tableau on TV screens. Payne apart, the women in the Coalition ranks have often emulated their male colleagues in their desire to manifest the aggressiveness typified as desirable masculine traits. Reinstating Barnaby Joyce would be the cherry on the ice cream (or the last straw). 

So Morrison now faces the need to conceal his natural tendencies towards hard-edge blokiness and haphazard short-termism. He will have to deal with either the quirky Katter or a collection of women on the cross-benches who are ‘soft’ on issues such as gay rights, climate change, refugee resettlement, and favour broadly inclusive good manners and sensible policy processes.

Roger Scott is an Emeritus Professor in the Centre for Policy Futures, The University of Queensland. He was Director-General of the Queensland Education Department and inaugural Vice-Chancellor of the University of Canberra.

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