TONY SMITH. The political ugliness we cannot hide

Jun 27, 2017

Half a century ago in The Australian Ugliness Robin Boyd reminded us what  happens when architectural planners embrace utilitarianism and abandon aesthetics. During the days of the Howard Coalition Government, examining the invasion of Iraq and policy on asylum seekers, moral philosopher Raimond Gaita reminded us what happens when decision-makers abandon ethical considerations. Under the Turnbull Government, mendacity, hypocrisy and arrogance are producing an observable ugliness in its spokespersons. The great fear is that this ugliness is reflecting our own grotesque faces back to us.

Six months ago, it became obvious that Australia has a nasty government. Its pursuit of Centrelink clients lacked compassion, understanding or honesty. The government’s conduct remains arrogant, aggressive and bullying. It honed its techniques of demonization, secrecy and refusal of accountability in refugee policy. The decision to give $90m. compensation to asylum seekers imprisoned offshore will hide from us the truth about how badly asylum seekers have been treated in our name. That is a very expensive way for a government to avoid responsibility. It is shameful considering that democratic governments must be responsible for their actions and should be proud of the transparency surrounding their actions.

Linked to the government’s paranoia about asylum seekers is the latest silliness about citizenship. Among many hypocritical requirements, there is apparently to be a pledge of respect for the law. Given the way that three Coalition MPs have brought themselves to the attention of the Victorian bench by making criticisms of sentencing which border on contempt, the government is creating a poor example. Unfortunately, disrespect for courts and tribunals is standard behaviour in the Turnbull Government. The mendacity is evident also in the ways that ministers continue to express support for multiculturalism but seek to enforce the exclusive use of English language.

On climate change there was cause for alarm and drastic action a decade ago. Environmental concerns featured in the Coalition’s 2007 election defeat but since the Coalition regained power in 2013 after frustrating Labor’s attempts to deal with global warming, alarm is turning to despair. Bipartisan support for the Adani mine suggests that obfuscation, stonewalling and lies are now normal politics. At a time when the earth needs healing, decisions by governments of all levels to support this strip mine smacks of criminal neglect.

Meanwhile, there have been outrages about lucrative lobbying jobs going to ex-politicians, ministers, MPs and staffers. Insiders argue that the problem is not endemic but that just a few rotten apples spoil the barrel. What ex-pollies want to do is up to them but the concern such jobs raise is not fear for future decisions. Rather, the jobs suggest that while in positions of power – and public trust – these politicians made decisions in favour of the firms now offering them positions. In other words they had a wink from these rich and powerful corporations that their consideration would be rewarded later.

The pattern is clear. MPs vote for policies which favour coal companies in the hope of reward. Then they have the gall to announce that they are giving the electors great representation and creating jobs for the future. The jobs mantra is starting to sound hollow on the lips of politicians who want wages and conditions reduced in order to cut costs for business. These pro-mining policies moreover are likely to incur great public expense providing infrastructure and price guarantees. If anyone suggests that this public money could better be spent directly creating employment schemes over which there could be public control, they are met with mock outrage about budget deficits and the nanny state.

The Government shows little concern for environmental matters. Its focus is on punishing anyone it can identify as a target unlikely to be defended. As no-one is likely to spring to the defence of ice users, what has the government proposed? Testing sewage, of course. Really? Is this the Turnbull Government’s contribution to democracy? It is adept at finding ways of checking up on welfare recipients and just as adept at ensuring that its own actions are not open to scrutiny. Perhaps it would be better if they tested the effluent from the executive wing of Parliament House – not for ice but for things much more destructive such as lies, prejudice, cruelty and egotism.

It is hardly surprising should this political ugliness has become so obvious. It shows in parliament, at press conferences and anywhere that the integrity of ministers is questioned. No-one can go on giving glib responses, responses known to be false, and basing decisions on the desire to injure the hated underclass, the hated Muslims, the hated asylum seekers without this ugliness showing on the face. Allan Patience’s call for a political enema to fix the constipation in Australia’s policy environment is a timely and accurate diagnosis. Ethical paralysis is evident in the faces of many frontbenchers.

Bring on the enema.

Dr Tony Smith is a former political science academic with interests in parliament, elections and political ethics. His recent writings can be found at and


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