TONY SMITH. The political ugliness we cannot hide

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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7 Responses to TONY SMITH. The political ugliness we cannot hide

  1. Mary Tehan says:

    When I was a single mother with 3 young teenage children (over 10 years ago now), I became aware of enduring systemic cruelty (especially in ‘Centrestink’ – a total bowel washout needed here) that was deliberately designed to encourage people to leave that system … social workers being rotated fortnightly so that no relationship could be forged between client and worker; unbelievably ridiculous paperwork requirements (e.g. 4 fortnightly forms – one for each of us – requiring the same information on each form, non-negotiable; Birth Certificate over 5 years in one’s own possession (great for a mother leaving a domestic violence situation); system spelling errors causing vulnerable people to become homeless, due to inability to pay rent; a daughter born in this country but deemed not to exist, requiring a nun to vouch for this girl’s existence with that girl standing beside her! etc … etc …). No wonder there is crime (convict days are back). No wonder there is anger and rage (keep the rabble busy with nonsense while rights are stealthily removed). No wonder there is hatred for others who have scape-goated and humiliated them into corners they are trying to fight themselves out of (keep asking the poor to carry the burdens of society). Death-dealing policies will produce death-dealing actions … suicide, euthanasia, fanaticism, abuse, violence etc etc … let us all stand together for a shift away from such a narcissistic culture at the top of end of society … we all know that the fish rots from its head.

    • Tony Kevin says:

      Wow, so well said Mary Tehan . We have not come very far from our convict days, still a cruel hierarchical society based on class and ethnicity and prejudice. Sad that so many Australians of Irish descent have become part of the power structure, when we should recognise how it behaves towards the weak.

  2. This enormous problem doesn’t involve any one party. The Libs/Nats and the opposition are equally unfit to govern. Australia badly needs a shake-up as has occurred in many foreign governments. Regardless of the usual pattern of voters at elections, a single term of completely independent politicians would send a message to the major parties that the electorate is fed-up with self serving politicians. Don’t vote for ant party candidate at the next election.

  3. Peter Dixon says:

    Well said Tony Smith

  4. Tony Kevin says:

    A nice take on the obvious decline in standards of behaviour and accountability in public life about which we are all – or most of us – so rightly concerned. Thanks, Tony Smith.

  5. Greg Bailey says:

    Tony has given an excellent summary of the deep ethical trough in which this country finds itself. Along with the writings of Alan Patience and John Menadue, as well as many other excellent writers on this blog, the problems have been laid bare. What we are confronting are the ravages of neoliberalism as both governmental and cultural system and the apathy that has substantially prevailed amongst Australian voters for almost a century, if not longer.
    I would simply make two points. (1) Arguably all these problems began with the election of the Hawke government when neoliberalism was facilitated by a sustained process of deregulation and privatisation. At the same time the large consultancy firms acquired a stronghold in giving (rent-seeking) advice to governments and in doing so acted (along with business economists) as the public-relations phalanx for neoliberal values and ideology. Equally they exacerbated the process whereby there was a flow through of people from senior ranks in the public service to these firms. This has now been supplemented by ex-politicians and senior unionists now joining the lobbying industry. What we are now seeing is the nadir/zenith of a governmental/cultural process begun in first term of the Hawke government.
    2) The response of the general population to this has been to look up in bewilderment and turn their faces away from it, motivated both by apathy and anxiety by the rate of change, especially as fomented by digital technology. How often have we heard ‘the average voter’ say about politicians that ‘they are all corrupt,’ thereby abrogating any responsibility from themselves about stopping this corruption. The media always make the assumption that the majority of voters think about political issues and ‘are not mugs.’ Again this is a clever strategy which prevents a proper critical education of the population at large – just look at the near fictional nature of news coverage on commercial electronic media–and so allows the status quo of the wealthy to be maintained.
    Until this sense of apathy can be somewhat removed the basic unequal and unethical structure of Australian politics will remain with the devastating results we have now seen. This does not mean, of course, that we should cease writing about it.

  6. Jaquix says:

    An ugly truth to face is that on a 2PP basis, this atrocious government would get 48% of the vote! On those figures we would get a change of government, the chance to make changes to what they’ve done, improve the lot of Australians. But it’s a lot closer than it should be, based on their record.

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