Political Choice and the Decline and Fall of the Party System

 

 

This note looks at how parties cannot now coalesce sensibly around the three philosophical issues facing western democracy; the failure of any historical function for the Liberal Party or the Labor Party in Australia; the shameful disservice to the nation by all parties on the two most important tasks for government here; the failings of our press; a brief glance at the comedic antics of the present alarming motley; and a very unsettling prognosis.

I

Parliamentary democracy in the West is based on political parties, and that system is declining in the U S, the U K, and Australia. Public faith in government is also declining. This is happening now right across the western world, and the decline does not look like stopping. Why is this so?

We in Australia got our political system from England as did the US. The English developed their system over a thousand years, and their major problem now comes from federating with Europe. The US Constitution was developed out of a distrust for government and the prevailing political philosophy that century produced a system that made change difficult. It is now reaching its apotheosis in a distrust-fuelled gridlock that is demeaning and disabling a once great and potent republic.

The Australian Constitution was prepared by middle aged, middle class, Protestant and Catholic, Anglo-Saxon and Celtic, men under the aegis of a benign, sedate, and aging English queen, and we may now gaze in silent wonder upon its current model – a government by middle aged, middle class Protestant and Catholic, Anglo-Saxon and Celtic, men under the aegis of a benign, sedate, and aging English queen. (The Queen was or is in each case of course definitively Anglo-Saxon and Protestant by constitutional imperative – a communicant Anglican as a matter of hard law.) Our governments excel at one thing – doing Sweet Fanny Adams, except for playing pass the parcel. They do this with a grace and facility that touches the sublime in a state of almost comatose colonial contentment. We marvel at the ease with which they have made the transition from one colonial Dreamtime to another, and all the while preserving the same bourgeois bliss. Indeed, there is every reason to suspect that we are defying the gravity of history by going backwards.

II

Three things are common ground in most countries in the West. First, if people want to live together they cannot all just do what they like – they must submit to at least some rules that will reduce their freedom. Secondly, we agree that we must make some provision to educate people and for people who are not able to get along without us, such as the sick or the aged. An obligation to provide some welfare is a given for us, at least here now in Australia. Thirdly, since we all require food, shelter, and protection, and those needs require wealth for us to meet them, and since providing for welfare also requires the creation of wealth, we have a common interest in seeing that the rules made to enable us to live together and provide some welfare also enable us to create enough wealth for those purposes. You cannot afford to spend money that you do not make.

At voter level, the first question is one of personal choice. We might call this the ‘interference’ issue. Some people want the law and government to have as little to do with them as possible. Others want to be more involved in the lives of others and are content to allow more government in their lives. Government may have an economic interest in drawing the line – as with seat-belts in cars or helmets on bicycle riders, or gun control – but the interference issue mostly turns on the personal choice of each voter.

The second question is also basically one of personal choice, and at government level, it represents an attempt to assess the result if you aggregate those personal choices. We might call this the ‘subscription’ issue. It comes down to what might be called a moral issue, but which does sound like a political issue: what do you think is a fair thing for you to do for those who are less well off or to ask from those who are better off? Put differently, what is the least amount that I can decently put aside for those who are not so well off? Or, what is the most that I can decently ask from those who are well off? People in the first category are more comfortable with that process in every way, just because they are better off. The better off remain better off – even when equality beckons.

The third question really has to be answered at government level by taking the views of the community and by applying such learning and experience as there is to try to get the best results. We might call this the ‘management’ issue. Until recently, we might have added that in addition to creating wealth, another major issue was the protection of those who did the work at the bottom, but for many reasons, the old division between capital and labour does not loom large now as a political issue. Protecting those who supply labour is not as important politically now as ensuring the creation of wealth. That historical fact bears upon the relevance of a political party that was born to look after those who supplied the labour.

It is here on the management issue that you get issues that may require expert opinion or professional advice. That is not so much the case with the interference and subscription issues. There may obviously be some overlap. For example, if government has to raise higher taxes to maintain its retirement and health benefits, so that people choose to do their business elsewhere, then the three issues will be alive together. Or the wish of some people to be free from laws relating to gun control, seat-belts, or helmets, might lead to significantly greater health and policing costs and therefore higher taxes. But there is no reason a priori why a person making a personal choice on the interference or subscription issues should be overridden by the application of professional learning on the third. In other words, I should usually be able to say that I want more or less interference from government or should contribute more or less to government without being ruled out on the grounds of economic or management policy.

But of course we do not think in logical boxes – if we did, we might be utterly predictable, and we might be able to justify the prophecies of people like Karl Marx or John Maynard Keynes – and we know that we cannot do that. People who want the maximum freedom on the interference issue also commonly want the minimum contribution under the subscription issue, and they commonly invoke arguments on the management issue to support their position. . That is to say, they want to argue that their position on the interference and subscription issues is supported by management issues. This sort of management argument is most frequently invoked by those who want both less interference and fewer subscriptions – they say that that helps the system go better.

Now, if you look across those three issues or questions, it is not easy to imagine two parties rising up that will sensibly represent the interests of voters who take different positions on them. You might think that those who want to subscribe less to welfare would also want less interference from government, and that those who want more from the system will put up with or actively seek more intervention from the system, but there is no logical reason for such a conjunction. Nor is there any reason in logic to suggest that those who favour less interference and subscription will be better able to manage the process of creating wealth.

It is therefore hard in theory to envisage two parties representing a rational political division across our basic issues. That theoretical difficulty matches the Australian experience. The trade unions in this country are no longer seen as either a threat or as a source of strength, and the Labor party no longer represents labour in any industrial sense. Not many people now own up to being ‘labour’, and even fewer to being working class, a form of social death in the most determinedly middle class nation ever born. It may be no bad thing for a nation to lose any use for a party that started with the shearers’ strike in the nineteenth century, when the working man was hopelessly repressed by moneyed interests, and which now looks to be a curious relic of a class war that a new nation like Australia would be hardly wishing to encourage.

It is hard to see anything that ever distinguished or identified the Liberal Party, except for its firm embrace of the English connection and the monarchy, an even firmer opposition to organized labour, and a bit of a soft spot for God and the Creation. They do like to convey the impression that they are safe hands for business, but almost none of them has ever had a real job or the faintest idea of how to run a business, and the babyboomers had to wait for a Labor government under Hawke and Keating to see what we now know as the structural reforms that broke up the protectionism drably garnered for decades by the tepid so-called conservative parties. We had to escape those conservatives to get lower taxes, and a floated dollar, not to mention tariff reduction and competition and consumer laws.

A conservative party by definition is not one that favours change. It just reacts to suggestions of change. It likes things as they are. The present lot, both here and in the US, have made reaction – reactionaryism – into both an art form and a life-style. It is easy just to say no to everything when in opposition, but when you have to govern, you have to do something, at least in Australia, a nation that was born in and thrives on government intervention. Our modern conservative parties are incapable of making the transition, and you wind up with an enshrinement of nothingness trying to masquerade as doing something. The parties wind up standing for precisely nothing.

It follows that neither the Liberal Party nor the Labor Party has anything of substance historically to stand for, the one against the other. What is it the one stands for that the other is opposed to? If you look at major issues like health or education, there is rarely anything between them – at least there is hardly any difference that may be defined by criteria espoused by either the Liberal Party or the Labor Party. Is there anything about either party that means that their policy on health or education must be different to that of the other?

It gets worse in this country because the three tiers of government make a paradise for buck-passers and back-sliders, and those who are most happy when nothing happens, and because the closest that most get to a real job is to be finished off as lawyers before they go into public service and get on the gravy grain for life. There are far too many lawyers in politics – because we cannot get better people from elsewhere. We have become a land of conservative do-nothings and know-nothings by default.

If you think that managing the economy is what matters, you must first believe that government can make a difference – any government. That of itself is an act of faith. To make it, you have to believe that people that we call economists know what they are doing. They obviously do not. Just look at their crashing silence or complicity before 1929 or 2008. But if you believe in theory that one party might be better able to manage the economy than another, only a very small residue of the faithful on either side would pick their party. It is impossible for the rest of us to hold any such faith.

In fairness to our conservatives, the people of this country have had a far, far greater reliance on government than has ever been the case with the U S – starting from the time that each nation was first settled by white people, and proceeding through waves of migration and constitutional change, to our embrace of the welfare state in a manner that is foreign to most Americans and anathema to a lot of them. Australians are in truth conservative only in their fear of standing on their own two feet or doing something novel – they are very, very dependent on government by instinct. That helps to explain our timidity and our acceptance of mediocrity, but for any politician to say that Australians should give up any of their many entitlements makes as much sense as asking them to stop breathing. The fact that one politician did say that, and then seek to impose a budget accordingly, shows how our politicians have succumbed to mindless slogans, and have lost touch with both the people and rational thought.

The experience has been different in the US and UK, but the resulting disenchantment and sense of decay is similar. In the US, it has been the Republicans that tend to seek less interference and subscription, and they claim that the two are linked. They also claim to be better able to manage the economy. But their aversion to government interference at home was matched by their need to indulge in interference with governments outside, and the consequent lost wars nearly bankrupted the nation. Their resentment of big government does not extend to big armaments, and if they had channelled into industry and education in the US the vast amounts that they channelled into misgoverning the Middle East, the whole world would be immeasurably better off.

In the UK, Mr Blair’s Napoleonic ego and inability to apologise for a wrong war means that he is utterly unloved on all sides. Nor does it help that he is filthy rich and a class traitor. While the Republican failure has led to the Tea Party and a split in the Republicans, the English Labor Party now looks to be as mediocre as it is irrelevant. They deserted what Mrs Thatcher had left them of their base. Workers were not welcome to Tony’s party, my dear. Both the UK and Australia have seen minority parties arise who can and do promise everything because they are assured of the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages, namely, power without responsibility. Their ugliness is the price of the unloveliness of the old parties, and it looks like the Tories, who govern in coalition, will split over what we call federalism in Europe. England is having to make a transition from two-party government to coalitions, and the fault lines are ugly, and the future is uncertain.

So, one reason that the two main political parties in Australia are failing is not so much that they do not stand for anything, or that they do not have any answers, as that they do not even ask any relevant questions. They do not articulate any rational difference of opinion. They do not provide a platform for democracy through political parties. They scrabble after the middle ground at the call of their political minders and the very word ‘principle’ is foreign to them. The small residue left for each party reminds us of sad suburban churches. They carry on more by parented aversion than by warranted loyalty. They just become daily less relevant to the rest of us, or the nation at large, that is left to wonder at their almost spiteful littleness.

These observations are obvious enough, but they do show not only how useless are the tags Liberal or Labor for political parties, but how silly are the terms Left and Right. They are only used now by tired old sectarian cold war academics and warriors and pathological haters of the ABC. They may now be just mild terms of abuse, but their only function is to reveal that those who use them have passed beyond the reach of rational thought or contemporary use. Have you noticed how grumpy these loopy old timers get if they call some someone Left or Right wing and you ask them if they are happy to own up to membership of the opposition? The people who use these epithets are fighting wars that ended generations ago, and warranting their own irrelevance to generations brought up on the internet. They just cling to their old tribal loyalties in the sad old way that Micks and Prots used to when they were still a force in the land. You know that you have passed your use-by date when even your enmities no longer matter.

III

The other major reason for the fall of our political parties is that they have done so badly in governing the country. Australia is a vibrant wealthy migrant nation that has possibly the most broken down and unequal education system in the western world. There is a wounding and retarding division between private and public schooling that we inherited from the Mother Country, the nation that gives us our queen, that has been maintained for generations by both parties at state and federal levels. To blight the education of our young as we have done is disgraceful, and it has come down to us from both sides of politics. We have consistently failed to give our children equality of education. And you will never see anything resembling an apology, even though we have reached a level where we discriminate against our own majority. Opinions might differ, but I think that this is the second worse thing that an elected government can do to its people.

The worst thing that such a government can do is to take its people into a war on a false premise, lose the war, and leave its security and anyone else that it fought for worse off. We have now done that twice. The first time – in Vietnam – we magnified our criminality on two separate counts. We conscripted young men by a ballot and then sent them to their death in a bad war and then, in what is the lowest point of the white man’s occupation of this country, we reviled those young men who were lucky enough to come back home. We reviled them because they had lost a war that our dirty, rotten politicians had got us into. It was in fact the same born to rule crowd on each occasion that betrayed us, but the Labor Party has since done its best to make up for lost ground on the second occasion by giving their conservative opponents close support over Afghanistan and Iraq – and now another armed intervention on the other side of the world.

The one time that there was a clear majority of Australians on a moral and political issue, our politicians determined to ignore us, almost with one voice. The reason for that is that our politicians are never frank with us about why we join these wars. It is not because we want to hold up some candle of freedom to the world, or because we are at risk of being overrun. It is to secure the American alliance. We want to lock in our Godfather and protector. We have to pay our union dues. That is a legitimate objective, but not apparently a good enough reason for our politicians to give for us to go to war. And we might sympathize with them. ‘I have no right or reason to be here mate, but I am trying to kill you now in case someone else tries to kill me in future, in which case I will seek help from the people who have asked me to come and kill you now. Capisci?’ That does not sound too good, and hence our government has to find pretexts. Sadly, the pretexts were false. We now traditionally go to war on false pretences – we began to condition ourselves to heroic failure in foreign wars in 1915. We seem to be attracted to failure in this nation.

IV

So, they are the main reasons our parties and our system of government are so badly on the nose. They do not stand for anything, and they have failed disastrously to honour our trust in the most important parts of government. What we are left with is a group of very mediocre people that hardly anyone that I know admires, trusts, or even likes. When did you last hear a person say ‘I think that the leader of this or that party is a good bloke doing a good job for the country’? It is a sign of our condition that one name that many would want to mention is that of an Independent, Tony Windsor.

The decline of parties and government has come with and at least in part because of the failure of part of our constitutional structure. An essential part of that structure was a professional and impartial civil service. They were the continuing soul of government, and the trustees of traditions and conventions. And they were not political. Before 1972, these people effectively ran this country, but since then we have abolished them, and with that destruction of what used to be called the Westminster system, we have got in their place party hacks, place seekers, pollsters, shock shocks, racecourse touts, bludgers, urgers, and downright thieves. These people do not advise impartially on government for the benefit of the people. On the contrary they are there to advise their bosses or their mates how to keep their jobs, and to keep themselves in a job. They have a vested interest in bending the system to suit their own self-interest, and, my, how well their interests suit and run with the currents of our times.

This just adds to the decay of convention and decency. Just look at the moral carnage of the Liberal Party in New South Wales – we are into double figures for those who have been knocked off for being on the take. That makes the grossness of some of the stand-over tactics of some unions look very small beer indeed, but by now we are used to soi disant conservatives being the first to put their snouts in the trough and risk a holiday at our expense. They are, sadly, often the first to tear up the rule book.

And the press has to wear its share of the blame. They are obsessed with personalities, polls and plots, and they like to play an active part in the latter. Two politicians who showed some disturbing symptoms of leadership, Malcolm Turnbull and Julia Gillard, were fired as leaders by their own parties with active involvement from press conspirators some of whom were mates of their opponents, and to the horror of the voting public who were not consulted. Too many in the press are failed party hacks or are too cosy with their old sectarian schoolmates and book-launchers in that ghastly suburban fastness of Canberra, locked in a collusive, corrosive embrace to sanctify and secure their own mediocrity. Clubbiness and chumminess is everything, even if it is addled by a faded schism, and by Stalinist paranoid delusions about a statutory corporation that happens to have a bigger and more respected part in their field. Fancy poor old Rupert, old, alone and forlorn in New York, being left behind by a drab bunch of pink colonials in the God-forsaken land that he abandoned!

It does not occur to many in our press that they look at best silly in purporting to comment independently on their mates, or just those who patronise them and do favours for them. It is like reading a rave review for a fly rod, and then finding a full page ad for the same rod on the facing page. How reliable is the review? Is it independent? Was the editor or reviewer got at or just bought? How many bad reviews of Australian wine have you ever seen in an Australian wine magazine? Are they not, for better or for worse, all in the same boat and possessed of the same disinclination to rock it?

It is as if members of the colonial press were intent on provoking nausea to match that inspired when Mr Tony Blair, at one time the Prime Minister of a great nation, became a godfather to a daughter of Rupert and Wendi, on a ceremony held by the waters of the River Jordan. Too many members of the fourth estate are far too close to those in the other estates. They might usefully recall the famous resolution carried against the English king who lost the American colonies, that ‘the influence of the Crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished.’

Our Prime Minister and senior ministers have in truth trumped Mr Blair in his shameless vulgarity. They regularly hang out with demagogues that are at the bottom of the barrel, people that no decent person would be seen with. It is unthinkable that their predecessors as leaders of what was supposed to be a conservative party would have consorted with people of such low repute, and it is just to get the vote that populists cater for, those who respond to a dog whistle on anything to do with caste or the ultimate cop-out of the ratbag, patriotism. Can you think of a better way for them to show their awful urge to scrabble after every vote and to flaunt in our faces their want of principle? Or even just their want of decency?

V

So, our political parties have outlived their use. We have scrapped the independent civil service that saw that this country was at least run decently. The press have simply failed in their obligation to keep the bastards in check or to cultivate informed discussion on issues of principle. The politicians and our press both look to be the logical outcome of our failure to educate our young. We are left with a residue of mediocrities that few people have any faith in and who deter decent people from even thinking of going there. If politicians and their mates in the press could assassinate Malcolm Turnbull and Julia Gillard in the manner that they did, what decent Australian would want to go anywhere near Canberra?

Our politicians are now the sad result of their own irrelevance, and the awful company that they keep explains their populist and unprincipled positions on issues like the environment and refugees. From time to time one or either of these parties has the gall to claim the moral high ground, but each has forfeited that right on the ground of our foreign wars alone. And the lesser parties have about them the air of bikes for hire, or ticket-of-leave types. They look like they might be let out for the weekend. We then end up with an apparently slow PM who acts like a neatly turned-out schoolboy who is visibly way out of his depth dealing with foreign powers – visibly, that is, to all except the closed coterie of his media cheer squad.

At his best our PM is superb – as Donald Duck lecturing at a blackboard at Sunday school. And our Tony is blessed with things in common with Donald – he too gets flustered when he forgets or fluffs his lines and he says awkward things, and his Creator always sends him out in the same tie, the endearing comfy rug of the eternal adolescent, who longs for the life of a simpler past, when before the footy or the flicks all good Britons everywhere stood and harmoniously implored Almighty God to save our gracious and noble Queen, and send her victorious – even if she is an Anglican. And just when you thought that you had him Pat, so to speak, what does he do?   Our dear Tony goes out and hugs a koala with a Russian bear that he had threatened to shirtfront. Here indeed was a true classic of Aussie grace – we have forgiven those bastards for what they did to our Light Brigade during the last Crimean War. (The shooting of the Romanovs is very different – those Communist bastards shot the Queen’s cousins, and any socialist party since has been put under an infallible interdict, and its supporters exposed to the eternal bonfire, where all clan and tribal debts are finally settled.)

What is the response of the failed politicians to these grievances, which are well known? They just drop the needle in the slot of the old microgroove LP, and wheel out some pre-programmed platitude that has been drilled into them by stern superiors since school. They are forbidden ever to be candid, or to answer a question directly, or to enter into anything resembling a discussion of principle or intellectual debate.

So, there are some reasons why our system is sick and it does not look like getting any better. In the end, it should not be too hard to balance our wish to be free and keep what we have while looking after those who are not doing so well, but we just strike poses and utter slogans, and sigh with relief that we are not being tested.

VI

To go back to the three sorts of issues, it is quite possible for one person to want to have as little as possible to do with government, but to be relaxed about how much is spent on welfare, and just fall about laughing when one party claims to be a better financial manager than the other. That happens to be about my position. I have had a charmed life, as have most Australians, and certainly all those who are called baby-boomers, and I feel obliged to put something back and at least do something for those who are not so fortunate. I am not aware of any political party that claims a preeminent capacity to suit my personal wishes, or that I might place my faith in. That is one reason why I wonder if those who are so vocal on the other side are just lousy, and offer up ideological and managerial nostrums as a smokescreen. Some people say that they see as big a divide in the US, but I suspect that politics is like litigation – it usually comes down to money, and most of the talk about principle is just bullshit. If you take greed out, there is not much left.

What might be most disturbing is that some people that we put in power, however reluctantly, actually think that they are superior to the other side and are doing a good job, while we look in vain for people who have vision or courage and are capable of being leaders. They do not accept that the third and fourth-raters now entering our parliaments are the direct result of the failure of our second-raters. In areas where we the people might look for political leadership, like the environment or refugees, we just get poll and populist press driven slogans and inanity and a moral or intellectual embarrassment. Their fall-back is that they are at least the best on offer. That is about as much comfort to the rest of us as a discussion between dog owners about the relative quality of the fleas on their pets.

And all that is before you get to what might be the worst of it. We seem to be witnessing, both here in the US, a slow erosion of that tissue of tolerance and restraint on which ultimately the whole system rests. Ultimately all legal systems must stand on a shared faith and trust, and, for want of a better term, a state of mind that enables the system to work. We seem to be seeing people who are not sufficiently imbued with that faith and trust who are willing to depart from long sanctioned conventions for short-term political gain. The Australian parliament is a C grade circus posturing as a B grade farce. At its best, it is downright embarrassing. There is no real need to point fingers if people just accept that sand is being thrown into the cogs of the machine and that if that keeps going, the machine will seize up, or just be rejected or replaced. This might be the most worrying trend of all, and you might wonder if it is related to or just mirrored by the apparent collapse of all sense, reason, or decency in the escalating chasm between the rich and the poor.

VII

More than a hundred years ago, a Welsh firebrand, who was brought up by his uncle who was a cobbler, told the English parliament: ‘These problems of the sick, the infirm, of the men who cannot find a means of earning a livelihood … are problems with which it is the business of the State to deal.’ Lloyd George was joined in the battle by the grandson of a duke and the son of a lord who was a life-long aristocrat named Winston Churchill. They went into a political war on principle – they were determined to tax the aristocracy and the rich in order to deal with the problems of the sick and the infirm. In declaring that it was the business of the State to deal with those social problems, they founded the Welfare State, and they created a political and some would say moral gulf between the UK and the US that is deeper than the Atlantic.

In the last twenty-five years, two broken parts of a nation have been successfully fused into the economic power-house of Europe with the best and most balanced education system in the world, one that would take us at least two generations to catch up to. For about ten years that process in Germany has been led in coalition governments by Angela Merkel, who was brought up in the Communist DDR.

There is simply no prospect of our seeing anything like the leadership of any of those three people in Australia.

We here do now look like a land of wasted opportunities learning to accept the risk that those opportunities have been permanently lost. It is not easy to think of a happy resolution, but it is not hard to say why our politicians have lost our trust. People appointed to public office in truth if not in black letter law hold that office on trust. They are to there to look after us, and not themselves. So, if directors of a public company get a takeover offer, they have to act in the best interests of the shareholders and the company as a whole. They breach that trust if they are more interested just in hanging on to their directors’ seats than looking after the long term interests of the company as a whole. This is precisely what our politicians do to us, day in and day out. It is their way of life, and trust once lost is not easily won back.

It is all enough to make you philosophical. Governments throughout the west have been intent on turning our universities into glitzy shopping malls for rich foreigners and richer locals, so politicians have no friends in those places. It is perhaps therefore not too surprising that in the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, Professor Simon Blackburn, then of Cambridge University, allowed himself a philosophical observation of a droll nature under the heading of ‘trust’: ‘The attitude of expecting good performance from another party, whether in terms of loyalty, goodwill, truth, or promises. The importance of trust as a kind of invisible glue that binds society together is most visible when it is lost….It is a general ambition of democratic politicians to be trusted whether or not they are trustworthy.’

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