Parties and opposition

(Extracts from book in preparation about failures in government and business provisionally called What’s Missing?)

The failings of the two-party system

So, we might get the service from government that we deserve.  We have looked at the fragility or unsteadiness of the two-party system.  At the time of writing – say, Easter 2022 – each of our two major parties is in a contest to see who stands for the least and which is the worst managed. 

You might do better if you left the running of the system of national government to the members of the Magpies (AFL) or the Bunnies (NRL) – at least they believe in something and they have respectable numbers.

This is part of the problem.  The system depends upon the parties, but it has no real control over their make-up or operation.  This is one part of our government that is truly left to the people.  While we make voting and jury service compulsory – because our whole system depends on them – we leave our political parties at large.  Their membership is just a tiny part of the population and all the evidence suggests that it would be silly to claim that their views reflect those of their community.  Experience tells us that those who seek political advancement in any community rarely represent the views of the group as a whole.  They have a drive to pursue an agenda that sets them apart.

We saw how unrepresentative a party can be when, after the fall of Boris Johnson, the Tory party in England was called upon to ‘elect’ a successor.  Then the party members went through a demeaning farce of imitating American presidential primaries.  The process showed that the MPs had a different view to the party members as to which was the better candidate, after a crude outbreak of populism led to Fairytale promises that looked likely to bankrupt the nation – morally as well as intellectually.  It was as if they had learned something from the Republicans and Donald Trump – some voters positively want to be lied to – provided the lie is big enough and brash enough.  And the underlying assumption of the shambles was that the office of Prime Minister in the U K was in some way presidential.

Neither of the two major parties in Australia now stands on a part of its platform that distinguishes it from the other.  You could swap the platforms and hardly anyone would notice. 

The Man from Snowy River was always a myth.  Australians fear novelty and abhor radicals.  The party that once represented farmers has gone over to the miners – for lucre.  The long age of agrarian socialism is over.  All parties are being consumed by factions – as a result it would seem of standing for nothing.  (Who else are you going to have a fight with?)  The Liberal Party now is fractured to the extent that the Labor Party was sixty years ago.  And that is a large statement.  Neither party is up to fulfilling its function in the two-party system.

And that is a worry.  Government under our system is only as good as the opposition.  In Australia, America and Britain we have seen people elected who were obviously unfit for the job – but who got there just because their opposition could not get their act together.

The result in Australia appears to be a major swing to independent MPs as electors just give up on the two main parties.  That being so, the system is to some extent working – on the principle that nature abhors a vacuum.  The reaction of the intellectually challenged parts of the commentariat was sadly predictable.  The new independent members will drive them mad.   They are educated; they have had real jobs; they are not driven by personal ambition; they are not cruelled by party; they make sense ; and they want to do something for the country.

The lethal collapse of the opposition parties

Some years ago now, I was listening to David Brooks of the NYT talking about how either the Democrats or the Republicans, I forget which, should respond on a political issue.  ‘Why should they do that?’  ‘Because they are Americans.’  I thought that was facile at the time.  But then it looked to be an unanswerable truth.  They should do what was good for their country.  If that course might be against the interests of the party, the country should prevail.

The point is fundamental.  People go into government by being elected, because they want to help govern those who elect them.  The English system came to depend on two major parties.  We and the Americans have adopted that model.  For that purpose, people join, or support, or vote for political parties.  But the original purpose holds.  If the people who are elected think that a policy is bad for the country, they should not support it – or at least give serious attention to their status in both the party and the nation.  A member of a political party cannot in practice treat every issue as one of conscience – neither can they forget what is the whole point of the exercise.

Those who think that the party is more important than the nation should reflect on those whose views they follow.  Like Stalin, Hitler, Franco, Putin, and Xi.

The role that the party has to fulfil in governing depends on whether a majority of the people give them enough votes to prevail in the parliament and so form a government.  That party then provides the government.  The other party provides the opposition.  But the prime function of each remains the same.  They are there to provide government for the people whom they represent by keeping the wheels of government turning on the tracks laid down for that purpose.

What then is the role of the opposition?  The English historian J M Thompson wrote about how ‘the thick fog of party spirit’ infected the French Revolution.   England was very different.  An Englishman was trained –

to exercise his party spirit in the game called the Party System; and among the rules of that game – not always observed as they should be – are the obligation to sink personal differences in party loyalties, not to criticise your opponent’s policies unless you have a better one that you are prepared to carry out yourself, and, in case of a national crisis, to help rather than hinder whatever government may be in power.

You only have to state those rules to see how far we have fallen. 

On the next page, the historian said that ‘majority legislation might be merely partisan, and minority criticism destructive and irresponsible.’  We know all about that in Australia.  Especially on the climate – which is a ‘national crisis’ – and where one side, in government or opposition, was ‘merely destructive and irresponsible’.  They start by denying there is a crisis!  They can’t even see out the window.

Then the Reverend historian – he started in academe as a man of the cloth – made observations about France that prefigured the disaster of the U S today.  He said that this method of governing was made infinitely more harmful by the threat and then the advent of war.

For then, party spirit became patriotism, and patriotism took on the colour of religion.  It became a sacred duty to denounce, to vilify, and destroy.

That looks like just what has happened in the U S.  Americans have always embraced patriotism and religion in ways that make us very queasy here.  And they do just that with ideology – which we would not give tuppence for.  The result is that for God and country, McConnell and his like in the Republicans set out not just to hinder, but to stop the whole process of government.  They stop it and then they send it right off the tracks.  And then they blame the government for the breakdown.

That is – they try to do the exact opposite of what people elected them to do.  For God and the flag – and a lying, cowardly property developer, who refused to serve his country or to pay its taxes – they commit the ultimate breach of trust put in them by the people who voted for them.

The Victorian opposition at present (mid 2022)  is merely inept.  But the federal opposition now looks set to follow the Republican model.  They appear to subscribe to the heresy that the sole function of the opposition is to oppose.  Nothing could be further from the truth – but they appear to be mindlessly set on opposing the government even on policies where the people have clearly rejected the policies of their party.  In doing that, they put our whole system at hazard.

Politics is like a game in one respect.  It depends on people wanting to play and preserve the game.  There must be some underlying level of both forbearance and co-operation, of tolerance and restraint.  People who refuse to play by the rules – or the conventions – of the game put the whole game at risk.  Just look at what one underarm ball did to cricket.  Or what Kyrgios is doing to tennis.  Or what Norman is doing to golf. 

And then look at the 6 January assault last year on the whole government of the United States – and the breathtaking cowardice of the white elders who were put there to protect the peace of the nation.

In the end, I think that the fabric of a communal group – a footy club, a law firm, a city, or a nation – rests on little more than a state of mind.  And that can be a soft target for people of ill will or small minds.

Politics – parties – Liberal and Labor – Republican and Tory – Trump – the proper role of opposition.

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