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Disillusion or Dissolution? Australia’s 2016 Election

Wednesday, 3 August 2016  | Bruce Wearne

So what are we to conclude about the 2016 Federal Election? And how are we to view the 45th Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia?

The major parties seemed to respect the importance of voters having a choice, by articulating their policies so that voters know what to expect. And some journalists facilitated meaningful debate between candidates about negative gearing, health-care policy, social welfare, national infra-structure, aged-care, superannuation and other crucial issues.

The Coalition and Labor campaigns focused on how the two parties differed from each other. They seemed to want to give voters a genuine choice, but avoided the question of why voters should have to assume that there are only ever two major sides to any political issue – a question often raised by the Greens, minor parties and independents. And from the actual numbers of first preferences across the entire country (Liberal 29%; Labor 35%; Greens 10%), this question will take on greater political significance in future. The renewed call by the Greens for proportional representation is to be welcomed.

In this reflection, I will focus on the responsibility of parties for political education. To be sure, electors bear some responsibility for ensuring they are informed and for casting their vote in a responsible manner. Yet despite the parties’ elaborate explanations of policies, voting is still not easy. Voters are left to work out how the full panoply of party policies are inter-connected and derive from a basic political philosophy.

The lack of elaborated public philosophies by the major parties during election time has a lot to do with the absence of ongoing educative activity by these same parties among electors between elections, when candidates and election-machines are not on the hustings. The parties effectively treat voters as isolated individuals, political consumers, and then tailor their electioneering to harvest their votes – a ‘market research’ approach.

Take, for instance, the fact that our recent election arose from a Double Dissolution of Parliament. Would it have been indiscreet to ask:

  • What is a Double Dissolution election according to our Constitution and why was it considered necessary at this point?
  • What was at stake? Why go to the polls so early?
  • What are the consequences for future elections for the House and Senate?

Why were the major political parties not able to answer these questions in an upfront way during the election campaign itself? Surely a corner could have been found among all the electoral material sent into our letter-boxes. What discussion there was did not extend electoral understanding about Double Dissolutions and the Constitution. And yet the Double Dissolution, and the timing thereof, was part of what the Coalition has called its economic plan, and was basic to the uncertain outcome of the election.

This leads us to ask: apart from our activity as voters in the election, how do our major political parties actually understand us and the full extent of our citizenship responsibilities? This question ties in with the criticism regularly made about political parties: that they are dominated by people who privilege their own political (elitist) aspirations at the expense of any genuine concern for the needs of voters. That is not to say that every member of Parliament is self-interested and concerned only with his or her own political career, or that every employee of a political party is simply a ‘party hack’. To the contrary.

However, through their lack of engagement in ongoing electoral education across the country, the political parties fail to maintain a meaningful and sympathetic presence across all electorates. As a result, it must be difficult for individual members of Parliament, let alone voters, to see the ‘political party’ as anything other than an over-endowed public relations firm that is wheeled in at election time to orchestrate the re-election of an elite ‘team’ of candidates. This, in turn, is a missed opportunity to provide a healthy political counter-balance to the inordinate manipulative impact of the mass-media interests of Murdoch, Packer and Fairfax (not excluding the ABC, too) upon our everyday political discourse. The way in which the parties present themselves certainly gives the impression that our political responsibilities as citizens are to be manipulated by dodgy advertising, ‘don’t vote for them, useless’ diversions and publicly funded letter-box rubbish - a ‘whoever can scare best wins’ political mentality.

In this polity we face a crisis of citizenship that has the potential to divert us further and further from a constitutionally directed parliamentary democracy. The crisis is deep; it is found in the lack of mutual respect between citizens and the two major political parties. The way to begin to address this crisis is for these parties to begin sustained and patient electorate engagement through genuine political education. By addressing voters as citizens, as co-participants in the task of state-crafting, they would open themselves up to genuine political critique from ‘ordinary voters’.

In the meantime, we still have to come to some view about the election and the narrow victory of the ‘Malcolm Turnbull Team’ with its ‘plan for a strong new economy’.

There is considerable uncertainty about Turnbull’s ‘leadership’ and there is even some doubt as to whether his side feel they ‘won’ in an enduring political sense. As a result of calling a Double Dissolution, with the new rules for Senate voting in place, Turnbull’s ‘side’ (in both houses) has not been strengthened and instead we have the prospect of an even less compliant Senate. By repeatedly calling attention to the Liberal-Coalition’s economic ‘plan’, Turnbull’s political leadership is now questioned even more. Was it not a serious error of political judgement that brought on the early election in the first place? And was that call not part of the ‘plan’?

To answer this question fully, we need to examine the political philosophy of Malcolm Turnbull (b.1954). Given what we have written above, there might be some doubt as to whether the major political parties, so beholden to elite interests, are capable of engaging in such careful analysis for the benefit of the voters. But this has not always been the case.

Turnbull had already made a significant contribution to Australian politics before winning the seat of Wentworth in 2004, through his advocacy of a strong new (republican) polity. But if that earlier ambition is still part of Turnbull’s personal agenda, these days it is well and truly on the ‘back burner’, subordinated to the demands of his role as ‘team leader’ (Prime Minister) and promoting his ‘economic plan’. Previously, his republican vision was a way of transcending party-political differences, but it also involved the republican movement’s commitment to a long-term patient process of political education. That plan viewed the coming republic as unlocking the inherent creativity of all Australians. It would make us more agile as a nation with a form of government that was more in keeping with our political reality and with the modern world.

But that was then; this is now. Those political ideals have been well and truly reconfigured and subordinated to what are perceived as necessary economic realities. And so, political education, just like advocacy of the republic, is on the back-burner. This is due to more than just a legislative emphasis on economic well-being; it is a result, as mentioned earlier, of the elite takeover of political parties, making them into corporate-funded public relations firms.

How then are we to find a political path that does not sideline, reduce or ignore the ongoing task of state-crafting that is the responsibility of all citizens? For a Christian political option to emerge as a viable contribution to just public governance in this country, we will need to find ways to maintain political education while also maintaining dialogue with those of different political persuasions. That will also mean a renewed understanding, with wisdom and patience, of the God-given grace that calls us to manifest our love for all our neighbours by the way we craft our political responsibility as citizens.

Bruce Wearne is a retired Monash University sociology lecturer. He now spends his time assisting Christian Aid and Development students while continuing research in the foundations of 20th century sociological theory.

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