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Renovating a Dilapidated Federal Commonwealth

Monday, 6 May 2013  | Bruce Wearne

You call that Democracy? This is Democracy!
Whenever Australia's constitutional history is under examination, comparison with the United States will enter into discussion as a matter of course. One prominent and somewhat self-congratulatory view places Australia ahead of our North American friend and ally in strictly democratic terms. The United States had to come through the furnace of a bloody civil war to confirm (in terms President Lincoln outlined in his 1863 Gettysburg address) that what had been legislated 76 years earlier would henceforth stand as an endorsement of that nation's allegiance to "government of the people, by the people, for the people". But in Australia, by way of contrast, and even though it involved a haphazard series of constitutional conventions convened by the self-governing colonial governments in the final decades of the 19th century, it was resolved that our constitution would not merely give expression to democratic principles by the words it contained, but would itself be an expression of democracy in action, a constitution of the people, by the people, for the people. The various colonial governments agreed that the constitution would be written by the people's representatives, by those who were elected from within each colony to serve in that task. Following ratification of that constitution in the British Parliament, and Queen Victoria's royal proclamation on 17th September 1900, the Commonwealth of Australia came into being on 1 January 1901.

By any standard, this was a remarkable achievement. As a process it presupposed that the nation's citizens would continue to be responsible for the government and the system of public governance that has subsequently emerged. In this form of democratic government, voting is considered an integral part of a citizen's responsibility, and hence today it is compulsory at all levels – federal, state, local/municipal. It is the votes of citizens that decide which fellow citizen will be elected to make decisions on their behalf. Those thus elected are reciprocally accountable to their electors, because it is the citizens who elect them and it is they who carry the weight of responsibility for the nation's government. That is what the Australian constitution implies. The elected citizen indeed has a mandate. This mandate has been initially set out as the candidate's election platform and becomes the representative's mandate when taking his or her place in the nation's parliaments once votes have been counted and results declared. By being elected the candidate’s platform is endorsed by his or her electors and that gives expression to the member’s mandate.

The Constitution's Assumption Politically Eclipsed
When Prime Minister John Howard reneged on a 2001 election promise a few months after being elected, he was not only engaging in unethical conduct and duplicity, which is hard to deny, but demonstrating how his party had lost a genuine political commitment to what is implied in the Australian Constitution concerning accountable and representative parliamentary democracy! The important fact for Australia now is not just that Howard's Liberal Party diverged from Deakin's view of economic life; that may or may not be so - liberalism in all of its many guises has a strange and convoluted history especially when it comes to political economy. But the more telling fact is that Howard radically diverged from Deakin's political principles, his view of accountable and representative parliamentary government. To dismiss the criticism that an elected member's decision to ditch his or her platform can always be subject to "the people's vote" at the next election was certainly not what Alfred Deakin (1856-1919] had in mind for Australian parliamentary democracy.

Deakin served as Prime Minister for three separate terms but it can be said that his subsequent political career was framed by a maiden speech in the Victorian Parliament in February 1879 that shows how far he was prepared to go in conformity to the principle that an elected member remains wholly accountable to his or her electors. His speech announced his resignation because eligible voters had been excluded from voting. He actually lost the subsequent by-election.

The Labor Party obsequiously followed the Liberal Party's unscrupulous unhinging of itself from electoral accountability in the wake of the 1975 "constitutional crisis". Parliaments across the country have since become subject to the tyranny of "conscience votes" when the dominant political parties lack political courage to enshrine political conviction in election platforms. Then members can find themselves elected on platforms that allow "conscience votes" or "free votes" on such matters. When parties excuse themselves in this way legislative issues concerned with "body politics" tend to be sidelined, the parties preferring that individual electors will go to candidates to find out how they will vote. And so we have the convoluted process of lobby groups issuing check-lists about parties’ and candidates’ "values". We have seen this most prominently with respect to abortion and controversial scientific research (embryo experimentation and RU486); and more recently with the world-wide movement that claims that life-time sexual partnerships between people of the same sex are marriages. The interesting point is that with the neo-liberal privatization of such convictions, legislation increasingly reflects a populist libertarian view that finds it very difficult to allow its incoherent ethical standpoint to be debated. Those who are sidelined in this process are not necessarily "conservative" or "fundamentalist". They may simply dissent from the process by which representative democracy has been compromised.

The other side of this sad state of affairs is the political parties which blunder on blindly, driven by a ‘religious’ belief that political decision-making is first and foremost a matter of economic management while the unavoidable and hence highly controversial conscience votes have to be negotiated "on the side". The mindlessness of this managerial mentality has been visible with respect to national schooling policy. The sorry story of managerialist populism (Hawke-to-Keating-to-Howard-to-Rudd-to-Gillard) could be repeated over and over, but is now in full orchestral voice as Australia heads to the polls in September.

Renovation of Political Consciousness?
So, 43 Parliaments after Federation, it doesn't really take much to conclude that serious political renovation is required of Australian politics. It might even require re-writing our Federal Commonwealth's constitution in part or in whole. But from previous political experience, we expect that such a murmur will draw forth the shrill mantra: things can't be changed; that's just the way things are. Get used to it!

Could that mantra be losing some of its magic? After all, an incredibly complex reality confronts us about our political responsibility. That responsibility is not going away even if we have lost important insights that were basic to our constitution – “the people", like it or not, are still responsible for their government(s). Moreover, political responsibility—the call to love our neighbours with public justice—is part of our human creaturely condition under heaven. The Creator-Redeemer has not yet rescinded that part of our image-bearing responsibility. For Christians that means, or should mean, a ready willingness to take up a task called forth by none other than Jesus Christ Himself, to love our neighbours with public justice, in concrete terms, in organised expressions of political service, in this country, in this nation, in this region, here, now.

If my elected representatives in the nation's parliaments—at federal, state and local borough levels—are like me they will feel somewhat bamboozled by the incessant battery of news that the stock-market is inching up or cascading down. I suspect that the humble MP, Senator, MLC, MLA or Councillor, will have to confront a whole battery of complex responsibilities now thrust upon them. Despite significant office resources, one has to wonder how they keep up. Just listen to the news. Listen to a lunch-time weekday programme of news and analysis on radio or television, or read a daily tabloid if you can find the reports among all the advertisements, and what is reported there confirms uncertainty and the inner hesitancy of fellow citizens, community leaders, civil service employees, and elected parliamentarians. A "mind", an "atmosphere" extends to all levels of government, hedging us in whenever we start to wonder, as indeed we should, about how to form our political life, how to fulfil our duties as the electors of those we have elected. How do we "do politics" and give expression to our political responsibilities?

Consider how it appears:

- the local mayor in most cases seems to cast his or her role mainly in terms of encouraging tourism, business and infra-structure development funded from State and Federal coffers to encourage tourism and business; but let's not be too hasty about her confirming Karl Marx's view that Government is merely the executive of the bourgeoisie, since her level of government, let alone her office, doesn't rate a mention in our constitution which governs a federation of states in a Commonwealth;

- or consider how the State Premier has clearly been advised by his or her public opinion analysts with PhDs to shore up his or her public-approval rating by complaining about his State's unjust share of GST revenue or lack of communication about some other national scheme that will roll out some or other proposed reform;

- or finally, at the top of the tree, the Prime Minister strongly suggests that her contribution is a matter of "steering" by balancing and tweaking budget forecasts with deals struck with industry groups, unions and well-endowed lobby groups to enable her to make a last ditch effort to save our children's future before the next election in September.

Now consider other unresolved uncertainties. It is not just the effects of the global financial crisis from 2007 and the ongoing tremors we hear about from Europe, London and Wall Street. Nor is it just with the military ambiguities of Pax Americana, let alone the long and slow decline in the value of the $US because of its over-bloated debt levels. Consider the political significance of the way in which our supermarkets are flooded with products from the mega-economies of China and India (watch Brazil!). Industries from these emerging giants have cornered the global market, and we confront this now every time we visit the supermarket. It is not merely the looming sunset of the "mining boom" in Western Australia. We are now, more than ever, whether we have a carbon tax or not, embedded in a motor transport economy, and our largest cities are set to grow larger still, and our urban infra-structure is going to be tested to the limit with respect to the provision of water, sewerage, power and roads. Not to mention telecommunications. How big can these cities grow? How long will we predicate our nation's "progress" on an ability to zip around in bigger cars, making us all victims of ever-growing car-parks, slow crawling traffic and under-funded public transport systems? And yes, what about the rising levels of the water table, and the seas?

Indonesia, our neighbour to the North, is the world's largest Muslim country. Our population may have recently passed the 23 million mark, but Indonesia with its 17,508 islands has a population that is over 10 times that. Our own government has gone out of its way to support the Indonesian Government's policies in West Papua (pop. 780,000) and Papua (pop. 2,833,000). The indigenous people of these provinces were annexed and incorporated into the Indonesian federation in 1969, but do not consider themselves Indonesian since, by culture and background, they are Melanesian. The justice of their claims to independence have not truly been dealt with and so, to this day, there is ongoing unrest and resistance.

Despite the "diplomatic pivot" of the US Foreign Secretary last year, there seems to be a heightened militarist disposition across Melanesia, reaching from the West Papuan resistance to Indonesian militarism all the way to the Republic of Fiji Islands with its illegal and unstable usurpers of government. In Fiji, Melanesia meets Polynesia. And how can Australia in its diplomatic efforts across this region speak out for just, accountable government when we have been politically complicit in the most recent example of militarist intervention, the illegal "shock and awe" invasion by a "coalition of the willing" in Iraq. That conflict has left over 130,000 civilians and 40,000 combatant soldiers dead. That now is also part of Australia's legacy that we have to wear in this region, our region.

Can we recapture our sense of responsibility for public governance?
When all that is considered alongside the unresolved problem of asylum seekers reaching our north-western shores in leaky boats, we realize just how much we need genuine and wise political leadership to re-focus us as a nation, so that our historical "northern hemispherical long-sightedness", the inherited 19th century consciousness of a "Tyranny of Distance", will no longer prevent us from embracing our region with public justice. Are we not called to love our regional neighbours as we love ourselves? When we do that we may find that we begin to understand why many fleeing terror and persecution willingly risk death in leaky boats on the high seas to come to our shores - to live within our Commonwealth. Maybe all "white fellas", like myself, should have been listening with greater attention to indigenous leaders like Mick Dodson, who goes so far as to suggest that Australians have good reason to be proud of the kind of society that has been formed under our Constitution. He says so, even while he pin-points the serious injustice perpetrated by the founders by the exclusion of aboriginal people from the nation's citizenry! This implies that for him, and we should follow him at this point, that the only way to get beyond injustice is to keep on doing justice and to do it justly. We should be deeply grateful to Mick Dodson and other indigenous leaders who by precept and example have reminded all Australians of the positive aspects of our political system.

What is it that so many asylum seekers see in us that would prompt them to try to come here? Could it have something to do with the manner in which our Constitution has continued to give us lawful room to give fresh shape to our political life? Could it be that our Constitution is an important part of what has made us, Australia, attractive to asylum seekers? Why should we doubt it? Why should this be such a surprise? In considering the asylum seeker issue let us think very carefully about what makes our political system so attractive. Instead of reacting with hip-pocket panic, shouldn't we be thinking of possible political and legal ways in which to ensure an even more generous open-door policy? But how can we be politically generous if we neglect to learn politically about ourselves as Australians from the very people who find us, and this place, so attractive. Listen to Mick Dodson. Listen to the analysis of those asylum seekers who have made this place their home. With such a refreshed attitude that allows ourselves to be surprised by things we take too much for granted, we, Australian citizens of this federated commonwealth, may actually find ourselves politically. Have we lost sight of our own distinctiveness? Could that be why there is such a political scrap over asylum seeker detention? I sadly suspect that it is so!

What we should be trying to do?
We should be able to deal with questions of this sort and will be better able to do so when we develop a political view that this is indeed the place on this earth where we are situated, the place on this earth where we have been called by God Himself to do politics. Instead of retiring to the Riviera when we realise that no one is listening to us any longer, we will keep on working for public justice. And now, with a significant bequest of political party deformation we can even say that we might well benefit from many asylum seekers coming to this country to teach us again the principles of our system of government that for all intents and purposes we have lost! And if subsequent generations of the people of this country are to learn politically about the nature of public governance and their participation in it, we are going to need political parties that shape a vision of public justice for ourselves in our region. And that means that the Christian people of this polity are going to have to capture a vision of political service; it will mean a reformation in the way Christian people understand themselves as servants of Jesus Christ, the saviour of the world, the ruler of all the princes of the earth.


Robert Coles
May 7, 2013, 8:06PM
I would like to know the nature of the election promise that John Howard is accused of reneging on after the 2001 federal election? He is accused of "engaging in unethical conduct and duplicity." As a voter I cannot accept this statement without substance please.
Bruce Wearne
May 8, 2013, 11:36AM
It needs to be said that any allegation of unethical conduct and duplicity arising from this controversial change of platform, let alone confirmed logically by the espousal of a distinction between so-called core and non-core promises, can easily miss the political point that was then raised. When the PM of this country, after being elected as one opposed to embryonic stem-cell research in the election of 2001, subsequently becomes its advocate after the election, the political issue should not be reduced to a problem about an elected member's personal morality. Instead any political criticism and dissent should be directed at his party's lack of genuine political commitment to what is implied in the Australian Constitution concerning accountable and representative parliamentary democracy! To put it another way, Christian parliamentarians who made a big point of voting No on embryonic stem-cell research should have actually been insisting that the elected member of the house resign and submit to re-election.
Andrew Kulikovsky
May 21, 2013, 11:32PM
Dear Bruce, I would like to take issue with a few things in your article.

John Howard's distinction between 'core' and 'non-core' promises after 2001 election concerned the imposition of spending cuts which he said he wouldn't do. However, he also said the reason for this was due to a very large budget black hole, which was not discovered until AFTER the election. In other words, he made a promise based on incorrect information. Thus, I think it can certainly be argued that his promise was conditional on the financial situation being as he believed it was when the promise was made.

Re Howard's views on stem cells, it should be noted that he was no eager advocate, but simply believed that it was acceptable to use surplus IVF embryos (which were going to be destroyed anyway). I disagree with his view and think he is wrong but you can't really imply as you did that he lied to or hoodwinked the public.

Moreover, you seem to have a very simplistic view of a MP's election mandate when you argue that a MP that diverges from that mandate is no longer accountable to voters. But a MP's mandate covers lots of things, and some are more important to voters than others. A MP or their party may have some views that some voters disagree with but on the whole those voters support that MP or party. Hence, for many voters the notion of core and non-core promises/policies is not unreasonable.

You said: "For Christians that means, or should mean, a ready willingness to take up a task called forth by none other than Jesus Christ Himself, to love our neighbours with public justice..."
That's not in the Bible, Bruce, and you know it. The Bible (Christ) says: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” Mark 12:30-31. Please do not misquote/misrepresent Scripture.

You ask: "What is it that so many asylum seekers see in us that would prompt them to try to come here? Could it have something to do with the manner in which our Constitution has continued to give us lawful room to give fresh shape to our political life? "

Seriously Bruce? 99% Australians have never even read our Constitution (have you?) let alone know the large body of case law that governs its interpretation. And yet you think asylum seekers understand its significance? Perhaps the reason is more likely our extremely generous welfare system?

What we should be trying to do? Let me suggest, Bruce, that as evangelical Christians we should be trying to bring people into a relationship with Christ. We should seek spiritual transformation first, then there is much greater potential for social transformation. This is, after all, what Christ actually told us to do: "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt 28:19-20).

There are many other issues with your article but I'll leave it there.

Respectfully, Andrew

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