Tim Hollo couldn’t help but hear the Seinfeld soup man’s oppressive refrain in the 2018 Budget and High Court citizenship ruling this month.
Not to make light of a deeply serious situation, but this refrain has been running through my head over recent days, modulated into “No democracy for you!”
In the Seinfeld episode, a soup stand opens up, run by an aggressive man who is intent on policing his customers’ behaviour and denying them his famous soup if they breach the rules. Of course, as a private businessman under a capitalist system, it’s his right to do so. But when that attitude is brought to our democracy, we have real problems.
This month, both the Australian Federal Government and High Court told the vast majority of Australians "no democracy for you". The immediate results of this, in terms of increased inequality and exclusion, will be horrible for many. The long-term results – in terms of broad disenfranchisement leading to ever deeper anger while ecosystems collapse around us – could be disastrous.
Let’s look at the 2018 Budget first.
In the face of strong and widespread support for increasing the rate of Newstart, the Government has chosen to keep it at a level which locks people into poverty traps. In a Budget which continues the emphasis on tax cuts for big business and introduces new tax cuts for wealthy Australians earning up to $200,000 a year, there is no doubt here about for whom our democracy is working.
Similarly, the Budget expands the debacle of “robo-debt” clawing money back from the most vulnerable people while doing nothing to close tax schemes which benefit the richest in our society. Regardless of popular will and expert advice, our democracy is working for the rich minority against the poor.
Not earning enough? Can’t get a job? Never mind that there are many more people seeking work as there are jobs available. No soup for you!
No democracy for you, either. You don’t matter.
At the same time, the Budget massively privileges private corporations seeking private profit over anyone working for the public good. Corporate tax cuts are the most blatant aspect, but don’t forget the continuing diesel fuel rebates, the direct subsidies for fossil fuel development, the loopholes which enable massively profitable companies to pay no tax, the hand-outs to privately owned broadcasters and much more.
Set this against the cuts to the ABC and SBS, public services and our cultural institutions and the message is clear. Are you providing a public good, when you should be seeking private profit? No democracy for you!
Of course, attacks on vulnerable people and attacks on the environment are two sides of the same profit-obsessed coin. The treatment of the Department of Environment and Energy in this Budget will drive even more species into extinction and drastically undermine the health of ecosystems which are our home. The continued support for coal over renewable energy, over the loudly stated opposition of a vast majority of Australians, accelerates this destruction.
Are you a young person, or a member of future generations, who will be trying to live on into the second half of this century? No democracy for you!
In this context, it’s important to recognise that the catch-cry “no democracy on a dead planet” or “no social justice on a dead planet” doesn’t mean that only the environment matters, or even that it matters most. It means that, unless we work incredibly hard to build and buttress systems of healthy, socially just democracies, the deterioration of the natural world we are part of will lead inexorably to the deterioration of our democratic systems.
This is why the High Court’s decision this week to further restrict who can run for Federal Parliament is so deeply dangerous. It weakens, rather than strengthens, our democracy.
Instead of looking at the facts of former Senator Katy Gallagher’s case and deeming that, as seems obvious, she did not take all “reasonable steps” to renounce her British citizenship before the election, the Court read down their own concept of “reasonable steps” into irrelevance. The Court, their advisers and numerous commentators saying politicians just need to "do their paperwork”, seem blithely unaware of the powerful stifling effect this will have on our democratic participation.
The same people who voice their dissatisfaction with a Parliament full of careerists are cheering on a decision which ensures only careerists (or those with an exclusively Australian heritage) can stand.
By insisting that a person is only eligible for election once any feasible process of renunciation has been completed, the High Court has effectively required that any person who was born overseas or who has a parent born overseas must make the decision to run for Parliament a full term before actually doing so and be willing to invest substantial sums in the process.
While attention has been paid to the British case, where the process is expected to take six months, others, which can take years, have been ignored. The not inconsiderable GB£372 (AU$579.96) cost of renouncing British citizenship has been glossed over, while the legal fees potentially running to thousands of dollars in attempting to resolve other, more complex, citizenship issues have been ignored. The case of people with a long-standing aspiration to stand has been the focus, while the situation of those who have been ambivalent, or may have recently developed a passionate commitment, has been ignored.
The Parliament is meant to be a venue for any Australian to seek to represent others and to bring important issues to the attention of other decision-makers. Many of our best MPs have been people who did not have a parliamentary career planned but chose to stand at a particular election in response to social, environmental or political issues of the day. Surely these are the people who we want to encourage to stand. As of this week, we’ve slammed the door on many of them.
Were you born overseas? Do you have a parent born overseas? No democracy for you!
A Parliament of careerists, working for the interests of the rich and corporate profit-seekers, against people and the planet, is the result of this month. The system is not working for us.
This is problematic in the short term. But any student of history should see the parallels to moments of crisis in the past century. If we don’t use this moment to build an effective, flourishing democracy for people and planet, the future looks bleak indeed.
No soup for you!
Not much else, either.
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