Renting democracy: Shutting down Australia’s Parliament

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Turnbull Government shuts down Parliament during leadership crisis (Screenshot via YouTube)

In the inelegant butchering that took place in Canberra over the week, one event should stand out in its ghastly affront: Parliament was shut down as the Liberal Party fought over who should lead it. 

That the person leading that unfortunate outfit so happened to be the Prime Minister of Australia was also one of those unhappy incidents of history. 

The act was initiated by Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton, who had been fashioned as a weapon by the malcontents — most notably an aggrieved Tony Abbott, whose malice remains as rich as it is dedicated. But then (now former) Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, seeing his options running thin, also agreed to the inflicted paralysis on Australia’s political process.

It says much about the stranglehold major political parties have in this country. Their power, machinery and the scope of how they can control the institution of parliament is something to lament. Superficially, it harks back to a version of British politics — the birthplace of the Westminster system, which has found itself “drifting backwards” – to use the observation of Professor John Keane – 'heading towards a 21st-Century version of late 18th-Century politics'. 

Keane’s meaning here, in casting an eye on the British elections of 2015, is that parliamentary politics

' ... is coming to be dominated by such 18th-century facts as the capture of the government by the rich, the weakening of independent parliamentary powers and the near-collapse of mass political party organisations.' 

What the Australian parliamentary system could do with is more of the last point: a celebrated decline of influence exerted by major parties with an increasing emphasis on a plethora of independents and party organisations, that force governance upon the elected. But consensus tends to be rare in the tribal furies of politics in Canberra and variety frowned upon. Compromise, by all means, but on our terms. 

In time – whatever aspiration might have underwritten their foundation – [political parties] would succumb to the “Iron law of oligarchy”.

To that end, Australia’s major political parties remind any mildly keen observer about a trend that should have been mothballed some time ago: the role for such organisations outlined in 1911 by sociologist Robert Michels in Political Parties. For Michels, such creatures were machines of employment, patronage and promises, the supplying bounty for party members. In time – whatever aspiration might have underwritten their foundation – such entities would succumb to the “Iron law of oligarchy”.

The spectacle of immolation in the party rooms of Canberra can only suggest the pulsing drive of such oligarchic tendencies. Ideas matter less than survival and any idea worth its salt in political discourse must be appended to the survival of the party members. Many of the justifications for the revolt against Turnbull by the formerly loyal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells do not survive analysis. Arguments about the rift inflicted by same-sex marriage ignored, firstly, that the plebiscite had been advocated by the conservatives to begin with and that the largest vote against the change in the marriage laws came in Labor seats.

The last two Federal elections suggest a tilting towards a fracturing of traditional party bases — and all power to that. The conservative bloc finds itself more eclectic and indignant than ever — even more than the Left, which sees Labor trying to fend off inroads being made by the Greens. Through all that, the Australian electorate remains assiduously conservative. But the events that led to the decapitation of the Liberal Party leadership in Australia suggest the urgent salience of new influences.

This is even more so given the outrage that saw Parliament paralysed while the Liberal Party went on, effectively, a strike.

It was, argued Frank Bongiorno of the Australian National University,

“... arguably the worst debauching of Australian Parliamentary democracy since John Kerr refused to see the Speaker to receive the House’s no confidence motion in the Fraser Government on November 11, 1975.”

The adjournment was also an instructive reminder of the platitudes politicians mouth about the sanctity of parliamentary proceedings when others dare challenge them. 

When members of the Whistleblowers, Activists and Citizens Alliance (WACA) staged a protest of question time in the House of Representatives on 30 November 2016, demanding a closure of the detention camps on Manus Island and Nauru, the then Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce fumed:

“People would be saying, ‘you’ve got no right to come into my Parliament and shut my Parliament down.'”

This injunction evidently does not apply to the political representatives themselves.

The sheer indulgence of the latest process was illustrated by the conduct of a Party that acted as if it had been “a political billionaire” — or, as Bongiorno puts it, a Party possessing a 30-seat majority in the House of Representatives. At the moment, it is barely breathing and risks becoming a minority government.

Another aspect of such self-indulgence manifested with Dutton as the insurgents’ choice — a point that suggests senses of which leave had long been taken. Apart from the obvious point that Dutton’s appeal is primarily towards the reactionary spectrum, it was clear that he would only be the light padding for an ultimate return of puppeteer Abbott. 

What a delicious outcome it would have been for Dutton to have become prime minister, only for him to be referred to the High Court over his eligibility to sit in Parliament for breaching Section 44 of the Constitution. (Labor strategists will no doubt consider doing so in any case, given that the Home Affairs Minister is barely holding on to his Queensland marginal seat.) At time of writing, an examination of the nature of Dutton’s interest in the two childcare centres, which have received upwards of $5 million from Government subsidies, is being considered. Given how enthusiastically fundamentalist the judges have been in reading the ineligibility requirements outlined in s44, Dutton can expect little sympathy.

The renting of Australia’s parliamentary credibility could have been avoided, if only to a modest degree, by taking the matter to the electorate. Dissolve the Parliament, call the whole thing off — or at the very least allow the excluded Australian voter to come into play. Labor, along with the Greens, attempted to achieve this, falling just short. 

As Labor Senator Penny Wong adumbrated:

“It is very clear from question time today why we should suspend, and why we should debate this motion and why we should express no confidence in this Government.” 

It was not to be and, in the slaughter, we have a leadership in Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg far from new and far from fresh, Turnbull’s legacy in another guise, stewards of a government heading to well-deserved oblivion.

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. You can follow Binoy on Twitter @bkampmark.

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