Who is driving policy on asylum seekers, racial discrimination and same-sex marriage? It isn't the Turnbull Government or the democratic majority, says Adam Jacoby.
LET'S START WITH the foundations shall we?
We know that democracy is about enacting the will of the people. We know that it is supposed to represent the whole Australian community. We know that every voice and every vote is supposed to be equal.
We know that policy should be dictated by the greatest good, not ideological politicking or who has donated the most money. We know that politics should be a responsive civic duty, not an adversarial career profession.
We know that we are complex beings whose views cannot be consolidated into big brand political parties on every issue. We know that a solutions oriented, fact based approach is the best way of solving complex issues.
We know these things. We know them.
I probably spend more time thinking about democracy (as opposed to politics) than most people, certainly more than is healthy. What is becoming increasingly and despairingly clear is that our democratic ecosystem is completely divorced from its original intent, from its critical purpose. Whether or not we want it to – even if politicians actually wanted it too – the current system and its operating rhythm simply does not allow for genuine democracy to be revived.
Regardless of your personal ideological leaning (or mine), traditional parties across the spectrum have done a spectacular job of stripping all the value from democracy and replacing it with self-serving, myopic and adversarial politics.
In the last few years we have endured a litany of fundamentally undemocratic practices which include but are not limited to:
- A revolving door prime ministership based on poll results (rather than elections);
- Ministers changing their policy views based on corporate "donations" (should be rebranded investment and should be illegal);
- Ministers stating that issues are so important that they must be put to a plebiscite and then publicly announcing that they will ignore the results of a plebiscite if they don’t agree;
- Minor parties holding the country to ransom for fringe ideologies;
- Parties repeatedly misusing tax payer funds;
- An erosion of the separation between the executive and public service;
- Parties misrepresenting facts and data (and marginalising science) and
- Legislative decisions that are diametrically opposed to promises made to the electorate.
So is this a failure of the system or a failure of leadership? Well, frankly, it’s both.
The current system of governing has endured beyond its usefulness. We live in a completely different world than the one the system was designed to serve. A world that perpetually celebrates the velocity of its evolution cannot continue to govern itself under a model designed for a world that no longer exists!
Despite the obvious frailties and flaws of the governing system, the erosion of our democracy is exacerbated by the complicity of our leadership (readers note that I use the term "leadership" loosely and more than slightly tongue in cheek).
Make no mistake, Malcolm Turnbull is a man with a very significant credibility problem when it comes to protecting our democratic rights and principles. In the space of 100 days, the Prime Minister regaled us with his democratic credentials as it related to the same sex plebiscite. He stood before the media throngs to explain that we were witnessing the government protecting our democracy and ensuring that every Australian citizen of voting age would determine the issue.
Impressive. But wait, before you hoist old Mal onto your shoulders and cheer for his democratic vision and courage …
Only weeks later, Captain Democracy capitulated on an election promise related to superannuation reform. At the time of writing this piece, the Prime Minister is considering two new pieces of wish list legislation from unhinged minority parties. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party has been very publicly boasting that they are driving the policy making in the asylum seeker issue. One cannot help but think that they may be correct as, all of a sudden, an already legally questionable set of policies are made infinitely harsher due to their lead.
These were not policies that were brought to the recent election. The people have not expressed their will on this legislation. Australians need to ask themselves, did the Prime Minister intend to enact these laws before the election but not disclose them as he thought they would cost him votes? Or, is he being bullied into positions by minority parties and cannot refuse them if he wants their support on other legislation critical to the government’s ideology?
Even if the government did not plan to introduce this legislation prior to the election and are not being led by One Nation, why does same sex marriage legislation require a plebiscite to protect democracy but asylum seeker legislation does not? Surely, given the cost of operating asylum seeker policy and the effect on our international reputation, the issue is worthy of a rubber stamp from the constituency? Selective objectivity is indeed at play. Does Malcolm Turnbull really love democracy or only when it suits his agenda?
Equally troubling is the astoundingly misplaced bravado of the most undemocratic politician in the country, Senator David Leyonhjelm (apologies to Senator Cory Bernardi who is trying very hard). Only this week – and incredibly this is not an exaggeration – Senator Leyonhjelm announced to the media that he was not “holding the government to ransom” he only “had them by the balls and was squeezing”.
The squeeze-worthy issue is Section 18C, a watering down of the Racial Discrimination Act (the preferred outcome of the Senator) that he is desperately trying to ram through without public debate and in the face of public opposition.
You may recall, Abbott and Brandis tried this on during Abbott’s reign and the suggestion was so unpopular when polled that it left the PM retreating with his tail between his legs and was a huge blow to the Attorney General. Nevertheless, Senator Leyonhejelm believes that the government needs his support on the ABCC legislation and presumably Pauline Hanson’s asylum seeker legislation, so he will revive the conversation about his minority and extremist agenda.
Some will say "good on him" he is there for a reason and he had a chance to get a win on the issues that he put to the people before the election. These people do not believe in democracy and like Senator Leyonhjelm they do not understand it.
Senator Leyonhjelm’s position as a self-described champion of free speech is curious as he seems to want his minority views to have free and unexamined passage into law rather than an opportunity to propose his ideas and allow public debate about them. Surely if his position is so logical and obvious, then the majority will flock to support it!
If Senator Leyonhjelm believes in free speech and real democracy as he states, he would want his view and those representing the other sides of the issue to be freely available to all constituents, he would want them examined and evaluated and then, for appropriately informed constituents to choose the direction they want the country to go and for the government to enact the will of the people. That is democracy.
I have challenged Senators Leyonhjelm, Bernardi, and Brandis as well as Prime Minister Turnbull to a debate on democracy. To date I have no takers. I will continue to challenge them. I suspect the reason is that they do not want real democracy. They do not want an airing of different views, exposure of facts, an informed constituency, they do not want to know what the constituency wants, because ignoring its will would only expose their undemocratic practices.
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