Sunday 8 October 2017
Today I again refer back to the launch of “Incorrigible Optimist: A Political Memoir” by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC, Chancellor of The Australian National University – Launched by the Hon Bob Hawke AC GCL, 23rd Prime Minister of Australia at the National Press Club last Wednesday.
“In his book, ‘Incorrigible Optimist: A Political Memoir’, Gareth Evans looks back over the highs and lows of his public life as a student activist, civil libertarian, law reformer, industry minister, international policymaker, educator and politician. He explains why it is that, despite multiple disappointments, he continues to believe that a safer, saner and more decent world is achievable, and why, for all its frustrations, politics remains an indispensable profession not only for megalomaniacs but idealists.”
As a fellow idealist I was interested in an answer to one of the very last questions at the launch. Evans was asked (and I am going by memory) what he thought of the current state of our democracy (world-wide) and what might be done to put it right. He went through all the rank answers of the rise in popularism and the far right etc etc but it was when he said that their were enough optimists, people of good faith, idealists who wanted a better politics that I became a little impatient.
It was at this point that I harkened back to my own writing on the state of our democracy and that of many other AIMN writers over the past few years. Type ‘democracy’ into our search engine and you will find many fine contributions on the subject.
So in view of Gareth Evans optimistic contribution as to whether an Australian democracy would once again return to some level of its former self, prior to the advent of neo conservatism, or whatever label you might like to fix to the new right, I thought I would take another look at my thoughts on the subject.
Last year I wrote a series of articles that covered “Where it all began”, “Newspapers”, “Electronic media”, “Right-wing feral opinion”, “Democracy torn asunder” and “If your racist don’t read it”.
At the beginning I said that my observations would be random. This post is the last of the series and deals with which party is suited to govern in a highly complex world. It is collated from the earlier articles I have written for The AIMN that deal with the decline of our democracy.
“Are the political ideologies of today suited to address the problems of tomorrow?”
Before we can even begin to answer that question we need to have a clear understanding of just what they are. But we have to keep in mind the often subtle (or not so subtle variances) differences and interpretations that universally exist. For example, the term Liberal means an entirely different thing (it means socialism) in the USA.
And in the United Kingdom it takes on another meaning. Even Democracy itself has interpretations that take on complex variances from country to country. Socialism takes on many shades of grey often depending on a historical time frame.
In another recent piece I was presented a case for “The Common good” being at the center of every political philosophy. I described what I thought to be the fundamental political ideologies. They are as follows.
What is a conservative?
I would say that Conservatives (LNP) believe in personal responsibility, limited government, free markets, individual liberty and traditional values. They believe the role of government should be to provide people the freedom necessary to pursue their own goals. Conservative policies generally emphasize the empowerment of the individual to solve problems. And they are cautious about change or innovation, typically in politics or religion.
What is a neo-conservative?
Neo-conservatism goes back to the 30s however in its modern form it is identified with George W Bush who embraced unbridled capitalism, corporate greed together with literalist Christianity to form a modern neo conservatism. Carl Rove, Donald Rumsfeld and others added global superiority to the mix believing that America in all aspects was above the rest of the world. A further element in this mix is Tea Party Republican politics.
What is a social progressive?
My view is that Social democrats (Labor) believe in government action to achieve equal opportunity and equality for all. That it is the duty of the government to alleviate social ills and to protect civil liberties and individual and human rights thus believing the role of the government should be to guarantee that no one is in need. Progressive policies generally emphasise the need for the government to solve problems.
A Facebook friend after reading my piece agreed with the general thrust of it but decidedly (and rightly so on reflection) disagreed with my analytical take on the isms (his comments are edited for the sake of brevity):
“First up – the ideological comparison. Covering conservatism, neo-conservatism and social democratic traditions misses two major theories: socialism and liberalism. To my mind, the three “fundamental” ideologies are socialism, liberalism and conservatism. Neo-conservatism and social democratic traditions are just derivatives of the above (both are kind of attempts to mix *some* liberalism in with the other, but primarily in a one-dimensional way). I’d say libertarianism is also a derivative ideology, but one with a different genesis”.
“There are a few ways to conceptualise the three main ideologies – perhaps the best is to look at them from their own world view of paradigm. Understanding how the adherents actually view the world goes a long way to explaining the resulting ideas that are put forward. Conservatism: Civilisation (order & tradition) – Anarchy (social disintegration) Socialism: Oppressors (rich, elites, owners of capital) – oppressed (poor, minority groups) Liberalism: Freedom (of the individual) – Coercion (subordination of another’s will or action by force or pressure). Your definition of conservatism is rather off the mark, but that often happens in Australia. In the UK, Canada and most European nations, there are conservative and liberal parties that are radically different in outlook. You’ve tried to tie them together – which has happened in Australian politics with the emergence of the Liberal Party – but philosophically they are miles apart. “I would say that Conservatives (LNP) believe in personal responsibility, limited government, free markets, individual liberty and traditional values. They believe the role of government should be to provide people the freedom necessary to pursue their own goals”.
His response was rather lengthy and a very worthwhile read. I concede that my take was limited to Australia. That was my intent for the audience I was addressing. I saw social progressives like myself as a modern extension of socialism and I left out Liberalism because I believed it no longer existed in Australia, in its original form’ and had morphed into conservatism. This may have been a mistake because there will be those who believe that true Liberalism might very well be the answer to my question.
Before addressing my question, “Are the political ideologies of today suited to address the problems of tomorrow?” I feel a need to explain why I feel it essential to ask it in the first place.
There is no better example of the deterioration in Australian politics than the way both major parties have tackled the issue of asylum seekers. Nothing encapsulates more, than a willingness to forego decency, principle, fairness and empathy for fellow human beings simply to achieve political power.
When political parties throw away these basic human tenants they lose all credibility. So far have our standards sunk that we must now suffer the indignity of being lectured to on human rights by other countries.
The problem requires a bi-partisan approach and while then opposition leader, Tony Abbott refused every offer. Instead he opted to solicit the votes of the racists and gutter fringe dwellers in our society. And in doing so set about demonising those who were simple seeking freedom. The blame for this lies squarely at the foot of the then Prime Minister. And the Labor Party stands condemned for its acquiescence.
Australian politics has descended into a murky pit of corruption, vindictiveness and scandal on both sides.
The pursuit of power for power’s sake has taken on an importance that relegates the common good to a distant second. Personal gain has surpassed public service. People of questionable character hold high office and influence. Big business has become the senior advisor.
Economics has become the barometer of a successful society rather than the well-being of the people.
Public discourse is no longer a healthy adversarial debate about ideas. It has now adopted a king hit mentality replacing truth with propaganda and leaves it to the public to decide what truth is.
The conservatives have coerced the right-wing media into supporting them and the language of journalism has descended into biased unsupported rhetoric. As a result the support for far right politics by a far right opinionated media threatens the way we conduct democracy.
Tony Abbott’s ongoing contempt for our democratic conventions and institutions only serves to uphold the low opinion people have of politicians.
We have never previously had an opposition leader like Abbott, and we have never had an opposition leader as our leader. If you take my point.
The pugilist Abbott did not transform into a national leader and even now continues to trash everything with negative invective and muted sarcasm. The man who set new lows in negativity and obstructionism in opposition took us to new lows in government.
Whilst I have used asylum seekers as the catalyst for my question it is not the only one. He sought as opposition leader to trash many of the Parliament’s practices and did so at an accelerated pace aided and abetted by a rogue speaker.
Retribution replaced respect and it’s a dog eat dog democracy ensued.
Political controversy and conflict has always been with us and probably always will be, but for the future of our democracy it needs to be tempered with a contest of ideas. Better people need to be elected to parliament. People with a wide range of experiences. Not just party hacks but people with character, with desire for change,people who can read the poetry of life and desire excellence and truth, who want equality, justice and have an honourable understanding of what public service is.
This then leads me back to my question …
Are the political ideologies of today suited to address the problems of tomorrow?
The Australian Liberal ideology that I grew up with no longer exists. It exists in England and is espoused by Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg. He is on a crusade to reform his party further arguing that Left versus Right is no longer relevant: (unfortunately he lost his seat in the last election).
It is not often you’ll hear me say this, but I agree with Tony Blair. In his words “the big difference is no longer between left and right, it is between open and closed.”
So what is an open society?
It is a society where powerful citizens are free to shape their own lives. It has five vital features:
social mobility, so that all are free to rise;
ii) dispersed power in politics, the media and the economy;
iii) transparency, and the sharing of knowledge and information;iv) a fair distribution of wealth and property; and
v) an internationalist outlook
By contrast a closed society is one in which:
i) a child’s opportunities are decided by the circumstances of their birth
ii) power is hoarded by the elite
iii) information is jealously guarded
iv) wealth accumulates in the hands of the few, not the many; and
v) narrow nationalism trumps enlightened internationalism
Closed societies – opaque, hierarchical, insular – are the sorts of society my party has opposed for over a hundred and fifty years.
If you read the full speech it is easy to understand why there are those who believe that Liberalism in its purest form is arguably the best and most suited political philosophy for addressing the problems of tomorrow.
The Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott rarely used the word liberal. This is because the Liberal and National parties (who hardly represents its constituency) have now fully converted to American style Tea Party Republicanism. It is obvious by speech, action and policy. The once soft edge of small ‘L’ Liberalism has been expunged from the party but for a few tiny remnants. Its course of vindictive political witch hunting may very well have put in place a series of retaliatory Royal Commissions that will further erode political public image in the long run and damage our democracy irrevocably.
“It takes innocence greater than I can muster to believe the motive for the inquiry is to bring justice to the program ‘s victims rather than to embarrass the Coalition ‘s political opponents by raking over one of their more celebrated stuff-ups. One thing we can be sure of is that when next Labor returns to power it will lose no time in retaliating, as will that government ‘s eventual Coalition successor. Advantage-seeking retaliation will become a bigger part of the political debate”.
Truth has been the first casualty in its Tea Party conservative conversion. Secrecy and lies is its replacement. Characterless, boys club, leadership under Turnbull and his cabinet with fear mongering negativity that abounds every day. Its profound fear of science as a threat to capitalism together with its blind reluctance to change in my view makes it unsuitable for addressing the problems of tomorrow.
I find that the most objectionable feature of the conservative attitude is its propensity to reject well-substantiated new knowledge because it dislikes some of the consequences which may follow from it. There are real facts in life.
“By refusing to face the facts, the conservative only weakens his own position. Frequently the conclusions which rationalist presumption draws from new scientific insights do not at all follow from them. But only by actively taking part in the elaboration of the consequences of new discoveries do we learn whether or not they fit into our world picture and, if so, how”.
The Social Progressives
In my following comments I will refrain from including the Greens in this discussion in so much as I don’t see them as a genuine answer to my question. They may play a realistic role in the answer but not one of total resolution. They cannot govern, only influence.
The Labor Party is in a state of ambivalence not knowing whether it should cling to long-held traditions or disperse with them. It has to modernise but is hamstrung by allegiances and commitments to affiliated organisations (Unions) that in the public eye are detrimental to its image.
It has lost the compassionate vote to the Greens and is not prepared to regain it because it risks alienating the middle ground. It fails to see that to regain government it has to turn politics as we know it on its head and start a new politic. And I don’t mean structural but a kind of reverse of Abbott’s propaganda and one liners. Like making “we can do better” as repetitive as “stop the boats”.
While on the one hand it sees the need for reform, power plays from within make it almost impossible, although they have made a start with the democratisation of leadership selection and some bold policy statements.
It has a good heart and its policy ideas are streets ahead of the conservatives. They are making progress at brand marketing and public relations. Creating progressive narratives that have passion and purpose with a dose of charismatic flair as seem in the last election. If they are to regain government in the short-term many unpalatable decisions will have to be made. The alternative is a wait our turn attitude.
As to the question …
“Are the political ideologies of today suited to address the problems of tomorrow?”
Well let me put it this way. I am born and bred of the left but I don’t have a closed mind. I do believe that the problems of today and tomorrow are so overwhelming that they require solutions that go beyond an ideology first mentality. A politic that puts it all aside and simply says. ‘’What serves the common good’’
My thought for the day
“The common good should be at the centre of any political philosophy. However it is more likely to be found on the left than the right.”
Day to Day Politics: When did it all go wrong? Part five – Democracy torn asunder.