By Dr George Venturini
What do Australians believe?
There may be no pretension in much simplicity, but there is a lot of lack of knowledge and more so of self-satisfied Philistinism.
For one would be entitled to ask in 2016: what happened to ‘a fair go’ in Australia?
Above all else, Australians value ‘a fair go’ for everyone, that is a demand for equal and unbiased treatment for everyone, which is no more than an empty slogan and a fugue from reality. A fair go for 97.5 per cent leaves out the Indigenous People.
Next: Australians value the assumed order, dignity and righteous process of ‘the queue’.
Ask the average Jack or Jill, and s/he would say that all Australians are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law and the agencies of the government. Furthermore, s/he would say to believe in equality between men and women. Well, sort of.
S/he would think of Australia as a responsible member of the international community, in which Australia comes first, and is ‘sick of being lectured’ on by organs such as the United Nations, after a report finds anti-torture breach: former Prime Minister Abbott (The Sydney Morning Herald, 10 March 2015). Never mind that just about every international treaty and/or convention adhered to by Australia – including the comprehensive International Bill of Human Rights – has been systematically violated by governments of the last forty years.
S/he strongly supports the Defence Forces but despises ‘politicians getting us continually involved in other people’s wars’, roughly the history of Australia at war. And, of course, returning members should be ‘properly looked after’ by the government. And there is where the matter ends.
S/he expects ‘the leaders of the country’ to provide security, but not to use ‘national security’ or ‘law-and-order’ as a pretext to reduce civil liberties.
S/he does not care for politicians with ‘a sense of entitlement’ because “everyone in Australia must do the heavy lifting” and “the age of entitlement is over” – at least since thus declared by then Treasurer Joe Hockey on 3 February 2014. There have been some departures since: the same Treasurer being paid the same amount as Newstart, $1,000 a month, to sleep at his wife’s house (The Daily Telegraph, 14 June 2015); former Prime Minister Abbott using a V.I.P. jet to fly to Sydney for a 20-minute press conference on foreign investment, news.com.au., 25 February 2015; the same spending $ 3,000 per week for a mansion he did not really want (The Australian, 18 November 2015); the government paying $ 330,000 for a room it does not use (The Sydney Morning Herald, 29 July 2014); taxpayers spending $ 150,000 in rent for ministerial office with no Minister (The Daily Telegraph, 1 November 2014); Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce insisting that a $ 4,600 trip to watch State of Origin and N.R.L. finals was for government business, news.com.au, 6 November 2013) And then there is Speaker Bronwyn Bishop … But the three word slogans are over – old hat; now Australians enjoy “liberty, the individual and free market” – six words, better suit, more ties and top forensic style.
Against all evidence to the contrary, s/he would believe that Australian leaders should focus on making an equitable society rather than widening the gap between the rich and the poor.
Some thirty years into galloping neo-liberalism s/he would reject foreign ideologies designed to give advantage to the privileged few and/or facilitate laissez faire capitalism.
Contemptuous of the Thatcherite experiment, s/he proclaims to be living in a society, not an economy.
Because time is more important than money – or so the rhetoric goes – s/he would reject government policy based on simplistic financial profit and loss.
Contrary to everyday experience, s/he would be satisfied of the government – regardless of its hue; respect for economic value, social responsibility and environmental responsibility strikes a chord with the average Australian.
S/he would want job security. And if s/he were to be unfortunate enough to lose employment s/he would want to count on government assistance to find a new job.
S/he would demand that full-time workers receive ‘a living wage’: a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work, as established in 1907 by H.B. Higgins and which has gone out of fashion decades ago along with the Australian Conciliation and Arbitration system.
It is ‘of common knowledge’ that government agencies would be properly staffed and resourced to enable them to fulfil the role assigned to them by the Parliament.
Despite ‘the reform’ initiated by Labor thirty years ago and aggravated by the Coalition since, s/he would still believe in education and training opportunities for all young Australians based on merit – not on ability to pay.
Jack and Jill would be surprised that any government may think of tampering with Medicare or the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme safety net.
The average Australian would not tolerate attacks on the most vulnerable in society, but would expect that senior citizens and those with disabilities would be cared for by governments.
S/he is prepared to accept State ownership of some key assets in a mixed economy, but prefers private ownership because ‘more active, responsible and profitable’.
It goes without saying that in the prevailing climate of ‘fair go for all’ corporations and rich people would pay their fair share of taxes; the Treasury and the Taxation Office would ensure that they do so.
And of course, every Australian would expect a fair return to the public purse for allowing resources owned by the people to be exploited by private corporations.
S/he would support free trade deals which do not benefit ordinary workers and Australian industry; and would only accept fair trade for everyone: nothing but the so-called level playing field.
S/he would not support unrestricted sell-offs of Australian land, enterprises and residential properties to foreigners.
‘The government’ should be committed to invest in research to develop proactive solutions rather than trying to solve problems with reactive band-aid solutions. It should ensure that Australia’s technological infrastructure remains on par with the rest of the world, and protect the environment in a sustainable way. (with acknowledgement to, J. Gleeson, ‘Australia’s core beliefs – where are they now?’, theaimn.com, February 8, 2015).
S/he is comfortable with the ‘British rules for good living: never explain, never apologise, never resign’.
This ‘system of beliefs’ is of course fruit of too much television watching, myth, little schooling, ‘pub talk’, fantasy and a tale as old as the ‘paese di Bengodi’ – which has been for centuries, and across national boundaries, a fictional location in the popular imagination where there is luck, especially in the material sense, happiness and abundance, where nobody has problems or financial worries, and everyone can eat and drink at will. The name itself, made up of the Italian words equivalent to ‘good’ and ‘enjoy’, makes itself the idea. It is a place where it is ‘normal‘ “to bind the vineyards with sausages.” – like in The Decameron, VII.3 by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375).
Such ‘system of beliefs’ is a combination of hypocrisy and cant.
Is there no hope? Yes, that springs eternal, and it is based on the diversity of the population which might not have been reached by the professional pollsters who are quite comfortable with the national language.
It is quite possible that the campaign for ‘recognition of the Indigenous People in the Constitution’ is the product of that fantasy, or imagination – and distraction. Only a proper referendum amongst the Indigenous People would determine whether they want that or they prefer ‘serious recognition with restitution and compensation’, which are acts of acknowledgment of past wrongs and reparation for continuing abuses. Such process is only possible by speaking clearly to the whole of the Australian people, old and new, explaining that what they talk about when they talk about rights is only available and guaranteed in a republican system of government, established with or as a precondition to a treaty with the Indigenous People. The task is difficult, but so was the construction of the Snowy Mountains Hydro-electric Authority, by people from more than a hundred countries, and so was the erection of the Opera House, the fruit of creative genius by its designer, the Pritzker Prize winner Danish architect Jørn Utzon.
The task is particularly difficult because there are signs that the Australian populace has been enfeebled by ‘the System’.
As Marius Benson noted some years ago, “There has been renewed debate over the malady that lies at the heart of modern Australian politics.”
Yes, democracy is being dumbed down principally by the media, with politicians complicit in the process. The media and politicians do have much to answer for. Their self-serving world of half truths, beat-ups, misrepresentation, slogans and fudge is a poor substitute for reality.
But the real problem is not the media, not the politicians: it is with the Australians’ attitude to public life. Most of them go to vote in a near complete ignorance of current issues.
Faced with this level of indifference and ignorance what are politicians meant to do beyond picking three slogans, repeating them endlessly and hoping something will get through to people who only hear them accidentally when they tune in too early for Master Chef and catch a political grab on the news headlines ?
The alienated voter may have a point when s/he wonders: “Why should I pay attention to the political debates?” and adds: “95 per cent of government goes on unchanged regardless of who’s running the show. Of the bit that changes 95 per cent has nothing to do with me. If you want me to spend my time understanding something to find the five per cent of the five per cent that matters, forget it, it’s not an efficient use of my time. Besides, a lot of the stuff is beyond knowing. A lifetime of study would not provide a definite answer to issues like global warming and what is the best way to deal with it – or how best to equip the country for the future of technology.
Politics is vitally important to people who make money out of it – like politicians and political journalists. I’ve got a life to run.”
It may not be a view which provides a good basis for a good civic society, but it is understandable. (Marius Benson, ‘Dumbing down politics: the problem is you’, 10 May 2011).
Poll data have revealed Australians’ waning interest in politics and a decline in support for democracy. Recent research has confirmed that most Australians no longer think it matters which major party is in government. It has also revealed a significant decline in support for democracy over the past years.
A study, conducted by the Australian National University in partnership with the Social Research Centre, found satisfaction with democracy slumped from 86 per cent in 2007 to 72 per cent when attitudes were surveyed again in June 2014: the number of Australians who believed it made a difference which party was in power plunged from 68 per cent to 43 per cent in the same period.
After the unprecedented instability of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd governments, professor Ian McAllister, who was responsible for the research, said that the Abbott Government should have generated renewed political confidence but for the first time in the poll’s history, the election of a new government did not see increased satisfaction. “We had an all-time low in this ANU poll. We would have expected after the 2013 election, with a change of government, that there would have been an increase. But it continued its downward decline” he said.
Earlier in 2014, the annual Lowy Institute poll of Australian attitudes found that 40 per cent no longer believed democracy is the best form of government.
The main reasons given were that democracy was serving vested interests rather than those of the majority, and that there was no real difference between the two major parties.
“It’s not that they think democracy is bad, but that there is something about the political system that’s not working.” said the Lowy Institute’s Ms. Alex Oliver, Director of the Polling Programme. “We have had long decades of prosperity and no major wars. I think people have lost touch with what democracy means. I think people have to modify or lower their expectations of what democracy is – it is adversarial and full of compromise. I think people have unrealistic expectations.”
The result? Nearly 20 per cent of eligible voters, about 3 million Australians, effectively opted out of the 2013 federal election by either failing to enrol to vote, not showing up to vote or voting informally.
The ANU-SRC poll also found record high levels of national pessimism about the future with just 30 per cent of Australians believing their lives will improve in the next five years.
There may be some silver lining out of so much darkness: politically engaged voters may be shifting away from major parties.
Professor McAllister said that the ANU-SRC poll showed that Australians still have very high levels of confidence in key institutions such as the courts, the police, the defence force and universities. (‘Poll data reveals Australia’s waning interest in politics, decline in support for democracy’, Lateline, by Margot O’Neill, 12 August 2014).
The tenth annual Lowy Institute Poll, released in June 2014, found that only 60 per cent of Australians, and just 42 per cent of young Australians 18-29 years of age, believe that ‘democracy is preferable to any other kind of government’.
When asked to choose between ‘a good democracy and a strong economy’, only a slight majority of Australians – 53 per cent – choose a ‘good democracy’. When asked their reasons for not preferring democracy, the strongest responses are that ‘democracy is not working because there is no real difference between the policies of the major parties’, and that ‘democracy only serves the interests of a few and not the majority’.
“For the third year in a row, the Poll reveals the high number of Australians, particularly young Australians, who are ambivalent about democracy. However, our new results dispel the notion that apathy is the main reason for this ambivalence. Neither is the attraction of another, more authoritarian type of system the main driver of their disenchantment” said Ms. Oliver, Director of the Polling Programme. (2014 Lowy Institute Poll confirms Australian’s ambivalence).
The trouble is that Australia’s system of so called representative democracy is controlled by the major political parties, which bend it to their own purposes, leading to widespread voter dissatisfaction, as David Donovan pointed out. He quoted Carmen Lawrence, a former Western Australia Premier and Federal cabinet minister: “Political parties have created political identities, framed electoral choices, recruited candidates, organised elections, defined the structure of legislative politics and determined the outputs of government.”(Carmen Lawrence, ‘Ideas to save our withering democracy’, public lecture at University of WA, 7/8/03, http://www.safecom.org.au/lawrence03.htm).
However, because political parties are central to the way ‘the System’ works, almost all aspiring Australian politicians must join a major political party and gain pre-selection to achieve a seat in Parliament. This directly leads to the situation where, for most politicians, their primary loyalties lie not with their constituents, but instead to a corporate entity – the political party.
Despite their virtual duopoly in Parliament, political parties cannot even remotely claim to be representative of the wider community or its interests. In 2006, for instance, the Australian Bureau of Statistics put the total party membership in Australia at just 1.3 per cent of the adult population and falling. (Norman Abjorensen, ‘The parties’ democratic deficit’, Inside Story, 10/2/2010, http://inside.org.au/the-parties-democratic-deficit/).
And according to Lawrence, political parties routinely put forward candidates that are not reflective of the wider society, leading to public mistrust: “What kind of representation is it where the candidates are not even remotely typical of the wider society, even using crude indicators such as age, gender, income and occupation? Voters need to feel that their representatives – at least in aggregate – can understand their circumstances and have sufficient identity with them to press their interests. The greater the distance of representatives from electors, the greater the mistrust. These weaknesses begin with the political parties who determine who will be presented to the community for election and who govern the behaviour of their members in law making.” (Lawrence, op.cit.).
It is clear that political parties do exercise powerful control over elected representatives and the way they vote. Professor John Power of the Australian National University points to “the problem caused by rigid party discipline.” (John Power, ‘Fiducial governance: an Australian republic for the new millennium’, ANU e-press, 2009).
Carmen Lawrence deplored the control exercised by the Executive and the party room:
“While most MPs … are conscientious, they are largely unable to influence the legislative or policy agenda except behind the closed doors of the party rooms. Even then, there is often little room to manoeuvre because decisions have already been made by the Executive. Matters which deserve free and open consideration are often submerged because of anxiety about dissent. The media feeds this paranoia by portraying even the most minor disagreements as tests of leadership or signs of party disintegration.” (Lawrence, op. cit.).
“To sum up, there is no doubt that representative democracy has provided a degree of stability to our system. However, this stability does nothing to allay the general feeling of dissatisfaction in our society that we are being poorly served by our party political representatives. Australians see our system as dysfunctional because party politics is aggressive, obstructionist and undemocratic, and leads to generally poor standards of governance. People should feel unease about our system, as it is indeed deeply flawed — and the flaws all stem from the stranglehold held over our democracy by an unrepresentative party political duopoly.” (David Donovan, ‘Our fake Australian democracy’, 28 March 2012).
It was about fifty years ago that a distinguished law professor, the late Geoffrey Sawer, took time and pain to explain to a newcomer the nature of the Constitution – that ‘foundation’ document: one the amendment of which “proceeds with glacial speed.”
Distinguished constitutional law expert, professor George Williams, described Australia as the ‘Frozen Continent’ – as in frozen in time; stuck in quicksand, a continent and people stuck with a Constitution which has hardly changed in over one hundred years.
Professor Williams summed up Australia’s situation as follows: “Australia was regarded as a leading innovator and moderniser in 1901, but the tag has long since slipped. We lag behind many other countries and are now seen as having one of the most static systems of government in the world.”
And he explained why this has happened: “The cause of our predicament is not a series of false steps, but inaction. We have failed to sufficiently update and improve the good system of government we gained more than a century ago. It is as if, having built Australia on the foundation of a new constitution in 1901, the task finished and there was no need for renovation. Without coups, revolutions or other social and political upheaval, we have been happy to leave things be and focus on other priorities.”
The Australian constitution and political system have remained frozen in time, but everything else in the world has moved on.
Media ownership is much more concentrated now than it was 120 years ago, large multi-national corporations manipulate governments and policies globally seeking the best deals for themselves, and the political framework has not protected Australia from a massive loss in manufacturing ability and some of the highest house prices in the world.
In terms of human and citizens’ rights Australians might also be going backwards.
And what are those rights?
Laureate professor Cheryl Saunders answered as follows: “Civil and political rights provide a framework within which people can participate as equals in a democratic community, subject to the rule of law. They include, for example, the right to vote, freedom of speech and protest, personal liberty, the right to property and various guarantees of fair treatment, both generally and under the criminal law. Many of these rights require restraint on the part of governments in exercising the authority of the state.
A second category of rights comprises economic, social and cultural rights: to housing, to education, to health care, to employment, to live in accordance with your own customs and traditions. Many of these rights require positive action on the part of governments in managing the resources of the state.
A third category of rights, which are likely to become increasingly important, concern the environment. These require positive action on the part of the state as well.”
The learned professor Saunders suggests what has to be done to protect these rights:
“The Australian record is far from perfect, however. On this ground alone, the Australian approach to rights protection deserves critical scrutiny.
Nor can Australia afford to be complacent about maintaining even present standards of rights protection.
The Australian approach relies heavily on a political culture that respects rights. Political culture changes over time and Australia does relatively little to reinforce the understanding of the significance of rights and the willingness to give them priority that such a culture requires.” (Mathew Mitchell, ‘Australia’s frozen Constitution and Swiss-style democracy’, 16 February 2014).
There may be a rather pessimistic view of the issue. As Paul G. Dellit wrote: ”Well, we may well have reached the tipping point between genuine democracy in Australia and the beginnings of creeping fascism. You may think this to be one of those ‘shock-horror’ attention-grabbing opening sentences. It is. And I also believe it to be an unalloyed statement of the danger we now face.
History is littered with hindsight surprise that those with power and those who might have opposed those with power didn’t take action to avoid an obviously looming disaster. Of course, the ‘loomingness’ of disasters is often not appreciated by its contemporaries. It would be naive to expect otherwise. Couldn’t they see that the South Sea Bubble would burst? Couldn’t they see that a grossly overheated investment market populated with stocks that were either massively overvalued or worthless would result in ever-widening ripples of market failures and a worldwide Great Depression. Couldn’t they see you don’t fix Depressions by reducing the size of economies. Obviously they couldn’t see any of those things. And with the dawning optimism of a new century, they couldn’t even remember them, or if they could, they were playing that ‘main chance’ game of ‘I’ll make what I can make out of this and bugger all of the rest of them who lose the lot’.”
The writer was alarmed – and correctly so – that the former Prime Minister Abbott and then Ministers Dutton and Morrison, would propose the passing of a law which would create a precedent, possibly for the end of the rule of law in Australia. It would invest a Minister with the powers of policeman, judge and jury to act upon an untested suspicion of guilt to deprive an Australian of her/his ‘citizenship’. Following the then present practice, the reasons for stripping someone of her/his ‘citizenship’ would be deemed secret for security reasons. So this ministerial power would be exercised covertly and absolutely beyond judicial or other form of independent review. The Minister would be required to form his suspicions on the basis of the intelligence provided to him. But even if Australian security organisations and the foreign security organisations with which they trade information were infallible, and even if they had no self-interested agendas, the Minister invested with this power could exercise it to suit his own ends – say, just before an election – to manufacture a terrorist scare and then appear to be the ‘man of the hour’ who restores Australians’ peace of mind.
True, some of the more intelligent members of Cabinet objected to the proposal, but two thirds of the government Back Bench – the so called Liberals and Nationals – had signed a letter in support of the proposed law.” (Paul G. Dellit, ‘Australian democracy at a tipping point’ May 31, 2015).
To be continued . . . Tomorrow: Recognition. Of what?
Dr. Venturino Giorgio Venturini – ‘George’ devoted some sixty years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents. In 1975, invited by Attorney-General Lionel Keith Murphy, Q.C., he left a law chair in Chicago to join the Trade Practices Commission in Canberra – to serve the Whitlam Government. In time he witnessed the administration of a law of prohibition as a law of abuse, and documented it in Malpractice, antitrust as an Australian poshlost (Sydney 1980). He may be reached at George.Venturini@bigpond.com.
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