Discourse without dialogue in Australian politics

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Chris Johnston - Discourse John Button, a federal Labor minister from 1983 to 1996, was an astute politician. He accused one parliamentary opponent of citing statistics as Oscar Wilde's inebriated man used a lamp-post—for support rather than illumination. Button's wit anticipated the gloom of Australian public discourse in the early 21st century, as defenders and critics of government policy express incompatible opinions rather than engaging in dialogue. Particularly noticeable by its emptiness is the field of public morality.

While there might never have been a golden age in which ethical considerations dominated the pragmatic pursuit of politics, critics of the Howard Government accuse the Coalition of elevating populism over principle to act unethically on mandatory detention of asylum seekers, invasion of Iraq, civil liberties, social welfare and industrial relations. While such assessments can be subjective, the government seldom defends the morality of its decisions, preferring to argue that its policies suit the circumstances, denigrating critics and waiting for ethical arguments to dissipate.

Ministers dismiss church criticisms by telling the religious not to meddle in affairs beyond their expertise. The Prime Minister's claim that he governs for all Australians invites majority opinion—or lowest common denominator opinion—to resent possible church influence in secular affairs. Other critics such as moral philosophers are dismissed as ivory tower elitists, and whistleblowers with inside information have their characters impugned.

As well as creating moral vacuums around issues, this approach impoverishes the culture of public discourse. The venality of the current political paradigm has three non-negotiable elements—power, ego and prosperity. The leaders of the Anglophone Coalition of the Willing remain unrepentant despite their arguments for the invasion of Iraq proving to be deceptions or errors. While the power to act unilaterally should incur grave responsibilities, the governments of the US, Britain and Australia have ignored the constraints of constitutions and international law.

Their arbitrary actions threaten the spirit of moderation, consensus and compromise that is essential to democracy and which guards against tyranny. This fosters an international and domestic order which says that might is right. When the government claims a mandate to implement its program unrestrained by criticism, the moral question of what we ought to do is overwhelmed by what we can do.

John ButtonThe 2004 election campaign showed that most Australians now give greater priority to finance than to morality. This is understandable given that they have been encouraged to associate security with prosperity. During the campaign the Opposition, assuming that people would dismiss a government that had deceived them and failed to keep its promises, tried to make trustworthiness an issue. But the government knew that the public understood trust differently and argued that they, and not Labor, could be trusted to manage the economy successfully. The return of the Howard Government suggests that ‘trust' can no longer be assumed to have moral content. Indeed, the lexicon of public morality is constantly diminishing.

Lack of justice
In many areas of life, choice has been reduced to a consumer decision. Social values such as the right to basic standards of health and education have been redefined as commodities available for purchase on an open market. Offering tax cuts as an alternative to social spending undermines the idea that we are all responsible for one another. Individuals now believe that it is perfectly decent to form attitudes according to how policies affect them personally. Why not, when competition is regarded as the best means to achieve social outcomes?

This political culture might seem fair if pluralist competition maximised outcomes. Unfortunately for the powerless, apparently fair processes do not produce justice. Thousands of years ago, Aristotle noted that the strong do not need justice because they routinely get what they want. Perhaps this is why critics of the Howard way are alarmed when the government uses regulations, budgets, appointments or public denigration to undermine the balancing power of the institutions of justice.

AristotleDespite Aristotle's observation, millions of Australians care for justice either for its intrinsic value or because they believe that a just society is a stronger one. They base decisions on a desire to maintain our integrity, help others to live in dignity or enhance our international reputation. This is why they want to show compassion to refugees, the disabled, or those with fewer economic resources. Current policies tempt people to decide what they ought to do according to selfish priorities, but without a balancing selflessness, society drifts into compassion fatigue and is beset by issue overload.

While many people form their attitudes with integrity and a regard for ethics, it has become very difficult for them to influence government. As the individual is paramount in the political paradigm, groups that might coalesce around issues become fragmented. Mobilising a groundswell of support on any issue is very difficult. Some critics charge that the government has understood the importance of this process and exploits and aggravates the problem by a tactic known as 'wedging', which sets some categories of people against others. So baby boomers are held to be responsible for debts and prices and younger people are warned that providing care for ageing generations will be a great burden.

Silencing critics
When a parliamentary opposition is in disarray following successive election losses, the media attain greater critical importance. Occasionally media outlets might flex their muscles, as when engaging in self-fulfilling prophecies about leadership, but such threatening campaigns serve the interests of media rather than the public. The government has been treated kindly by both Packer and Murdoch conglomerates. It holds out the possibility of changing the laws on cross media and international ownership and has spent more on advertising than any predecessor. Commercial media are natural allies of a pro-business government and criticisms raised in supposedly analytical programs and columns are undermined by the background of advertising within which they are situated.

Rupert MurdochSimultaneously, the government's avoidance of serious public debates creates the impression that critics receive favouritism. The government uses this impression to represent critical institutions as biased. It has made some 1000 complaints about bias in the ABC, but finding that these are rarely upheld, it has changed the Board by abolishing the position of staff-elected representative and appointing conservative commentators favourable to government policies.

Critics recognise these moves as part of a broader 'culture war'. In 1996, the Coalition campaigned against an alleged political correctness that supposedly stifled debate. PC became rhetorical shorthand for policies designed to end discrimination against women and indigenous peoples, guarantee a minimum living standard, proudly embrace multiculturalism and care for the environment. This campaign validated complaints of the kind that typify racism, ignorance and envy. The culture warriors remain anxious to end the so-called guilt industry and to dismiss the black armband view of Australia's past, so that our consciences can be relaxed and comfortable.

The latest indication that dissent is undesirable is the decision to weaken Senate committees. With the parliamentary opposition in the House of Representatives rendered ineffective by the government's strategies, Senate committees have provided detailed investigation of issues by welcoming submissions from a broad range of stakeholders. These inquiries have resulted in the publication of many valuable reports. Some inquiries, such as that into the so-called 'children overboard' affair, have embarrassed the government. Mandatory government majorities on committees will lessen the likelihood of adverse findings.

While the government appears to be astute, the chaos over changes to industrial relations laws suggests that it does not control the administrative consequences of its actions. Perhaps its moves to bend the bureaucracy to its will have weakened the quality of advice from the public service. Honest MPs admit in hindsight that most Bills are improved by delays in the Senate. The bills to introduce the GST were lauded by the Treasurer as perfect, but when the Senate referred the legislation to committees, the government used the opportunity to introduce dozens of amendments that enabled it to avoid embarrassing complications. Perhaps, by weakening Senate committees, the government might remove yet another source of constructive criticism. If so, then excesses and arrogance will quickly produce electoral unpopularity.

Success and excess
John HowardPerhaps fear of voter backlash explains recent amendments to electoral laws. Enrolment has been made more difficult while the making of large anonymous donations to candidates has been made easier. Should the Coalition win another election, abolition of compulsory voting might be on its agenda. One argument for voluntary voting is that people lack interest in politics. However, it would be a tragedy were that apathy to be deliberately fostered by government because disengagement favours the incumbent. An electorate switched off from political discourse cannot be persuaded to swing to the Opposition, and without genuine debate, there is no reference point for evaluating the relative claims of the alternative governments.

Governments generally have an interest in deterring people from listening to them. While people should not be forced to take a close interest in politics, those who are deprived of a political life are clearly impoverished. Aristotle even advised that community involvement is the only way to a fully ethical life. That is why it is worth persevering in engagement with political issues, even while the dominant political paradigm discourages ethical arguments. Hopefully, in time the lamp-post will again be used for both support and illumination.



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At a very simple level I am appalled by the acceptance shown by 'good Christian' people for the pragmatic policies of the Australian Government. "We must live in the real world and base our decisions on what we believe to be the best interests of Australia" there is a complete disregard for moral or ethical considerations and when I object on moral or ethical grounds I am dismissed as 'naive' and unrealistic. It is a relief to read an article such as this, written by people who no-one can call naive ! More please.
M.M.Kerby | 15 August 2006


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