Hope for a stitched-up government

Now for the Gillard tightrope walkThe interregnum has ended with a government stitched together. Many of us will charitably wish it well, but sensibly refrain from putting our own money on its survival. But we should be grateful for the fortnight we have been given for reflection on Australian political life in the light of the election result.

The result showed conclusively only that neither major party attracted enough support to govern in its own right. But the increased support for minor parties and independents and the increased informal vote suggested that many people were alienated by the campaigns of both parties.

Among the publicly articulate, at least, there was also evidence of alienation from the way in which politics is now conducted in Australia. It seemed to be narrowly focused on winning elections and then forcing through populist policies. Many saw in the parliamentary charter of conduct, to which both major parties committed, a symbol of the need to do things differently.

But beyond good parliamentary processes, many people argued that political parties must recover a view of what matters in Australia, articulate this view of Australian society, and develop strategies that will help build such a society.

This view of political life sees it as about more than winning power, managing and self-promoting in a way that ensures being returned to power. It assumes, too, that government is about more than forcing through policies that increase Australian wealth without regard to how society benefits. If political parties focus on what matters, they will recognise that the good society has many aspects, that other views of what matters need to be taken into account, and that good government involves far more than economic management.

This understanding of politics has large consequences. It refuses to accept that politics are defined adequately by political processes. The larger goals shape processes. In particular, there needs to be consistency between the vision that underlies the goals, and the processes by which these goals are achieved.

In organisations that defend the dignity of marginalised people, for example, the working relationships between those working in the organisation and the relations between it and other organisations must also be characterised by the same respect that they demand be given to the marginalised. Processes characterised by bullying, deceit and passive aggression are intolerable because they corrupt the goals for which the organisation exists.

Coherence between goals that are inspired by a vision of Australian possibilities and the political processes through which they are implemented is also needed in national politics. The financial crisis showed the risk of a childish view of conceiving the good of society as constituted by increased wealth, and of conceiving government as making firm and virile decisions to free markets and so manage this kind of prosperity. Firm decision making led to the destruction of prosperity and the weakening of society. The processes of avoiding consultation, monstering opposition and bullying critics are consistent with shallow goals, but not with a focus on a richer society.

What should matter to our political parties is a vision of a good Australia and the development of strategies to deal with the challenges that we face in realising this vision, like responding to climate change, to our mineral wealth and to changing patterns of communication. These goals can be met only through processes that encourage conversation and cooperation between people who differ in their views of human society.

The current changes to parliamentary process do symbolise a better way. They make communication possible and enable more than token participation in the formulation and scrutiny of policy. They may be driven by the needs of the new Gillard Government, but they make it hard to regard the business of government as simply the imposition of executive will, and underline the need for persuasion.

Conversation and committees are helpful in refining vision and its implementation. They can also question whether the policies of the ruling party correspond to the human reality of Australian society. But they are no substitute for having a strong view of what matters. Nor can they supply a view of what matters.

It is a large hope that either of our two major parties, which were so happy to do whatever it took to win, no matter what the cost to human lives and ethical values, will recover a deeper sense of what matters. But the weakness of the Government means that these larger questions about politics cannot be suppressed.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Gillard, Abbott, Oakeshott, Windsor, Katter, Wilkie, Bandt, Brown



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Existing comments

So well and simply expressed Andrew...thank you!

However we don't have the emotional maturity in Australia to manage such wonderful and egalitarian ideas
We are too driven by self interest and the media to stand back and see what is best for a wider group of individuals...note the level of homelessness and the plight of our indigenous people

GAJ | 10 September 2010  

Agree. Changes in parliamentary processes will help but even more important is that all players in the political process stop treating voters like mugs: which means comprehensive policy launches a month before elections, full costing of all policies before they are released, NO new policy announcements after policy speeches are made, fixed (4 year) term elections for both houses of parliament. If political players can't do these things they should not be standing for election.

Robert Glass | 10 September 2010  

Essentially, Australia is a loose one-party guided democracy, with autonomous antagonistic institutionalised factions. The aim of politics for both factions is, corporately, to obtain or retain power and, individually, to further the personal prestige, career and financial interests of politicians. Despite all the spin and rhetoric, moral principles and the common good do not really matter.

The rise of politicians outside the two-faction establishment is welcome but I doubt that it will but have the momentum to break the establishment's stranglehold on the throat of Australian society.

The only way to achieve this is the abolition of compulsory preferential voting. People should be able to decide whether, on the one hand, they want to vote preferentially using all boxes or some boxes or, on the other, simply to vote for one candidate only, without having their votes invalidated.

Optional preferential voting would revolutionise Australian political life.

Sylvester | 10 September 2010  

We must return to the Social Kingship Of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.

The more completely Christian our society is, the more true, more lasting and more productive of genuine fruit it is. On the other hand, the further it draws away from the Christian ideal, the more seriously the social order is endangered. In truth, it formed a solid foundation for civil legislation. On that very fact rested the relations between Church and State; the public recognition of the authority of the Church in those matters which touched upon conscience in any manner, the subordination of all the laws of the State to the Divine laws of the Gospel; the harmony of the two powers in securing the temporal welfare of the people in such a way that their eternal welfare did not suffer.

What prosperity and well-being, what peace and harmony, what respectful subjection to authority and what excellent government would be obtained and maintained in the world if one could see in practice the perfect ideal of Christian civilization. Granting, however, the continual battle of the flesh against the spirit, darkness against light, Satan against God, such cannot be hoped for, at least in all its fullness. Hence, raids are continually being made on the peaceful conquests of the Church. The sadness and pain these cause is accentuated by the fact that society tends more and more to be governed by principles opposed to that very Christian ideal, and is even in danger of completely falling away from God.

The Church well knows that the gates of hell will not prevail against her. "To restore all things in Christ" has always been the Church's motto, and it should ber our own during these fearful moments through which we are now passing. "To restore all things" -- not in any haphazard fashion, but "in Christ"; and the Apostle adds, "both those in the heavens and those on the earth." "To restore all things in Christ" includes not only what properly pertains to the divine mission of the Church, namely, leading souls to God, but also what has been already explained as flowing from that divine mission, namely, Christian civilization in each and every one of the elements composing it.

Trent | 10 September 2010  

I assume that, in relation to climate change, conversation and cooperation between people of different views includes the sceptics.

Kevin Prendergast | 10 September 2010  

'Politics is a silly, nasty, business and is best ignored.'

Such a comment is typical of the attitude of many Australians and this must be confronted if Andrew's aims for a higher standard of politics is to be achieved.

Look at the efforts of the back-page newspaper humourists and the emphasis in headlines and pictures given to trivia such as hair colour. The mass media contribute to the problem.
And, to complain further, one result is the campaigning tactic of short, unimforative, highly expensive TV ads tailored to appeal to those who care little about policies.

Good government is not simply the responsibility of politicians but needs widespread involvement.

Bob Corcoran | 10 September 2010  

Thanks for your article! I just hope that as you say that both parties 'will recover a deeper sense of what matters' and refrain from trading insults and hamper the good running of the parliamentary process

Irlande Alfred | 10 September 2010  

In a minority government situation, a political party's right to govern should be determined by whether or not its policies improve the lives of the most vulnerable members of the community - the poor, the mentally and physically disabled, the homeless and the refugees. This applies to both a Labor government and an aspiring Coalition government.Certainly a minority government lacks a mandate but it does provide a great opportunity for redressing some longstanding injustices.

David | 10 September 2010  

To get the best result of an election, the following procedures would help to elect a reliable government: 1) Abolition of compulsory voting. 2) Abolition of compulsory preferential voting (we should have the right not to put a number next to an evil party). 3) No fixed "4 years" term election for the Federal Parliament. (We should not be stuck with a bad government for four years.) 4)Identification cards for all voters, before the name is crossed off the electoral roll on Election Day and to develop a system that assure one vote only per voter.

Ron Cini | 10 September 2010  

I'm afraid that Father Andrew has fallen for that great refined Australian diktat "be nice". "Niceness" is one of the qualities that distinguishes the "publicly articulate"from the publicly inarticulate. "Many of us will charitably wish it (the government) well, but sensibly refrain..etc",he writes.

But wait, Andrew ends by saying "..the weakness of the government means that larger question about politics cannot be supressed". While this statement can not be characterised as nasty it does seem to hint at a certain nastiness, when it refer to the presence of "weakness" in the government.Under the principles of "niceness", my granny would have bridled at this by saying "one must never speak of weakness in another".

Claude Rigney | 10 September 2010  

I suspect I'm antipathetic to much of this piece, while strongly sympathetic to other sections.

But ...

The paragraph beginning "Coherence between goals..." is very difficult for me to make sense of. Could it be rephrased, or at least explained?

I don't mean this as a personal attack - I've written much more obscure lines myself, and I understand some of the concepts are difficult to convey in terms that blog articles seem to demand.

HH | 10 September 2010  

Both parties argue endlessly about breaking our own law and not one media person points it out.

The election was the worst in my long memory and it is fitting that neither big party won.

The pluses are the huge vote for the greens and the loss of Tuckey and Fielding, McGauran, Barnett and Trodd and seeing the lib/nats reduced to not much in the senate.

The election of Andrew Wilkie is stunning and wonderful, what integrity and honour the man has shown under fire for the past 7.5 years while the coalition have bombarded his life.

Marilyn Shepherd | 10 September 2010  

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