The Hobbled Body Politic

Blair Hurley on the state of political debate in Australia

I’m just going to say up front what I want you to take away from this. I think constitutional liberal democracies should dismantle themselves and adopt the political system of absolutist democracy – more simply, we should take apart the political system we have now, and instead make political decisions by voting more directly as a country/world. I’m only going to make above recommendation for current Western liberal democracies because I will assume that the public and private media plays a special role in their current political process. I think this focus will be appropriate and relevant for most.

It’s probably still unclear exactly what I’m getting at. Political issues seem to be capable of being pigeon-holed or summarised into a tagline without being misunderstood or rendered vague, so I’ll illustrate why our current liberal democratic political system is failing us, and why we need to replace it, by making reference to some recent Australian political ‘debates’: (i) gay marriage, (ii) the ‘carbon tax’, and (iii) the ‘mining tax’. To make everything easier I’ll assume the three issues below can be answered as simple yes/no questions.

Gay marriage. Nationally, Australians overwhelmingly support the legal recognition of relationships between gay people, whatever the form and/or content of that legal recognition. Despite this, Australia doesn’t have this legal recognition, and the current Prime Minister has had her personal opinion that she doesn’t support gay marriage publicised.

Carbon tax. Tony Abbott was calling for non-binding plebiscite on an Australian carbon tax (generally speaking, whatever the form and/or content &c.). This has been criticised as an opportunistic political stunt, but Abbott’s rough argument is that the current Australian Government doesn’t have a mandate to put in a carbon tax because it wasn’t an issue which would’ve impacted the way people would’ve voted in the last election. Depending on where one is willing to take the force of that argument it is cogent to varying strengths, and is relevant for the present purposes. Something also relevant is Abbott’s criticism of Australian economist’s support for the carbon tax. If it were up to you or I, should we listen to Abbott/the climate deniers, a vote, or the economists? At the risk of sounding like an irritating exam question, why should we listen to any/either of the groups?

Mining tax. The Rudd Government unveiled a policy to tax the mining sector close to the previous election, precipitating (and I guess the word ‘precipitating’ shouldn’t be read here as ‘causing’ but with a meaning more in line with the idiom ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’, but even then it’s arguable that that encapsulates everything the mining tax meant, if it does at all) nothing less than a political shit-storm that saw, amongst other things, the mining industry mobilise millions of dollars of advertising material against the government’s policy to make it unpopular. The government’s move probably also had a good deal to do with Rudd getting rolled. Some would say the point here is that the government made an unpopular decision that should never have happened, and that would be consistent with what I’m arguing in this article. But I think it should be regarded that here, two great big political bodies battled it out quite independently of whatever the public had to say. It’s my view that at the time the average person had it as the mining industry’s word against whoever was in Canberra.

(You could even add the Australian public’s ‘opinions’ about the ‘Malaysian solution’ or about ‘asylum seekers’ in general, but there’d be nothing to stop one going on and on.)

Alright. That was quite pedestrian, and the three issues really do have a lot of content to unpack, so let’s take a break.

I was having a conversation with some friends who study political science and/or journalism both here at UWA and at Curtin and we got onto the topic of the influence of the media on politics today. They said that the media had a huge influence over what people thought today, I’d just read a passage in a book on teleological arguments (you know, as you do) and I decided to disagree. I suppose the question then wasn’t exactly whether or not we’d reached an end-point in history where the media controlled everything people thought whatever they did in the real world, but let’s be egotists and say by-and-large, it was. There’s a bit of force in the argument that the media wields a lot of clout in creating and changing political interests. It seems pretty reasonable to say that as history’s progressed, media has become more accessible and instantaneous – someone right next to the compound in which Osama bin Laden had been hiding unwittingly posted messages about the confrontation that led to bin Laden’s death, for example. It also seems pretty scary to think that the biggest deliverers of news content (public or private, let’s not make it about that) make decisions about what people get to access.

But then there’s Facebook and twitter – people who live their own lives seem to be able to communicate amongst each other, it appears that technology is also decentralising the mode of our news delivery. Perhaps major news distributors aren’t, or don’t necessarily need to be wielding political power with their ability to collect and disseminate news.

The above discussion with the journalism students and of the three big Australian political talking-points all point to the function of the fundamental idea of modern liberal democracy; that you can, and should separate power in decision-making. The separation of executive or ‘sovereign’ power is frequently called a ‘check’ or a ‘balance’ of power, to use some terms the reader might recognise. The crux of my argument is this: this is wrong, and if you disagree, you don’t understand the true nature of politics. The above descriptions of the three political issues should prove the identification of the problem, and the conversation I had about the media should offer us a solution.

So what’s the problem? Let’s answer our own rhetorical question. The problem is our liberal democracy has separated power in a way that’s left that power in the wrong hands. Political issues (i) and (iii) are really good examples of this. In (i) the Federal Parliament gets to decide an issue against the wishes of subordinate wielders of executive power (the NT and ACT), and in (iii) the (customary) legal sovereign, the Federal Parliament appears not to have had the absolute power to exact its proposed mining tax on the mining industry.

Issue (ii) poses us an interesting normative question, and begins to take us a part way to solving our dilemma – peacefully giving people what they want. A summary of the circumstances surrounding (ii) leave us with three groups to listen to in deciding on having a carbon tax. We have the deniers, the supporters, and ‘the people’. All three groups have absolutely no complete evidence on which to base their decision-making, and one group’s conclusion is entirely indeterminate. We should choose the outcome of a plebiscite or referendum. If we accept the general concepts of democratic principles as a good way of running a country, we should do this because it gives people what they want.

However, we should only accept the outcome of a plebiscite on the carbon tax because we want a plebiscite on practically everything. Did the Liberal Party get trounced on WorkChoices, an issue at the 2007 election? Yes. Would both the ALP and the Liberal Party get trounced on gay marriage if put to a vote today? Yes. Could we get Abbott trounced if we all voted on the carbon tax today? I hope so.

No matter the political system, some person or institution will always end up having the absolute power to make a decision. A classic example of this is the huge amount of power the High Court of Australia (or any supreme appellate court for that matter) usually ends up wielding over political issues – the way it usually goes is some Australian Parliament passes a law, and then the High Court gets to decide what it in effect does when a plebiscite on the matter would arguably be more democratic. Personally, I can see both the courts and national votes serving particularly good functions with respect to political decisions but I’d like to see a little less of one’s influence and a little more of the other’s.

Everyone’s been pointing out to Abbott that his plebiscite would cost a lot of money. He’s obliged to say ‘you can’t put a price on democracy’ but the real reason why he’s parading a plebiscite on the matter is because he knows there’s a good chance that the marginal cost of having the plebiscite is just low enough for the potential benefit that he might derive from a ‘no’ vote. The same holds for any and all plebiscites we should hold in the future. If we used new technology such as, or similar to twitter and facebook, there’s a good chance we could lower the costs of having more frequent referendums or plebiscites on matters.

That’s it for the first part of my argument – that constitutional liberal democracies are functionally flawed. The second part is concerned with the media and the present Western political culture.

Newspapers, television stations and political parties seem to be using public polling on political issues on a massive scale these days – maybe we should call their bluff by actually having national (or state-wide) votes on things instead of letting them trashing the Australian political history with top-down, focus-group driven political stunts.

It seems to me that the Australian people are becoming more and more disconnected with its political institutions (John Faulker et al. on the ALP’s membership woes?), and more divided (if not more retarded, just to stick my neck out a bit more here) in its political culture. Let’s unite as a nation again, let’s start talking out all the stuff we have in common, and all the things we’d like to achieve.

Blair Hurley is the Content Editor for State Magazine


2 thoughts on “The Hobbled Body Politic

  1. interesting how the high court has recently ended up wielding power over a political issue recently. unfortunately i’m rather relieved the high court did – maybe what people want isn’t necessarily good for them…

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