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“Divided we fall…” was once a catch-cry in political debates, when we had them. It occurs in a thousand mottoes as “a short sentence or phrase encapsulating the beliefs or ideals of an individual, family, institution or organisation…”. We are about to see if it is true, as selfish individuals in the minor government party, the ‘Nationals’, hide their leadership ambitions in alleged concern for jobs in the dying coal industry. Barnaby Joyce, Matt Canavan and George Christensen, aka ‘the member for Manilla’ work to undermine the Nationals’ putative leader. The consequences of Barnaby Joyce’s recent failed challenge for the Nationals’ leadership are already starting to show.
The Nationals defector Llew O’Brien resigned from his party in protest at Barnaby’s failure to storm home, and as a consequence exposed Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s fragile hold on votes in parliament. Then, in an echo of recent events in the Tasmanian parliament, resulting in the unexpected elevation of Ms Sue Hickey, he was elected Deputy Speaker, running in a secret ballot against his own colleague, the Nationals’ Damian Drum, whom the government had nominated for the deputy speaker’s job, expecting a walkover. Contrarily, Mr O’Brien was nominated by Labor. He accepted on the spot, and the decision of at least five of the Nationals’ 16 Lower House members to vote for him betrays the divisions in the party, and consequently, the government.
The government’s majority is a slim two members, including Mr O’Brien. One of the abiding factors in government stability is the party system, by which members vote as party blocs.This in effect muffles the conscience of individual members on issues about which they have deep and contrary personal feelings, and in the end governments fail to represent nor even acknowledge the wishes of many who voted for them, and ultimately go against the expressed wishes of a majority of the population.
This is why the climate change issue is so toxic, here and in the US, while elsewhere in the world, action on climate change flourishes. By its very nature, the democratic process spurs citizens to form opinions on a number of issues. Almost any matter on which the executive or legislature has to decide may become a public issue. This was recognised early on in the evolution of the democratic process. Early in the 19th century, philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who designed the Panopticon prison on which Port Arthur was modelled, foresaw the difficulties of legislators in a democratic system.
Almost any matter on which the executive or legislature has to decide may become a public issue if a significant number of people wish to make it one. The political attitudes of these persons are often stimulated or reinforced by outside agencies – a crusading newspaper, an interest group, or the actions of a government agency or official. Bentham thought that the greatest difficulty of politicians lay “in conciliating the public opinion, in correcting it when erroneous, and in giving it that bent which shall be most favourable to produce obedience to his mandates.” At the same he believed that public opinion is a useful check on the authority of rulers.
It’s clear that in contemporary Australian politics, public opinion does not influence the details of government policy but it does set limits within which policy makers must operate. That is, public officials will usually seek to satisfy a widespread demand – or at least take it into account in their deliberations – and they will usually try to avoid decisions that they believe will be widely unpopular. This is perhaps why Scott Morison is showing signs of a personal thaw on climate change issues: he may be better at reading voters’ opinions which may be reflected in voting patterns than the denialists on his right. Nevertheless his recalcitrance in the face of widespread public anger in the ‘sports rort’ affair has damaged his personal standing, and he will need to recover as the next election approaches.
Bentham demanded that all official acts be publicised, so that an enlightened public opinion could pass judgment on them, as would a tribunal, or an auditor-general: “to the pernicious exercise of the power of government it is the only check.”
Amen to that, and may we hope to see the Gaetgens Report very soon.
John Fleming II
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