Peter van Onselen, professor of politics at the University of Western Australia is giving a presentation (on 22/3/2018) at Griffith University, based on an abstract entitled ‘The decline of the political class’ which he posted on Twitter1. Here I include the entire abstract in italics, but divide it into sections with my comments following each section.
Voters could be forgiven for turning off from Australian politics at present. Beset by scandals and internal divisions, the major political parties face declining membership and a loss of public confidence. This has come at a time when voter cynicism appears to be on the rise.
Voter cynicism is the direct result of the perception that political parties are replete with hypocritical, self-serving, morally dubious people only interested in their own enrichment or aggrandisement. Couple that with the impression that political parties only seem to be answerable to their vested interests most of the time, and you have a perfect explanation for the increasing voter cynicism. This perhaps also explains why the number of people who are members of political parties is declining. The number of members of all political parties in Australia put together is less than those on the waiting list to join the Melbourne Cricket Club2.
Minor parties, rightly or wrongly, are using political institutions to block the government’s agenda,
If it was ‘wrong’ for a minor party to use whatever means at their disposal to follow the wishes of those who elected them, then they would simply become a rubber stamp for the party who forms government after a general election? If this were the case, then why should we bother with parliament if only the major parties are to be allowed to push their views? Furthermore, where do you draw the line between major and minor parties? The answers to these questions go to the purpose of parliament. It is a political institution which is for the debate of ideas, but in recent years it has become corrupted by political parties only interested in pushing their agenda, and not in debating the merits of that agenda.
yet major parties are accused of lacking ideological direction and political courage.
All political parties have some form of ideological framework in which they develop their policy platform. However, some seem to cling to their ideology long after it has been shown to be at odds with available evidence. Examples of this are neoliberal (trickle-down) economics; the war on drugs; everyone should own a gun; coal is good, renewables bad. Indeed, in many cases an ideology can be defined precisely by its lack of supporting evidence. It seems to be used by many of the political class as an excuse not to think, or at least, not to look at any evidence. As for lack of courage, all political parties seem guilty of this, in that rather than push a policy, most are satisfied with not upsetting people. However, the announcement of the excess franking credits policy by the Labor Party not long before the Batman by-election seemed to be relatively courageous, given that it allowed the government to deceitfully twist it into an attack on the poor (which it wasn’t)3 and all sorts of ruperters4 in Murdoch rags to parrot the government’s lie.
This discussion will centre on what factors have contributed to the malaise of the moment, and what needs to happen to repair public confidence. Are the major parties becoming less representative of a diverse electorate? Have minor parties shifted from the goal of simply keeping the bastards honest? And are the media and the wider public as much to blame for the decline of the political class as the politicians themselves?
Yes, the major parties are not particularly representative, in part demonstrated by their declining membership. However, in one respect, the Liberal Party is far worse than the Labor Party, in that its representation for women is currently at 22%, whereas that for the Labor Party is at 45%5. Given that the Australian population is just above 50% women; the Labor Party has a little way to go while the Liberal Party has a long way to go.
The simplistic ‘keeping the bastards honest’ phrase was coined by Don Chipp as the raison d’être for his Australian Democrats, a party which eventually fizzled out. If minor parties’ efforts are only to keep the larger parties honest, then they are failing spectacularly, as the double standards exposed over the Dastyari Affair6, the Joyce Affair7, and the Manbag Affair8 to name just a few recent efforts, clearly indicate.
The media are to some extent to blame for the decline in standards, and while the Murdoch rags have much to answer for in their blind cheerleading for the Liberal Party, particularly the right wing of the party, other media outlets are to blame largely through lazy journalism. There are numerous occurrences of people like Barrie Cassidy, Fran Kelly and Leigh Sales allowing politicians to get away with telling outright lies face-to-face, and the journalist not picking them up on it. One could assume that this is the sign of the ABC being ‘Guthried’ so that it will not hold politicians accountable, and I suspect that is part of the story. However, if a journalist is to interview a politician, they should be well prepared beforehand. In the instances which come to mind this seems not to have happened.
Professor Peter van Onselen has spent nearly ten years working as a media “insider”, presenting on Sky News and writing for the Australian newspaper. He will unpack how the close proximity of the media and the politicians contributes to a lost focus on traditional politicking. This seminar will also bring the emerging “team red verses (sic) team blue” outlook of political commentary into sharp view, highlighting how it distorts debate and contributes to the decline of the political class.
I think the proximity between the press gallery and the politicians in parliament house also serve to normalise outrageous behaviour, whether it be politicians shagging staff or shagging members of the press gallery, bald-faced lying, rorting allowances, or accepting bribes (sorry, donations). I suspect that as a media insider, Peter van Onselen will have seen much of that sort of corruption and could have become inured to it. His allusion to the ‘red vs blue’ teams is a little obscure, but I suspect it has to do with political polarisation of the commentariat. About this, he would know much, having worked for two of the most outrageously biased media outlets in the nation; the Australian and Sky News. Of course, they are both Murdoch outlets.