All Yesterday’s Parties

Albo Alone
Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

This month, Ricky Muir at last delivered his maiden address to the Senate, eight months and four days after joining Australia’s crimson-draped federal upper house. The freshman senator spoke eloquently, if haltingly, eyes often returning to search his printed notes. He spoke on issues close to his own heart and experience — youth unemployment, rural incentives, vehicle manufacturing. He spoke as one of the eight small party and independent representatives of the Senate that hold the balance of power, and have helped Labor and the Greens block many of the contentious new policies foisted upon the electorate by Coalition Government. In explaining why he, a country boy who hadn’t owned a suit until the 2013 election, sought a seat in the Senate, Muir articulated a halcyon vision of politics for the people, one the professional political class has long derided as folly:

I was unsatisfied that our elected representatives were bound by preconceived party positions, which in turn goes against the very definition of representative democracy, as the voices of the people that they were supposed to represent seem to somewhat fall on deaf ears. If every person sitting in this room voted to represent their state, after taking on their constituents’ views, like I believe the Senate was originally designed to achieve in 1901, when Federation was formed, and if all senators voted with their conscience, only then would we see the true representative democracy that Australia could be proud of.

An easy target for ridicule in the early days of the new parliament, where he was most notable for a disastrous Channel 7 interview in which he struggled to define the very ‘balance of power’ he was soon to share, Muir has steadily developed a reputation for honesty and consideration. It has been a steep learning curve; churning through staffers, avoiding the media and enduring the courtship of the major parties seated on either side of the chamber. To the government’s chagrin, Muir and his fellow freshmen have been resistant to their overtures — Prime Minster Tony Abbott has derided the Senate as“feral”.

This non-compliant cadre of crossbenchers are loathed by the government for the very same reason that the public has granted Muir and his colleagues a grudging respect: their temerity to vote issue by issue according to conscience and best information. The policy platform of the Motoring Enthusiasts Party is small enough that Muir has had to forge his own way on the big ticket items of the political season, from education reform to asylum seekers. In doing so, the cross-bench have attempted to realise the founding vision of the Senate as a house of review. It is an anathema to the way the big parties in our politics do business.

The record size of the crossbench in today’s Australian Senate is no accident. It is not a phenomena limited to Australia – democracies in Europe, South America and Asia are increasingly home to a raft of smaller parties exercising political clout. Though ruling governments — Labor or Liberal, Left or Right — rail against the shift, voters are increasingly weary of the ‘two party’ binary, and the ‘politics as usual’ it represents. Disaffection with politicians has reached record highs, inducing political stagnation in the USA, radicalism in Europe and lurches toward authoritarianism globally. When asked, the public repeatedly express a desire for representatives that speak the truth and vote according to the interests of their electorates. Why then is such conduct so rare in today’s politics?

The answer is the primacy of the political party. 

On the Abolition of Political Parties

Political parties were not always a fait accompli of democracy. The Athenians did without them, as did the first parliamentary bodies in the United States — President George Washington dedicated his farewell speech to warn against them. He was right to worry – the human tendency towards factionalism has inevitably seen voting blocks arise in every representative democracy on the planet. What began as loose alliances in centuries past have become entrenched, lavishly funded machines, privileged to the point that we struggle to contemplate politics without them.

This week I had the pleasure of reading French philosopher Simone Weil’s tract On the Abolition of Political Parties (trans. Simon Leys). Weil wrote during WW2, when the worst excesses of party rule were ravaging the globe for all to see. As the tactics of party machines have grown subtler in the intervening decades, Weil’s critiques have become less evident, but more vital. Approaching politics with the philosophy that the only reason to maintain any system is its goodness (“truth, justice and the public interest”), she refuses to rationalise the sins of parties away as a “necessary evil”. Instead she directly examines the effect of parties; on individuals, policy, and society —and concludes we should abolish the lot of them. 

In defining political parties, Weil is unsparing. All parties, she concludes, are made up of three characteristics:

1. A political party is a machine to generate collective passions.

2. A political party is an organisation designed to exert collective pressure upon the minds of all its individual members.

3. The first objective and also the ultimate goal of any political party is its own growth, without limit.

Unsparing, but true on all counts. Firstly, parties exist to stir the emotions of the electorate, in order to bring votes to their cause. Secondly, individual members of the party are pressured to maintain ‘the party line’ in order to give an impression of solidarity (debate is saved for behind closed doors — the public instead receives press releases). And finally, the party’s vision of ‘goodness’ is inevitably tied to the continuation and perpetuation of its own rule, expanding and unceasing. Thus Tony Abbott can in good conscience characterise the rejection of Liberal governments in Victoria and Queensland as a “fit of absent-mindedness” by the people — implicitly advocating that the nation would be better off if it voted Liberal every step of the way. It is a vision — rule without end — that is inherently undemocratic.

Weil has little patience for the assumption that parties hold fast to any set of values or principles. “No man,” she insists, “would ever be able to provide a clear and precise description of the doctrine of any party, including (should he himself belong to one), his own.” I struggle to apply this test those smaller parties that crowd the State election ballot sheet — it is easy enough to grasp what parties built around a single core issue, such as the Shooters and Fisher Party, or the Cyclists Party, stand for. The larger the party, however, the more surely it conforms to Weil’s vision. I could assert, on the basis of one thousand and one press releases, that the Liberal Party stands for fiscal responsibility – but then, you may rejoin, why spend $12 billion on buggy fighter jets, or commit to expensive social welfare measures such as Abbott’s ‘signature’ parental leave scheme, or rule out resource taxation? I may insist that the Labor Party stands for Australian manufacturing – but then why support trade deals that undercut local workers? Forage further, and we find dozens of policy platforms seemingly designed to confound any sense of a singular vision.

The truth is that the doctrine of any major party is a vague and amorphous thing, subject to change based on electoral whims, leadership turbulence and the incessant chatter of interest groups. If one doubts whether a party’s foundational values can change so dramatically, recall the final isolation of recently deceased Malcolm Fraser, a three-term Liberal Primer Minister who decried his former party’s shift away from ‘small ‘l’ liberal values’ it was named for. Or anticipate the 2015 budget, already being positioned to ameliorate the pain caused by the “fiscally responsible” (but electorally unpopular) budget last year – despite few of the key saving measures being passed, and government debt ballooning in the intervening months. Do we expect the parties to stick to their avowed principles, or to chase votes?

What is concrete is the party itself. Even if we struggle to grasp a policy platform, voters instantly understand ‘Labor’ or ‘Liberal’, ‘Democrat’ or ‘Republican’. “It can be perceived without any effort,” Weil notes. “The party becomes in fact its own end.” Party, not policy, reigns. After all, the party requires power if it is going to institute any policy whatsoever. Power is the pre-requisite for progress. That is how you make a difference. Better then that policies are shaped around what will draw votes. The party can always shift its positions on those pesky non-core promises once they have claimed victory.

 

A Politician Lies Three Times

Perhaps we could bear all of the above if the process encouraged open and honest debate on public policy. However, the modern party’s success often relies upon yet another projection — unity. No party can expect to be composed of individuals who agree on each of the wide array of issues that come to a vote daily. Yet the party room demands at least an outward — and preferably inward — show of unity towards today’s party doctrine. Weil likens new party members to inductees of the medieval Church:

As he crosses the threshold, he automatically registers his implicit acceptance of countless specific articles of faith which he cannot possibly have considered – to examine them all a lifetime of study would not be sufficient…. How can anyone subscribe to statements the existence of which he is not even aware? By simply and unconditionally submitting to the authority which issued them! The force that impels thought is no longer the open, unconditional desire for truth, but merely a desire to conform with pre-established teachings.

Many may still enter politics with the hope of making a difference. However, conventional wisdom mandates that to do so requires membership in one of the major parties, and with that comes an overwhelming pressure to submit to the wisdom of the party room — to defend established positions rather than to query the articles of faith. Parties provide support and financial security for their members in exchange for loyalty, and offer little leeway for individual compunction. No member of the Coalition or Labor has the license to vote in the manner of Ricky Muir or Jacqui Lambie. ‘Free votes’ are only countenanced in the rare circumstances of a ‘conscience vote’, as determined by the party leadership. Crossing the floor of the House of Representatives or the Senate inevitably brings repercussions. Weil points out that, should a member of a party assert a dedication to voting for what he or she believes is right in each instance;

His comrades and even many other people would accuse him of betrayal. Even the least hostile would say, “Why then did he join a political party?’ – thus naively confessing that, when joining a political party, one gives up the idea of serving nothing but the public interest and justice.

What, then, is an individual politician to do? The voting public may admire stands on conscience, but they reward party unity — chaos in the government ranks is a sure way to devastate public confidence and watch a healthy electoral margin disappear. And, given the party funds their candidates (and, indeed, it is most often the party, not the individual, that is responsible for drawing the votes for each candidate on election day), the career and financial incentives to tow the party line are myriad. Yet by doing so, the representative will inevitably take stands in contract to his or her own beliefs and opinions. By keeping mum, the politician lies three times: to the party, to the people, and to him or herself.

We too are complicit in this game of doublethink. Vast mental contortions are required to venerate even our political heroes — which I’ll dub ‘the Turnbull knot’. For instance, we know that the nation’s favoured alternative Prime Minister does not agree on all points of Liberal Party doctrine. By pushing policies he does not agree with in adherence to the party line, he is lying to party and public. But we tacitly accept it — in fact, we praise his loyalty — even as we pine for the imagined ‘real’ Malcolm. But that Malcolm is also a mirage, for a Prime Minister Turnbull would still be subject to the same pressures of party group-think to shore up support and win favour with the electorate. In no circumstance does it pay to tell the truth — only to give the impression that you’d like to. Hence the system not only encourages, but demands party politicians lie if they are to survive. How could any individual that values truth survive for more than a few moments in any political party?

Party politics thus trap us in a corrosive cycle. The public rewards party discipline with electoral victory. Yet the stronger the party discipline, the less likely that individual representatives will vote according to their own beliefs. The polarisation of parties into opposing camps shuts down discussion between the two, encouraging acrimonious debate and cheap point-scoring — the very conduct that corrodes public faith in politicians and the political process. The conduct does not stop – in fact it intensifies — because fracturing public confidence in the opposing side and demonising its arguments is one of the surest paths to electoral victory.

 

The Partisan Lens

The reduction of inter-party dialogue to debating points and shouting matches is all too well encapsulated by the trajectory of Tony Abbott, his party’s self-professed “junkyard dog savaging the other side” turned leader. Abbott’s intransigence and grasp on party discipline served him well as opposition leader, wearing away at the fractious Labor government, and he has brought the same zealotry to the office of Prime Minster. Thus we are treated to spectacles like the shrill and abusive attacks on Gillian Triggs over the Human Rights Commission report on children in detention, or the summary rejection of the findings of the UN special rapporteur on Torture on behalf of Australians “sick of being lectured to by the United Nations”. The substance of the findings was never addressed, indulging instead in potshots at the messengers, accused of partisan bias. Substance is secondary to the electoral scoreboard.

When everything is viewed through a partisan lens, the ongoing battle between political parties is invariably privileged above any other concerns of state or people. It is only through that mirror darkly that 47 Republican Senators would choose to release an ‘open letter’ to the leaders of Iran amidst the Obama Administration’s fraught nuclear negations, hoping to destabilise a far-reaching global deal to score domestic points (and, ironically, making common cause with the Islamic hardliners that are supposedly America’s most avowed enemy). Each such volley reduces the complexities of diplomacy and governance to George W. Bush’s favoured adage, “you’re either with us or against us”. This tendency is not new, and it is not surprising — but neither is it in line with the consultive principles of democracy.

It is also diminishing our capacity to carry out the functions of government. The prime example today is the increasing intransigence of political parties in the USA. Traditionally, parties in the USA were looser confederacies, and individual Congressmen and Senators were expected to cross the floor according to state or voter interests. This has changed dramatically over the last decade, as both Republicans and Democrats have voted rigorously along party lines, and resorted regularly on once-infrequent emergency levers such as the filibuster to block legislation. The rise in party orthodoxy has crippled government efficiency — the 2013 was the least productive with regards to bills passed in nearly 70 years – and is a recipe for total gridlock when the executive and legislature are held by different parties, as will be the case into 2017 (and potentially beyond if gerrymandering has its intended effect). Less is achieved, and representatives grow increasingly distant from the people they are registered to serve — but the parties grow larger and wealthier, buoyed by an increasing mass of corporate donations.

Voting for smaller parties and independents is one of the ways in which the public has expressed its dissatisfaction with this state of affairs. These upstarts, from environmentalists and anti-gambling advocates to mining magnates and far-right nationalists, are abhorred in equal measure by the major parties. Yet these colourful characters are invariably far more representative of regular citizenry than the traditional political class. Today’s Labor and Liberal candidates are an increasingly stratified class of union delegates and law graduates from east coast universities; men (and occasionally women) who declared their political affiliations on Student Representative Councils before their teens were through and have not wavered since. Richard’s Cooke investigation into Australia’s political class demonstrates just different their interests are from the socially liberal, protectionist values of the wider electorate, and how this too chips away our democracy’s claims of representation. The major parties may stand on opposite sides in a series of bitter partisan wars, but they subscribe to the same rules of engagement, and share many of the same policies — and loathe those who flout them. 

Though independents have become gadflies to the major parties, they have done little to damage their hegemony. Despite the rise of the Greens (or rise and fall of Palmer United), there remains little evidence to suggest that Australia could go the way of multi-party democracies like Denmark, Germany or Finland. Governments in these nations are formed through shifting coalitions of smaller parties, and still boast some of the highest rates of voter turnout globally, with none of the oft-predicted instability. By limiting the power of individual parties, and forcing greater collaboration and discussion to achieve political goals, these systems may be an improvement on our own. Yet they still fail to nullify the core sins of political parties: the corrosive effect of parties on their members and the greater public. For that, we should have to uproot the parties entirely.

 

A Tomorrow without Parties

Parties have been central to our public lives and political identities for so long that we struggle to imagine a world without them. Yet set against Weil’s great litany of political parties’ sins, I cannot accept that our failing of imagination is sufficient to make them necessary.

A nonpartisan government would be composed of a series of temporary and fluid alliances, with representatives voting an issue-by-issue basis, guided by their convictions. Candidates would be elected on their own merits by their constituents, with no affiliations printed beside their name on the ballot sheet. A politician could, of course, still lie – but the system itself would not demand it. The politician could be held accountable for their promises and platforms by their electorate, and be left without recourse to any political power higher than their own beliefs and judgment. Leaders within the legislature would be determined by votes from the entire body, rather than the party of one faction. Talent to represent and run the country could be harnessed from every end of the political spectrum.

Such a description carries the whiff of the utopian, but it is hardly impossible. Even today there are Swiss cantons, Canadian territories and Pacific Island nations, along with many thousands of local governments worldwide, that practice nonpartisan democracy. Why then do we summarily reject such a system on at the national level?

The simple answer is that democracy without political parties is harder work. It demands more of politicians, and it demands more of the people. Politicians must work harder to comprehend and consider policies prior to voting to or fro, and must be willing to engage in discussion and weigh up compromises on every issue. The public must work harder to select their candidates, review them, and reward those who adhere to their promise and vote in the wider interest. It would require a dedication at all times to reasoning, consideration and compromise. It could only survive paired with a robust bureaucracy and an engaged people.

Before I dare conclude that this is asking too much, I remember Ricky Muir. Muir, the country boy with a new suit, arrived in Canberra as a political novice last year. He had no experience of government or legislation, and seemed not to have given much thought to many of the most fraught issues of the day. Yet confounding expectations, he has risen to the challenge of the crossbench. He scrutinised policy, developed reasoned positions, and laboured passionately over a number of issues. Agree with his conclusions or no, it is churlish to deny that Muir has evolved into an able senator. And, in contrast to his colleagues on either side of the aisle, Muir has done so by voting for what he regards as right. 

I find it remarkable that we accept anything less. We lose much by tacitly accepting a system that rewards politicians for voting against their own beliefs and our own interests. We lose more by allowing it to shape a society of binaries, where we argue simply ‘for’ and ‘against’ with all the nuance of a high school debating society, rather than working together towards solutions. Weil dubs this status quo an “intellectual leprosy” – and judging by the decay of our liberal democracies, it may finish us off yet if left untreated. 

Weil’s vision of a world without political parties is not so easily implemented. The parties hold a firm grasp on our levers of government, and are hardly likely to acquiesce to their own destruction. Yet this does not leave us powerless. The decay of liberal democracies can only be arrested by the engagement of the people – we would be fools to expect deliverance from the parties that have induced and benefited from the slide. We can agitate for more representative and accountable government, and a legislature that does not restrict our representatives to votes along mandated party lines. We can pursue justice and public interest before expediency. 

To that end, I think we could use a few more free-voting Ricky Muirs. We cannot be assured that men and women in his position will do the right thing – voting by conscience, and for the people they represent. We can know that, unbound by party politics, they will have more opportunity to do so. 

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