Are Our Politicians in the Real World?
Some will remember Alice’s experience in Wonderland when, after falling through a rabbit hole, she found herself in a world full of strange creatures making decisions and expressing views about life which, while amusing, were more of a take-off of the real world. Failing to make friends with the Cheshire-Cat, for example, the King demanded that the Queen remove him but she simply decreed “off with his head”. This was a command the cat simply ignored. But that the rulers of Wonderland were unable to exercise control over their subjects now strikes a bell here.
Such departure from the real world, but the identification with more fantastical elements than one might expect, draws attention to some of the behaviour and events in Canberra and one or two other states in the last couple of weeks. We could be excused, for example, from wondering whether we are being governed by people with foreign affiliations or sympathies derived from a parent. It seems surprising that the High Court appears not to have previously interpreted Section 44 of the Constitution in similar past cases so as to convey more widely – but not necessarily determinately – who would be an illegal MP. But this is not the source of the present problems.
Turnbull himself has failed to properly handle the status he has given to those who may not be legally elected until the High Court decides and despite his decision to leave Australia with an Acting PM (Joyce) of questionable status while he himself goes to overseas meetings (presumably there may also be questions about any legislation passed only with support from MPs with unclear status). Turnbull also displayed his weakness in supporting the use of the ABS to conduct a survey of views on same-sex marriage, an important change which he personally supports.
These and other controversies have led yesterdays editorial in Weekend Australian to conclude “this has been a terrible week for Malcolm Turnbull’s government. Tossed around like a tinny in an ocean storm, it has been incapable of steering its own course” (see OZ on Events in Canberra). The editorial rightly claims it resembles Rafferty’s rules (where the magistrate decides cases using his personal view about behaviour). It will be surprising if tomorrow’s Newspoll does not show a further decline in the Coalition’s rating, which would again emphasise the need to replace Turnbull if the Coalition wants an election chance.
Also in Weekend Australian on the performance of the Turnbull government, political editor Shanahan argues that “Before the election last year, there was too much complacency about Shorten as Opposition Leader and a reluctance to go after him, despite the wealth of material about his dealings as head of the Australian Workers Union. Further revelations this week have not got the attention they deserve. Shorten was underestimated as a campaigner and almost stole the election from Turnbull, who is still outraged at Shorten’s “big lie” on privatising Medicare. Shorten’s union background and character were almost untouched during the election campaign, although his unpopularity with voters is the best thing the Coalition has going for it. As a result of this reluctance to go after Shorten, the past two weeks have seen the Coalition completely losing perspective and making such outlandish claims that it appears ridiculous and thus hands Shorten a victorious response” (see Shanahan on Coalition Ineptitude).
In Weekend Australian too, associate editor Chris Kenny interprets the departure from the real world as mainly reflecting an increased role that the media is playing in expressing judgments of political issues. He argues that there is a “widening chasm between journalists and the mainstream, the audiences they are supposed to serve” and that “this great divide has played out dramatically of late. The accepted wisdom is that through the election of Donald Trump, the Brexit triumph and the rise of protest parties and figures of the extreme left and right, the established political order has been rejected by large slabs of voters in Western liberal democracies. That these trends were missed by the vast majority of journalists proves the disconnect. And if we look closer we can see how media coverage actually fuelled this backlash. To see how this chasm is widening we only have to look at how, instead of learning from these mistakes, much of the media is doubling down on the misinterpretations and railing against democratic outcomes. Hysterical coverage of Trump remains the touchstone on these insights, as does ongoing activism to overturn Brexit. But on our own shores the trends are evident in coverage of gay marriage, climate policy, border protection and, this week, the wearing of the burka” (see Kenny on Interpreting Politics).
But any increased influence by the well-known leftist media also raises the question as to whether leading politicians are currently able to play an effective leadership role, particularly in supporting democracy and the role of the individual in society. The widespread media attack on the role being played by Trump illustrates the problem. His behaviour indicates an inability to play an effective role as President in persuading the electorate and elected members of Congress of the need for major policy changes in the US. But much of the media is treating his poorly “sold” policies as an attack on it and what it wrongly thought as accepted domestic and external policies after 8 years under Obama. Trump’s inability to handle those who support the need for major policy changes, and to develop compromises, certainly leaves worrying uncertainty about governance in the US. Such uncertainty has occurred under previous Presidents but current reports of opposition from within the bureaucracy and the Republican party, and of the development of plans to remove Trump, add to concern about the difficulty of effecting important policy changes in a country whose policies are of major importance to Australia.
Here in Australia we are experiencing an increase in the role of leftist media through the ABC, SBS and Fairfax publications. Competition within the media is welcome but the role being played by most of the ABC and SBS is of particular concern in limiting debate on important policy issues. That is also made more difficult by the inability of the Turnbull government to enunciate and justify policy statements. The continued failure to identify the problems with current energy policy, which even News Limited publications are also experiencing, is but one of many limitations on debate on existing policy – or its absence. Similarly, the criticism of the wearing of the burka in Parliament by One Nation Leader focussed on concerns which Muslims generally might experience but failed to identify the serious problem that exists with what is called “extremist Islam” but which extends beyond the extremist version. It also failed to acknowledge that the wearing of the burka in public is not permitted in some countries, particularly those with a higher proportion of Muslims. It is likely that Hanson’s behaviour attracted, not diminished, her support.
The continued failure by the Turnbull government to identify in a comprehensive way the problem with the Muslim religion has been reflected in the failure to enunciate major improvements in national security policy at a time when there has been additional outbursts of violence overseas and additional assessments of concern here. The inability to check suspicious airline passengers and the seemingly lax checking of baggage handlers are one example of the low priority given to needed policy changes. The apparent inability to also respond in a comprehensive way to attempts to change 26 January as Australia Day is another example of low policy priority and the failure to point out to supposed Aborigine spokespersons (and to the media and white sympathisers) the benefits to Aborigines generally from white “invasions”, including the extensive intermarriages.
Now we are to have an announcement detailing changes in security policy. But these appear to be concentrated on restricting access to public thoroughfares by vehicles, as well as access to stadiums and large buildings (see text of press conference on Friday 18 August on Turnbull on National Security). Again, a more comprehensive assessment is needed and, hopefully, an elaboration of ASIO head’s repeated statement that “Our association, our engagement our relationship with the Islamic and Muslim community here in Australia is absolutely critical. It’s central to us conducting our business”. Any such critical reliance would be dubious given the limited condemnation by Islamic groups of aggressive activity by the more extreme.