Conservatism, and other grumbles

It gets worse and worse and worse. And just when we think it can not get any worse – the way the Prime Minister conducts himself, the behaviour of the political leadership as a whole, the quality of public debate – it gets worse again.

In a series of exciting events for political junkies and a set of woeful fizzlers for everyone else, Prime Minister Tony Abbott survived a party room spill vote this week.

The events were ultimately non-eventful. On the bright side, Australians possibly ended the weekend with a stronger grasp of the workings of our parliamentary democracy than we started it.

The lack of written rules to guide Liberal Party room proceedings got an airing, but that’s just conservatives doing what they do best. Here is how it works: claim to have rules, assert that said rules are unwritten, further assert that said unwritten rules are followed by convention, get a senior figure who is beholden to the power-holders to declare the (new, made-up, obligation-based) rules, seed the trope that the new rule was always the rule – by virtue of convention – and ta-da! A rule that was not a rule yesterday and may not be a rule tomorrow is the rule and has always been the rule. Until it is not. Magic.

But enough about conservative conventions. It was the repeated assertions by the Prime Minister that he was “elected by the people” that prompted media coverage of our Constitution, the two-party system, and democracy itself.

The Prime Minister was lying of course, as anyone who has dipped into Australian politics over the past year or so could tell you – in their sleep. We do not have a Prime Minister capable of telling the truth, but we do have written statutes which must fall within the purview of our constitution, so that’s something, surely.

For a start, it is compulsory at law (Commonwealth Electoral Act 1901) for enrolled Australian voters to attend a polling booth on election day. This is a simple task. There are polling booths at every local public school, and local public schools are in walking distance of nearly every Australian, thanks to a basic universal right that is traditionally respected in this country, called public education.

We collect our ballot papers and our name is marked off a roll. If we are so inclined, we number boxes for a local member to go to the House of Representatives and mark another sheet of paper to elect state-based Senators. Elections are held on Saturdays, so we then go and have a beer.

The leader of the party with the most members in the House of Representatives – or who heads a coalition of parties as is currently the case with the Liberal and National parties – becomes the Prime Minister.

This arrangement is reasonably well understood and usually taught in schools as a hybrid of the Westminster and federal systems. Most commentary refuting the Prime Minister’s claim was on the basis that we have a Westminster system and not a Presidential system of government.

In fact, the Australian system borrowed primarily from the United Kingdom but also from the United States. Our Senate is not made up of landed gentry wielding inherited power via primogeniture, as the UK House of Lords does, or has for most of its long life. The Senate is based on a federal model, where Senators represent their state, as is encoded into the very name of the United States of America from which the model was drawn.

But nor do we directly elect a president who appoints an unelected cabinet, as occurs in the US. The Australian Prime Minister assigns Ministerial roles – to social services, immigration, health, defence and so on. The minister is then advised by senior public servants, the heads of the department and their staff. Professional bureaucrats, in the Weberian typology. Qualified professionals with an understanding of their role, portfolio, areas of responsibility and so on; as opposed to political operatives. In practice, the professionals are shouted down by ministerial appointments running interference on political imperatives, staffers who bring partisan bullshit, at enormous cost to the taxpayer, to the workings of government. Perhaps no-one has taught them the difference between politics and government. Abbott shows every sign of not knowing the difference.

So the Prime Minister asserted that he was elected by the people as opposed to by the party room – while on the brink of a party room spill that could have seen him replaced by the party room. This is to deliberately mislead the nation, and to attack what little civics education has been provided in schools. The Prime Minister chose to confuse the hybrid model we have for a different hypothetical hybrid model that we could have chosen at Federation, and again in 1999 when the Republican referendum was held, but did not. As a key player in the campaign against a Republic, Tony Abbott knows this as well as anyone. It goes without saying that as the Prime Minister (at the time of writing), he ought to know anyway.

To ‘know or ought to have known’ is a legal principle called ‘constructive knowledge’. When a person in a position of significant power and responsibility claims ignorance, the law in its wisdom can attribute constructive knowledge to our handsomely paid executive. We know this person is a well-remunerated power-holder because we have eyes and understand the context of the principle. If the person is in a position to wield significant political power, they are also a person on substantial salary. If the same person claims not to have known of this or that malpractice, reckless indifference or endangerment or other harm being caused on their watch, the law (in certain circumstances, on the merits, with sufficient evidence etc etc) recognises that this highly paid and highly influential power-holder ought to have known, and thus holds constructive knowledge of the situation.

In the case of a Prime Minister elected by his party room, who is claiming to be elected by the people, we can safely say that he knows or ought to know that he is lying. On the basis of another handy principle we inherited from the English, the principle of charity, we can also conclude that Tony Abbott is deliberately lying. The principle of charity extends the benefit of the doubt in the first instance, because people make mistakes. Most people, says the principle of charity, when sharing a thought with a fellow human, do not deliberately construct falsehoods and share those instead. If, however, the communicator has form – if for example, every time the person opens their mouth a lie falls out – there is no further obligation to extend the principle of charity. Thus in the case of Tony Abbott, there is no obligation to extend the principle of charity.

So our polity is largely but not exclusively based on Westminster, with its two-party system, its parliamentary democracy, its representative government, and its separation of powers between the legislature and the executive and the judiciary, the last of which functions as the common law. Accompanying these are a slew of principles and conventions and practices that are passed down through the centuries in the conservative tradition, said by their proponents to work in the service of equality and justice, while doing nothing of the sort.

It is impossible to understand any of this critically – that is, to see more deeply than the purposeful dishonesty of the political leadership – without a working grasp of both conservative tradition and liberal ideology.

Conservatism, like the common law, reveres longevity and repetition. It is deeply self-interested, politically opportunistic and inherently hierarchical. If a convention can be traced beyond the mists of time, and serves perceived interests, conservatives will favour that way of doing things. If it can be credibly claimed, with a completely straight face, that this is how the thing has always been done, and it suits their perceived interests, that is sufficient grounds for conservatives to twist any rule under the sun.

The perception of interest is important, because it can align lower-class tabloid reader interests with that of the newspaper proprietor. Through the kinds of perspectives that are reproduced in the tabloid media, the interests of the mega-rich are framed as consistent with those of the working poor. In this way, the conservative poor may become as resistant as the mogul-level rich to perceiving aggregate social good as a negative. Examples include public broadcasters, investing in cultural capital, and a basic level of income support for the destitute.

In other words, Rupert Murdoch and the opinion writers who he employs can convince Daily Telegraph readers to hate dole bludgers and ABC watchers (and asylum seekers and terrorists and to be afraid of garlic or Arabic or whatever); and this is in Murdoch’s interests as a media proprietor. But back to the point, which is ideology, or conservative and liberal ideology (in today’s lesson).

It is the conservative tradition that can see a secret ballot, following unwritten rules that are held in collective memory and mutually accepted convention, put the nation on notice that we may have a new Prime Minister by 10.00am on a Monday morning – even though that same Prime Minister had told the people he was elected by the people. The key to following unwritten rules is mutual acceptance, or consensus. The rules are what certain persons of authority and seniority say the rules have always been – if this perception of the rules is accepted by the rest. The legitimacy of the rules, the authority of the rules, whether the rules are followed, are based not on documentary evidence, nor on a single articulation of the rules, not on interpretation of a written clause, but on what the people in the room accept the rules to be and to have always been.

There were two interesting manifestations of the conservative tradition in the Australian polity in the last week. One was in the Northern Territory, where the Chief Minister was voted out of the leadership position, in a process that did not befall Tony Abbott, but could have, by both the rules of the Liberal Party and the Australian Constitution. Adam Giles, however, simply refused to go. Cue constitutional law experts, talk of ‘technicalities’, and political punditry. Who would prevail? Is politics really just a staring contest? What about the law?

Giles won his battle. He was ‘re-instated’ despite not having yielded his position in the first place. Or, he was ‘re-instated’ having been voted out in the party room. Which is it? Who knows? The issue is resolved. Like Queensland for more than a week now, the Northern Territory did not implode on itself just because no-one seemed to know who was – or ought to have been – governing the place. Yet it was a neat case study in the ultimate conservatism of the law, where resolution of a legal stand-off that is not governed by written rules was understood in terms of convention, such as whether the Administrator has the power to recall parliament, or issue writs for an election, in the absence of an invitation/request from the elected leader.

Happily, English history is awash with instances of leaders wielding sovereign power erratically. So we can comb the dusty shelves for precedent, as conservatism, common law and convention legitimately allow us to do. This is despite the fact that England itself, as defined by our High Court, is a ‘foreign power’ for the purposes of s.44 of the Australian Constitution (in Sue v Hill). In the end, neither the constitutional law experts nor the Governor General (or the army, as happens in many countries) were needed. A vote inside the Liberal Party room resolved an absurd stand-off that may or may not have otherwise been resolved by staring contest, executive power, or an election.

The federal Liberal Party ballot didn’t leave us without a leader this week, not even for a split second. It did demonstrate its incompetence in terms of certainty in governance, to add to its incompetence and cruelty across other portfolios – Treasurer Joe and his economic illiteracy; Communications man Turnbull and his trashing of the ABC, SBS and the NBN; the ongoing shame that is our treatment of First Peoples, asylum seekers, welfare recipients, and students.

Yes it is the uncertainty and instability that will probably, eventually be the downfall of the current leader. We have endlessly been told that these are failings of the previous government. We have endlessly been told that certainty is what we the people want. Much of the population craves certainty in governance – this was captured by Rousseau in his famous observation that man is born free but is everywhere in chains. In the western tradition at least, when man is not enslaving others, he seems intent on enslaving himself. Yet it is the conservative tradition that plays on fear of uncertainty. It is a tradition for frightened and frightening cowards and bullies.

Conservatism likes to keep everybody (else) in their place, while reserving to itself the power to reinterpret rules, according to seniority. Again, read: bullies and cowards. For evidence, take a look at the days leading up to the call for a leadership spill. A trope developed that cabinet members are “obliged” to vote against the spill. According to which rules? Were ministers legally obliged to support their leader? Only publicly? Was it a moral duty? Who can say? No-one, because there was no such obligation. It was a pissing contest, no more and no less.

Giles and Abbott stared down their opponents. They won. Well done them. But the one thing an elected leader fears most is an election. Look no further than the classic rooster-to-feather-duster case of Campbell Newman. This is a democracy, however diluted, however compromised. The people will prevail. To use Abbott’s own flawed grasp of the Australian political system, we will not re-elect this man as our Prime Minister.

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One thought on “Conservatism, and other grumbles

  1. If only our Constitution provided for a situation like this – where – I think I can safely say – a majority of the population sees the Prime Minister and Treasurer as performing their roles against our best interests – how can we force the government to resign and call an election?

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