Myths of Westminster democracy

Almost everything we are formally taught about our system of government is deeply anchored in vested dishonesty. All the formal claims to democratic principle fall short. Here is how those structural designs benefit as undeserving a character as Barnaby Joyce.

Like many Australian voters – or saintedAustraliantaxpayers™ as many choose to define us (taxpayers are everyone who buys anything other than fresh food so, you know, everyone) – I am incandescent at the mess caused by the current deputy prime minister and his senior coalition partner, the prime minister.

Malcolm Turnbull and Barnaby Joyce have less idea how to clean up this spilt milk than my teenage son wiping the bench after making two-minute noodles, which trust me is a very low bar. Both men, and both parties they head, and thus by definition all the dithering cowards in their caucus, are terminally and irredeemably incapable of completing the tasks we pay them big money to achieve. Like running the country.

Two of the most deeply held Westminster myths are especially relevant to the shambolic shitshow that is now Barnaby Joyce’s political “career”. For the sake of brevity – and sanity – I limit this post to these: ministerial accountability; and the public interest obligation of the fourth estate.

For the record, I was writing about the moral and political failures – same thing, when it comes to Pilliga properties and inland rail, CSG and Eastern Star and Santos, the Murray-Darling river flows and Wesfarmers and irrigation licenses and water theft and more – of Barnaby Joyce before it was cool. I also have a rogue theory on why Joyce chose to publicly concede his marriage was over after the 2 December 2017 by-election.

I lived and voted in New England for thirteen years and visit annually to see family, and this is what I think: Joyce would have won anyway, but the charade allowed New Englanders to deny, to themselves, official knowledge that they were re-electing a grifter and a fool who was quite obviously drowning in a mid-life quagmire of his own making.

Nobody wanted to know, because nobody wanted to feel the prick of truth as they stood by their leery, beery charlatan of a man, their representative clown of the first order whose crass and boorish rent-seeking ways were well-known, but who nevertheless delivered the pork from a hapless beholden Coalition government and the public purse. Plus they hated Tony Windsor for backing Gillard, despite the obvious integrity of his decision-making process.

The by-election charade was aided and abetted by corny sentiment and distant ignorance from political journalists too eager to go along with the rebuttable presumption that white rural folk have an ontological right to define themselves in opposition to city culture and in their own best interests. The entire exercise was a classic demonstration of white fragility: collective safeguarding of the farming lobby and vested constituencies from facing the realities of their shabby loyalty to a wholly compromised bacon-bearer.

Which is all very well as anecdotal observation by an unreconstructed city dweller: I only lived away from Sydney, in the northern tablelands and Northern Territory, for fifteen years which as everyone knows does not a country girl make.

The analysis, like the Joycean house of cards, requires structural support.

Myths of Westminster 1: Ministerial accountability:

The misconceptions around Westminster-model democracy are numerous, persistent, and huge. One of our most fondly held beliefs is that once upon a time, in a kingdom far far away, ministers in Westminster governments resigned for sins such as abusing the power of office, such as using their influence to obtain a benefit for themselves or others, such as misleading the parliament. The myth is enthusiastically prosecuted by politicians, political reporters, and the comfortable classes. It feeds the comforting notion that we live in a democracy with flawed but essentially sound leadership, institutions, and systems.

As English as cricket, ministerial accountability purports to rely on the honour of the honourable member. This necessarily requires the heroic assumption that all MPs have a sense of honour, which is demonstrably untrue. Logic therefore directs that the assumption be discarded and a different mechanism be instituted for dealing with ministers who can not meet ministerial standards, whatever that was before Malcom Turnbull added a ban on minister-staff sexual relations this week

There was no mention at Turnbull’s press conference of compliance and enforcement of his sex ban. What is Malcolm going to do? Bust Joyce in flagrante delicto and not sack him, like he did not do last week, last month, or last year, because of a coalition agreement not in the public domain?

Despite the usual ‘reporting’ of prime ministerial announcement, nothing has changed. The Turnbull sex ban is as effective as the Turnbull citizenship audit, and no doubt came from the same advisory source. So much efficacy.

Like centuries of ‘reform’ before it, the sex-ban relies on another furphy that wafts around misguided notions of ministerial accountability. Contrary to popular belief, the real test is not ministerial behaviour but whether the minister gets caught. George Brandis mislead parliament over the exit of Julian Gleeson SC from the Solicitor General’s office and was rewarded with the London High Commissionership.

Hilariously, Joyce is the batsman who snicked the ball which was caught behind but does not walk back to the pavilion when the umpire shakes his head… then retires hurt.

It is just not cricket. But because it originates from the same source as cricket – the breathtakingly hypocritical privilege of upper class Englishmen – the myth of accountability is maintained. Some behaviour, somewhere, is cricket, the story goes – and we all somehow, miraculously, know what that behavioural standard is.

This is why the accountability myth is maintained not only by political elites but also by punters for whom the system is not an abusive monolith designed to criminalise and punish life circumstances.

For those who are systematically oppressed by Centrelink, child protection, Homeland Security, police and courts and prisons (to name a few), naïve faith in democratic principle is not an option. For most people who fall outside the demographic norms of its originating template – Westminster Parliaments comprised of property-owning white males – government is not benign but oppressive. It can be literally a matter of survival to not assume that government is well-meaning, or honest. If we believe Centrelink is necessarily right about a debt notice, we could become homeless or suicidal. If we believe the state will not brutalise our family, they could be killed by its agents.

Barnaby Joyce does not get this. He is entirely unaware that marriage and relationship breakdown is a primary cause of homelessness, especially for women and children escaping violent men. He told his matey Maguire story with zero insight into how life can hit people experiencing the emotional pain of separation and a lot more besides what a philandering fool like himself, often through no fault of their own, go through to survive. Joyce claimed it is ‘in the ballpark’ to be offered free rent on an executive townhouse while collecting upwards of a million dollars a year in publicly funded salary and entitlements when he felt sad.

It is patently absurd to hold onto the idea that a principle, ministerial accountability, will compel a proper response from Barnaby Joyce to being publicly exposed as a rorter and adulterer. The falsity of the assumption is borne out by Joyce’s response and that of the Prime Minister. Instead of falling on his sword, Joyce has taken a holiday. Meanwhile, Turnbull announced a wholly ineffective – because it is wholly unenforceable – rewrite of his sagging, lagging ministerial code of conduct.

The Fourth Estate

The role of media as the fourth estate, fearlessly reporting in the public interest, holding politicians to account, is pivotal in this context. According to principles of Westminster democracy and doctrine of estates, it is the task of political reporters to investigate allegations of impropriety, to know the official code, to question ministers, and to inform the public of how suspect decisions and actions measure up against the stated standards.

It then becomes a matter of whether the minister in question can withstand the pressure, rather than honour the fact that he felt the snick and knows he is caught out. Over and again, as from gallery veteran Michelle Grattan and Fairfax prince James Massola, we heard that Barnaby Joyce was on a knife edge. He could not possibly survive another transgression, it was pronounced, as further transgressions emerged by the minute.

The next step can take numerous forms. The transgressor might resign from the ministry, or from his party, or from the parliament. He might go to the backbench or to the cross-bench. He might be rehabilitated like Arthur Sinodinos (before taking sick leave) was and Abbott wanted to be; or embark on a post-parliamentary life like Sam Dastiyari.

This step is not determined by honour, or principle. It is determined by what the party numbers men, the pollsters, and the political press, decide is worth pursuing, or can be ridden out.

Such kid-glove treatment is not available to women, or anyone left of Barnaby Joyce, Andrew Robb, or John Brogden. In fact women, like Julia Gillard and Kristina Keneally, were regularly pilloried when there was no suggestion of impropriety other than in the fevered imaginations of their political opponents. The inherently conservative political press duly publish any old innuendo or nasty sexist claim. How would Bill Heffernan know whether Gillard is ‘deliberately barren’? Why publish slur after slur linking Keneally to the odious Eddie Obeid when the official body charged with investigating such claims, the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption, specifically praised the credibility of her evidence when questioned about him?

Why indeed?

The upshot

In contrast, conservative white men are invariably extended benefit of the doubt ad infinitum, and their feelings handled delicately. The media attention and public opprobrium are often said to be punishment enough. The wrong-doer is re-presented as a victim of the harshness of the spotlight. This is happening to a degree for Joyce, but his star is tainted. Independent news sites and social media are operating to strengthen ministerial accountability. Great, right!?

May the mainstream press and his Coalition colleagues find their spines. It is not difficult to discern that Joyce has behaved, and been caught behaving, in such a way that would compel an honourable man, by Westminster principle, to resign

Ministerial accountability is to Westminster democracy what meritocracy mythology is to liberalism: a convenient lie which operates to shore up the positional power of an already very comfortable class of persons. Joyce is in this class of persons. Nevertheless, even though current reports say Joyce is away for a week, I reckon he is gone from politics for good. And if he is not, he should be.

 

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One thought on “Myths of Westminster democracy

  1. This deserves wider coverage. I’m hearing here in Port Macquarie “poor old Barnaby, why don’t they leave him alone” . No idea of Westminster conventions and completely confused by misuse of public funds. Honour and integrity mean nothing. It’S all about which side you’re barracking for.

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