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The duty of the minority

By Mishka Góra - posted Friday, 15 November 2013


The 2013 federal election was just the latest in an upward trend of minor or even micro parties taking part in government. Minority power is no longer a European phenomenon that we can sweep under the carpet as temporary disillusionment with the major parties. We have had decades of independents or representatives from minor parties presenting various balance of power quandaries, so it's about time that we took minorities seriously.

The problem is that 'minority' and 'rights' go hand in hand and this focus on rights and entitlements has usurped the broader role of the minority. Minor parties should not be vamped up lobby groups. They are elected to help govern the country, not push the agendas of special interest groups.

This is not to suggest that minor parties should be developing detailed economic or health policies, which would be a waste of time, but it does mean a shift in focus, from rights to responsibilities. Instead of pushing an agenda or tilting at windmills, minority representatives need to remember their responsibility to keep the majority responsible. They need to "keep the bastards honest".

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What this entails is a change in thinking that most politicians will find challenging, to say the least. But if they are able to manage it they could just transform the political landscape. Imagine a government forced to think (and make policies) in terms of its responsibility to its citizens rather than in terms of a battle of competing rights. Imagine parliamentary debate that was founded on the responsibility of politicians to achieve the best possible outcome for the country's citizens as a whole.

Victories in the battle of rights, after all, generally leave a bitter taste in the mouth. The victors are usually those who influence, manipulate, and subvert to the bitter end. The losers are often the vulnerable and the voiceless. Lobby groups have too much influence as it is. A quick glance at the disclosed funding of political parties will give you an idea of to whom the major parties are already publicly beholden. Politicians are so far removed from the reality of life for ordinary Australians that all groups are equal. Never mind if one group represents less than one percent of the population, is advancing an agenda that benefits just a few, or is obsessed with a laudable objective that is nevertheless not in the public interest.

Legislation, by definition, creates restrictions on our freedom. This is often a good thing. None of us should have the freedom to murder or steal, for example. However, when a piece of legislation is being considered, it is good to ask ourselves why it is necessary. What benefit is there to society? What are the risks and disadvantages? And yet public debate often appears to be more in terms of taking sides. Will the independent senators side with the government or the opposition? The matter at hand is cast in a black and white manner, an either/or scenario that often casts any sort of dissent as negative and obstructive. It neglects to admit the possibility of mistake. Sometimes the best way forward is to turn around and go back to the last fork in the road.

The carbon tax, for example, pits industry against environmentalists. But industrialists don't want to pollute the earth any more than is unavoidable and environmentalists don't want to destroy the economy… or, at least, they shouldn't if either has any common sense. Wouldn't everyone benefit if the carbon tax were approached from the point of view of our responsibility of ensuring the health of our economy as well as the health of the environment in which we live? Why don't we hear more nuanced considerations? If there is one thing that minor parties should understand, it is that few people want to be put in an ALP or LNP box. And this aspect of politics, this thinking outside of the box, is quite possibly the most important thing minor parties have to offer.

Likewise, paid parental leave could be debated on the basis of the responsibility of parenting, rather than on the perceived right of one group of mothers to be paid to stay at home. How refreshing would it be to hear some sensible arguments based on society's responsibility to ensure the appropriate care of children rather than the incessant whining about the entitlement of the supposedly fairer sex to have their cake and eat it too in the form of state-funded child care and maternity benefits.

Of course, it'd also be rather good if politicians voted for and against legislation on the basis of its merits rather than party politics and back-room deals, but let's not be Utopian.

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The bottom line is that most Australians couldn't care less about most of the issues about which minor parties are passionate. What matters to all of us is whether we can earn a decent living, get quality health care when we need it, live safely and without fear, and bring up our children the way we see fit. Most of these concerns depend on good government, something that rarely seems in the forefront of the minds of politicians. All this means that if minor parties want support for their obscure interests their best bet may be to show some genuine regard for voters by addressing their basic concerns. While not blocking essential legislation would be a start, minor parties should also consider the unorthodox approach of simply doing the right thing.

You see, what politicians have forgotten – but which most school children could tell you if you gave them a chance to think about it – is that political parties are not an end in themselves. Whether major or minor or micro, parties are just part of the system, and the system has the purpose of governing society. When a part doesn't work, you replace it, and when major parties fail to do their job minor parties end up holding the balance of power. This may be obvious, but it's worth acknowledging.

What differentiates a good minor party from the rest is that they recognise that their power derives more from someone else's failure than from their own success. They are philosophical about what they can achieve, remember they are there to serve the public, and work with whomever is the least evil in any given situation. They take the attitude that they were elected to perform a civic duty, not to further personal interests or feather their nests. In short, they don't act like politicians.

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About the Author

Mishka Gora is a Tasmanian writer specialising in war, conscience, international justice, and the former Yugoslavia. She is author of Fragments of War, an autobiographical novel about the 1990s conflict in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina.

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