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Corruption of the polis

By Peter Botsman - posted Monday, 20 September 2004


The most striking characteristic of the current election campaign is that independent candidates and alternative parties are being seen as a real threat to the major parties in many different areas. For the past 20 years the primary vote of the major parties has been diminishing. How far will support for the major parties fall?

In the context of an election in which international terrorism is a major factor, it is remarkable that the vote for independents and minor parties is holding up. On current trends, not only is the Senate a likely place for minor candidates to hold the balance of power, it may be that soon independents, could hold the balance of power in the House of Representatives.

The electorate has largely lost hope that the major parties will represent them in an open and transparent way and we can expect a further diminution in the primary votes of the major parties in Australia over the next decade.

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It is time that electors realised that the problem is not the candidates we choose to represent us. The real problem, is the institutions of representation and the internal processes of political parties themselves. It is the corruption of the polis, not the individual politicians themselves, that is the problem.

Two books - the amazingly blinkered Labor Essays 2004: The Vocal Citizen and Margo Kingston's Not Happy John - are interesting artefacts of the state of Australian politics. The extraordinary aspect of this year's Labor Essays is that the book is ostensibly about deepening democracy and yet there is not one single essay about the out-moded, faction riven, bureaucratic and anti-democratic Australian Labor Party. The only realisation that "perhaps political parties are finished - time has moved on and political party managers are the modern equivalents of slide rule manufacturers" - comes from a UK writer reflecting on the woes of the British Labour Party.

It seems that "the vocal citizen" must overlook the fact that the movement in whose name the essays are written is increasingly driven by professional politicians, public relations firms and hired hands. We are all to be active citizens except, it seems, when it comes to contemplating or questioning the way the Labor Party does business.

This is typical of the mind set of the modern labour movement. The two worlds of Labor, one of ideological purity and merit, and another of absolute grubbiness and pragmatism, seem never to collide. While this remains the case, Labor is no alternative for any thinking person.

Margo Kingston is one of the most interesting journalist activists in the country because she refuses to accept any party line. Her Web Diary is the closest thing in Australia to the sort of internet political activism that brought Howard Dean so close to the White House. Kingston's book on Pauline Hanson Off the Rails was probably the closest reading of the grass roots dynamics of One Nation. Behind the ignorance and racism of Hanson, Kingston found a legitimate protest and concern about established politics, which, as a Canberra Chief of Staff for a major daily, Kingston had seen first hand.

Kingston tells us in her latest volume that she voted against Paul Keating in 1996 but now turns the spotlight on Howard's Liberals. Howard, for Kingston and most of her contributors, is far worse than anything that concerned her in 1996. She asks, “What can be done?”

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One of the most confronting pieces of Kingston's advice is to cast a primary vote for a minor party to ensure more public electoral money will flow to alternative voices in the parliament. This will resonate with many Australians. Kingston's own chapter exposing the hypocrisy of "The Australians for Honest Politicians" assault on Pauline Hanson is good reporting without fear or favour. It focusses strongly on the impartiality and lack of public accountability of the Australian Electoral Commission.

However, it is disappointing that Mark Latham's Labor Party is often seen as a saviour rather than as part of the problem. At the end of one chapter Kingston concludes, "Over to you Mark Latham". Labor will not solve the sort of problems identified by the "Not Happy John" campaign. The Labor campaign itself is testimony to the problem. Indeed, it is a concern that there is a common thread of thinking shared by Latham Labor and Hansonism  - that people on welfare should be treated less favourably than other citizens.

No politician has the right to trash welfare recipi­ents for the sake of winning an election. The so-called "downwards envy" theory of Keating's 1996 loss is driving Labor's electoral strategy. The idea was that Keating and the Accord gave too many benefits to the poor and not enough to the middle class creating a "downwards envy" effect. Howard's "battlers", and indeed Pauline Hanson's One Nation, were seen to be a spontaneous political reaction against this phenomenon.

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This is an edited and adapted extract from Peter Botsman's editorial in the current edition of Australian Prospect.



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About the Author

Peter Botsman is Chief Editor of Australian Prospect and a former director of the Whitlam, Brisbane and Evatt Institutes. pbotsman@bigpond.com. Peter's Working Papers can be found here.

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