The clocks tickin’ I just count the hours… Parchment barriers in Australia’s democracy

A few times a year, I would go and hang out with Alfred Deakin.  His portrait hung in Kings Hall at Old Parliament House.  It was a little bit like a religious experience — after reading a book either about Deakin or by Deakin, I would go and try to reconcile my ideas of what a good leader was with the man I saw captured in the portrait.  How much of what I saw in the picture was influenced by what I’d read about him; how much was the other way around?  When it is impossible to know the man directly, to what extent are the virtues or vices I attribute to him merely imaginary?  What is the practical difference between an historical figure and a fictional one, and what is the effective difference of the same when we start to view Deakin through the framework of virtue ethics?

Anyway, I can’t wrestle with those ideas in the same way any more because Bronwyn Bishop decided that the official portraits would no longer be on display in Old Parliament House.  It might be unfair to blame Bronwyn Bishop personally for the decision, but she presided over the decision to remove the portraits as Speaker.

With no debate, consultation, or fanfare, the portraits were gone.

There has been more fanfare about the decision to change the landscape of Parliament House — erecting fences for security reasons — but there appears not to have been much debate.  There certainly wasn’t public consultation, and the best ‘protest’ that people could manage was rolling down a hill.

Look, there might have been a good reason not to consult more widely.  Media commentators weren’t likely to contribute anything terribly insightful or helpful.

Fairfax’ Peter Martin wrote a bafflingly dumb piece about how the original architect might have felt about the proposed changes, completely missing anything resembling an argument.

For me, the new fences at Parliament House and the missing portraits point to a larger question about Australia’s system of government: to what extent does the system only work when the right people are in power?

Chantal Mouffe argues that liberal democracy is a positive paradox (rather than a destructive contradiction).  On the one hand, liberalism is about imbuing the individual with dignities that are unable to be breached justifiably.  On the other, democracy is about investing absolute power in the people as a collective.  Liberal democracy both empowers the individual against the collective, and the collective against the individual.

This tension has been lurking beneath debates about the health of democracy.  Brexit and Trump have both pointed towards collective decision making being flawed and, therefore, a threat to the liberal rights of individuals (particularly those of minorities).  Democracy made the Wrong Choice and, as a result, the Right People were not in power.

Some of the more prominent radicals have been quick to jump on this line of reasoning, claiming that it is symptomatic of an intellectual illness in centrists.  Centrism depends upon the status quo, enforcing norms about ‘civil debate’ and excluding radical acts against the structures that continue to oppress people and support the economic coercion upon which capitalism depends.  Liberalism, they argue, depends on a sort of conservative reaction against popular will.

Contemporary radical thought is mostly vapid noise, an adolescent ‘anything goes’ sort of anarchism that adopts the affectations of critical thought without its substance.  The sort of noise that mentions Hegel without actually reading any of his works, and clinging desperately to the tropes of rebellion and revolution (without actually being rebellious or revolutionary).  Contemporary liberalism then becomes an obvious target for the limp critique that any kind of liberalism is insufficiently liberal,  and the critics never have to advance a thesis of their own.  It’s from this vantage point that inches and inches of Slate articles and Medium blog posts have been written based on little more than fairly mundane Twitter exchanges.

The faux-radical critique of the argument is the mirror image of a reasonable one.  It is not that the centrist intuition about the Wrong People is itself wrong; it is that it is derived from the wrong intuitions.  Our system is based on trust, and therefore we need a system that elects trustworthy people.  But the system will not elect trustworthy people by necessity; the system needs to be supported by a cultural infrastructure that produces the right results.  Liberalism thinks the system is sufficient to prevent undesirable outcomes.  It isn’t.

We have a system where we invest in individual people the power to make a range of choices about how our democratic system will work — from the trivial about public access to portraits, through to the more substantive about the accessibility of parliament.  We therefore need the right people to make those choices.  But our current political culture is about not trusting people.  Our media encourages a deeply cynical view about politicians and discourages engagement with mechanisms to scrutinise power.

At Old Parliament House, there is the annual Behind the Lines exhibition: the years’ ‘best’ political cartoons.  There are the usual antisemites like Glen Le Lievre, anti-vaccination blowhards like Michael Leunig, and various other social evils (sinophobia plays big this year) on display (and a hearty congratulations to Cathy Wilcox for edging out all of these contenders for the award ‘Political Cartoonist of the Year’).  The uncritical celebration of political cartoons at Old Parliament House was particularly odd when the biggest news in the sector was the debate about whether newspapers should publish the racist, homophobic, and hateful sludge of Bill Leak.  One cartoonist even had the audacity to include a ‘RIP Free Speech’ image.

What all of the cartoons have in common is a general hostility towards expertise and authority.  No matter how good the idea, if it didn’t align nicely with the Homer Simpson-esque bellyfeel concept of how politics should work, it was going to get rubbished for cheap laughs.  No actual skill appeared to be employed to create the cartoons, so it appeared that the only requirement to be a political cartoonist was an impervious smugness.

And this is a problem if you want public debate in your democracy to engage with ideas, if you want a public debate that challenges people to think beyond the obvious and the self-interested.

With falling circulation of newspapers in Australia, it’s unfair to put the blame of Australia’s political culture on the cartoonists.  Their irrelevance can’t be overstated.  But they can be used as a barometer of news consumers: the only legitimate view of the savvy news consumer is the cynically disaffected one.  Meanwhile, those who don’t consume news are disengaged.  So between the disaffected and the disengaged, what’s left?

For the disengaged, there’s a pop culture saturated with the view that those in power are incompetent, evil, or both.  House of CardsGame of Thrones, and whatever the latest iteration is of that one D-Generation joke they’ve recycled over the past decade about politics — it all contributes to a culture that actively discourages people from considering engaging with democratic debate.

And this gets me back to portraits, fences, and the health of democracy.  Engaging with politics is characterised as something only for ruling class elites.  Boohoo, I can’t get to see the portraits I want while the working poor can’t access Centrelink support.  But it’s all linked.  The political class has radically curbed engagement with political culture — even for those of us who go to art galleries and enjoy picnics on Parliament House.  And it did it with barely a peep from the public.  Meanwhile, the same political class has been going after students on welfare by using an algorithm which is throwing up inaccurate results, and still there’s barely a peep from the public.

A media that has promoted a miserable view of public debate has done nothing but promote the interests of a ruling class, shielding it from public scrutiny while doing little but crywanking about press freedom and defamation laws.  But it has also attacked the cultural framework that supports the democratic process, making it more difficult to ensure that the right people end up in power, people whom we can trust to make decisions when there’s no requirement to consult.

The title of this post – ‘Parchment Barriers’ – comes from James Madison.  He was worried the text of the Constitution would do little to prevent tyranny.  He was right.  Any system of rules can be abused, and that’s why we need discretion to curb the excesses of procedures.  But that discretion needs the right people to be in charge.  Promoting relativist or nihilist nonsense that no people are the right people is not just manifestly untrue, it also creates the environment for the wrong people to take control — which is what we’re seeing across the Anglosphere.

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