Political Culture

Free Speech: In Search of True Defenders

Note: the bulk of this article below was written before the outcome of the recent parliamentary inquiry into proposed changes to Section 18C. I have left the article largely intact, with just a few nods to events of the past month.

Free speech advocates have every reason to feel aggrieved with the current government. Why, just a few weeks ago – after a parliamentary inquiry into proposed changes to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act – Coalition politicians somehow managed to combine pusillanimity with pugnacity. Scott Morrison brusquely claimed to “know” that “this issue doesn’t create one extra job”, failing to “see any intersection between the issue and those [i.e., economic] priorities” (Michael Koizol, “Scott Morrison Warns Against Internal Fight Over Free Speech Laws: ‘It Doesn’t Create One Job’”, The Sydney Morning Herald, March 1st, 2017). Other ministers made the same attempt at compensating for their lack of ideological fortitude by publicly scorning the expansion of free speech.

This is not a new claim, by any means. Morrison’s argument reminds me of some rather tremulous comments the Prime Minister uttered last August in response to the same issue:

“With all due respect to the very worthy arguments surrounding it, it is not going to create an extra job or…build an extra road” (Paul Karp, “Labor Accuses Coalition of Changing Stance on Racial Discrimination Law,” The Guardian, August 19th, 2016).

Around the same time, one of Turnbull’s ministers, Mitch Fifield, said much the same thing on ABC’s Q and A program (even repeating the phrase “worthy arguments” to ensure everybody knew he was on message):

“While I appreciate many of the worthy arguments that some of my colleagues put forward in relation to 18C, it’s not something that we have an intention to change” (Q and A, August 22nd, 2016).

Fifield went on to offer a rather insipid rationale for inaction, which sounded uncannily like his leader’s. And last December, John Alexander (the Liberal member for the federal Sydney seat of Bennelong) urged the government to concentrate on “productive things rather than political things [i.e., debates over amending 18C]” (Rosie Lewis, “Malcolm Turnbull Faces Section 18C Test Amid Ethnic Opposition,” The Australian, December 29th, 2016). It seems that this kind of febrility is endemic within the Liberal Party.

To be sure, Turnbull has softened his opposition to changing 18C, and his government is now proposing certain amendments to the offending act. He’s offered a welcome rationale for the public modification of his assessment, saying “there is a view” that “the bar has been set too low” with regards to the law in question, thereby constituting an unwarranted “restriction [upon] free speech”. This is quite reasonable: as recent controversies have indicated, views that appear to fall outside the definition of racially offensive speech have nonetheless proven vulnerable to legal censure. To what extent Turnbull’s change of heart has been the result of a genuine shift in perspective – as opposed to a restive backbench – is uncertain. But even some of his more recent reflections on the subject are relatively muted: witness the way he talked about freedom of speech in the abstract (“there is a view…”), as if he himself were too afraid to own the opinion to which he was referring. A full-throated shout of defence it was not.

The lack of conviction is still a worry, particularly from someone who supposedly holds to the tenets of classical liberalism. That other segments of the Liberal Party – you know, that party of small government and personal liberty – should also be shy on this issue is equally troubling. Even if the Coalition is successful in securing changes to 18C, the fact remains that a number of senior ministers have staked a lot on the argument that amending the law is a mere distraction from the task of financial and economic management. Moreover, they seem to suggest that trying to change the parameters of 18C – even if successful – would do nothing to improve the budget’s parlous state, ease the country’s financial woes, or expand employment opportunities for people. These two concerns are, it seems, mutually exclusive.

However, the basic assumptions resident in the above comments raise crucial and abiding questions about the kind of culture we want to see prevail in this country; the fundamental values that undergird Australia’s liberal democracy; and even the relationship (if indeed there is one) between basic politico-philosophical values and economic prosperity. Their Quisling character aside, the arguments proffered by Turnbull, et. al., revealed a surprising degree of ignorance regarding the relationship between free speech and a healthy body politic. I’ll say more as I proceed.

A Hollow Vision

In making their argument against pursing changes to 18C, Coalition ministers repeatedly offered what could be called the “technocratic defence”. Theirs were the words of dry administrative experts – of elite technocrats, committed only to solving the impersonal problems of a modern industrial economy. They seemingly lacked sufficient interest in more substantive, indeed existential,[1] issues such as freedom of thought and expression; instead, they preferred to hide behind a supposedly exhaustive obligation to the nation’s technical-economic challenges. In other words, their justification represents the evacuation of philosophical and cultural substance from the project of governance, reducing it to a hollowed-out form of managerialism. Worryingly, their views implicitly devalue the constitutive importance of the basic liberties this country possesses, and upon which our politics – and indeed our society – are built.

As one of those basic liberties, freedom of speech has made an essential contribution to the enviable character of contemporary Australia. Similarly, it is integral to the tolerant and intellectually rich societies that have developed over the centuries in the West. Freedom of speech has been astonishingly successful in enabling Western states to resolve a complex array of problems across virtually every field of inquiry. Without liberality of speech, one loses many of the other important freedoms we cherish: freedom of religion as a crucial subset of free speech; freedom to assemble peacefully for the purposes of, say, political expression; or the freedom to vote for the party of one’s choice (and to later criticise it), as a further instance of the citizen’s articulation of his or her views. Moreover, freedom of speech cannot be separated from freedom of thought: curtail the one, and you inevitably restrict a person’s right to pursue the other. Liberal democracies, which have come to represent the fruits of Western culture in political form, cannot properly survive without these elements. They are intrinsically, indissolubly, connected. Almost by definition, Western culture prizes freedom of speech as the public manifestation of rational, free-thinking individuals. Restrict it, and one ends up desiccating the culture to which it gives life.

Advocating for the liberal expression of one’s views – in this case, by urging amendment of an illiberal law – is therefore no mere symbolic act. Conversely, to leave it alone as too controversial is far from inconsequential, such is the deep relationship between this feature of the West’s cultural legacy and the kind of convivial, open society modern Australians enjoy. By contrast, the vision of the putative technocrat, with his narrow dedication to achieving a balance between economic inputs and outputs, is largely empty. It appears satisfied with a rather barren political culture – bereft of the vibrancy that stems from a vision of what makes for a mature, responsible, truly flourishing citizenry. As John Roskam, head of the free-market think-tank Institute for Public Affairs, recently quipped, if things like road-building are the final measure of good governance, there really is nothing to separate Australia from North Korea.

To be sure, I am not arguing for an activist administration; states should never be the final guarantors of free speech and ideational exchange (as if all depended on their paternalistic largesse). Nevertheless, there is much they can do to limit themselves so that individual liberty is preserved, even expanded – including divestment of any powers they might have to improperly police individual expression. Anything less is an abnegation of responsibility on the part of liberal democratic politicians and lawmakers. It is therefore surprising in the extreme that elected officials – particularly those in the liberal mould – should have thought that road-building and budget repair, as important as those activities are, rank higher than one of the supporting pillars of Western culture.

But the hollowness of vision to which I am referring runs deeper than that. In many ways, political questions can ultimately be reduced to questions regarding the nature of the human person, and the proper ordering of human relationships. That is, one of the fundamental issues lying behind political debates is what it means to be truly human – and, hence, what kind of community or social order is likely to be most conducive to human flourishing. Listening to Turnbull, Fifield, Alexander and Morrison trying to play economics off against philosophical concerns, one would get the impression that for them, a human being can be reduced to a determinable economic unit, who will respond appropriately to positive material stimuli. It’s a view that casts individuals as pure consumptive actors, without reference to the kinds of core principles or qualities that animate a person. This is, of course, incredibly shallow. Humans are not simply objects that can be deterministically manipulated by mere material considerations. They are conscious beings, possessed of rationality and free will, capable of exercising these powers as they receive and analyse the world around them. Humans are, as it were, agents, acting and engaging and negotiating with reality on the basis of a fundamental orientation – sometimes misaligned, but nonetheless present – towards the attainment of truth.

Freedom of speech respects these insights into the human condition. It rests on the presumption that humans are rational beings, capable of using logic and evidence to explore and determine their views on a particular issue. It places faith in the capacity of human beings to combine intellectual concepts in a coherent and ordered way, such that they may arrive at (rough) approximations of various aspects of reality. To that end, advocates for freedom of speech – correctly, in my view – argue that the best way for grasping the truth, or of deciding on a matter of public importance, is to allow all views to be heard; that way, the individual can, with relative liberty, reason through different lines of argument. This isn’t perfect by any means, since nothing that humans devise ever is. But comparatively speaking, liberality in speech provides a surer means of developing adequate knowledge about the world, and securing correspondence between one’s beliefs and that which is true. To paraphrase the late Michael Novak, free speech gives “play…to [the] unlimited drive to ask questions, and to [the] unrestricted desire to know” as humans seek out truth.

Such accounts also implicitly assume the human person is more than the sum of her biological or socio-cultural parts. They tend to conceive of the individual as a positive entity (rather than the mere intersection of broader forces), possessing a self-regarding, self-critical ability to interpret the world around her, and to make decisions accordingly. It respects the fact that whilst a person is obviously shaped by various external factors, she is no mere passive receptacle or programmed automaton. Favourable treatments of free speech assume that the person still bears the freedom of will to select some truth-claims over others, and to decide for herself (based, one hopes, on rational thought) where the truth might lie. Of course, presuppositions, unacknowledged self-interest, or the effects of social conditioning will invariably insinuate themselves into the structures of an individual’s thinking. However, free speech advocacy takes seriously humans’ capacity for reasoned choice. On this view, an unrestricted exchange of views promotes intellectual virtue, and provides the most expansive context within which human rationality may flourish.

Unwarranted restrictions on speech, on the other hand, undermine crucial aspects of human uniqueness. Beliefs that have been coerced (or manipulated via the proscription of unpalatable views) are neither rational nor free: they aren’t rational, because coercion as a means of guaranteeing “correct” belief breaks the logical link between adherence to a certain truth-claim and its rational or evidential merits; and they aren’t free, for the self-evident reason that force or arbitrary restriction is the very antithesis of political – even volitional – liberty. Indeed, to accept veridical claims on the basis of active compulsion or government censorship represents the very negation of rational discourse between responsible, thinking beings. To suggest that the concerns of the modern, technocratic state are more important than amending an affront to freedom of speech doesn’t just mute a key aspect of the West’s cultural heritage; it also invites a diminished view of the individual, and inhibits a crucial mechanism for the intellectual thriving of human beings.

A False Choice

If what I have written were the only reasons for criticising Turnbull and his ministers, then I’d say it was enough. But in addition to implicitly deprecating the substantive value of free speech, their comments represent a false choice between economic concerns and philosophical principles. The idea that they are separate and separable fails as a general argument, precisely because of the intrinsic connection between the free exchange of ideas and the generation of wealth and economic prosperity. Whilst Coalition ministers sought to play the “productive” off against the (so-called) “political”, they were seemingly unaware that the former is, in many ways, reliant on the latter. That is, communication that is largely unrestricted forms a necessary pre-condition for the sort of mesmerising prosperity Western countries have historically enjoyed. More prosaically, the ability to freely debate important issues offers a society the best chance of developing credible – and, for our purposes here, economical – solutions to complex problems. The economist and economic historian, Deidre McCloskey, has argued the Great Enrichment experienced by the Western world since the middle of the nineteenth century can be explained in large part by the success of certain ideas. As McCloskey suggests:

“What mattered [in relation to the enrichment of the West] were two levels of ideas: the ideas for betterment themselves (the electric motor, the airplane, the stock market), dreamed up in the heads of the new entrepreneurs drawn from the ranks of ordinary people; and the ideas in society at large about such people and their betterments – in a word, liberalism” (Deidre McClosky, “The Great Enrichment,” NRO.com, November 7th, 2015).

According to McCloskey, the West’s unprecedented levels of economic development (unprecedented in historical, and even current global, terms) cannot be understood unless one takes note of their intellectual basis. At one level, that meant the ideas of betterment themselves: technical innovation that led, either directly or indirectly, to expanding prosperity. It hardly needs saying that advances such as these are offered a boon when ideas can be freely exchanged, without restriction. And indeed, at another level, McCloskey seems to be saying exactly that: the “massive ideological shift towards market-tested betterment”, generating not merely technical innovation, but a fundamental change in the way (Western) societies were composed, as well as the manner in which individuals – now seen as beings possessed of freedom and equality – related to each other. McCloskey is clear: “our riches [came] from piling idea on idea…”

This should hardly come as a shock. After all, there exists a connection – one that can be intuitively grasped – between freedom of speech and economic prosperity. It may not always be direct, but it is there. Considered as an economic doctrine, freedom of speech promotes the open transmission of ideas conducive to social and material betterment – ideas that, when co-mingling, have the potential to generate profound advances in technological sophistication and material wealth. The zoologist and science writer, Matt Ridley, has cheekily called this process “ideas having sex”. By that, he means that the complex marriage of diverse concepts – sometimes from very different fields of enquiry – generates new knowledge, driving significant economic progress. Freedom of intellectual exchange stimulates creativity, leads to an intellectually fertile citizenry, and ultimately spurs on all manner of innovations. As the academic Brett Christensen has written, “free flowing ideas and debates contribute to creativity…education, and cultural evolution”. The thinking that some of our elected officials have recently showcased relies on a spurious division between two phenomena that are intimately intertwined.

There is, of course, one obvious rejoinder to what I have just said – namely, what any of this has to do with proposed amendments to a law which putatively concerns racially offensive speech. Indeed, whilst some may well concede the above points as theoretically valid, they might still argue that issues relating to free speech and racial vilification (on the one hand), and economic progress (on the other) are simply unconnected. To put the point in the form of a question: just how would amending or abolishing 18C of the RDA help politicians improve productivity or tackle the country’s budgetary woes?

But if the rejoinder is obvious, so too is a surrejoinder: it is simply impossible to predict what ideas may flow, interact or “copulate” as a result of the removal of restrictions to speech and the exchange of ideas. This may not happen immediately or directly. But if the history of economic and technical progress is anything to go by, the germination of some ideas by others (including those that may, at first blush, appear entirely unrelated) can occur in the most surprising of ways.

Please bear in mind, I am not making the rather outlandish argument that giving space to racially insulting speech might somehow lead to economic enrichment, or usefully contribute to policy discussion. What I am saying is that winding back 18C might provide clear air for views that have been illegitimately captured by the law – views that might, if given an honest hearing, open up discussions around important issues that touch on both society and economics (however obliquely). Indeed, as UQ professor of law James Allan has remarked, the remit of 18C has expanded to the point where it is now invoked to try and silence serious views regarding culture and public policy, on the spurious grounds that they are racist. This is in large part because of problems with the law itself. Amend it, and politicians and policy-makers wrestling with complex, multifaceted problems might find themselves aided by propositions that now fall under the shadow of legal sanction.

I think this response can be sharpened up a bit by focusing on one particular manifestation of the wider controversy. Recall the original context in which Turnbull made his comments. They were partly sparked by a complaint (using 18C) against the late cartoonist, Bill Leak, and a cartoon he’d drawn in The Australian of an Aboriginal man who didn’t know the name of his wayward son. Leak sought to go behind the events of the day, which were related to a contemporaneous report on Four Corners, alleging despicable treatment of young indigenous men at a youth detention facility in the Northern Territory. Leak wanted to ask why these young men were locked up in such facilities in the first place. His point, pungently made, was that the real scandal lay in the neglectful environments in which the boys had grown up, where parents had commonly failed in their duty to model responsibility, moderation and self-control. Certain individuals began legal proceedings in response to the cartoon (since abandoned), which led to several fraught weeks for Leak and his employer.

What has all this to do with economic issues? At first glance, very little. But think about it for a moment. The ongoing ill-health of many indigenous communities – particularly those in remote areas – is very costly. It is costly in human terms, of course, as lives are sometimes irrevocably damaged. But it is also costly economically. All those young indigenous men who languish in prisons and detention facilities around the country obviously aren’t contributing to the economy: they’re consuming public resources and they’re not in the workforce. Their previous crimes have cost individuals and the state both resources and money. Looking at the issue through a purely economic lens, it’s clear that those young men are adding to the overall financial burden of both the states and the Commonwealth.

Leak’s visual commentary sought to provide one explanation for why dysfunction prevails in certain Aboriginal communities – dysfunction that, whilst devastating on a purely human level, also has an important economic dimension. It is an urgent issue that warrants open debate. If the reasons for the existence of such deleterious environments – environments that seem to produce an inordinate number of young men with a propensity for delinquency and criminality – can be found, so much the better. However, if certain views are deemed illegitimate, and attempts are made to silence them via the threat of litigation, then an important public conversation is curtailed. Such restrictions ideas and opinions simply chills free debate, deprives people of possible solutions, and risks perpetuating tragic and costly problems.

Public policy cannot long survive without the existence of facts. I’m not referring to dominant narratives, nor comforting ideologies, but to stark, uncomfortable, messy facts. That is the only way a country’s socio-economic problems can be properly tackled. If policy is founded upon a bed of truth, then politicians can better target their efforts. But it becomes exceedingly difficult to achieve such a goal when communication and inquiry is diminished – haunted – by the spectre of state-sponsored censorship. Ultimately, this is not a question of whether, say, Bill Leak’s views are correct (although for what it’s worth, I think his cartoon was spot on). The point is that the susceptibility of certain views to legal censure, before they have even been discussed or debated, represents an irrational, arbitrary approach to public discourse and the resolution of such desperate issues.

Indeed, if it can be shown why some Aboriginal communities are seedbeds for the kinds of young offending we have seen, then policy (to the extent that government policy should be wielded in this area) can be effectively applied. That, of course, can have economic and budgetary flow-on effects, as communities are stabilized, children are properly educated, young men are kept out of jail, people are placed in employment, costs are reined in, and the financial burden shouldered by the state is reduced. In point of fact, then, changes to certain race-based laws have the potential to (indirectly) contribute to the very goals our fearless leaders claim to be concerned about. As such, the argument that economic issues and possible amendments to 18C are incompatible or unrelated is false, and anyone making it is either being obtuse or disingenuous.

***

Again, the government’s recently-proposed changes to 18C is a welcome development. But one gets the feeling that its heart is still not in this fight. And it is just one of several debates around principles and philosophy from which the Coalition has tried to run, or on which it has remained frustratingly silent. By dragging this particular debate out over several months (and more), the government has needlessly wasted time and political capital. More importantly, by grounding so much of its resistance in spurious arguments, it has undermined its own political and philosophical outlook. Despite the current shift, the vehemence and consistency with which the above views have been articulated by members of the Coalition makes it difficult to believe that they have simply withered away. This is either a sign of political cravenness or a basic loss of liberal values. Is it any wonder, then, that voters have begun to look elsewhere?

[1] ‘Existential’ in the sense of the deeper character and quality of existence, not its mere presence.

Labor’s Crisis

Tony Abbott was a pretty good amateur boxer in his day, so he knows a thing or two about the brutality of the ring. But even he must have been surprised by the pugilistic stoush that recently took place within the ranks of the Australian Labor Party. Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and their respective allies certainly engaged in one heck of a political humdinger, as the two principals went head-to-head on February 27th to decide who would lead the ALP to defeat at the next Federal election. Abbott, I imagine, would also be rubbing his hands with glee, since the government seems to be serving up some primo material for Coalition election advertisements. We may laugh, certainly; on some level, the soap opera before us acted as a (twisted) form of voyeuristic entertainment. However, that is precisely the problem: one may well argue – and with some justification – that this fight, this conflict between two political egos, was reflective of a wider malaise in Australian politics. I shall return to that theme in a moment, but not before reflecting on some of the other things I have learned as a result of the Labor Party’s leadership stoush.

The first thing I noticed about the ALP’s internal power struggle is that the two candidates who vied for leadership of this once-great and noble party seemed to have adopted the belief that the one who could heap enough verbal opprobrium upon his opponent would have the best chance of emerging victorious. Parliamentarians have nipped at the heels of sitting Prime Minister’s before: Rudd and Gillard, though occupying opposite roles in slightly different circumstances, have been here already. One also thinks of Paul Keating and Bob Hawke, way back in 1991. There, the Treasurer made a bold play for leadership of the ALP, and hence, the country. In doing so, he deposed a PM that had been in the position for over eight years. So, challenging the leadership – even if the leader is the prime ministerial incumbent – is far from unheard of. What distinguished this latest round of political infighting (to my mind, at least) was the barrage of criticism being hurled at the respective rivals. Ms. Gillard’s supporters seemed to turn this practice into a fine art, flinging verbal barbs at Mr. Rudd that, had they been offered elsewhere, could well have landed their authors in court defending themselves against charges of slander.

By contrast, the public heard very little about actual policy or contrasting political visions. That kind of intellectual acumen was noticeably absent in what had degenerated into a schoolyard scrap. If two people are going to vie for the leadership of one of Australia’s two major political parties (and the one that is currently holding the reins of power), then they need to offer far more than verbal abuse and crude epithets. As far as I can see, neither Mr. Rudd nor Ms. Gillard presented a coherent argument as to why either of them is fit to lead the ALP. It’s already quite clear that Gillard lacks a cogent narrative to carry her through to the next election and beyond (about which I will say more). Even more disappointing was the fact that Mr. Rudd seemed not to possess one either. Instead, he relied on a populist campaign in an effort to apply pressure on the Labor caucus.

Caucus members were in a bind – would they vote for the Prime Minister, whom they knew the public disliked and mistrusted? Or would they vote to re-instate a man whom they knew to be insufferable as a boss (as well as a major source of all their present ills)? In the end, they went with the former, but not because of superior ideas or policy wisdom. Indeed, one could argue that both candidates were afflicted with an acute case of political myopia: with sights narrowed and vision blurred, they were unable to see beyond the leadership bout and the caucus ballot. Granted the fact that such a stoush would have exercised the minds of both Mr. Rudd and Ms. Gillard to a great extent, it was disappointing (though unsurprising) to see them focus so much of their energies on the aggrandizement and subversion of personality – a poor and vapid substitute for the construction of a persuasive political-policy narrative and the intellectual rigour such a project requires. Stripped of these assets, the two rivals had only themselves to try and persuade their colleagues before the ballot. That, however, exposed one of the deep-rooted problems that presently besets the ALP, and one that seems to be an implicit part of contemporary Australian politics. Political egos and personalities loom so large, particularly in the Labor Party, that considered and rational policy positions, diligent attention to the minutia of government, and a commitment to a compelling ideological/philosophical narrative have been squeezed out.

Individual thirst for power and a consistent commitment to the unity of the party – two qualities that are both, sometimes in simultaneous and contradictory fashion, willed upon politicians – need to be held in a tight balance if a party is to thrive. Both are certainly necessary. Individual ambition is required from politicians, since it compels them to pursue excellence in their chosen field. Properly channelled, such ambition is a boon to party success. But, like an unpredictable river or waterway, which may be given to periodic flooding, individual ambition can become swollen – morphing into a turgid egotism that is interested in little more than personal glory. The very quality that brings life and verve to a party can, if unchecked, lead to its ruin. It is this phenomenon that has, shamefully, been on display within the ALP recently. I think especially of Mr. Rudd and his campaign to win back the leadership. He epitomised what I am referring to – namely, the unadulterated desire for power. His was a destabilising presence within the ALP, and has contributed to the impression that this is a party that is fractious and divided, filled with people who have gained skills in the arts of electoral management and political machinations. Mr. Rudd’s attempts to win back the leadership of the Labor Party were based, it seems, on little more than a thirst for the prize. But his plot was merely the latest episode in an ongoing saga for the ALP, marked as it has been by a consistent fixation on plain electoral advantage and the naked acquisition (or retention) of power.

*   *   *

One might have hoped that with Ms. Gillard’s comprehensive victory over Mr. Rudd, the business of government could go on, and Australia’s oldest political party would be able to emerge from its crisis with a new sense of purpose and unity. That hope, I suspect, is held in vain. Of course, it takes time for a party to recover from something as destabilising as what we have observed, but the signs are already ominous. The ALP, it seems, is characterised by “instability of…government, smallness of…vision and…mediocrity of…performance” (Greg Sheridan, “Carr Drive-by a Loss for Gillard”, The Australian, 1st March, 2012). It had already proved itself to be woefully inept before the leadership battle between Mr. Rudd and Ms. Gillard. Now that this latest chapter is over (for now), the public is left to believe that Labor is truly bereft of the very qualities that are required for good government. Individuals who are politically and intellectually naked are all that’s left. Far from rescuing the ALP’s image with the electorate, the recent leadership stoush has consolidated an already-accurate narrative regarding its current structural and philosophical problems (in other words, that it has no structure and is bereft of a unifying political philosophy). It has exposed completely the deep-rooted problems that have plagued it for several years now. Greg Sheridan’s words were written in reference to the damage wrought on Australia’s international image as a result of the leadership conflict. This is no doubt true. But I would also suggest that those words are equally apt in a domestic context. What the nation has witnessed over the past few weeks has simply laid bare the lack of any kind of substantive vision that would make Labor a compelling and attractive party. Its fallback position – the force of personality – has done nothing to counter the impression that present-day Labor is intellectually and politically barren.

Ms. Gillard’s bungled attempt to invite former NSW Premier, Bob Carr, to take up Mr. Rudd’s old post as Foreign Affairs Minister, demonstrates the party’s chronic ineptitude nicely. Although he has now been installed as Mr. Rudd’s replacement, Ms. Gillard made a hash of the process. After sounding out Mr. Carr on the possibility of taking over Mr. Rudd’s old portfolio, Ms. Gillard denied ever having proposed such an idea. But Mr. Carr, when asked directly, contradicted his (now) boss. Ms. Gillard continued to play with the truth in a cavalier manner, when all the while, senior ministers such as Stephen Smith and Simon Crean, threatened a revolt if Ms. Gillard were to press ahead with recruiting the former Premier. Now we see him in that very position, but only after a rather circuitous route that seems to confirm suspicions this current crop of politicians are – to put it kindly – amateurish. One may have thought that, with the leadership question settled, Ms. Gillard and her team would be able to work in a professional and unified manner; I mean, after such a protracted and rancorous affair, one might think that the ALP had learned its lesson. Sadly, the opposite appears to be the case. The ineptitude, chaos and artless politics that characterised the ALP before the leadership stoush are still present.

But it is not just the ALP generally that seems to be suffering from a certain kind of malaise. The Prime Minister herself seems to be afflicted with the same propensity to bungle the art of government and politics. If the apparently “answered” leadership question has done little to change the direction of the Labor Party (if initial signs are anything to go by), it has done little to transform Ms. Gillard. The “Carr-bungle” (oh the wit!) has underlined several elements that serve as themes for her leadership, and which were not excised by victory at the caucus ballot: the air of dishonesty that has clouded her tenure; a distinct lack of political nous; and an absence of authority.

On the first point, it seems that ever since Ms. Gillard stepped into the role of Prime Minister, the circumstances by which she did so have cast a pall over her integrity. Now, it isn’t the first time a sitting PM has been deposed (see above), so I can’t comment on the act itself. But recent revelations seem to suggest that Ms. Gillard knew of plans to oust Mr. Rudd when he was Prime Minister earlier than she initially suggested. If true, it is fishy enough. However, it appears that her obfuscation over what she knew of Mr. Rudd’s fate prior to his being deposed as PM is just one of several examples of what appears to be a consistent, and artless, form of political skulduggery. Think of her welching on a promise not to introduce a carbon tax, which has hung over her since its announcement. Fudging the details of what she said to Mr. Carr simply contributes to a sense that she lacks integrity. Nothing stemming from her victory last Monday seems to have changed that. On the second point, Ms. Gillard seemed to betray a certain lack of political finesse when handling her attempt to recruit Mr. Carr to the ministry. Her reaction to media questioning (this, after senior ministers threatened revolt if Mr. Carr were installed as Foreign Affairs Minister) suggested a lack of political maturity – not just dishonesty, but also to an inability to respond calmly under pressure. Her initial instinct to fudge the issue suggests she panicked, which in turn suggests that she is not a “good driver in heavy traffic” (to borrow a phrase from the late football coach, Alan Jeans). Again, this is not an isolated incident. From the aborted “cash for clunkers” scheme, to promises that the “real Julia” would appear, Ms. Gillard has, time and again, demonstrated a fundamental lack of sound political judgment.

Finally, on the third point, one might say that Ms. Gillard’s lack of authority is the source of her other problems. Or perhaps they form a vicious cycle. Who knows? But what is clear is that senior ministers felt able to openly contest her attempts to recruit Mr. Carr to the ministry, despite the fact that she had won a comprehensive leadership victory just days earlier. Moreover, Mr. Crean’s repeated calls for Ms. Gillard to be more “assertive” simply underline the depressing truth that she has been unable to exhibit this quality thus far.  True, she has now managed to force through Mr. Carr as foreign minister, but not before engaging in rigmarole that has subverted her leadership credentials. Once again, the stoush with Mr. Rudd, though ending in victory for our Prime Minister, has done nothing to enhance or galvanise her authority. Indeed, as Tom Switzer of the Institute for Public Affairs recently said, “authority is draining away from the PM as if from an open wound” (“Now Love Lost Between Rudd and Labor,” The Wall Street Journal, 28th February, 2012).

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What has caused the incremental implosion of a once-great party? What has led the ALP, so long known for its commitment to the working class, to put power ahead of principles? And where to from here? One can offer all manner of answers, but in the end, it’s conjecture. In many ways, the problems afflicting the ALP seem to be symptomatic of Australian political culture generally. The endless news cycle, which can drain the life out of a government and compel it to rely on the vapidity of “spin” in order to hold the gaze of a relentless media, may be partly to blame. But one wonders whether this reliance on spin and appearance has more to do with the specific problems that are afflicting Labor at the moment than they do the profusion of media channels and the ceaseless glare of the spotlight.

Perhaps the rot set in years ago, and is now so deep that naked power plays are all that’s left. I mean, the ALP has been drifting further left for some years now, leaving behind its traditional working-class roots (which reflects a more fluid social and economic structure) and taking up inner-urban left-wing causes. The political marriage with the Greens after the 2010 election consummated a de facto relationship that had been gestating for some time. But with this change, tension was bound to arise between the old guard and the new – tension that has undoubtedly led to a loss of politico-philosophical unity and a corresponding increase in the reliance on spin, personality and power politics to survive. We should not forget, too, that the cynical application of such tactics to Federal Labor stemmed from a culture embedded in the NSW right faction of the party. I am uncertain why this strategy has been adopted at a national level, though I’m sure others more knowledgeable than me could answer that question. But it’s clear that short-term victory has been won at the expense of long-term political and philosophical ossification.

As to the question, “Where to from here?”, the short answer is, “I’m not sure”. It’s unclear what the latest developments within the ALP signify in terms of Australian politics. I can only hope that the party is able to quickly put aside these divisions and internal crises, and re-focus its efforts on the business of government. Taking a longer-term approach, I wonder whether Labor’s internecine conflict has simply reinforced the jaded opinion a lot of Australians have of their elected officials. The ALP, over the past few years, seems to be at the mercy of two, paradoxically juxtaposed, forces. On the one hand, so-called “faceless men” – back-room party bosses who seem unaccountable to no one – have wielded a great degree of influence over the direction of the party. On the other hand, however, the ALP has often reduced itself to the most artless and cynical form of electoral populism, allowing the caprice of polling data to govern its trajectory. All parties have to adopt a certain degree of pragmatism to retain (or acquire) power; the ALP, however, has taken this to new extremes. Our current Prime Minister seems to embody Labor’s current dilemma: she appears to possess few core convictions, and her shifting views and pronouncements only galvanise suspicions that she, and the party she leads, are without a unifying narrative. If Labor continues down the path upon which it currently finds itself, then I suspect the electorate will only grow more exhausted and cynical. And an exhausted, disinterested and cynical electorate is, I submit, the very antithesis of a robust and thriving democracy.

I said before that many might have laughed at the political soap opera of the past few weeks. It’s hard to deny them that opportunity. Nevertheless, the petulance and rancour on display is a blight on the character of one of Australia’s major political parties. We ought to be saddened – even those of us on the conservative side of the political divide – by the demise of the ALP. I am certainly not suggesting that it is dead; not at all. But failure to arrest the decline and stem the rot bodes ill for Labor and for the prospect of Australian democracy in general. Regardless of one’s political convictions, this should concern us all.