“But most important of all, lead your friends and community to unite in a grassroots movement to restore…” (Naomi Wolf, 2007)

One issue which is not attracting much attention in the current discussion about the “interesting times” facing all of us as we move inexorably into a new world order of uncertainty, is the effects of the events on the political systems in which we live.

The uncertainty is unprecedented for many of us who were not alive during the 1930s, and have not experienced first hand the Mad Max world that already exists for millions of people worldwide, in Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and plenty of other places; or known a life under a Pinochet, or a Mugabe; or been caught up in genocidal conflicts in the Balkans, Cambodia or Uganda; or been trapped indefinitely behind the razor wire of “detention camps” in Cuba and, heaven help us, in Australia; or have known “rendition” at first-hand, or starvation, or ethnic cleansing, or some other horror. 

This is not to say that the political systems in Australia will follow the path of an Argentina or a Zimbabwe when placed under similar stresses.  They didn’t in the aftermath of the 1929 crash.  But the Weimar Republic in Germany did. 

Whatever happens to the Australian political system, including Tasmania’s, will be influenced by the degree of hardship that occurs, and by the extent to which the population at large retains a general confidence in the capacity of the system to represent community interests.

One thing that is already apparent is that most politicians in all Australian parliaments are not particularly competent, because the prevailing “caucus” herd mentality guarantees mediocrity, atrophy and a chronic lack of vision.  That is unlikely to change as long as 80% of voters maintain their allegiance to the two major parties.  It is no accident that (in general) the most competent, courageous and public-minded politicians are those who avoid the “caucus” comfort zone of the two main parties and are unwilling to betray their constituents and their own consciences. (Excluded from this group are independents who get elected by “accident”, with little genuine popular support, due to preference deals, such as Senator Steve Fielding, or minor party candidates who exploit prejudice and fear, such as xenophobia, as in the case of One Nation)

But usually, even though at the moment independent and minor party politicians are able to achieve, at best, only some measure of “keeping the bastards honest”, by alerting the community to abuses and to policies against the public interest, they are the most respected of Australia’s politicians.     

The problem with incompetents in politics is that they can do enormous damage across the whole spectrum of social and economic and environmental landscapes where they have scope to act.  But they not only cause lasting damage to people and communities.  They also weaken the political system in which they operate in two important ways, and this is particularly significant in representative democratic political systems. 

In the first place, they hinder and undermine the effective implementation of good policy, creating social division, waste of resources, lack of direction and confusion, stagnation and failed implementation, and lack of confidence in both government processes and the political system itself.  Secondly, they weaken the actual fabric of the democratic system, blurring the separation of powers, often politicizing the public sector and the legal system, and undermining important checks and balances designed to preserve fairness and accountability, especially where executive power is concerned.

To be as fair as possible to Tasmanian politicians (should I be?), let me initially put this discussion in a much broader context.  Lately, there have been a number of references by different and diverse media columnists to the work of the great Irish poet, W.B.Yeats.  Not just random references, but references to one of his poems in particular, the poem with these lines:

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”

This is no coincidence, of course.  It reflects the times, as it did when Yeats wrote the poem, called “The Second Coming”, in 1921.  Things were pretty grim and bloody in Yeats’s native Ireland, postwar Europe was shattered, revolution and reaction were adding to the countless millions who had already been killed or ruined by one of the worst carnages in human history, and democratic gains, where they had been made since the mid-nineteenth century, were under extreme pressure, and soon to collapse in some places.

Fast forward to 2008 and it not too difficult to see why the editor of Griffith Review, Julianne Schultz, in her recent essay on “Terrorism”, would make deliberate reference to Yeats’s “classic denunciation” in her discussion, given extra poignancy through her description of how her brother’s opera (Andrew Schultz’s Going into Shadows) which actually incorporated Yeats’s lines in the performance, was playing in Brisbane on the night of September 11, 2001. 

But it is American writer Rebecca Solnit’s reference to Yeats that really deserves attention.  Solnit, writing in the The Guardian earlier this year, said this:

“The centre cannot hold, and that’s the good news in the US these days. Quietly, doggedly, cities, regions, counties and states have refused to march to the Bush administration’s drum when it comes to climate change, the environment and the war… Anarchism in the contemporary sense of decentralized democracy is on the loose, and that’s the rest of the good news.  Globally, as the nation-state becomes increasingly less meaningful, people are withdrawing to shape and support more localized forms of power.”

The evidence to support Solnit’s hypothesis is diverse.  She points to examples such
as 500 US mayors agreeing to meet or exceed the Kyoto protocols, irrespective of the federal government’s opposition; California taking the fight to car makers and the White House to allow the State to set emissions standards for vehicles; and North Dakota farmers stopping Monsanto’s GM wheat program from being commercialized worldwide.

British political scientist John Keane, (Professor of Politics at University of Westminster) a world-renowned specialist in the history and workings of democratic political systems, wrote in June this year that the times are marked “by the return of an old problem with deep roots: disillusionment with representative democracy”.  According to Keane, “disaffection with democracy” is widespread, and there has emerged a wave of critics whose collective voices show that “confidence in parties, politicians, parliaments, (and) the core institutions of representative democracy, is waning”.  Tellingly, he says that “critics point to research that shows public unease about organized lobbying and big-money politics”.

Keane refers to a 2007 study of democracy in Latin America, which showed that when people were asked “who governs in their respective countries, nearly three quarters of Latin Americans today believe that they are ‘governed by certain powerful interests looking after themselves’”.

Keane’s concerns seem muted when placed beside the forceful warnings of American writers like Naomi Wolf and Naomi Klein, who, among others, have been arguing for some time now, in detail and in depth, about the current internal threats to democracy in the United States.  Wolf builds a compelling case that it is the elected representatives at the highest executive and legislative levels who are destroying the fabric of American democracy.  She portrays the current situation in the US as more dangerous now than at any time since the War of Independence, including the Civil War of the 1860s, and the 1930s depression..

In the context of understanding how past crises were weathered without destruction of representative democratic systems, or the transformation of their institutions and political parties into organs of authoritarian regimes, it is easy to dismiss such voices as extreme.  But this ignores the reality that without determination, courage and competence, crises are not successfully weathered.  For example, during the 1930s, the US (and the world for that matter), was fortunate that Franklin Roosevelt was in the White House.  He has clearly been the most competent US President in the 150 years from Abraham Lincoln until now, and it was his competence which inspired broad public trust and confidence in a political system under severe strain.  Those strains included the emergence of violent fascist activists, and populist politicians attracted by aspects of the Nazi model, who exploited the economic turmoil to gain control over state legislatures and gain seats in Congress.

At the time Yeats was voicing his fears, and in the years to follow, in places where democratic leadership, either within or outside the political system, was not competent, was weak or lost credibility, as in 1920s Italy and 1930s Germany, democracy fell. The disintegration of Weimar Germany into the Hitler State has come to symbolize in very stark terms how the transition could occur anywhere.  It is an essential model for all of us to examine and understand.  For politicians in any democratic system not to seek such understanding, whether through arrogance or ignorance, or both, as in the case of George Bush, it is a short step to the Peter Principle.

Closer to home, it is worth recalling that at the height of the depression of the 1930s in Australia – which created more social devastation and economic hardship than in any western representative democracy with the exception of Germany – there were serious attempts to create right-wing military forces along the lines of Hitler’s paramilitary brownshirts, to take control of NSW and Victoria if provided with the opportunity.  Secret armies, such The New Guard and the White Army, consisting of right-wing veterans of World War I, had many sympathizers in the ranks of Australia’s senior military establishment, and openly embraced fascism. 

It can be said that Australia approached a Weimar-type situation without ever being quite ripe for an anti-democratic putsch.  For most of the 1930s the weak Lyons administration held office, but Australia gradually pulled back from the brink of a calamitous drift further to the right. It was a fortunate paradox that Australia’s fascist-leaning military officers (and difficult to know who they were and how many they were) were silenced as the military threat of international fascism forced them to defend king and country against their erstwhile allies.

Tasmania, of course, has had its fair share of people who would subvert the political system in one way or another for private or partisan gain, and periodic political scandals have taken their toll on public confidence in politicians, parties and parliamentary processes, in the way that John Keane sees as a worldwide phenomenon.  But it is difficult to know of a period in Tasmanian history that has generated such consistent and increasing strain on the State’s democratic institutions and processes than the last 20 years, encompassing the Rouse affair in 1989, the bipartisan attempt to gain political advantage by reducing the size of Parliament in 1998, the abandonment of due process in 2007 to pass legislation to build a pulp mill, the serious abrogation of important Westminster conventions during both 2007 and 2008, involving senior appointments, the separation of powers, and most recently, the attempt by the Bartlett government (partially successfully) to fundamentally alter the bicameral system.

This is not the best base from which to withstand a severe period of uncertainty in an increasingly coalescing combination of volatile tectonic shifts in the world economy, geo-political relationships, climate change, energy requirements, and serious food and water shortages.

Nor is the entrenched culture of “public-private partnerships” (PPP), the quaintly disguised weasel-phrase used by all Australian governments, of whatever political hue, to describe taxpayer subsidies to corporations.  Much has now been written about the scope and amount of taxpayer money which has flowed directly or indirectly to assist Gunns’ forestry operations, and the closely orchestrated political-corporate attempt to build a pulp mill in the Tamar Valley in the face of local opposition and independent expert advice about the social, economic and environmental risks of the venture.

There can be no doubt that this sole issue has convinced many Tasmanians that they are without political representation by both the Labor government and the Liberal opposition at both State and federal levels.  It has convinced many Tasmanians that politicians across the board in the major parties have no concern at all for the legitimate interests of the people of the Tamar Valley.

It is within the context of the whole sorry saga of Gunns’ pulp mill that many Tasmanians would share similar views to the Latin Americans John Keane refers to who have no faith that their own democracies represent them.  This conclusion is strongly supported by the results from the most recent survey of Tasmanians’ opinions about the State government, which indicated that 83% of people “do not believe” the government “listens to them or acts on community wishes”. 

The Gunns controversy has also raised the level of community skepticism about policy development and implementation across the policy spectrum, and in relation to responsible, effective, sustainable and fair use of resources.  “Cui bono?”  For whose benefit?  This is now a broad response to policy well beyond environmental concerns, forestry and the destruction of the ecology.

But the pulp mill issue also goes further than that.  It has sharpened community interest in the way that the government frames expenditure and the way public funds are distributed.  It has sharpened people’s understanding, for example, that public health and education are priorities in name only.  It is salutary to be reminded that in the 1950s and early 1960s most of Tasmania’s existing suburban primary and secondary schools in the larger towns and cities were built.  Now it is not possible to envisage how that could be achieved today, even though taxes have been substantially increased, especially through the GST. 

The Gunns controversy has also raised the level of community skepticism about policy development and implementation across the policy spectrum, and in relation to responsible, effective, sustainable and fair use of resources.  “Cui bono?”  For whose benefit?  This is now a broad response to policy well beyond environmental concerns, forestry and the destruction of the ecology.

In past eras such questions were less likely to arise, but no longer.  Now they resonate with suspicion and distrust, not only of motive and intention, but of competence.  So it is, for example, that people who became interested in how Gunns would be able to source 26-40 gigalitres of water every year from Lake Trevallyn, are now much more aware of the northern Tasmanian region’s water supply and usage, what is happening in the catchment areas, the use of water in tree plantations, seasonal variability in flows into Lake Trevallyn, the availability from Poatina, the issues surrounding contamination of drinking supplies, and so on. 

Therefore, when the Bartlett government recently unveiled its plans to divert water from the South Esk River to Midlands farms, there were many Tasmanians with enough knowledge of the issues to immediately question the viability of the project on the basis of evidence, to question motive and competence.  The last person they were prepared to trust was the responsible minister, David Llewellyn.  The people they trusted for “real” information were independent experts, such as David Leaman.

Cui Bono?  When the answer to that question is that the people do not believe that taxes are spent for their benefit, whatever side of the narrow political divide is in power, then it is a sure sign that democratic institutions and democratic processes have been seriously weakened from within.  Whether it is $700 billion of taxpayers’ money used by the power elite in the US to rescue the wealthiest of the wealthy from their own misuse of other people’s money, while a fraction of this amount cannot be found to fund a national health scheme, and tens of thousands are evicted from their homes, lose their savings and their incomes; or whether it is Tasmanian legislation to provide public resources at nominal prices to a private corporation on 20-year terms, with exemptions from laws which apply to all other members in the community, generous tax benefits and massive subsidies from the public purse, while many of the company’s executives enjoy salaries that exceed that of Australia’s Prime Minister, and the company sacks workers en masse – then democracy exists in name alone, and is in reality a hollowed out replica, replete with the rituals and the semblance of democratic practice, but in fact is a charade, a travesty and a shell.

Several weeks ago I wrote to an MHA backbencher of the Bartlett government and asked him why he voted against Kim Booth’s private member’s bill in August to repeal the Pulp Mill Assessment Act (PMAA).  He replied, and I quote: “I await the course of bureaucratic and regulatory events on the matter. My support for Booth’s bill would have achieved nothing of community value”. 

Although I expected something of more substance, the reply was no real surprise.  But it is illustrative of the prevailing abdication of responsible representation.  The nature and contents of the PMAA are now well known, in all their anti-democratic ramifications, so the MHA’s reference to “community value” speaks for itself – and is indicative of an ethical and moral vacuum in the weird world of caucus solidarity above all else, including conscience and the public interest.   

But to “await the course of bureaucratic and regulatory events on the matter” is a more revealing observation altogether.  When Senator Christine Milne attempted to have a CSIRO report on the probable impact of 64,000 tonnes of effluent from Gunns’ pulp mill on Bass Strait released for public scrutiny, every Tasmanian federal Labor and Liberal politician opposed her request.  When she persisted, the Rudd government, in anticipation of a public relations disaster, decided to release the report if Gunns agreed.  Well, of “course”.  That fits the pattern of the “course of… events on the matter” that has been dutifully followed right from the start, and will continue unabated indefinitely.  That is what this Tasmanian ALP backbencher was really saying. 

But this MHA’s views are representative of all other current Tasmanian Liberal-Labor politicians.  It is not a good look for retaining the remnants of public confidence in the centre.  These politicians need to be reminded that the “centre” lost its grip for a significant minority of people in the 1980s and 1990s (when this all began is another story), especially during the period of the Liberal Gray government, but accelerated to new levels under Paul Lennon’s demonstration of how easy it can be to subvert democracy from within. 

They also need to be reminded that the strengthening of decentralized and localized centres of power and decision-making that Rebecca Solnit sees happening in the US, are incipient and less developed here in Tasmania, but quickening in pace.  As individuals and communities increasingly realize the seriousness of their disenfranchisement from the centre, and increasingly understand the lack of competence of their elected representatives, they are forming active democratic organizations outside the parliamentary system, attempting to fill the void vacated by the centre.

Whether shifts in power from the centre will continue, in what ways they might develop and what consequences they might have, as the current crisis deepens, is difficult to predict.  The past is a guide, as are the perceptions of those in times past.  Yeats thought failure at the centre, producing anarchy, meant that –

“The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

Yeats’s prediction of “the rough beast, its hour come round at last”, proved remarkably accurate, only finally overcome, temporarily at least (and only in some privileged parts of the world), by the defeat of international fascism.

But the political landscape of 1946 was very different to 1939.  In Australia the stresses of war permanently changed the federal system, the relationship of the executive to the legislative, and the nature of party politics.  Fascism as an ideology, attractive to many in the 1930s, with its appeal to “order” and “control”, was totally discredited. 

One of the questions for us in 2008 is what our “1946”, whenever that turns out to be, will look like in political terms.  It will be different.  The “Hope in the Dark” that Rebecca Solnit writes of, that political change will support, and in turn build on, decentralized and localized democracy, is an optimistic view of how a democratic revival in the US could take place, based on what is occurring.

Or will the times promote further erosion of democracy from within?  John Keane has warned that politicians seeking personal and partisan political power, rather than the public good, typically attempt to dismantle independent monitoring, discredit extra-parliamentary organizations, create suspicion, punish dissent and whistleblowers, and try to stifle critics.  Sound familiar?  Keane’s gaze was not on Tasmania, but in all respects the list fits the current political environment.

Lennon wanted silence, to render dissenters voiceless.  John Howard wanted to create an era of political passivity, a “relaxed and comfortable” Australia, but fearful of “otherness”, where government was strictly top-down, and critics were “un-Australian”.
Both Lennon and Howard eroded fundamental rights of citizens.

Now Premier Bartlett appears to be following that lead.  His proposal to fundamentally alter the bicameral parliamentary system as a “solution” to the problem of democratic executive accountability has been described as “ill-considered and opportunistic” by Tasmania’s foremost political scientist, Richard Herr.  It fails the first test of competent political leadership in a representative democracy.  It was designed to truncate the discussion of the need to expand the numbers in the House of Assembly, serving personal and partisan political interests at the expense of damaging the fabric of the democratic parliamentary system.

So to repeat, if we are to learn anything at all from past periods of crisis and stress, it is that democracy will be undermined by politicians who do not have the courage, determination and competence to look beyond their own personal and partisan political perspectives.

The current economic circumstances are the worst possible time for Tasmanian politicians to continue to abrogate their representative responsibilities. Earlier in 2008 the Tasmanian Parliament was a disinterested observer, at best, when the whole future direction of Lilydale was on the line, and it was only as a result of grassroots activism, which had already changed the face of the Launceston City Council, that a solution was found.

The Lilydale story affirms Solnit’s view of the capacity of localized forms of power to make a difference.  In the context of a sharpened sense of uncertainty about the future, in local, state, national and geopolitical terms, it is essential that localized democracy be able to flourish.  It must not be silenced.  It must be encouraged.

As Naomi Wolf has said, in her urgent call to Americans to stop the escalating erosion of democratic rights in the US that have occurred under the Bush administration, “… most important of all, lead your friends and community to unite in a grassroots movement to restore…”. 

Let the last word go to the anti-Nazi German philosopher Ernst Bloch, who was forced to flee Germany in the 1930s, and wrote The Principle of Hope while in exile.  He wrote of an “informed discontent which belongs to hope, because they both arise out of the No to deprivation”.  It is “informed discontent” that is at the heart of an active democratic citizenry, which underpins the effectiveness and integrity of any democratic society, especially in times of rapid and disorienting change, stress and tension. 

Those voices, whether in the parliamentary domain or outside, must not continue to be silenced, or ignored, for they are the voices of restoration, of the hope that resides in democracy for our descendants as equally as for us. 

Refs
  1Julianne Schultz, Weekend Australian Magazine, 13-14/9/08, p.71.
  2Rebecca Solnit, The Guardian Weekly, 4/1/08, p.19.
  3John Keane, “Hypocrisy and Democracy”, WZB-Mittelungen, Heft 120, june 2008, pp.30-32.
  4Naomi Wolf, The End of America, Scribe, 2007;  Naomi Klein, Future Shock: Disaster Capitalism, 2007.
5Mercury, 9/10/08.
  6Salary packages for five of Gunns’ executives are listed in Examiner, 6/10/08.
  7Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark, Text, 2005.
  8Richar Herr, Mercury, 25/9/08.
  9Wolf, op cit.
  10Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, vol 1, translated Plaice, 1986.
   

 


 

 

 

Peter Henning

Lennon wanted silence, to render dissenters voiceless.  John Howard wanted to create an era of political passivity, a “relaxed and comfortable” Australia, but fearful of “otherness”, where government was strictly top-down, and critics were “un-Australian”. Both Lennon and Howard eroded fundamental rights of citizens.

Now Premier Bartlett appears to be following that lead.  His proposal to fundamentally alter the bicameral parliamentary system as a “solution” to the problem of democratic executive accountability has been described as “ill-considered and opportunistic” by Tasmania’s foremost political scientist, Richard Herr.