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Parliamentary Parties and "Big Tent" Politics

This edition of Nurturing Justice considers the plight of Australian parliamentary democracy brought to yet another turn in the road with the change in the parliamentary leadership of the ALP. But first NJ would, with all the meagre power at its disposal, make its protest: this parliamentary circus is evidence of a national political scandal! The government of this federal polity, for which all citizens are accountable, is a God-given duty. But our political system is broken; this "Facebook farce" is another political distraction that too easily demoralizes. Just consider the many people in this country and region - not to forget those fleeing oppressive regimes seeking a place of refuge - who stand in need of the ongoing and diverse support from the resources of our well-endowed Commonwealth. How is it that we in Australia allow our system of government to shamefully expose itself as a polity in which selfish self-interest so easily prevails as our national norm? Has selfish self-interest become our national way of political life? It seems so. This way of life needs to be rejected and a first step will be to forsake the bogus "luck" of our wealth and instead look again to the real political needs of those who now find themselves "left further in the lurch" by these recent parliamentary events. The challenge of Micah stands, as it always has, and this word comes particularly to us as followers of Jesus.
He has shown you clearly enough, oh man, oh woman! What does the Lord require of you? Just to get busy doing justice, lovingly embracing kindness and proceeding down the humble path with your God! (Micah 6:8)

Any thought that this crisis is merely an ALP party problem, is to misread the situation. If readers have been following what NJ has been putting forward over recent times they might guess our view that this latest ALP crisis, reaching to the heart of our parliamentary system, has its roots in the ALP shamefully trying to beat the Liberal Party at its own game. And that goes back to 1974 and 1975 when the Parliamentary Liberal Party forsook its constituted character in which its constitution and policy was subject to endorsement from its own rank and file members, and instead became a top-down party effectively ruled by its Parliamentary wing. Thus party policy shifted from being a matter of political conviction to a strategic use of words, forming a platform to appeal to the electorate in order to win the next election. Readers can gain insight into how NJ understands the consequences of this shift for "both sides of politics" by going through the archive. There have indeed been peculiar consequences for the ALP, not least with how they understand the leadership of their parliamentary party. But the "other side" has also shown itself to be a formidable electoral machine when it comes to dealing with "outsiders" in its efforts to hold onto the treasury benches. Ask Ted Mack. (Recalled how the Coalition closed ranks to sit upon embarrassing information about the export of human embryos even while parliament debate under a "conscience" or "free vote" rgime!) But here, let us consider what this crisis tells us, from a Christian standpoint. What is the state of parliamentary democracy in our country? Here we see the confusion that results from an attempt to marry pragmatism and neo-liberalism. In our context it is the ALP which has been the political harbinger of neo-liberalism, and meanwhile the Liberal-National Coalition has developed as the pragmatic "we can fix the

economy" party. The mish-mash of ALP liberalism parading as "progressive" and Coalition pragmatism parading as "conservative" is part and parcel of the political confusion that confronts us. Let me digress with an indirect comparison with the US. At this point I'm not just wanting to compare our two major parties with the Republican and Democratic electoral machines. There is also an international connection between NJ and the US Center for Public Justice in terms of promoting a Christian political option. For instance this writer has, on occasion, written for CPJ's Capital Commentary. The well-known evangelical journalist for the Washington Post, Michael Gerson, who has also had his op-ed pieces published in major daily newspapers in Australia, is also a regularly contributor to CPJ's on-line publications. Gerson was a top aide to President George W Bush. Why mention Gerson in this context? In a recent opinion piece for the Washington Post, "The GOP's leadership reform challenge", Gerson puts forward an argument that may have resonance with many struggling with Labor's seeming endless confusion about itself. Gerson says that the GOP needs its own Bill Clinton or Tony Blair. The GOP needs to concentrate on erecting a "Big Tent", and to learn from the current failings of David Cameron. We hear these kinds of "Oh for a large enough tent!" sentiments here in Australia. In fact, when Kevin Rudd was initially deposed he stood aside and gave his unqualified support to the party and thereby to the new leader who then became Prime Minister. Likewise, Julia Gillard, in accepting the decision of her colleagues, bowed to the will of the caucus. Both of them have now shown their allegiance to the traditional Labor view that all elected members under the ALP banner "must be united in caucus solidarity". We can concede their genuine concern for their "side" of politics. Both of them, as well as their colleagues, hold out the hope that their belovd party can rediscover themselves as "a big tent". But just what is this "tent"? Just what is this "broad church"? Would it be that Julia the lion tamer of the parliamentary circus, has now given way to Kevin the evangelist? These are two kinds of tent and it would seem that the only thing left holding Labor together is a commitment to a vanishing ideal of party-unity. This they hope will help to convince a confused electorate that the ALP merits electoral endorsement. Michael Gerson's journalistic argues that the GOP should recapture the Reaganite vision of building an ideological "big tent". This, he suggests, will give the "right" a greater prospect for maintaining ongoing political stability, in other words from right-ofcentre. And if a Christian view is only ever a matter of accommodating a political system in which not only parliamentary representation but also political conviction is replaced by a constant eye on the number of Facebook "likes", successful interestgroup brokerage and the dominance of electoral machines calling themselves parties, then yes for those Christians that will appear to be a most sensible path. But the question is this: should such an accommodating be part of a Christian political option? Or could it be, as Micah suggests, that there is a path to public justice waiting for us to walk it by our organised political action? Is not something like this implicit in the view of public governance and citizenship put forward last time by John Milton? We might say that such accommodation should be avoided for the long-term. But let's get serious about what such accommodation in the short-term means? Is it not effectively to ask the Lord Himself to wait a little until we can gain some popular support for our political obedience, until our Facebook page registers sufficient "likes"? No, I'm certainly not suggesting that Labor consider building a "big tent". Those committed to "big tent" politics are quite capable of doing so without my assistance. I'm

more concerned about the impact of both sides trying to do so upon our political life. Should we continue to confirm the mythology that politics is best when there are merely two major political machines brawling for victory at the next election? The fact that both the ALP and the Liberal-National Coalition attempt to do so is presumptuous and has become ridiculous. They should instead take note of how they, as parties, have squandered their historical power (and all the public monies poured into their coffers) by a failure to engage in coherent political argument, and public education about the political responsibility of citizens in our federated commonwealth. The Australian Labor Party and the Coalition, don't need stronger stakes to keep the sides of their expansive tents from flapping in the twittering breeze. They need to find some coherent political commitment that can then be given form in a genuine party that seeks to have their elected representatives accountable to electors. Political life in western "liberal" democracies simply gives too much room to an operationalist view of the political party as the necessary machine that tries to justify itself by "getting things done" in Parliament. The ALP's current problem is that the federal conference of the party together with its parliamentary caucus is dominated by fear of negative public opinion. They have ignored the fact that they need a coherent platform from which to be elected and from which to be accountable. How can political accountability be measured by "likes" on Facebook? Our democracy exhibits a kind of parliamentary supremacy that is continually beholden to the supremacy of parliamentary parties over their own rank and file membership and their own party's platform. This won't be checked without disciplined political party policy formation and public education, that seeks to persuade all citizens about the demands of public justice. __________________________________________________________________________
Nurturing Justice is an occasional broadsheet that aims to encourage a sustained Christian political contribution. For many Christians, and not just secularist atheists, the very idea that we can ask how politics gains its direction from within our God-given responsibilities to take up our cross and follow Jesus is heresy, the root of a wrong-headed intolerance. NJ seeks to counter that long-held misunderstanding. June 2013 The contents of this email are copyright. Editions may be photocopied or retransmitted in their entirety but not otherwise reprinted or transmitted without permission. Comments are welcome and should be sent to