Electoral politics in Australia. The mere thought of it makes me want to gnaw my arm off.
Actually, this thought is not confined to Australia. With one or two exceptions – but not many (and then, only perhaps) – it applies to the entire world.
We can take the humorous approach, and think about which clowns will best populate this circus. And it is a circus. It is a zero-ring circus under a far-too-big tent, whose antics are occasionally hilarious but almost always harmful. If only most of the people who populate it could go home and perform their shenanigans in the privacy of their own home!
The humorous approach to electoral politics is fun, but bad. These clowns are not funny; this is no laughing matter. We should take it seriously. Elected politicians are the ones entrusted with power in our system, and the clowns we elect become abusive clowns with power.
Moreover, it is an inaccurate approach. It is far too kind to refer to members of Parliament as mere clowns. They may behave like clowns in their role as politicians and parliamentarians, but mere clowns do not do harm. The Australian government regularly does harm, whether to asylum seekers, Aboriginal communities, the disabled, LGBT people, poor people, sick people, people on the receiving end of foreign policy, people on the receiving end of climate change – people in general.
I’ve long been of the view that real social change is best pursued outside of electoral channels. Channeling political activity into electoral channels constrains it, turns it into a vote-winning game, clouds issues with personalities, forces it into the system, weakens it, draws it towards the status quo.
As far as I’m concerned, one usually does better to work for social change outside the electoral realm. If we push institutions in a progressive direction, win over people, change their minds, spread good ideas, establish our own good institutions, and advance on matters of principle, we achieve lasting change. And this change will be reflected within electoral politics, because the people have changed, and vote-seeking politicians will go along with them.
Of course, the matter is not a simple one, as with anything in human affairs. At this level of generality one can say little. Electoral parties are certainly not equally bad, and some are certainly more harmful than others. Sometimes historical, economic and political circumstances are such as to make major gains possible through purely electoral means. Sometimes exceptional personalities appear on the electoral stage and are able to break through the impasse of electoral two-party sclerosis. Sometimes the circumstances may be such as to make a strategic intervention in electoral politics possible and desirable.
But it will not surprise many to assert that this political system is bad.
For one thing, it’s bad in principle. Not the fact that it is democratic — that is good. It’s the fact that it is barely democratic, and reduced to a façade of democracy, that is bad. The idea that we should entrust all power to party apparatchiks for several years at a time is nauseating. The fact that we have no power over our own affairs except to, once every 3 years, number a ballot paper ranking politicians from least to most bad is highly undemocratic, technologically backward and historically outmoded. That it’s done on a geographic basis (in the lower house at least, which determines the government), with many seats clearly one way or the other, so that most votes will not make the slightest difference, makes its effectiveness negligible. And the fact that we are constantly reminded that this is a supposedly wonderful democratic system — and expected not only to accept it, but to celebrate it — is patronising and demeaning. It is bad as a matter of principle — so bad that the task of finding a better system is an urgent one, merely as a matter of political morality.
There is also the small matter that the current Australian representative-democratic system takes no account of the fact that it was established illegitimately on the land of sovereign Aboriginal peoples, and will remain so until some form of treaty or sovereign agreement regularises the situation.
But even worse than all this — and it is very bad — is the way those institutions play out in practice. Large parties form; they become bureaucratic and oligarchic; they build a machine, factionalised, beholden, compromised. They attract sycophants, egomaniacs, social climbers, backstabbers, people who desire power rather than justice. Those who rise to the top are usually the worst. The parties as institutions may be founded on a set of principles, or to represent certain classes or interests, but they become machines to harvest, deliver, and manipulate votes. Having achieved power by winning enough votes, they seek to maintain power. They value votes over principle. They value power over principle. They will compromise on anything to win votes. They require financial resources to do so — and take money from powerful vested interests, compromising themselves further in the process. The party becomes more corporate, and corporations capture the party. In the end, the party privileges whatever they can use to their electoral advantage over anything that matters, and their agenda is the agenda of the status quo.
Not just one, but multiple parties — with all these faults, to a greater or lesser degree — arise and compete. The worse they are, the more attuned they are to the prejudices of the electorate, the better they are at distracting people from the most important issues, the best they are at manipulating emotions to their advantage, the better they perform. There are many exceptions, and in certain times and places there may be parties which are electorally successful by being highly principled — but if there is no external pressure to constrain them, such as a powerful extra-parliamentary activist or union movement, they will eventually become complacent.
The parties which are the best at this game — and therefore the worst — compete and compromise and adjust until they can win, until they can cobble together enough votes through a combination of class interest, voter inertia, policy, prejudice, demagoguery, fearmongering, vindictive attacks on the other side, and emotional manipulation. The other party does the same, until a stable equilibrium emerges, and the two parties compete on the margin. (In some countries it may be more than two.) They gravitate to their mutual centre. Like any commercial duopoly, they compete by minor adjustments to their policies, by attacking each other, by racing to the bottom. They aim for the 51st percentile from the left or right. They discard any coherence in their policy or (gasp!) philosophy in the process. They forget what ideas they are supposed to represent. Their whole purpose and meaning revolves around defeating the other team and taking power to — do what again? No matter, the corporate backers and think-tanks will fill in those details. They have power, they win the prize, and the rest does not matter.
Although we describe it as a race to the bottom, there is no bottom. We may speak of hitting rock bottom, but the rock is never there. Bitter experience shows that there is no depth which will not be plumbed in this process. We accelerate to negative infinity. We fall into a black hole.
Meanwhile, the electorate disengages. At best, politics becomes at best another sports match to discuss: we can opine on the various teams’ tactics and skills, and their latest results. At worst, it becomes an a subject of active aversion. We usually just vote however our parents did. We would rather gnaw our arms off than seriously engage with this nonsense. And rightly so.
But there are positive ways to engage.
Not all parties are so bad. The ones that are less bad, or even good, are usually those further from power. As parties get closer to power they will likely face the same process of degeneration, but in the meantime they can be worth supporting. In voting, we do not need to say how good each party is; we only need to say which is the least bad among them.
But that doesn’t mean we should never get involved with electoral parties; indeed I’ve done so myself. Without good people inside the parties, they will be even worse. There is much work to be done inside and outside political parties to try and keep them honest, keep them progressive, keep them from compromising principle in the name of power. Against the institutional pull of the system it may, over the long term, be a losing struggle, but that does not mean it is useless. If the party’s stance affects government policy, it affects people’s lives.
More importantly, we can recognise that politics is about far more than elections. Social change is a process which is affected by election, but it also affects elections. If we can work — however we think best, however best fits our skills and talents — to uphold, to promote, and to realise just social principles and institutions, then we can simply do it ourselves, along with our friends, colleagues, and communities. No matter how large or small — we should do what we are able. For much of the work that needs to be done, there is no need for an intermediary.
That sounds nice, of course. The reality is not quite so nice. It is not enough for every good citizen to be engaged in local issues, while horrendous politicians at the national level let the world burn. At the very least, whatever we do politically, we should do it with a view to how it affects the system as a whole, and have an idea about larger strategy and how our actions it into it. The system is bad, it is entrenched, and it is leading us towards multiple disasters. We need to stop it; but we cannot let it stop us.
In the meantime, there are elections occasionally. So we can take some time out from real politics once every few years to rank the parties best to worst, and then get back to the task of changing society — including those parties, and the system in which they operate — for the better.
That way, at least, I won’t have to gnaw my arm off.