Parliament and democracy: It's not just about Morrison's ministeries

The revelation that former Prime Minister Scott Morrison had secretly sworn himself into five ministerial positions shows his arbitrary and narcissistic leadership had spun out of control.

Even the most cynical observers appear baffled. But the problem goes deeper.

The “sports rorts” affair, where community groups had their painstakingly-prepared grant applications thrown in the bin as Coalition MPs allocated funds to their own seats, showed how much the rot had set in — and that it was not limited to Morrison.

In between elections, Morrison’s cabinet showed it was only responsible to big business. The bogus National COVID-19 Commission Advisory Board, stacked with fossil fuel executives who asserted Australia’s recovery would be based on more gas drilling is a case in point.

We have every right to expect politicians to be honest and behave in transparent manner. They are meant to serve us.

Infuriation about the crass patronage politics and vile behaviour of Morrison’s senior ministers was partly expressed by the swing to the “teal” independents in formerly safe Liberal seats.

However, much of the liberal commentators’ outrage rests on over-egging the supposed virtues of “responsible government” and the democratic credentials of the Westminster system.

Chewing over Morrison’s bad behaviour helps Anthony Albanese’s government take the focus away from how much of their policies continue, rather than represent a break, from the Coalition’s.

The crisis of credibility plaguing politics goes much deeper, as evidenced by the fairly muted public reaction to the scandal. It is also shown up by the continuing decline in the two major parties’ primary vote.

Australia’s parliamentary and electoral systems, while better than the abysmal United States system, still fall well short of being genuinely responsible, representative and democratic.

While more respectful debate and transparency would be welcome, it will not be enough to fix this problem, let alone reversing decades of neoliberalism.

No-one could argue against governments being required to publicise who has been appointed a minister. However, more reforms are necessary if MPs are to be made more accountable and more representative.

We could start by borrowing from the Aotearoa (New Zealand) parliament, including proportional representation and reserved seats for Indigenous voters.

Banning corporate donations, putting politicians on the average wage and making all MPs subject to a recall vote if a sufficient percentage of the electors feel their representative has failed them would help. It would likely help weed out some opportunist grubs, too.

But even this is not enough.

The institutions of the Australian state, including parliament, remain subordinate to the interests of big business. After all, they emerged from and were shaped by capitalist society. Consequently, they are mostly as unaccountable and undemocratic as private corporations.

Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin observed in his 1917 The State & Revolution that the state’s senior personnel — bureaucrats and politicians — are tied to capitalism politically, economically and culturally by “a thousand golden threads”.

The Captured State report, commissioned by 350.org, gives a contemporary example. It explores “the revolving door between the gas industry and WA politics”, comparing meeting dates between fossil fuel companies and the government with political donation dates and mapping political donations made by the biggest polluters in the state over the last decade. It also “shows the amount of emissions each project creates vs the amount they are supposed to offset vs the amount they actually offset”.

Of course, the struggle for universal suffrage, that pre-dated Lenin's time, has meant that working men, then women and lastly First Nations people won the right to vote.

This posed a new challenge for political representatives of capitalism: how to claim to rule for all Australians while actually ruling on behalf of big business.

This really is the modern-day “art of politics”. It is why unpopular policies that only benefit the wealthy are often done in the name of the so-called “national interest”.

The Coalition keeps its simple — preaching that what is good for business is good for the country.

Labor has a more complicated script. With institutional roots in the labour movement, it asks us to join it in the search for a mythical happy consensus between workers and business, where everyone gets a seat at the table.

But the light on the hill always ends up being a mirage in the desert.

These fundamentally dishonest political projects are the breeding ground for politicians’ bad behaviour. The parliamentary system will only become more democratic when the power of big business over our economy, culture and politics is broken.

Most days of the week, we don’t live in a democracy at all, least of all at work. Imagine a workplace where we get to elect our supervisors and have a real say over what we do. That’s a glimpse of what we mean by socialism: extending democracy to the economy so that we can redistribute wealth, tackle the climate crisis and give us all control over our lives.

But we can only start from where we are now. Achieving such a transformation will grow out of the many current struggles for social justice, rights at work and the environment. Socialist Alliance is committed to growing them in every way we can, so join with us now.

[Sam Wainwright is a co-convener of the Socialist Alliance.]

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