Friday, September 03, 2010

Politics, policies and principles

I haven't attempted to analyse all the evolving changes in the drama still gripping Australian politics. There is little point in analysing what it all means until we know the outcomes. The ALP-Green Deal sets out a copy of the agreement between those two parties. Now we have the agreement between the ALP and Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilkie; copy here. Once the country independents make up their minds, we can look at what it all means.

In the meantime, I cannot help being a bit bemused at the way that some columnists have really spat the dummy. Luke Walladge's piece on the ABC's The Drum is an example.

Given that I have a weekly column in the Armidale Express, the second largest newspaper in Mr Windsor's electorate, it was inevitable that I would add my own tuppence worth to all the advice he is receiving. I did so on Wednesday; the columns aren't on line, but I bring them up with a lag on the New England Australia blog. I will publish this one once I have seen the print copy.

Mr Windsor is an experienced politician facing a difficult situation. You either trust him or you don't to make the best judgment he can. I do. So in the first part of the column I argued that Mr Windsor represented the New England constitutional  tradition: he had articulated a set of principles and was attempting to comply with them regardless of immediate partisan positions. To illustrate, I took an example from 1961 when one of his predecessors took action in the House that could have threatened the survival of the then Menzies Government.

I tried to write very carefully here. Really, I was trying to give Mr Windsor a little oxygen, not add to the pressures on him. I know his electorate pretty well after all these years, and there is no doubt that the process has had a polarising effect.

In terms of specifics actions, and based on discussions on my blogs and elsewhere, I began by noting that even including the population growth along the coast, the broader New England had been in structural decline for many decades. No one had addressed this.

My position here won't come as a surprise to anybody who reads my material; I have been hammering this drum for some years.

I then put forward three suggestions based on the discussions that have been taking place among the growing number of new state supporters.

First, we would like him to support the holding of a new constitutional convention to look at the distribution of state and commonwealth powers, as well as ways of facilitating subdivision within the existing Federation. Again, this won't come as a surprise. I have expressed my growing concerns about constitutional problems within the Federation many times.

One of the practical difficulties here is that there is no real consensus: people agree that there are problems, but then go off in totally different directions. A second difficulty is that there is very little discussion on constitutional principles. Rather, there is a series of gut reactions. For example, the Green/ALP agreement provides for the holding of a referendum that wouls, among other things, give local and regional government some formal recognition in the constitution. No-one knows what that really means.

Secondly, we would like him to support the holding of another new state plebiscite within Northern New South Wales. As I wrote, we new staters want this. However, it would also force a focus on New England issues that has been missing since the New State Movement collapsed in the infighting after the 1967 plebiscite loss.

This is a state issue outside Mr Windsor's direct control. However, support from him would help create momentum.

Finally, I suggested that we would like both Mr Windsor and Mr Oakeshott to apply a key test to any specific policy initiatives that might be considered: will the proposal have any real longer term impact on New England development, or is it just a band-aid? We have seen too many of the second, too few of the first.

In asking this question, we would also like both MPs consider broader New England needs.

There are many shared problems across the North that would benefit from being addressed in an integrated way, instead of the fragmented and itsy approach that has applied. Again, this is something that I have written about a fair bit, about the way that current structures and approaches fragment, preventing coordinated action.

In writing, I did not attempt to discuss the Parliamentary process issues that all the country independents have focused on. My own views are unclear here. I would prefer to wait and see. Nor did I put forward any specific spending suggestions, although some of the newspapers in the electorate have,

The regional development policies put forward by both sides in the run-up to the Federal election were quite featherweight. As a specifically New England (Northern NSW) level, they were likely to have very little longer term impact. Further, the generalised policies put forward were likely to have quite differential but hard to determine on-ground impacts.

Given this, it seems best to suggest general tests that Messrs Windsor and Oakeshott should apply.

This is not to imply, however, that these tests should be the only ones applied.

Part of the New England constitutional tradition is effective representation by the MP for his or her electorate. Country voters expect things from their MPs in a way that city folk do not. They are ours regardless of party, and we expect them to remember that.

Part of the tradition, too, is that once elected, MPs become members of Parliament and are expected observe the traditions and values of Parliament. This may have been much tarnished by party politics, but it remains true. Parliament is our first protection against oppression by the executive, whether that oppression is expressed via the divine right of kings or the modern equivalent, the “national interest” as defined by the ruling party.

This means that in their roles as Parliamentarians, MPs must take broader issues into account. They cannot be bound just be the interests of their electorates. This is not easy; conflicts can arise.

If you look at the views expressed by Mr Walladge referred to earlier, you can see one of the difficulties. I quote:

Oh, aren't they charming, these "Independents"? Aren't they just your local, neighbourhood, friendly chaps? With their homespun wisdom and folksy ways, their big hats and suntans and malapropisms. The hicks from central casting. Mr Smith goes to Canberra, indeed, and all them big-city folk are shown up for the treacherous, lecherous, greedy sods they are. Politics is changing, the paradigm is shifting. Demands, demands, demands.

Charming? Friendly? Refreshing? Tell 'em to get stuffed.

Another quote:

This is politics though, after all, and a little bit of intellectual and moral flexibility should surprise none of us. But the flexibility that allows our major parties to bend over backwards to accommodate the views of bigots and lunatics and the politically fraudulent goes far too far.

I am sure that Mr Walladge is writing for effect, to stir. However, his bile does not help sensible discussion. Instead, he has become part of the background static that makes sensible discussion about choices and principles hard to achieve.   


Rummuser said...

Jim, John K. Galbraith is quite a hero in India. He was the American Ambassador to India during very difficult days for India. (1961 - 1963) He said "Politics is not the art of the possible. It consists in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable." He was of course commenting on the original "Politics is the art of the possible." by Otto Von Bismark. Having seen a lot of "possible" politics in India, I have seen both definitions. You are about to see the JKG I suspect!

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Ramana. Again, I laughed. We shall see.