The gulf between what parliament should be and what it has lately shown itself to be underpins much of the anger about the depraved sexist culture of politicians on the part of the journalists and others whose working lives revolve around Canberra. Such shameful goings on in the “citadel of Australian democracy” as one disaffected MP described it, inexcusably cheapen and demean their life’s work. Parliament, in their eyes, is meant to be the pinnacle of civilisation, where the best among us make decisions on behalf of those who didn’t try hard enough in school. It’s a place where our natural superiors, invested with democratic authority and operating on a higher spiritual and intellectual plane, gather and legitimately govern.
But parliament has always had the stench of the sewer about it. The ugly gutter fight involved in the metamorphosis of almost every feral young Liberal into respectable Canberra politician is (less and less) disguised with expensive suits and media training.
Take the typical progression: after graduating from an elite private school, where they’ve preferably been a first-class, jetsetting debater, the average young Liberal usually sets their sights on destroying the student union in whatever sandstone tertiary establishment they decide to network at. If the conditions are degenerate enough, they may be elected to campus representative bodies, which provide them with a platform to try their hand at sabotaging social justice struggles, encouraging anti-PC boorishness and giving out favours and contracts to their mates. Meanwhile, they will be getting their ducks in a row in readiness for future preselection—sniffing out a potential death or retirement, filling out party membership forms for distant relatives and friends, ingratiating themselves with the appropriate factional powerbroker and currying favour with local business associations that will later hand out their how-to-vote cards, along with the occasional bogus one that later might get them into trouble.
All motivated by the higher calling of public service of course, these representatives-to-be will solicit donations and make promises to whatever sordid business interests they are not already in bed with to fund their campaign. The crux of their program will be to further enrich the already wealthy, and to broaden their appeal, they’ll invoke nationalism and point the finger at groups that can’t easily retaliate and don’t contribute much to campaign funds, like refugees, Indigenous people, the unemployed or “gender whisperers”.
Once elected, they get down to the important work of devising and implementing policies aimed at directing society’s wealth away from the poor and vulnerable and towards subsidising the corporate interests that helped them into office, and that are their neighbours and friends. Which is all good if the aim is to secure board appointments to tide you over once the gout is too bad to fly to Canberra regularly. But it’s too bad if you’re someone trying to survive on minimum wage or welfare payments, or facing any other type of obstacle in your life, the likes of which most politicians will never have to confront. For politicians, these people simply don’t matter; their lives are expendable in pursuit of capitalism’s religion: obedience to the market, enrichment of the wealthy, strengthening the nation state.
And while it is impossible not to sympathise with those who think the smug arrogance of the talent evacuation that is Scott Morrison represents a new low in the sordid history of Australian politics, the reality is that the Australian state has long been a conga line of similarly repulsive individuals and acts.
Early on it was genocide and dispossession, rather than mistreatment of women, that was par for the course. The state parliaments that preceded the creation of the federal parliament in 1901 actively imposed genocidal policies on Indigenous people. Through their Protection Boards, they stole children, destroyed culture and deprived Indigenous people of proper medical care.
The creation of federal parliament and the constitution that underpinned it continued this process. Indigenous people are mentioned only twice in the constitution—to exclude them from Commonwealth powers so that the racist state legislation would continue to prevail and to exclude them from the census, disenfranchising them entirely.
Some of the earliest acts of the Australian parliament involved preserving the ethnic purity of the nation through the White Australia Policy. Indeed, the Commonwealth’s unique ability to do this was important in securing the cooperation of the states and making the federal system a reality. The Immigration Restriction Act passed in 1901 gave immigration officers wide authority to deny entry to non-British immigrants through the notorious dictation test.
In 1916, the parliament tried to conscript working class youth to fight in the horrific slaughter of WWI, a move that was stopped only by a mass revolt.
The federal government also played a role in smashing strikes and undermining workers’ rights, from the dramatic examples of Ben Chifley mobilising soldiers to break the coalminers’ strike of 1949, to Hawke’s use of the air force to smash the pilots’ strike in 1989. And then there’s wave after wave of anti-union, anti-worker legislation. Industrial relations “reform” has been an obsession of Liberal governments, which in reality means forcing the majority to work harder for less. Intimidation is a big part of this— Australia has one of the most complicated, punitive and repressive industrial relations systems in the world.
And while federal parliament is also responsible for creating the healthcare system, briefly offering free tertiary education and welfare provisions, it has spent more time trying to roll these measures back than expand them. Highly punitive schemes like the notorious “robodebt” as well as efforts to force the cost of public services more and more onto individuals through the erosion of Medicare, cuts to welfare payments and expansion of fees for students, have had a detrimental effect on millions of lives. It is also the institution that, with no democratic mandate, imposed a reactionary ban on same sex marriage as a way to sow division and homophobia.
But perhaps those who have suffered the most over the last couple of decades due to the nefarious activities of the federal parliament have been refugees and Muslims. Nothing sums up the sociopathic culture of Parliament House like the bipartisan agreement on the pressing need to torture refugees. The fact that Morrison has to perform mental gymnastics spurred on by his daughter to generate any empathy for Brittany Higgins explains much about how his government can continue to inflict such suffering on the 5- and 3-year-old daughters of Tamil refugees Priya and Nades Murugappan, who have been detained on Christmas Island for three years with the threat of deportation hanging over their heads. It really is no wonder that someone like Morrison who makes themselves a trophy saying “we stopped the boats”— ie prevented people exercising their democratic right to seek asylum— and displays it in their office also turns out to be unfeeling towards sexual assault survivors.
Likewise, young Muslim men can be locked up for decades in high security prisons for little more than thought crimes. Their lives are sacrificed to give some validity to the bogus pretence under which those same politicians sent soldiers to kill and die in Iraq and Afghanistan, in one of the most unpopular and long-running military deployments in Australian history.
Managing capitalism requires a degree of callousness towards human suffering that really should prompt a psychological intervention. Instead, it is rewarded with six-figure salaries, elevated social status and fat pensions. The crimes of politicians are sanitised and normalised much of the time by a media that accepts the premises that underpin them, while left-wing activists who challenge the status quo are dismissed as hopeless dreamers or fringe-dwellers.
The current explosion of outrage and disgust about the sexist culture in parliament is something of a break from this pattern. The anger is understandably being felt most intensely by the women who have to work with and around the sexist creeps who run the country, particularly in the media. There is a good reason for this: political culture has a direct effect on their lives. The fact that these women have a platform from which they can hold the political class to account has been key to putting the realistic possibility of change on the agenda. But it also highlights the lack of such power of many other groups that are targeted or vilified by politicians, and the relative insensitivity to their suffering on the part of much of the mainstream media. The storm surrounding sexual assault and sexism in politics shows how much clout the media do have when they decide to hold politicians to account and break the gentleman’s agreement that usually governs their interactions, and therefore how culpable it is in so many of the Australian state’s other crimes.
The cloistered world of parliament—its hierarchical, elitist assumptions and practices—breeds a culture that is brutish and anti-human. The alternative is a democratic and collectively run society in which cooperation and mutual respect are a fundamental premise and operating principle, not something politicians and other powerful creeps have to do training courses to understand.