Nurturing Justice 21 (2007)
We will return to "Body Politics (2)" in Nurturing Justice 23. Last time the Carers Alliance was introduced. In this edition we discuss why the current election campaign confirms our national political failure.
"If I am elected you can rest assured that I will …"
We have heard it many times. Such promises are made by candidates to their electors at election time. And we have learned to be wary, although "wary" probably says it too nicely. More likely the word "cynical" more accurately describes the prevailing public sentiment about politicians and their election promises.
Some politicians, like the current Australian PM, have tried to gain sympathy from the politician's failure to keep political promises by explaining to citizens that alongside "promises" there are also "non-core promises". The problem with this explanation is that it came after a broken promise. Howard didn’t tell his electors that he was making a "non-core promise" when he made the promise in the first place. And this is the way he tries to maintain a façade of innocence. What was earlier thought to be "core" has, "due to circumstances", now become "non-core". And so Howard, and politicians like him, continue on as if electors should have no problem with the country being governed by parliamentary representatives who weasel their way out of the promises they make at election time. Supposedly, it makes no difference that politicians can't be trusted, that political parties have no role in ensuring that their candidates honour their word, and keep their promises. And presumably that is also why it is so hard to discuss this matter with those who say: "What do you expect! They all do it!" and then go and vote for the "non-core" promising politician.
Let's look a little closer at the promises given by candidates to electors. They can be presented in formal ways and published in a formal party document - the election manifesto issued in the weeks before the ballot is held. This is the outline of policies which a political party believes should be adopted in legislation by the subsequently elected Parliament. It is published by the candidate's party so that electors can know what they are voting for.
In what does the promise of the party election manifesto consist? Basically, it is the promised intention of introducing Bills for parliamentary debate that will implement these policies should enough of the party's candidates succeed in the election to enable it to do so.
But political promises of this sort are not just about explicit policies. They are not just about proposed legislation that a party wants to see enacted into law. The election manifesto is a document that assumes and expresses the political commitment spelled out in the party's constitution. Political promises are based upon assumptions about political processes. The party's constitution is the party's attempt to define itself, to itself, and to the other parties and to the electorate it is wanting to serve via the parliament.
The party's constitution should spell out the party's view of how it will conduct itself in the complex business of parliamentary debate. It will explain how it views the task of political parties in the complex process of making and re-writing the law. It will explain how it sees the place of parties in parliamentary democracy, in the governance of the state. Or it should. It will provide guidelines for how the parliamentary party will conduct itself in parliamentary alliances with other parties, and in relation to the promises it made when it formed alliances with other parties during the election. It cannot avoid these issues, whatever side of the house its elected representatives find themselves on, and its constitution should spell out the way in which it will conduct its political affairs in the parliament.
Such a constitution is a party's necessary guide, not only to its own elected members, and not only to the party workers who are employed in the party organisation and who are engaged in ongoing electoral education. A party's constitution is needed to ensure that the party itself remains open and transparent to its own membership, so that the party's leadership remains accountable to the party's membership. Without such openness and accountability candidates and powerful members can too easily exploit the party rank-and-file and make secret deals with other political players and hence entrench themselves as a self-serving elite at the party's expense. In such a case party membership is compromised.
A party's constitution is also needed to allow non-party citizens to understand its structure, its commitment and its election promises. The party constitution should provide guidance to its own elected members and to elected members of other parties as to how it views good governance and the procedures that are needed if the parliament is to do its business in a way that gives the electorate its due. The party, and the nation as a whole, need to know how the party intends to work within the State's constitution, and what processes it will follow in order to bring about what the membership believe are necessary constitutional reforms within the limits of the law. And for them to know these things they need to be able to see how the party views itself in its own constitution.
The party's constitution should also acknowledge the local, regional and national levels of politics and explain how the party intends to operate, if at all, at the different levels of government.
And so, the party's election manifesto cannot simply be interpreted in its own terms but must be interpreted in terms of the constitution of the party that publishes the manifesto, the commitment to which is the basis for party rank-and-file membership and also party pre-selection.
It may be that the manifesto for fighting any particular election does not actually refer explicitly, or at length, to matters that have been of long-term concern to the party and which are spelled out in the party's constitution. In such a case, the party's constitution should spell out in clear terms the basic principles according to which it will implement the promises of the election manifesto should it gain success at the polls.
For example, if the party subscribes to the idea that the election is to determine the government's mandate, then the party constitution should very clearly explain how the parliamentary party will conduct itself and the procedures to be followed if it finds itself in a powerful position to bring forward legislation that it has not promised in its election manifesto. If the party reserves the right to bring in legislation that is implied in its constitution, then this should be brought forward and spelled out in detail in the manifesto.
Clearly, to restore the electorate's confidence in its political representatives, political parties should endorse as an ethical principle that legislation will not be introduced that has not be foreshadowed in the election manifesto. At this point we note how certain promises can be used politically to gain parliamentary representation, but it is another thing altogether to use the result of the election in which, for example, a Government gains an unexpected Senate majority, as justification for bringing forth legislation that was not unveiled in the campaign. That a Government will allow itself to do this is a strong indication that the parliamentary party is in crucial ways no longer disciplined by the party's constitution, it's "core beliefs".
What has been outlined in the previous paragraph implies a public procedure and a structure for parliamentary conduct that is, in fact, true to the promissory character of election campaigns. There is a serious ethical issue involved when a candidate stands up and appeals for votes: "If you vote for me and my party we will legislate thus and so." However, political ethics are violated when, having gained a surprising result, the Government then tells the electorate that they are bringing on legislation that was kept under wraps. The valid suspicion that then arises is that such legislative intention was with-held in order to preserve the vote and in so doing the promissory character of the election manifesto is seriously impaired if not completely undermined.
It might be asked how a Government could ever run the risk of offending and alienating its own party members, let alone voters, by such unscrupulous and unprincipled political weasling. But not only electorates, but political parties themselves, seem to acquiesce in this kind of duplicity. It indicates that at the core of our political system something is seriously broken, and it will remain broken until their emerges from the citizenry political parties that are actually capable of disciplining themselves and engage in self-denial because of their own political principles.
Bit if, in our system of parliamentary democracy, an election is not about promises and keeping promises, then it is simply becomes a matter of preening appearance, manipulation, and breaking promises. There is no neutrality here. Without a system of representative government in which elected representatives hold, and are held to, political promises made at the election, then it all falls away into farce, a mere façade in a brutal search for power to rule, rather than, as it should be, a public path on which to offer the entire country as a whole a much needed political service on the basis of a clear political commitment.
The privilege of any political party, and its candidates, even if it has only a small number of elected representatives, or even if it has no parliamentary representatives at all, is that it exists to help citizens promote public justice. That is its raison d'etre; that is its reason for existence. The citizens do not exist in order to endorse the elite status of political parties in the political process and political parties must learn to rightly respect this "core" obligation. In our experience they have wandered far from this path and our politics is an ongoing testimony to this anarchic self-service. When an electorate flags through a candidate who revels in making "non-core" promises, that electorate is asking to be ruled by a régime that has failed a basic moral test.
We all know that there can be unanticipated developments. Political circumstances change. A party may have made promises which it intends to keep, but it may fail to gain victory at the polls. Then, on the basis of its constitution, it might have to revise its electoral strategy so that next time it foreshadows a different legislative agenda. Parties learn that electorates need to be educated about policies and they should be educated about the justice of proposed changes. This needs party researchers and journalists who can argue a case. It should not be a matter of trying to help the electors catch up to the legislation after the legislative deceit has been foisted upon them.
A government may also be returned with a reduced majority and as a result may not be able to implement some of its proposed, its promised, legislative agenda. The party rank-and-file, as well as the electorate as a whole, needs to be informed about such changes to legislative proposals that diverge from what was set out in the election manifesto. Party members and the voters may prefer that the manifesto's legislative agenda be implemented and the parliamentary wing may say that it would be a waste of time and a loss of prestige for the party to bring forth legislation that will be defeated or severely modified on the floor of the parliament in ways that actually contradict the party's basic philosophy. Both party constitution and manifesto need to anticipate these possibilities and internal tensions that they bring and to set forth clear ways of resolving them. They are difficult issues and they need to be anticipated in advance by the party, by the on-going education of its membership, by its contribution to the political education of the nation as a whole, by its open-ness and willingness to serve politically.
If the party assumes that the internal party policy can be changed "from above" by its elected parliamentary wing, then this should also be spelled out in its constitution. But if a party fails to do so or, in violation of its own party constitution, allows its parliamentary wing to violate the processes and procedures that are implicit in its own constitutional code for parliamentary conduct then really, that party is at odds with itself. If it remains a political force then its presence has significant power in redefining the nature and character of political parties themselves. The electorate, by continuing to give endorsement to such a party, allows itself to adopt the view that political parties are merely electoral machines that manipulate the electorate in order to keep the status quo and as a result any service function that they should have in the political education of civil society is lost. The party's public political education function becomes blurred and indistinguishable from the party's electoral advertising. As a result a serious narrowing of political accountability emerges on all sides. In the parliament, members act as party delegates rather than as representatives of electors; parties take on the mantel of advertising agencies; the political role of citizens is reduced to voting at the next election; the government via its PM and Cabinet proceeds to act like the CEO and the appointed Board of Directors of the national corporation. Genuine political debate about the common good and the future of the country withers.
This unhealthy and constrictive political development needs to be challenged by a re-emergence of genuine political parties. A first step might be to ensure that a party's election manifesto is framed in a way that anticipates the possibilities that are present for parliamentary circumstances to emerge other than the best result hoped for. A legalistic conformity with the letter of manifesto promises is likely to get the party into trouble with coalition partners, with its own membership and with the general public. But such trouble needs to be avoided in advance.
And so, we would suppose that the party's constitution has to have clear guidance about the party's view of the legislative reforms that the country not only needs (in the long term) but can also sustain (in the short term). The constitution needs to spell out the way the party will engage in parliamentary co-operation, negotiation and compromise in the forming of legislation, on its way to promoting a long-term vision, with a wisdom that appreciates longer term problems that need to be discussed politically among those representing all political sides on our way to the future.
The party's constitution should provide a framework, a modus operandi, from which to cover all such eventualities including gaining more seats than expected or of having insufficient power for implementation.
It would seem to me that the most vital part of the party's constitution is to be found in the way it directs the party's educational role as it sets about explaining how it sees itself working over the longer term. In the parliament this must also include working co-operatively with all other political parties and it needs to build positive and respectful relationships with all kinds of groups of citizens. In the case of a parliamentary party that gained such support at an election that it would allow it to implement more than was promised in the election manifesto, the electoral educative task of the party-machine would be to uphold any election manifesto promise and to explain to members and voters how its electoral promises relate to the party's perceived long-term goals. The party must give ongoing and serious attention to holding firm to its political commitments as it seeks ways of working together, and talking with, political opponents who obviously have different views of the national future. In this way a party can help free up the discussion in the electorate and contribute to a parliament in which legislation is not rammed through or log-jammed out of fear of losing public support.
But such longer-term education, coinciding with principled longer-term restraint, would be an important innovation to the way political parties now relate to each other and do so in an ongoing extra-parliamentary way.
But such restraint built into the way we do politics would also challenge prevailing party trends in which politics is all about winning parliamentary control. Instead, let us reconsider politics and parliament and seek justice along paths by which all citizens can fulfill their calling to promote public justice in appropriate ways.
Such an alternative view of politics provides an angle from which to understand the recent history of parliamentary democracy. Elections have become the advertising campaigns of party machines and their rivals as they seek to harvest votes. Politicians who wish to maintain a high level of accountability to electors are at odds with the prevailing myth that politics is about winning power and keeping it. But a political promise "If I am elected …" still implies that it is possible to lose and that standing and failing to gain election is no meaningless act. Sometimes to hold onto one's political commitment will simply confirm the fact that one is not going to win. But then that is to describe a return to principled politics rather than the politics of "win-at-all-costs because winner-takes-all". It is that immaturity that needs to be overcome by the emergence of mature, nation-serving political parties.
When political parties lose their purpose as vehicles of political commitment, then election promises become unhinged, the accountability of representatives to electors is compromised and instead we witness what we now have - ongoing, seemingly unstoppable trend by which rival groups of career politicians seek to maintain, enhance and increase their power over an electorate to which, increasingly, they are no longer politically accountable.
November 2007 © The contents of this email are copyright. Documents may be photocopied or retransmitted in their entirety but not otherwise reprinted or transmitted without permission. "Nurturing Justice" is a project to encourage Christian political reflection based upon wise and loving civic participation. Comments are welcome and should be sent to email@example.com