Welcome to the minority

The Ruddock inquiry into religious freedom obviously hasn’t turned out the way its advocates in the right wing of the LNP expected. Far from securing their rights to discriminate against gays,  church schools are almost certain to lose that right with respect to students, and will probably also lose it in relation to teachers. A recent opinion poll shows overwhelming opposition to discrimination, even stronger than the vote in favour of equal marriage last year.

The failure of the right on this reflects a central fact about the rightwing version of identity politics. Whereas leftwing forms of identity politics typically assert the rights of minorities[1] to a fairer share of power and respect, the right wing version starts from the assumption that their identity is that of the majority whose historical rights are under threat.  So, they see no inconsistency in demanding expansive definitions of freedom for themselves, while rejecting it for others.  The same thinking explains the pressure for a plebiscite on equal marriage: despite ample evidence from opinion polls, the right could not believe they were in the minority[2].

The situation has now changed, and rethinking is needed, both on the right but on the left. Rather than looking to expand the powers of employers to sack people on religious grounds unrelated to their performance at work, those concerned with religious freedom should be concerned about the possibility that such powers will be used against them in the future. A comprehensive protection for workers against dismissal on the basis of grounds unrelated to their performance at work is what is needed here.

As regards the left, we shouldn’t allow large, publicly funded institutions like church schools to practise discrimination. But we need to think more carefully about individuals with religious objections to gay marriage (for example, bakers who don’t want to bake cakes with messages of support for gay marriage) in the same light as other religious minorities who seek protection for their beliefs: Jehovah’s witnesses who object to blood transfusions, Muslim women who want to remain veiled, and so on. Most of these beliefs seem strange and objectionable to non-believers. But where they can be accommodated without doing any serious social damage, we should do so.

More broadly, as I suggested when the Ruddock review was announced, we should take the opportunity to push for a comprehensive Bill of Rights. Now that they are clearly in the minority on crucial issues, perhaps religious believers might see the merit in a supporting such a measure.


fn1. Women aren’t a minority, but they are under-represented.

fn2. It’s typically, though not always, at the point where dominant/majority status is slipping away that this kind of politics emerges.


Presidents, Prime Ministers and parties

The discussion of my Queen’s Birthday showed that at least some readers have problems thinking about how an elected presidency would work, what powers the president should have and so on. There are many different models out there, but my idea is that the president would acquire the current powers of the Governor-General (dissolving parliaments, including double dissolutions; resolving disputes between the Houses; and initiating the formation of governments after elections) but with less deference to the wishes of Prime Ministers than in the past. For example, the President could reject the shenanigans with absurdly drawn out election timetables that we saw in 2016, and saw proposed in 2013, and could refuse a snap election called to take advantage of a favorable climate.

Assuming this role, the President’s views on policy issues wouldn’t matter much; rather we would be looking for personal characteristics such independent mindedness and capacity for good judgement in a crisis. A possible side benefit would be that parliamentary elections would be more about policy and less about the personality of the party leaders.

Under the current system, we are called on to vote on a presidential basis, but with no guarantee that the elected leader will see out a term. Even if the rules were tightened to make spills more difficult, we would still have the problem of a successful leader voluntarily retiring mid-term, as Menzies did and as both Hawke and Howard promised to do.

Happy Birthday, Mrs Windsor

It’s the Queen’s birthday here in Queensland, having been moved by the Labor government to separate it from May Day, which they already moved from October, reversing a decision of the Newman LNP government. Apart from reports on what is open today, I couldn’t find any reference to this event in the media, even from notional monarchists.

That pretty much sums up the irrelevance of the British monarchy in Australia. So, this seems like a good time to think about when we should become a republic, and what kind of republic we want.

Our last attempt was run by the unlamented Malcolm Turnbull who assumed that what everyone wanted was a change of figurehead that left the reality of the system unchanged. That reality is a Prime Ministerial dictatorship, constrained only by elections, obstreporous Senators and the ever-present possibility of a party-room coup. Looking at our system over recent years, I don’t think it’s performed very well, and I suspect that Turnbull might now agree.

Another important change is that outright Lower House majorities are no longer assured and may soon become the exception rather than the rule. The role of the Head of State in deciding who should be invited to form a government is now increasingly important. These decisions ought to be made by a President with the independent legitimacy that comes from an election.

Obviously, this isn’t the most important issue facing the nation. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t discuss it and get moving on the issue. As usual, Bill Shorten (despite his unalterable image as a cautious timeserver) has taken the lead. I hope he will get the chance to act on this after the next election, and that he will take it.

Defending Australian institutions

The issues dominating Australian public debate are many and various But most of them can be summed up as the defence of Australian institutions that have been under attack by radical extremists. I’m referring to such institutions as the ABC, CSIRO, the weekend, public education, the union movement, the fair go our natural environment and our indigenous heritage. Mention of any of these is enough to raise a derisive sneer from the radical rightwing apparatus that dominates much of Australian politics, most obviously the supporters of Tony Abbott who (ludicrously) call themselves “conservatives”.

Turnbull promised something better but was, if anything, worse than Abbott. So far, it seems as if Morrison is going to continue the trend. Having dumped nearly all his unpopular economic policies, he’s left with nothing but the culture war, which would be more accurately described as a war on culture.

Failing upwards

I’ve been busy finishing the manuscript of my book, and dealing with policy issues as they came up, so I haven’t paid a lot of attention to the Liberal leadership saga. One thing that strikes me is that Josh Frydenberg has had exceptionally favorable coverage, apparently on the basis that he’s likable and popular. That’s fine, but if you’re going to appoint someone as Treasurer, shouldn’t a successful track record be a necessary (though not sufficient) condition? Morrison, for example, had a political success in stopping the boats (whatever the morality of the policy) and was generally seen as a successful Social Services minister (unlike his successor, who messed up the robodebt program). He didn’t impress as Treasurer, but at least his previous career justified giving him a go. And while he looks underqualified as PM, the alternatives were even worse[1].

Frydenberg has essentially had one ministerial job, covering environment and energy (though with various titles and temporary add-ons like Northern Australia). In this capacity, his big contribution was the National Energy Guarantee. It was a terrible policy, made necessary by the failure of Turnbull and Frydenberg to face down the denialists in the government. Designed to be all things to all people, it ended up being nothing to nobody. Frydenberg’s failure to secure agreement on the NEG was the proximate cause of Turnbull’s downfall as PM, and the policy was promptly abandoned the moment Morrison took over. In what possible world is this a basis for promotion?


fn1. Bishop was ruled out on tribal grounds. Her weakness as Treasury spokesman years ago was also held against her, even though she wasn’t obviously worse (in retrospect) than Morrison, and much better than Hockey. About Dutton, the less said the better. After that, it’s daylight.

A deliberative Parliament in NSW

Talk about “hung parliaments” always presses my hot buttons. It’s coming up in relation to the NSW elections due in March, and will doubtless re-emerge when the next national election is called, unless it looks like an obvious walkover. As I’ve said many times, the term, derived by analogy from “hung jury” rests on the presumption that a Parliament without  a majority for either Labor or the L-NP coalition is incapable of governing properly. Experience suggests the opposite. A majority government is effectively at the command of the PM or Premier, and the only remedy, between elections, is the one we have just seen applied by Turnbull. Governments forced to negotiate passage of legislation with independents or minor parties have generally behaved better.

In the specific case of NSW, the silliness is amplified because the outcome can be predicted, fairly safely, in advance. There are currently three Greens, a left-leaning independent, a Shooter, and two conservative independents. If Labor wins more seats than the LNP, they will form a government with the support of the Greens and (if needed) the left independent. If The LNP win more they can almost certainly cut a deal with the Shooters and rely on the conservative independents (possibly putting one up as Speaker).  Readers won’t be surprised to learn that the best outcome from my point of view would be a Labor government with Green support.

Our least significant PMs

My son Daniel pointed me a Facebook post starting from the fact that Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Turnbull served almost identical periods as PM, and comparing their achievements. Of course, there is nothing to compare.  I can’t find the post now (another reason to hate the displacement of blogs by Facebook and Twitter) but I thought I’d give my own prize for Australia’s least significant PM. The main ground rules are that I’m counting only achievements as PM, and I’m not judging whether these achievements were good or bad.

And the award goes to …Read More »