Wednesday, January 2, 2013

What political issues should Australians focus on in 2013?

Free to Flourish, the book I published a couple of weeks ago, ends by suggesting that the most important contribution anyone can make to human flourishing is to help democracy work effectively. So, it would be reasonable to ask what contribution I am planning to make.

That poses a problem because the current state of politics in Australia is so dreadful that I would rather not think about it. Politics in this country seems to have become almost entirely a game of denigrating the leadership of the opposing side. Democratic politics also seems to be fairly dysfunctional in the United States (as well as in most other countries of the western world) but the politicians in the US have at least had the wisdom to devise a mechanism – the fiscal cliff – to help them to focus on some important economic issues.

Unfortunately, I can't claim that I didn't enjoy watching some of the brawling in Australian politics last year - even though, in retrospect, I might have obtained more lasting satisfaction by spending my time watching mud wrestling. The Prime Minister's famous 'hissy fit', directed at the Opposition Leader, was entertaining to watch the first time, even though it was unfair. I also found it entertaining to observe the PM attempting to defend herself against claims of misconduct as a lawyer 30 years ago. At the time it seemed to be entertaining in the same way that watching a cricket match can be entertaining, even when you know it is likely to end in a draw. There was no clear winner, but the Opposition scored more points than expected by establishing that during the 1990s Julia Gillard apparently thought it was acceptable practice for lawyers to help leaders of trade unions to set up legal entities for particular purposes, while knowing that they intended to use these entities for quite different purposes (e.g. as slush funds to help finance their re-election).

However, what bearing does knowledge that the PM may have engaged in some dubious practices a long time ago, while a practising member of the legal profession, have on how she conducts herself now? The same question can be asked of allegations about the behaviour of Tony Abbott in the distant past.

Do political leaders really think that public fascination with alleged misdeeds of their opponents in the distant past is likely to have a strong influence on the way people cast their votes? The standard answer seems to be that votes might change because 'character counts in politics', but the more plausible answer is that the politicians are actually playing 'gotcha' – the game of digging up dirt on an opponent's past life in the hope that he or she will make a false denial and be caught out lying to parliament.

In my view we have more reason to be concerned about the Prime Minister's current attitudes and policies toward the union movement – which are only too obvious - than about her attitudes and behaviour in the distant past. Similarly, we have more reason to be concerned about the apparent reluctance of the Leader of the Opposition to spell out the policies of his party than about his attitudes and behaviour in the distant past.

To answer the question I posed for myself, I think there are two main political issues Australians should all focus on in 2013.

First, where is where the money is going to come from to fund major government spending commitments in such areas as disability assistance and education? Given common usage of expressions such as 'no-brainer' to describe such commitments, it will be interesting to see whether the leaders of either of the major political parties are brainless enough to make firm commitments to proceed without making detailed proposals for funding – either by raising taxes or reducing spending in other areas.

Second, there is the issue of free speech.  The Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, is proposing to change anti-discrimination laws in ways that will make it illegal to, among other things, offend or insult people on the basis of their political opinions. I believe that these proposals discriminate against me (and many other citizens) and I feel offended and insulted that the government should attempt to restrict my rights in this way.

We live in strange times when political leaders, who seem to spend much of their lives attempting to denigrate opponents, are now seeking to limit the rights of ordinary citizens to express their political opinions. Citizens should assert their right to continue to offend and insult fascists and others who seek to oppress them.  

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