03 October 2012


The Victorian Women's Trust has released A Switch In Time: Restoring respect to Australian politics [PDF] by Mary Crooks, regarding civil culture.

It argues that -
Australians live in a robust and enduring representative democracy. 
We are free to debate ideas and express dissenting views without being coerced, or in danger of being placed under house arrest or even worse. We can assemble in the streets and protest about issues without fear of violence. Any citizen may stand for office and we have the right to vote for people to represent us in all three levels of government – federal, state and local. We accept, maybe grudgingly, the responsibility of paying tax. We embrace the concept of a ‘fair go’ and have applied this over the decades in shaping our institutions, welfare systems and political discourse. Mostly, we see ourselves as standing for equality between people. 
The idea of the common good appeals: we acknowledge that our shared responsibility as citizens in a democracy is to debate with tolerance, directly and through our elected representatives, the best means to create opportunities, regulations and services that meet the basic needs of the population and sustain the environment. There is a general understanding of the principle of the separation of powers, with government, the judiciary and the public service working independently as part of an integrated system. 
We install governments in the expectation that each will serve its full term and act in accordance with its mandate to implement policies that advance the common good. We recognise the importance of our governments being transparent and accountable. At the same time, we see them as having a critical role in promoting fairness, social cohesion, economic prosperity and the protection of the most vulnerable. We assume that our print and electronic media seek to act impartially, adhering to their codes of practice by observing independence and truthfulness in reporting on policy and politics. 
A stable, robust, healthy democracy such as the one we have created in Australia does not of itself possess magical safeguards or protections. These lie with every one of us. As citizens, it is up to us to nourish and sustain our democracy and to this end we empower our elected representatives to maintain and extend what we see as necessary democratic standards. It is also up to us to be on the alert for the emergence of system ‘faults’ that require attention and threats that could result in the erosion and weakening of our democratic institutions and political culture. We need to be prepared to stand up and take action when we sense that a situation is developing which, unchecked, will lead to serious strains within our democracy. Nationally, we are now at such a point. Prepared to toss aside respect for democratic principles, sections of our politics, business community and media persist with the claim that the current minority government ‘lacks legitimacy’. Almost every day, we hear and read of calls for a ‘fresh’ election. What is the basis for this, considering that our minority government is legitimate, is constitutionally valid and accords with the central provisions of our Westminster system? The fact that the current minority government was formed between a major party, a small number of Independent members of parliament and an Australian Greens Party member does not compromise its legitimacy. Constitutionally, these members have the same status as those who belong to the major parties. 
The ‘tear-down’ mentality that attacks this legitimacy presents significant risks for our democracy. It undermines the pivotal Westminster principle, that a government is legitimate if it can command a majority in the lower house. The frequent calls for a new election override another key democratic principle, that a government should be able to serve a full term. If elections are called at any time and for any reason, government becomes unstable, with little appetite for boldness, reform and carrying through of the will of the people. Instability can make a government particularly vulnerable to the undue influence of powerful lobbies and vested interests.
Crooks notes gendered attacks on Julia Gillard, such as those by Alan Jones, and comments -
… we are witnessing a gender-based undermining of a prime minister which reflects a lack of respect for her, the office she holds, and for women generally. That we have Julia Gillard as prime minister for the first time in our nation’s history should be a cause for celebrating an important advance for women as well as for signposting a new level of political maturity in our democratic society. 
Levelling constructive criticism of government policies and decisions where it is deserved is one thing. Relentless, gendered attack such as has dogged the prime minister since her election is another. 
The ‘tear-down’ mentality towards the legitimate minority government, the gendered criticism of the prime minister and the disrespect shown for her office are aggressively promoted by sections of the Australian media in ways that reflect an unhealthy concentration of media ownership. We are told ad nauseam that the prime minister ‘has no authority’; that her leadership is ‘tainted’ because she ‘assassinated’ Kevin Rudd; and that she has ‘breached the trust of the public’ by legislating for a carbon price, as if this is the first time that a leader’s commitment has ever altered. 
Hate and vitriol directed toward our prime minister are given undue airplay by radio presenters who deny any complicity. And in the absence of adequate constraints, social media is facilitating an unprecedented level of abusive language and misogynistic attitudes that fly in the face of personal accountability and a basic civility. The sexism and misogyny directed at the current prime minister are not just about Julia Gillard – this deep prejudice reveals attitudes and beliefs about the role, capacity and place of all women and girls. It would seem that women are not after all political equals in Australian society. An even more disturbing aspect is that a great many of the attacks amount to ugly and violent abuse of a kind and level not previously seen in this country. And what does this abuse aim to achieve or contribute? Nothing – it is just ugly and violent.