Tag Archives: Gregory Melleuish

It’s unrealistic to expect MPs to follow the view of the people who elected them every time

The Conversation

Gregory Melleuish, University of Wollongong

The same-sex marriage survey results showed up which members of parliament voted in a starkly opposite fashion to those in their electorates. The electorate of Blaxland had a strong “no” vote, while their MP Jason Clare voted yes, and in prominent “no” campaigner Tony Abbott’s seat of Warringah there was a strong “yes” vote.

Marcella Cheng for The Conversation, CC BY-ND

Some people may think it’s the duty of their MP to vote in the way they did. Of course, this could mean that as every state voted “yes” then the Senate as a whole should support the same-sex marriage legislation. But generally, this connection between popular sentiment and how a MP votes is usually made in terms of single member constituencies.

It’s based on a very old idea of the role of MPs as “delegates” or “agents” of their constituents and therefore liable to be issued instructions on how they should vote on any issue. This idea relates back to a time when parliament, especially in England, could be understood, as bringing together the interests of its various boroughs and counties.

This model of representation is difficult to sustain once a country is understood as constituting a national entity with a unified political culture. It’s also difficult to sustain once parliament begins to deal with a range of complex policy matters.

The idea of a newly elected member being issued with a list of instructions and then needing to go back to their constituents every time a new issue arises may sound very democratic, but it’s also quite impractical.

In the eighteenth century a new model of representation arose which is known as the trustee model. It was given its most famous expression by the English politician Edmund Burke, who argued that representatives were elected not just to represent their local constituency but also the nation as a whole. They were not agents but trustees. They could not be instructed by their constituents but instead would use their personal judgement and conscience as the basis of their decision on any particular policy matter.

The idea of the member as a trustee was very popular in colonial Australia, at least in theory, but it did not prevent colonial parliaments being full of what are termed “roads and bridges” members who worked hard to win benefits for their local areas. A lack of instructions does not mean that a member will cease to work for the material improvement of their constituencies.

Nevertheless, the delegate model of representation had strong support in Australia, particularly from radicals. David Syme, owner of The Age newspaper, was a big supporter. The early Labor Party equally was structured around the model such that Labor MPs were ultimately responsible to the party conference.

Vere Gordon Childe in How Labour Governs has chronicled how this system worked and, I believe, how it created all sorts of problems for the party. Childe demonstrated that those who seek to control MPs are also often those who are seeking to replace them.

The idea of the member as delegate is generally advocated because it’s seen as being an expression of true democracy. The problem is that it posits an idea that the average citizen takes a very active interest in politics and wants to have a say.

The opposite view is that most people have little interest in politics and having elected a member it’s the role of the member to “do politics”. This means that they also expect their member to intervene on their behalf when assistance is required.

In his wonderful 1970 movie The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer, the late and great Peter Cook provided a picture of how a combination of marketing techniques and a desire to make a country more “democratic” could lead to the opposite effect.

In the movie the citizens of Britain, bombarded with referenda on every trivial policy issue, are finally asked to turn all power over to Rimmer to which, in a state of exhaustion, they vote “yes”.

The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer showed how marketing techniques and a desire to make a country more ‘democratic’ could have the opposite effect. Jason Garrattley/flickr/cropped, CC BY-NC-ND

There is a very real danger in the ideal of the member as delegate, and in the notion that the member is there to do the bidding of their constituents. Imagine if every time an issue was to be determined every electorate was polled as to their views on the matter, as happens in Cook’s movie.

It would not last. In the same-sex marriage case it has been a novelty but the novelty would soon wear off.

Moreover, the major people to benefit from such a situation would be those political activists who believe their voices are not being heard and, following Childe, who wish to replace those who are currently MPs.

In reality, we have a mixed model of representation which does bind not members to the instructions of their constituents, but which also recognises that a local member should work hard on behalf of those whom they have been elected to represent.

The ConversationReality is always messy and escapes attempts to boil it down into models. Members represent both the nation and their local electorate and must find a way to balance the two.

Gregory Melleuish, Professor, School of Humanities and Social Inquiry, University of Wollongong

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Today’s leaders could learn from Menzies, who built modern Australia without acting in haste

The Conversation

Gregory Melleuish, University of Wollongong

The ABC’s two-part documentary, Howard on Menzies: Building Modern Australia, is an ambitious enterprise. It seeks to establish the centrality of the Menzies years in the creation of modern Australia, thereby emphasising the crucial importance of Robert Menzies himself in building the Australia of today.

This program is a work of historical and political revisionism. Its target is the view, expressed most forcefully by Paul Keating, that the 1950s was a time when Australia remained locked in the past in a self-induced stupor, brought about by a failure to recognise that the time of the British Empire was over.

Keating’s rhetoric is both anachronistic and an expression of a sectarian view of the world that was long dead by the 1990s. There can be no doubt that Australia became modern between 1949 and 1966, the year Menzies retired as prime minister.

Australian modernity

Two examples, neither mentioned in the documentary, of events in 1966 are emblematic of the coming of Australian modernity. One was the introduction, just after Menzies’ retirement, of decimal coinage. Gone forever were the days of dinars, zacs and tres.

The other was the closing of Sydney’s Tivoli Theatre. This marked the funeral rites of Australian vaudeville, once dominated by Australia’s greatest comic genius, Roy Rene.

The documentary captures this transformation to modern Australia quite well in two ways.

One is its depiction of the growing affluence of Australian society under Menzies, as Australians sought a home of their own and consumer goods.

The other was in the Menzies’ education revolution, whereby the Commonwealth government assumed responsibility for funding universities and began to provide money for non-government schools.

Menzies’ advances

Modern Australia would be both addicted to consumer goods and increasingly come to see education as the panacea for its problems. What was dying was an older version of Australia that existed largely to supply the metropolitan part of the empire with primary produce.

It also included a vision of Australia as a rural civilisation in which ordinary people could own their own small farm. That vision was finally put to rest in the 1950s.

Australia was confirmed as an urban civilisation, which nevertheless would become wealthy by selling mineral products to Asia. Menzies’ role in the creation of that new order is confirmed in terms of the way in which he opened up trade with Asia.

Menzies’ great virtue, which can be seen by watching him in this documentary, is that he was not in a hurry, as compared to, say, Gough Whitlam.

Robert Menzies’ great virtue was that he was not in a hurry as prime minister.

Menzies’ demeanour and carriage were those of someone who was relaxed and comfortable, who was willing to make what changes needed to be done, but would not force the rate of change as do many 21st-century politicians. For him, liberalism had its traditional Australian meaning of good government.

It is often forgotten that when Menzies came to power in 1949 Britain was still a major destination for Australian exports, and those exports were largely primary produce. The shift away from trade with Britain occurred during the Menzies years, and Australia adjusted accordingly.

Now, it might be argued these changes would have occurred under whatever government was in power and that a Labor government would have been more progressive. That would be to read today’s politics back into the 1950s.

Labor was far more supportive of White Australia than the Liberals; there is a lovely scene in the documentary in which Labor leader Arthur Calwell gives the big NO to Asian immigration. The Labor Party of the 1950s was not a party of educated individuals; it was locked into the past far more than the Liberals.

Explaining history

There are two facets of any attempt to explain history. One is composed of long-term social, economic and cultural changes. The other is the day-to-day events, especially in the world of politics.

In the first facet, this documentary succeeds in portraying very well the way in which Menzies played a key role as a midwife of modern Australia.

In the second area it might be seen as being less successful. One reason for this is that when one looks at political change it is always complex.

Books can deal with this complexity; documentaries by their nature must reduce complexity to simplicity. For example, I cannot recall a single reference to the Country Party in the documentary – and yet the Country Party played a crucial role in Menzies’ political career.

If any event holds the key to Menzies’ long term as prime minister it was the 1954 election and its consequences. This did not seem to be treated adequately in the documentary.

There is discussion of the Petrov Affair, presumably because it provides good footage, but no real explanation as to why the defeat was so devastating for H.V. Evatt and the consequences so dire for Labor.

Here, it seems to me is the prime example of the benefit of Menzies’ “steady as she goes” approach. Labor tore itself apart because of two men who were in too much of a hurry, Doc Evatt and Bob Santamaria.

In 1952 and 1953 it really looked as if Labor was certain to win in 1954. This raised both Santamaria’s and Evatt’s expectations, which, among other things, encouraged Santamaria in his task of “permeating” the Labor Party in the hope a Labor government would be able to put into place his utopian scheme of re-Christianising Australia.

Defeat devastated both men and helped create the circumstances under which Menzies was presented with the Labor Split. John Howard is right, Menzies’ calm hands on the ship of state ensured his government calm waters with a light breeze, while the clash of personalities of Evatt and Santamaria pushed Labor towards the rocks.

Howard is also correct in emphasising that a united Labor would have won back government. The claims by journalist Greg Sheridan that Labor was unfit to govern and had a number of senior figures who were closet communists only make sense when it is realised Sheridan is a one-time Santamaria operative.

Documentaries unfortunately cannot help but simplify. Once one allows for this, one can only say that Howard has achieved his goal of linking Menzies with the changes that created, for better or for worse, a new “modern” Australia.

Menzies was not opposed to change; for example, he welcomed the advances of modern science. But he also understood that not all change is good. Unlike later politicians he did not seek to rush Australia into the future.

Part two of Howard on Menzies: Building Modern Australia will air on ABC1 on September 25.

The ConversationGregory Melleuish, Associate Professor, School of History and Politics, University of Wollongong

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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