When Queen Elizabeth II marked Australia’s bicentenary in 1988, she spoke glowingly about the new Parliament House, just completed in Canberra.
The new building, she said, was “such a confident expression of Australia’s faith in parliamentary democracy”.
I mention this because there was a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the opening of the building on Monday — tea and bikkies for assorted VIPs — and because Julia Gillard waxed lyrical about its structure in a little speech just before Question Time. And the PM used the above quote from Her Maj.
But it is worth quoting a little more of what the Queen had to say, which Gillard didn’t quote.
“Parliamentary democracy is a compelling ideal, but it is a fragile institution,” she said. “It cannot be imposed and it is only too easily destroyed. It needs the positive dedication of the people as a whole, and of their elected representatives, to make it work.”
Coincidentally, we also saw the results of the 2013 Lowy Institute Poll, which showed more than 50 per cent of young Australians – those aged 18 to 29 – are at best ambivalent about democracy in Australia.
In the 2013 poll, only 48 per cent in that age group agreed with the statement ‘democracy is preferable to any other form of government’. This was up a little from the 2012 result, where the number agreeing was just 39 per cent.
But that seems hardly to be cause for celebration.
And among older age groups, trust in our democracy is not overwhelming either. Even among those 60 and older, more than 30 per cent of people did not agree with the statement.
Overall, 26 per cent were of the view that ‘in some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable’ and 13 per cent thought that ‘for someone like me, it doesn’t matter what kind of government we have’.
This is pretty extraordinary, for, as the Queen said: “Commitment to parliamentary democracy lies at the heart of this nation’s maturity, tolerance and humanity.”
Yet it appears a large percentage of Australians, of people who vote in this country, apparently don’t give a toss.
I don’t know about you, but I find that a little depressing.
Indeed, just about everything about the Parliament seemed depressing, as we began the final week of sittings before the election.
Leaden skies and a gelid rain falling on the national capital. Another day of pointless argy bargy in Question Time, another week in prospect of pointless speculation about the Labor leadership, another series of valedictory speeches from pollies who, for one reason or another, have decided it is time to get out.
And worse, it seems like mostly the good ones are leaving. Last week I mentioned the lovely Judi Moylan. Shortly after her, we heard from one of the few other remaining Liberal moderates, the estimable Mal Washer.
And to start the new week, the eminently decent former Labor Speaker, Harry Jenkins. And Kirsten Livermore (Labor, Queensland).
Two nice speeches, if you want to read them in Hansard. But two others merit a little quoting.
First, Paul Neville, another Queenslander, a hard worker and decent bloke, and one much concerned about media diversity.
He went out with a plea for more civility in Parliament. The tone of the place, he said, has declined markedly in his 20 years, and had declined further in this 43rd Parliament.
“Meaningless spin and invective,” he said of Question Time these days.
Then Alex Somlyay, another long-termer, who’s done 23 years in the service of the Liberal Party, whose proud boast was that in all that time he’d never betrayed a confidence, never taken a point of order in the House, never abused the standing orders.
He also lamented the decline in political standards.
If parliamentarians themselves didn’t show respect for the institution, he said, how could they expect the voters to?
Well, as we’ve seen above, a large percentage of the voters don’t.
And yet, there are a lot of good people in the Parliament, who those voters seldom hear about because they are not outrageous and they are not mindless ideologues and they are not dumb-arse ranters.
Like I said, it seems like all the good ones are going. Why can’t we lose a few of the dumb-arse ranters?
But wait, there’s a late-breaking ray of light. Barry Haase is giving his valedictory.
And Barry Haase is going out ranting.
To quote, just a little of it:
“I am told that Santa no longer says ‘Ho ho ho’ for fear of offending prostitutes.
“Fairy penguins are now little penguins, for fear of offending homosexuals.
“We now have a chalkboard instead of a blackboard, for fear of offending the non-Caucasian, and children are no longer ankle biters, in case we upset dog lovers,” he thunders.
“We are a democracy,” he says, “the greatest democracy in the world – and we must retain that greatness for our children and grandchildren.”
Yeah, except that a lot of them are so turned off by dumb-arse ranters that they wonder about the value of the system.
“We must stop kowtowing to vocal minorities and stand up for the majority.”
Can’t help but agree with that last bit. And that’s why I’ve cited a whole bunch of good people who are leaving. And one Barry Haase.
(Photos by Mike Bowers/The Global Mail)