Is Parliament worthwhile? Further thoughts

I have an article in The Conversation on controversies around the performance of the Speaker of the Australian federal parliament.  A veteran MP from the conservative wing of a conservative party she received the Speakership as a consolation prize for not securing Ministry. Her performance has been criticized as biased, even by conservatives, and I argue in the article this may be a response to incentives. The best Speakers are likely to be those to whom it is the summit of their ambitions. There is however a broader issues to which I allude: why is Parliament important? Should we care about how it operates? Academic study of politics has often sought to restore the status of parliament and to make it a vehicle for deliberative democracy. I doubt whether this is feasiable. There is a long tradition of criticism of parliamentary democracy from the left going back to Rousseau and Marx and Lenin’s work largely builds on this foundation.  As I point out in the article many early Australian Labor activists were critical of parliamentarianism. Perhaps this contrasts with Britain where Labour’s long political apprenticeship rendered it very loyal to parliamentarianism.  ‘Old Labour’ revered Westminster; Herbert Morrison’s Government and Parliament was an example. This loyalty undermined the appeal of the radical left represented by Bennism in the 1980s. The right-wing breakaway from Labour, the Social Democratic Party, carried parliamentary fetishism further: the mere prospect of Labour Party members being able to disendorse MPs was cast as totalitarian. In the end it was New Labour that challenged aspects of Westminster traditions through its support of self-government for Wales and Scotland.


In Australia however the critique of representative democracy has taken two forms: the ‘human rights’ focus of the green left and the centre-left nostalgia for enlightened bipartisanship on the model of the 1980s as represented by figures such as Lindsay Tanner, Ross Garnaut and Don Russell. The later critics judge contemporary politics harshly Labor is cast as timorous (and susceptible to union-friendly backsliding on industry policy and industrial relations) and the Coalition as subject to demagogic extremism, apparent in it’s successful campaign against the carbon tax. Russell emphasizes (shorter version here) the role for the public service in policy formation. This is the centrist equivalent of the green left devotion to Human Rights Commissions. Is there an alternative to both? Is it time to be more realistic about Parliament as an enormously expensive electoral college to select a Prime Minister once every three years? Is it as Carl Schmitt argued long ago utopian to describe parliamentary government as representative.

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