Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Full Day's HansardDownload Full Day's Hansard    View Or Save XMLView/Save XML

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Thursday, 5 March 1970


Dr SOLOMON (Denison) - Mr Deputy Speaker,much as I would like to tell you about the discriminating electors of Denison or to speak of matters attracting wide consensus such as parliamentary salaries, I intend rather to consider a subject without which the Governor-General's Speech would have had very little meaning -democracy. In doing so I want to draw attention to some related matters and prac tices which crossed my mind before I thought about the prospect of entering this House.

It is likely, Sir, that never before has democracy been subjected to such widespread criticism as has been the case since the end of World War II. Much of the criticism has been marked by superficiality. Some of the criticism has been deserved but some has been insidious. Every democracy, by its very freedom, contains the potential for its own subversion. If there is developed a conspiracy to subvert it can operate under the protection of the freedoms to which it is directly or indirectly opposed. As W. H. C. Eddy pointed out, any such conspiracy: is able to exploit for its own protection not merely the rights essential for maintaining free institutions, but also the ignorance and incredulity of most citizens and a set of techniques for confusing the issues and causing attempts at exposure to rebound and damage not the conspiracy but its critics.

One of the great weaknesses of democracy in this country has been the absence of consistent constructive criticism from within the political arena but outside the Parliament. Nowhere in Australia have we had a Malcolm Muggeridge, a William F. Buckley Jnr or a Bertrand Russell - people with notable learning who question our institutions, our direction, our establishments. Lest it be thought that by establishments I mean Liberal Party governments, I should mention having spent most of my political life under a State Labour government as establishmentarian and conservative as any good reactionary could wish.

The lack of educated criticism in Australia has meant the lack of good public argument in the proper sense of that term. In general our politicians and others in the public view have been prone to regard criticism of policies or practices as personal denunciations. Only 40 years ago that great explorer and geographer Griffith Taylor was effectively ostracised from this country for having the temerity to reveal that a large chunk of its interior was desert. When Donald Campbell gave it good publicity by driving over it at several hundred miles per hour we were much happier. Less than 10 years ago neither major political party -to their undying shame - would buy into what 1 believe to have been the greatest issue of public morality here during my adult life: the dismissal of Professor Orr. Even now when Lord-somebody takes his first breath of Australian air on the tarmac and is asked how he likes it, he is away to a good start if he answers: 'What a lovely smell of gum trees', and is patently a liar because kerosene is the dominant odour, whereas he is away behind scratch with the public media and others if he says honestly: It's too damned hot for comfort'.

But what, you may ask, Mr Deputy Speaker, has this to do with democracy? It has much to do with it. Democracy can flourish only in an atmosphere of trust, out of an inclination to recognise the truth, and with an intent to protect those who expose the truth however hard the establishments and the vested interests are knocked. He who would speak out deserves our praise, not our condemnation, provided only that he speaks with conviction and with reasonable knowledge. Therefore one can accept, if not agree with, an assessment that the war in Vietnam is unjustified; but if the same assessor equates the role of the United States of America to that of Nazi Germany one's credulity is overtaxed, one's intelligence is affronted and the proponent of the line is suspect in point of knowledge or of judgment or even of motivation.

There is. of course, a tendency to exaggerate in a political system such as ours which depends on persuasion rather than coercion. Our democratic viewpoints are inclined to be expressed in blacks and whites. Hence we encounter from time to time the manifestly absurd proposition that one or other of the major parties in Australian politics is incapable of initiating anything worthwhile. Such extremism nevertheless can be forced on political spokesmen by the danger which lies in failing to dramatise party policies. Thus the concentration of the Liberal Party's realistic opposition to Communism in a pamphlet of the 1966 Federal election campaign was so dramatically effective as to provoke numerous accusations of oversimplification. But in my experience the protests came - apart from those who bluntly resented the success of the message - from people who were prepared to read a 10 or 20-page document on the rights and wrongs of

Vietnam and assumed, through their political ignorance, that most of the electorate was prepared to do likewise.

Herein lies another major problem of latter day democracy: How, with universal franchise, to disseminate information at adequate levels of detail? If the information released by governments is too scanty or over-generalised, the more learned critics complain that the public is being kept in the dark or treated with contempt. In matters of national interest such as defence it is well nigh impossible to avoid the charge; on questions of a domestic nature we come closer to the waitress in the San Francisco restaurant - more, even all, can be revealed. It is hard to see that the problem ever will be thoroughly solved. What is involved, therefore, is an element of trust and understanding between a government and its critics; but excepting the truly neutral critics, of whom there are few, those involved are constantly beset by the need to make political capital out of an issue, to show their proposals in the best light and their opponents' in the worst.

The political role of the public media is not exempt from criticism. It is a source of wonder that opposing political forces so often can make equal accusations of bias about the same political commentaries. We cannot resolve that here. But one facet of the subject is overdue for comment. This is the charge that our newspapers overwhelmingly favour the status quo. May I suggest a close analysis of the editorial and reported materials. It is quite common to find editorial support for the right of the political spectrum while the front page story favours the left. Since the front page scanners probably outnumber the editorial observers by 100 to 1, the oft-repeated charge of conservative Press influence bears examination. I say that knowing of one case where an independent candidate for election received sustained support to the tune of 120 column inches under 10 captions of 36 point type or larger, while the major party candidates were almost ignored.

I realise, Mr Deputy Speaker, that these matters may be no revelation to you. But I do wish that some of the critics of political processes would give sufficient thought to the system to comprehend that political argument can rarely be the same as academic argument. That is not to say that any political argument should be based on other than fact or at least impartial analysis. If I may put the point more succinctly, whether or not politics is the science of exigencies or the art of the possible, democracy is surely the art of compromise.

Nevertheless, even if the more professional critics of the democratic society are prepared to accept this assessment, there remains the problem of those who protest at being excessively remote from the seats of power and lacking in any influence upon the decision makers. If I did not in some measure sympathise with their frustration, I would not be here now. Yet I believe that al'l too often the form of their militancy is unjustified. By this I do not mean that their complaints are necessarily unfounded or that entrenched conservatism should not be prepared to change. What I do mean is that, in the main, they should stop complaining and start participating, for, as I see it, participation is the keystone of a healthy democracy. In this society, there are few barriers to active involvement in political organisations; nor should it be pretended that these are the only vehicles of influence. Many other social groups bring pressure to bear upon the elected decision makers, often a good deal more blatantly and with more narrowly vested interests than the political parties themselves.

However, despite the opportunities for involvement, many are not involved, physically or mentally, with the democratic process. Reasons are numerous: deference, embarrassment, apathy among our more passive citizens; among the would be activists impatience couples with adherence to the principle of least effort in finding that the machinery of democracy grinds slowly to produce a coarser flour than suits the purist's palate. In my view, the educated and the vocal who opt out deserve little of our sympathy in their inability to influence events. Those who genuinely feel unequal to the task provide a more intractable problem. Liberty offers few advantages to the weak if its results merely expose them to the power of the strong.' In fact, they need not be exposed, but merely to think they are, to constitute a significant imperfection in the fabric of democracy. It can be very frightening to feel totally powerless.

This leads me, Mr Deputy Speaker, to the nub of my discussion. Among the many definitions and interpretations of democracy, I find its qualities best expressed in the phrase 'equality of opportunity'. Not everyone will share the preference. But there is a world of difference between this definition and perhaps its most frequent misuse, as a synonym for equality. Even in this egalitarian society of ours, we are not all equal. Nor can we be made so, short of Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World'. Frustrating as it may be to some, 12 million prime ministers are not a practical proposition. That the possibility exists for any one of the 12 million to become prime minister is the crucial issue. It does exist but it is an unequally distributed possibility.

The most effective means of providing a rough approximation of equal opportunity is education. Access to an effective education system therefore is vital to a democratic society. But it is not necessary to put everyone through the same mould, to reject, for example, the concept of independent schools, to prove that opportunity exists. Much has been made lately of the economic disparity which can be found among individuals in modern democracies, with the explicit or implicit corollary that the system stands condemned. The much greater and wider spread discrepancies of earlier and current autocratic and feudal societies also might be used to point up the progress which our admittedly imperfect system represents.

Another bone of contention, which is related to economic inequality, is that the sons and daughters of the less skilled workers in the community are less likely to receive a university education than the offspring of professional workers. How the recent discoverers of this long known condition propose to remedy the situation is something I await with avid interest. The negative contribution of poor environment of course can bc turned to positive account by exposure to the attractions of learning. But do those, like Mr Wertheimer in the journal 'Dissent', who advocate demonstrative action to redress inequalities, also have a remedy for inherent differences in individual intelligence? Do they propose less education for the mentally well endowed so that we can attain parity of educational achievement between the sons of bricklayers and the daughters of teachers? Or do they have more drastic solutions? lt has been cogently argued that already 20th century educational philosophy has moved away from intellectual training and towards social adjustment. If we reach a stage where that proportion of the population which is capable of developing trained and critical minds should subordinate the sharpening of its intellectual skills to the doctrine of togetherness, then I concur with Professor Monro that it becomes 'at least arguable that de Tocqueville was right, and that we are paying a very heavy price indeed for democracy'.

Surely, Mr Deputy Speaker, the will to develop all the innate skills of our people is the hallmark of a liberal democracy. If in so doing a normal distribution of ability and hence of earning capacity and perhaps of influence becomes evident, the whole society must gain through the variety and complementary of its components. But what about the chap at the bottom end of the spectrum, say trie egalitarians? I submit that, despite its imperfections, this democracy is sufficiently liberal for him to move from that position if he has the innate capacity. If he has not, no amount of conceivable legislation will make him prime minister. By the same token, a liberal democracy must guard the self respect of its citizens and ensure that no one worth his salt goes to the wall. This is recognised, in those forms of assistance which the State renders the individual and which require constant review.

The problem of protecting the weak and guarding against gross inequalities of opportunity may be more difficult to solve when the units are somewhat larger than individual people. Take, for instance, our electorates. Few, if any, are recognisable entities geographically, economically or socially; nor with boundary changes do they long maintain historical continuity. In fact, I represent, with the possible exception of the two Commonwealth Territories, the electorate which most nearly constitutes a functional entity: the business core, the inner suburbs and some outer suburbs of the Hobart metropolitan area. That to me is a source of pride and satisfaction.

But, while it may assist my determining with some confidence the needs of the area and its people, it does not ensure that their representation shall be more or less effective than that of their counterparts elsewhere. That depends not only on my powers of persuasion and my relative standing in government or opposition but also on general policy emphases, as for example between rural and urban areas, and on the decisions of State legislators and others. So, whatever equality we have under representative constitutional government is of the Orwellian kind, where some are more equal than others. It is important therefore that those who are less equal today should have the chance to be more equal tomorrow. 1 do not think anyone could properly deny that the changes can be rung in our operative system, lt is not, of course, an easy system to operate. I wonder how many of those on the political sidelines understand the problem of conflicting loyalties - a problem not always solved by Disraeli's advice Damn, your principles; stick to your party'. Nor from the evidence is the fragmentation of parties or even their abolition a practical solution.

A more mundane requirement of effective democracy than allegiance to principle or to party is, 1 believe, the need for accuracy. Facts are much more telling than speculation even if they take less space on the page or less time on television. In particular we need to know what others are talking about. Our language and our nomenclature are increasingly less precise in their application. Legions of people, including many in universities, say 'this' when they mean 'that'. Others emulate Australian Broadcasting Commission interviewers and stress unimportant prepositions instead of nouns and verbs. Any speech made yesterday is described as historic. Democracy can be defined as something unobtainable without Hare-Clark. Does anybody really give thought to the southern hemisphere as a unit except when we think that something we have built may, if we do not look too closely at Brazil or Argentina, bc the biggest in it? Despite a most cogent newspaper article in 1967 by Professor Spate. Australia is still all too commonly placed 'in Asia'. Mr Deputy Speaker, if Australia is in Asia, then the United States is most certainly in Russia and you and 1 are in the Senate - or is it the other place?

If we are to control and guide the future of our society in a world of rapid change the need for information and the emphasis on its accuracy will increase. In a society where rapid advances in technology are not automatically advances in human values or the quality of life, education in ideas will become more important. If there is a crisis today in industrial democracy it stems, as Sir Isaiah Berlin suggested in a rare interview, from: . . (he difficulty of combining ... the political participation of the majority of a given society in the processes which control our lives, "with the inescapable need for highly trained experts and .specialists for the purpose of controlling the very elaborate machinery which human ingenuity . . . has created.

Mr Deputy Speaker,my time is running short and so, like Lady Godiva, I draw toward my close. I look forward to contributing to the discussion of specific legislative proposals as they come before this House. All will depend for their effective implementation on the maintenance of representative institutions in what I believe is still one of the leading examples of a liberal democratic society.







Suggest corrections