ACU (Australian Catholic University)

ACU Alum

Issue 3, Summer 2012

Vice-Chancellor's column

“Just now, I am spending a lot of time with Americans and Europeans. Apart from cruel economic jokes on my part - bargain offers for the Acropolis and the Statue of Liberty - conversation is remarkably concentrated on the quality of political debate.

Even more extraordinary, there seems to be a universal.

Australians, Americans, Italians and the French agree, not merely on the general iniquity of politicians - the world's hardiest perennial prejudice - but that their leaders are incapable of civilised discourse. 

The Yanks think Obama and Romney squabble like spoiled children. The French think Hollande and Sarkozy are as ill mannered as Frenchmen. We think that Tony and Julia need tutorials by a firm trainer of Rottweilers.

Worse, as soon as the public rebukes one over-enthusiastic pugilist, their victim takes this as license to tip their own bucket of self-righteous vitriol. Pin Tony Abbott as a negative name-caller, and Anthony Albanese will respond without any sense of irony that he is the biggest sleaze since Nero.

The problem is that Parliament is Parliament and politicians are politicians. This is what they have trained for and aspired to do all their lives. The name-calling, the non-answers to non-questions, the faux outrage is their stock in trade. 

This is why, by and large, politicians get on so well together out of hours and after careers. They are part of the same game, playing by the same rules and mostly working with similar values. Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard share with each other far more emotional and experiential DNA than they do with you and me.

So there is no use in expecting politicians to reform themselves. 

This, then, is the paradox. For civil debate we need civil people speaking in Parliament. But Parliament guarantees its own incivility. Lateral thinking may be the last refuge of a Rob Oakeshott, but perhaps there is an answer. If parliamentarians will not debate, perhaps we should put some non-parliamentarians into Parliament.

What about some real, genuinely freethinking, politically disinterested, figures. Why could we not modestly change our system so that each House of Parliament had sitting inside it five eminent Australians chosen on the basis of distinction rather than desperation, with the duty to speak decency in the counsels of the nation.

They would not vote, but only speak, for two reasons. First, with a parliamentary vote comes party politics, and the last thing we need is more party politicians.

Second, what we want is their voices, not their votes. Hearing the speeches of eminent Australians speaking sense on what politicians regard as their own issues in their own debating chambers would be calculated to bring them to a salutary sense of public shame.

We would not have too far to look for what might be called these counsellors of state. The highest grade of the Order of Australia - the Companions - is full of them. Why couldn't the independent Council of the Order be charged with picking a couple of handfuls of willing states people for appropriate terms of service?

Their eminence and record of achievement would guarantee that they already had outstanding careers, with no need to use Parliament as a platform for power. Former politicians would be acceptable, as no one is more critical of an institution than a successfully escaped inmate.

Imagine how the quality of parliamentary debate would be improved on issues like boat arrivals, climate change and the minerals tax by the participation of such figures as General Peter Cosgrove, former Chief Justice Sir Gerard Brennan, former Premier and academic Geoff Gallop and business chief Mark Leibler.

How exactly would a swaggering government or a sniggering opposition go about belittling their contributions? Even more thought provoking, how could they avoid improving their own in order to escape embarrassment? Even a cynical media might recognise truth when it was spoken.

Best of all, such a change has all the virtues of simplicity. No basic political consequences. Minimal expense. Not even the need for a constitutional referendum.

Just a good healthy dose of quality.

Professor Greg Craven is Vice-Chancellor of Australian Catholic University

This article first appeared in The Australian newspaper

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