Last week, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinta Ardern delivered the keynote address – a speech to graduate students – at Harvard University titled Democracy, Misinformation and Kindness.
Dressed in a kākahu – a feathered Maori cape and the red and black academic dress of Harvard University – she compared democracy to a marriage:
For years, it’s as if we’ve assumed that the fragility of democracy is determined by duration. That in a way, the strength of your democracy was like a marriage – the longer you were there, the more likely it was to last.
But it takes so much for granted.
It ignores the fact that the foundation of a strong democracy includes trust in institutions, experts and government – and that this can be built over decades but destroyed in just a few years.
He ignores that a strong democracy is based on debate and dialogue.
On the other side of the divide, the Australian electorate had voted for a different kind of democracy than we were used to. To continue the analogy of marriage, it’s like we’ve been married to the two major political parties in this country for so long, they assumed we were just going to “stick it.”
Instead, from Perth to Palm Beach, voters sent to Canberra the most diverse group of parliamentarians ever – more women, more Asian and indigenous MPs. At the same time, they rewarded – often with their second or third preference vote – a fellow working-class politician in Anthony Albanese who has quietly repeated for the past three years that he wants to “do politics better” and end the “conflict fatigue”. .
This effort must begin on the floor of the House of Representatives.
Once the new MPs give their maiden speech, will they be forced to endure one of the last workplaces in Australia where bullying, abuse, especially on the basis of gender and cultural background , lack of courtesy, drunkenness and worse are systematically tolerated?
Speaking on ABC’s The Drum this week, former Labor MP Craig Emerson made this jaw-dropping claim: “There are Liberals in parliament who are calling Labor women from across the room and calling them quota girls, like that’s what they’re there for ’cause ALP quotas. [foreign minister] Penny Wong and [finance minister] Katy Gallagher; really strong, caring and efficient women. This kind of bashing that they could only have had with quotas.
Frankly, it’s hard to imagine this kind of abuse being thrown at the group of mature, independent-minded women, mostly women serving in the House of Representatives.
Clearly, the election result means parliament is less likely to be a forum for testosterone-fueled two-party clashes on the floor of the House of Representatives; much of the partisanship has been eliminated from the system.
But the transformation of parliament itself depends, as the patron of the independent grassroots movement, former Indian MP Cathy McGowan, has put it, “on the umpire and the rules”.
The arbiter, of course, is the Speaker of the House of Representatives “a highly skilled job and not for the faint-hearted,” McGowan says.
The personal characteristics required for the position, she says, are a sense of humor, fairness and honesty, and “good hearing”. According to McGowan, Bronwyn Bishop – a former president little known for her impartiality – had a “very selective audience”.
But in the 47th Parliament, the president’s choice is also symbolic of whether or not the new policy has really arrived in Canberra’s old institutions.
There is much speculation that even if the PLA wins a majority of seats in the lower house, the new prime minister could choose a truly independent president. The name of veteran Tasmanian Independent MP Andrew Wilkie is regularly mentioned. His office said he was “in his shack” at Tassie and did not want to comment on those matters.
McGowan agrees that Wilkie could be the Independents’ choice for Speaker, given that the new “teal” MPs lack parliamentary experience to take on the job and – having promised to act on a federal Icac, the climate change and women’s issues – would probably be unwilling to give up the opportunity to participate in legislative debates on the floor of parliament in exchange for the price of the presidency.
More important, McGowan says, is a change to the House Rules that she says is still being debated today, a process in which Green MP Adam Bandt, a lawyer by training, would be closely involved. Standing Orders are the rules of the House of Representatives that dictate who can speak and when, who can introduce a bill and whether they can have it debated.
“They will build on 2010, when Julia Gillard’s government changed the rules of procedure to reflect minority government. What we talked about at the time was more questions for non-bankers during question time and more time for them to speak.
“They could discuss getting rid of Dorothy Dixers,” she says, referring to those eye-rolling questions posed to a minister by a government backbencher, designed not to scrutinize government policy but to highlight the achievements of the government.
Then there is the crucial question of whether MPs on the bloated cross-bench can hope to present, debate and make laws in the new parliament.
“At this time, Monday mornings are reserved for Private Members’ Business. This is when non-bankers propose bills, but they are not necessarily debated. Thursday mornings could be set aside to discuss interbank legislation.
As we discovered on ABC’s nightly news program The Drum, it takes time to develop an enthusiasm and appreciation for collaborative dialogue between Australians of different ages, genders, sexualities, ethnicities and political persuasions, and move away from the performative aggression of the “crossfire” style of the debate crying out to pass itself off as democratic rigour.
Growing public interest in The Drum over the past six weeks suggests Australians are also voting with their remotes.
Speaking about the corrupting impact of social media on democracy, New Zealand Prime Minister of Aotearoa, Ardern, made a point that applies equally to behavior in any political context.
“What we do as individuals in these spaces matters too.
“Don’t overlook the impact of the simple steps that are right in front of you.
“Making the choice to treat differences with empathy and kindness. Those values that exist in the space between difference and division. The very things we teach our children, but then see as a weakness in our leaders. We are the richest in our differences and the poorest in our division.