Last week the New Zealand prime minister, Jacinta Ardern, delivered the commencement address – a speech to graduating students – at Harvard University entitled Democracy, Disinformation and Kindness.
Wearing a kākahu – a feathered Maori cloak and the red and black academic dress of Harvard University – she compared democracy to a marriage:
For years it feels as though we have assumed that the fragility of democracy was determined by duration. That somehow the strength of your democracy was like a marriage – the longer you’d been in it, the more likely it was to stick.
But that 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 up over decades but torn down in mere years.
It ignores that a strong democracy relies on debate and dialogue.
Across the ditch, the Australian electorate had voted for a different kind of democracy than the one we’ve been used to. To continue the marriage analogy, it’s as if we’d been wedded to the two major political parties in this country for so long, they assumed we’d just “stick”.
Instead, from Perth to Palm Beach, the voters have sent to Canberra the most diverse group of parliamentarians ever assembled – more women, more Asian and Indigenous MPs. At the same time, they have rewarded – often through their second or third preference vote – a working class journeyman politician in Anthony Albanese who has quietly repeated these last three years that he wanted to “do better politics” and end the “conflict fatigue” .
That effort must start on the floor of the House of Representatives.
After the new MPs give their maiden addresses, will they be forced to harden one of the last workplaces in Australia where bullying, abuse, particularly on the basis of gender and cultural background, garden-variety discourtesy, drunkenness and worse is routinely tolerated?
Speaking on ABC’s The Drum this week, former Labor MP Craig Emerson made this jaw dropping assertion: “There are Liberals in the parliament who call across the chamber to the Labor women and call them quota girls, as if that’s why they got there because of ALP quotas. people like [foreign minister] Penny Wong and [finance minister] Katy Gallagher; really strong, caring and effective women. This sort of denigration that they could only have got there with quotas.”
Frankly, it is hard to imagine that sort of abuse being hurled at the group of independently minded, mature, mainly women on the House of Representatives crossbench.
Obviously, 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 Reps; the great deal of partisanship has been washed out of the system.
But whether the parliament itself is transformed depends on, as the godmother of the community independent movement, former Indi MP Cathy McGowan, put it, “the umpire and the rules”.
The umpire, of course, is the Speaker of the House of Representatives “a highly skilled job and not for the faint-hearted”, says McGowan.
The personal characteristics required for the job, she says are a sense of humour, fairness and honesty and “good hearing”. According to McGowan, Bronwyn Bishop – a former Speaker not noted for her impartiality – had “very selective hearing”.
But in the 47th parliament the choice of Speaker is also symbolic of whether or not the new politics has really come to the old institutions in Canberra.
There is much speculation that even if the ALP gains a majority of seats in the lower house, the new prime minister might choose a truly independent Speaker. The veteran Tasmanian independent MP Andrew Wilkie’s name is regularly mentioned. His office dele reported he was “at his shack” in Tassie and did not want to comment on such matters.
McGowan agrees that Wilkie might be the pick of the independents for Speaker, given that the new “teal” MPs don’t have parliamentary experience to take on the job and – having promised action on a federal Icac, climate change and women’s issues – would likely to be unwilling to forgo the opportunity to participate in legislative debates on the floor of the parliament in return for the prize of the speakership.
More important, says McGowan, is a change to standing orders which she assumes is being debated even now, a process in which the Greens MP Adam Bandt, a lawyer by training, is said to be closely involved. Standing orders are the rules of the House of Reps which dictate who can speak and when, who can introduce legislation and whether they can have it debated.
“They will be building on 2010, when Julia Gillard’s government changed the standing orders to reflect minority government. What we talked about then was more questions for crossbenchers during question time and more time for them to speak.
“They could be discussing getting rid of Dorothy Dixers,” she says, referring to those eyeroll-inducing questions asked of a minister by a government backbencher, designed not to scrutinize government policy but to highlight government achievements.
Then there is the crucial question of whether MPs on the swollen crossbench can hope to introduce, debate and make laws in the new parliament.
“At the moment, Monday mornings are put aside for a private member’s business. That’s crossbenchers put forward legislation but it’s not necessarily ever debated. Thursday mornings could be put aside to debate crossbench legislation.”
As we have discovered on the nightly ABC current affairs program The Drum, it takes time to develop an enthusiasm and an appreciation for collaborative dialogue between Australians of different ages, genders, sexuality, ethnicity and political persuasion, and move away from the performative aggression of the “crossfire” style of shouty debate than masquerades as democratic rigour.
Rising audience interest in The Drum over these past six weeks suggests Australians are voting with their remote controls as well.
Speaking about the corrupting impact of social media on democracy, Aotearoa New Zealand PM Ardern made a note that equally applies to behavior in any political setting.
“What we do as individuals in these spaces matters too.
“Don’t overlook the impact of simple steps that are right in front of you.
“To make a 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 the weaknesses in our leaders. We are the richer for our differences and poorer for our division.”