Democratic politics, which can only function within a system of representative government, turns on the successful and peaceful regulation of difference. In other words, democracy is all about debate and discussion.
In contemporary Western societies, this concept is under attack, primarily from the left, by means of de-platforming individuals. This amounts to non-violent silencing, or political censorship.
In Australia, it exists within such institutions as universities, and can even be found within sections of the ABC.
Division and disagreement is essential to the proper functioning of democracies. Yet you would not know this judging from some recent contributions to the political debate. On Tuesday, federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, the member for the Melbourne seat of Kooyong, delivered one of the best speeches heard in the House of Representatives in decades.
The story is now well known. Labor Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese attempted to surprise the Coalition government by introducing a motion before Question Time commending “the people of Victoria for the sacrifices they have made in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic”. The motion was introduced following the reductions to the harsh lockdown in Victoria introduced by Premier Daniel Andrews’ Labor government, which were announced on Monday. Not surprisingly, Albanese’s motion had a political message. It noted the people of Victoria had succeeded because they “have heeded the advice of dedicated public health officials” and resolved that this message be conveyed to the Premier of Victoria.
Most motions of this kind are rejected by the government. Not on this occasion — apparently to Labor’s surprise. Prime Minister Scott Morrison not only accepted the motion but said that, if asked, he would have seconded it. Morrison then proceeded, in a strong speech, to point out Victoria’s failure to handle hotel quarantine which led to close to 100 per cent of Australia’s second wave infections. He added that the commonwealth provided “$200m every day of support to see Victorians through this crisis”.
Then it was the regional Victoria-based Labor deputy leader Richard Marles’s turn. He saw fit to praise the Victorian government, which he declared had “been a source of crystal-clear decisions at the heart of which has been the very best medical advice which has guided us from where we were back in July to where we are right now”.
In his speech, Marles compared the situation in Victoria favourably to that in Britain. Albanese had made a similar comparison.
Following Marles, Frydenberg showed considerable passion, if not anger. He declared that the reduction of the virus in his home state was a victory for the people of Victoria — “and no one else’s victory”. He said that Victorians have suffered so much but that “it should never ever have come to this”. And he reminded the opposition that the proper comparison “is not with the United Kingdom (and) not with the United States; the comparison is with NSW, Queensland, Tasmania and South Australia”.
Frydenberg referred to school closures, business failures, COVID-19-related deaths, job losses and mental health impacts of the stage four lockdowns necessitated on account of the Andrews-led Labor government’s failure with respect to hotel quarantine and contact tracing.
This was modern politics at its best as the leaders of the Labor Party and the Liberal Party confronted each other on the floor of the House of Representatives. It is sometimes said that modern politics in the Westminster system is too bland. Well, this wasn’t the case on Tuesday.
But not all were happy. Katharine Murphy is the political editor of the left-wing Guardian Australia online newspaper. Writing after the parliamentary debate had finished, the Canberra-based journalist came to the view that Victorians following the debate would have experienced “alienation or possibly revulsion”.
According to Murphy, Frydenberg not only “puffed like a pool toy at full inflation” but was also “vibrating with outrage”. She added that, when responding to Marles, the Treasurer “had taken up residence behind the bike sheds and started swinging”. Murphy also made reference to “junkyard dog politics” and “the revenge of the knockdown clowns”.
And then there was more. According to Murphy, “instead of sober acknowledgment unifying the country, adolescent rancour, either sheathed or naked, prevailed”. And she accused Frydenberg of “the deliberate inflammation of societal divisions”.
All this demonstrates just how out of touch some members of the Parliamentary Press Gallery are. All democratic societies are divided to a greater or lesser extent. This is particularly the case with the COVID-19 pandemic, which is the greatest socio-economic disaster to hit Australia since the Spanish Flu a century ago.
The fact is that the ACT, where Murphy lives, is doing well. There is little virus around. No public servants have lost their jobs due to the pandemic — some have received pay increases. The quality of housing in Canberra is high, which makes life relatively easy for professionally educated and technologically literate types who can work from home.
Meanwhile in Melbourne, very small and medium businesses have closed down, maybe never to reopen. Schoolchildren have lost experiences that they can never regain. The unemployment numbers are devastating. Families cannot get together if they live outside a restricted area. Victorian Police are behaving in a manner which has led to the imposition of excessive force on normally law-abiding citizens. People were locked up in rooms and apartments for 110 days in a row. And so on.
But Murphy reckons Frydenberg has no right to express restrained anger at the plight experienced by his fellow Victorians in general, and young families in particular, due to the incompetence of the Andrews government’s management of health.
Andrews is on record as saying of Frydenberg: “He’s not a leader, he’s just a Liberal.” This overlooks the fact that such long-serving Australian leaders as Robert Menzies and John Howard were Liberals. Andrews also seems to overlook the fact that Frydenberg has spoken out strongly in defence of his fellow Victorians — which is what leaders are expected to do in successful democracies. A point missed, apparently, by The Guardian’s political editor.