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The Trajectory of Politics According to Malcolm Fraser

The most recent episode of One Plus One, a one-on-one interview based program was thought-provoking and delightfully honest. It was all about politics, past and present- though it was mainly about the present day political situation. The whole half hour show was about politics in the Australian context and where it is headed. The guest on the show was a former Prime Minister, an outspoken former member of the Liberal Party- Malcolm Fraser. And as always he was willing to tread where few dare when it comes to commenting on and critiquing the political discourse.

The half hour program identified four key issues in the front of Malcolm Fraser’s mind when it comes to Australian politics. Two of these issues are policy-based concerns and the other two about politics in a broader context. In short, the former Prime Minister is concerned about the treatment of asylum seekers, Australia being a dependent nation, career politicians and  that the Liberal Party and the Labor Party are becoming closer. More specifically on the latter point, Fraser is concerned about the Liberal Party and their eroding liberal values.

Malcolm Fraser, as a former Liberal Prime Minister, is perhaps the most well-known in terms of support for refugees and asylum seekers. During his time as the nation’s leader from 1975-1983, Australia took in nearly 250,000 Vietnamese refugees during and after the Vietnam War in which Australia participated.

Since leaving the parliament, Fraser’s commitment to the refugee cause has been maintained, if not expanded. He constantly lambasts Liberal and Labor alike for their unfortunate and often inhumane convergence on the asylum seeker issue.

And he is right to do so. To put it simply, the asylum seeker ‘issue’ is not an issue. There is no “peaceful invasion” and we are not being overtaken by undesirables. What is happening is that we are dealing with a world where regions are in significant conflict. That conflict is either within or between countries. And people movement is an impact of that disruption to peace.

We should take more refugees and can afford to. In the long-run, taking in more refugees will prove a cheaper option than pursuing and locking up those that arrive on our shores, like they have committed some heinous crime- which they have not.

And we need to treat asylum seekers better. There should be no rubbish talk or actions involving turning boats around or issuing Temporary Protection Visas. And we should not send asylum seekers to foreign lands to languish in truly atrocious conditions. These are all concerns held by Malcolm Fraser and he is right to be worried. Australia too should be worried.

There is another policy that worries the former PM and that is what he sees as an increasing dependence on the United States of America in terms of security and Australia’s broader foreign policy. He is both right and wrong.

Australia has had a long-held relationship with the United States of America, dating back chiefly to the signing of the ANZUS Treaty. And we have had strong diplomatic ties since. Our relationship too has escalated, particularly since the September 11 terrorist attacks with our commitment in Afghanistan and Iraq and the recent move to station US Marines in the north of Australia.

But is this immediately a bad thing? Are we immediately, by extension, too dependent on the US? The answer to both questions is no, not necessarily. A number of nations enjoy similar relationships with allies. The trick here is that we not neglect our regional neighbours in the Asia-Pacific more generally and more specifically, in the Indo-Pacific. Australia can pursue an abiding relationship with the US and in our regional neighbourhood.

It is at this point where we begin to look at politics in a slightly broader sense, delving into the world of party politics and the modern politician, both of which Malcolm Fraser is wary of.

A significant concern of Malcolm Fraser’s, particularly in the last decade, has been the trajectory of the Liberal Party. Indeed it proved the catalyst for his resignation from the party he so proudly represented in the highest office in the land.

In short, Mr Fraser believes the Liberal Party is no longer the party of Robert Menzies. And he is largely correct. Over the last decade and a half the Liberal Party has become progressively more conservative in social policy, to the point of being regressive at times. Social liberalism has long given way to social conservatism and the remaining adherents to the former ideology are continuing to disappear.

The Liberal Party was set up, in the words of its founder, Sir Robert Menzies, “to be a progressive party, in no way conservative, in no way reactionary”. And indeed that is what it has largely become. There is still an allusion to individual rights and freedoms, but the conservative viewpoint within the party is clearly in the ascendancy. There needs to be a shift in the opposite direction, as the two theories are largely incompatible.

It is of not much concern that the Liberal Party are economically conservative. It is inherently sensible for government to live within its means and the Liberal Party has a long-established association with this particular ideology, most strikingly, in the Howard years.

Economic liberalism, in terms of support for public goods, is something that the Liberal Party should rediscover. The glory days when the Liberal Party were much more concerned about the provision of education and healthcare in particular have long passed.

The final concern Malcolm Fraser elaborated on during the interview with Jane Hutcheon was about the increasing prevalence of so-called ‘career politicians’. These are people who have little or no experience in the world outside of politics. These are people who have usually studied politics at university and gone to work as staffers of MP’s soon after graduation.

The ‘career politician’ Malcolm Fraser argues, is fast becoming a major issue for our democracy as political parties begin to favour party operatives more than talented candidates.

The major issue for present day politics however is the narrow skill set of our political representatives. Most are lawyers and former union officials and then business people. The latter is fine, particularly if they were small business owners in a previous life and so is a mix of former lawyers and union officials, but the point is that a broader skill needs to be represented in the parliament.

It is unquestionable that politics needs to be on a different trajectory. Right now we are headed even further toward rampant voter apathy and that is not healthy for a democracy such as ours, where to at least turn up to a polling booth on election day is compulsory.

A shift in ideology and in some public policy areas is also necessary.

Social Progress and the ‘Invisible Hand’: It’s Not All About the Economy Stupid

There seems to be a constant battle between those who think that all social progress comes from good economic management and those that think the government needs to be responsible for most if not all social progress. The truth is that the solution (and solution is probably the wrong word) lies somewhere in between a completely free market/economic response to social progress and a government response which can either be to get out of the way or to legislate for social improvements.

In all likelihood on the ‘free market/it’s all about the economy in social progress and government intervention is the best way to ensure social progress’ pendulum the best answer would likely be very close toward the ‘let the economy sort out social disadvantage’ end of the pendulum. Note that it’s only the best answer. Not one single political ideology offers a solution that will completely solve pretty much every single problem and that is both a political and electoral reality.

Now back to that pendulum. While it is self-evidently true that much social progress comes from a strong economy there is also a need for limited government intervention, be it legislating in an attempt to benefit society or stepping away from legislating in areas that might act to prevent the advancement of the people, most importantly the individual regardless of social group.

So what work does the economy do as regards social progress? Well, a strong economy provides many with the opportunity to be employed in a meaningful job. A strong economy means that more jobs are created and more people will have the opportunity to live at the very least a modest and comfortable lifestyle in what is becoming an increasingly expensive world.

More jobs too means more tax being collected by the government without having to raise taxes for any one group and that means for those who do happen to fall through the cracks, and there will always be people that do regardless of effort and exertion and economic circumstances in the nation and the world, it means that there will be assistance available for them for as long as they need it.

So having a job or a business and earning an income is certainly a big part of social progress but there are things which cannot be provided for by a strong economy or the free market.

A free market does not, will not and cannot stop forms of discrimination, particularly relating to participation in the economy, though in some small way the more people able to be given jobs then it flows that less discrimination may well exist because some ordinarily discriminated against may well be invited into employment opportunities.

Ordinarily though, discrimination will exist and will continue to exist and should at the very least be responded to by educating people about diversity and difference.

Anti-discrimination legislation is also a necessary evil though in many cases it is nigh on the impossible to determine when real discrimination, particularly in employment exists, even though the statistics on minorities show in a broad sense that it is clearly an issue. But again this kind of government intervention needs to be coupled with educating people of the capabilities that people from all works of life possess.

One thing that a free market can never bring, not at all, though I’m sure we’d like to see it happen is the very topical issue of marriage equality. Try as it may, the ‘invisible hand’ just cannot bring about people being able to take the tangible hand of their same-sex partner in marriage.

Same-sex marriage is one area in which the government can either intervene to legislate for marriage equality or completely bugger off from the whole process. Reality says that government, in an eventual move would vastly prefer to legislate for same-sex matrimony rather than to say “hey we really have no place here” and that is okay as long as it is inevitable and you’d have to say it is.

For the most part many of us would love for the government to stay out of our lives and the biggest forms of social progress can be provided for with little or no government intervention, but there will always be a place for government particularly when that means correcting ills that they have fostered or fomented, but that power cannot be unlimited.

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