The debate over the Coalition’s decision to not provide assistance to SPC Ardmona in northern Victorian seems unlikely to end any time soon. The Liberal MP for Murray, Sharman Stone, in particular has done all she can to make sure the decision is revisited, publicly moving directly against her own party line, to the extent where she has even called Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey liars over their claims about SPC’s working conditions.
It has been an interesting and significant debate both within the Coalition Government, and the broader community. It has been a debate that, through an active and public engagement by Coalition MPs in particular, has furthered our understanding of the issue significantly. A debate, that whilst including some serious accusations (those of lying), has been important for our policy-making process. Yet, that is not how many would have read it. Reading between the lines on most stories what you would have read is ‘split in the Coalition’, ‘in-fighting’ and a Prime Minister losing support. It is something that often happens when we see debates within political parties – a continuing contradiction within many parts of the modern media apparatus, and the public in general, which demands democracy within political parties, yet then quickly slaps parties down when this democracy is shown in public.
We love to discuss the democratic apparatus within modern political parties, and are quick to criticise political parties when democratic deficits are perceived. This has been one of the biggest criticisms of the ALP in recent years; many opinion writers and journalists have been quick to investigate and point out the fatal lack of democracy within some parts of the party. It is this push that led Kevin Rudd to implement a range of party reforms last year, including a member vote for the leadership last year.
Other parties also expect this investigation. The opening of the Greens national conferences and councils has been a constant speculation for the media. Many have been quick to claim hypocrisy from the party that demands open and accountable Government. Many journalists have also been quick to criticise Tony Abbott as being authoritarian in Government, with significant power centered at the top, and in particular within the office of his chief of staff.
These criticisms are fair. Democracy and accountability are essential in political parties, particularly if we expect these parties to safeguard our national democracy. And all our major parties have some way to improve in their democratic practices.
Yet, when we see the way the media reacts to genuine events of democracy in political parties, you can see why parties shy away from it.
Just look at the recent debate about SPC. For me that is the sign of a strong democracy within a political party – the Cabinet made a decision and MPs who disagreed with it have had the right to speak out about it. And yes, the debate is a story – in particular the accusations of lying. That is a relatively big deal. But in making those accusation – in calling out what she believes to be wrong – Sharman Stone has actively extended the debate, clearly both within the broader public and within the Liberals. That is an important thing.
But, despite the desire for democracy in our political parties, much of the commentary around Stone’s comments have had the tone of a ‘split’ within the Government. It even got to the point where yesterday on Twitter people were starting the fun old game of talking about a potential spill for the Liberal leadership. Many are also speculating that Stone will soon leave the party. One public disagreement and everything blows up.
It’s a common theme. For four years, any level of disquiet, questioning or debate within the ALP led to a barrage of stories about splits in the party and questioning about their leadership. Stories such as the ALP Cabinet moving against Julia Gillard’s position on Israel opened up many questions about the stability of her leadership. Even just people having meetings can create stories. A couple of years ago, The Daily Telegraph ran a story reporting on a ‘secret meeting’ of the young Greens, with minutes ‘catching the party out’ in trying to use the issue of asylum seekers to recruit new members. Apparently an open and frank discussion about policies, member outreach and party procedures within a party meeting was considered a major scandal for the paper.
We want democracy within our parties, but if it happens, we turn it into a scandal – a lack of unity, a leadership spill, a disquiet in the ranks.
When we look at it this way, it is very easy to see why so many are so concerned within political parties about showing any form of internal disagreement publicly. As the former Convenor of the ACT Greens for example I remember stressing heavily about how my words would reflect on the party. The one time I did contradict party policy it led to an attack piece in the Australian. This sort of reality plays out a lot – everyone acknowledges the need for democracy, but any time it is shown, at least publicly, many in the media are quick to turn it into a scandal.
Democracy, transparency and accountability within political parties is essential. We need to have democratic and open parties in order for our own democracy to survive. Unfortunately it seems as though many in our media are simply not capable of dealing with the debates and difficulties of democracy within our political parties. Over-excited claims of splits, fights and divisions are too common within our media. If journalists and opinion writers genuinely want to see the nitty gritty of political democracy, it is about time they learnt to deal with the realities of how it works.