Sunday, 23 February 1997

Meddling in morals But 'irrational' senator not forcing PM's hand

Edition 1SUN 23 FEB 1997, Page 126
Meddling in morals/But 'irrational' senator not forcing PM's hand
TO blame Brian Harradine for the latest example of the Federal Government's imposition of its own version of political correctness is to miss the point.
The Tasmanian senator is not forcing John Howard to make decisions which are against the Prime Minister's better judgment.
Australia is now run by a very conservative man who needs no encouragement at all to impose his moral values on the rest of us.
There is a startling inconsistency in Mr Howard's intellectual position.
When it comes to economic life, he embraces the virtues of a free market in which individuals should be able to make rational decisions which they see as being to their benefit.
In that respect, Adam Smith would be proud of him.
But when it comes to the actions of individuals in their personal lives, Mr Howard abandons any pretence of libertarianism.
It's quite all right for the State, which should keep out of matters economic, to meddle in the area of personal morality.
Old Adam would be appalled by that!
With Senator Harradine, there is at least an honesty about his Christian views that lets him see a role for government in imposing its values on both personal and economic aspects of life.
Unlike the Prime Minister, he is not rational about one aspect and irrational about the other, but simply irrational about both.
Having the vital vote in a deadlocked Senate quite obviously puts Senator Harradine in a position where his irrational views have to be listened to.
Perhaps that gives those liberals still in the Liberal Party an excuse for staying there.
They can pretend to themselves that it's pragmatic politics, not a real power shift, that is responsible for things like the blackballing of a professor who once suggested that drugs might be a better way of causing abortions than the surgeon's knife.
In truth, of course, there has been a power shift, and the Cabinet veto on Professor John Funder as head of the National Health and Medical Research Council is but the latest example of it.
Prime Minister Howard heads a party in which the strongest faction is the Christian fundamentalists of the Lyons Forum, of which he is a member.
They are the group behind the attack on legal euthanasia already before Parliament and on the attack on the Medicare funding of legal abortions, which is to come.

Sunday, 16 February 1997

Minister for Irresponsibility

Edition 1SUN 16 FEB 1997, Page 129
Minister for Irresponsibility
THERE was a time when ministers of the Crown took [responsibility] for the way government administers things, but that was all long ago when people even believed that the House of Representatives was an important component in running the country.
Nowadays, when the relevance of the Lower House has been reduced to determining once every three years which party becomes the government, ministers are prepared to take the credit when things go right but not the criticism when something goes wrong.
The very institutional framework has been changed to try to make the people believe that is how things should be.
The cover for the new system of ministerial care but no ministerial responsibility is the notion of statutory offices where legislation gives an unelected person a power to make decisions in a supposedly independent fashion.
There have long been a few such positions in Australian government where politicians thought there was a good reason to put a buffer between them selves and some decision making.
Police commissioners are an obvious example where government ministers wanted someone else available to take the rap should it be necessary.
The independent governor of the Reserve Bank is another.
Having interest rates set by someone with a statutory charter lets a Treasurer take credit for creating the favourable economic conditions which allow rates to fall, while deflecting the anger when they increase.
Not just ministers see merit in separating the good from the bad in this way. For senior public servants, laying out some grand policy plan for the advancement of an aspect of government is stimulating and exciting work.
Actually putting a policy into practice can be tedious and even difficult. Little wonder that the head of a department favours a system of divorcing policy from administration.
Perhaps the most dramatic illustration of the retreat from ministerial and departmental secretary responsibility was in civil aviation.
Virtually the whole of the old Department of Civil Aviation was fobbed off into a statutory Civil Aviation Authority with an unelected board made responsible for setting the rules, policing them and making a profit from ensuring the skies were safe.
When the new order did not work because of the inherent conflict between running a business of air traffic control and regulating airlines and pilots, the one statutory authority was instead split in to two.
The new Transport Minister, John Sharp, was not happy with the board members given the responsibility for air safety that he inherited.
For almost a year now he has been trying to replace them with selections of his own.
It would be far preferable for him to move the Civil Aviation Safety Authority back into his own ministerial department and let the responsibility lie where it should be. With him.

Sunday, 9 February 1997

Paying the price of infamy

Edition 3SUN 09 FEB 1997, Page 126
Paying the price of infamy
WHEN you choose to take a job where you determine for people what is best for them, it should not surprise you that there is a price to be paid.
Being in public life inevitably means that your life becomes far more public than that of an ordinary citizen.
Even the politicians last week pretending outrage at the publication of some pictures embarrassing to one of their own would concede that much.
Which is why the attack on the newspapers is for their invading the privacy of the wife of Senator Bob Woods rather than that of the resigning senator himself.
Yet in truth it ever was, and ever will be, impossible to insulate the families of politicians from the consequences of the actions of the politicians. It is rather like, I suppose, that the families of a convicted murderer end up having to live with the embarrassment of having been close to the killer.
It was not their fault that they were thrust in to the limelight because of birth or marriage, but thrust they were.
Why was it less fair, for example, to show a picture of Mrs Woods than in the same week to highlight the distress of the second Mrs Alan Bond as her husband was led back to the cells?
There was no cacophony of noise from politicians expressing their horror at that intrusion into the privacy of an innocent woman, and nor should there have been on behalf of Mrs Woods.
If you marry a politician, or allow your spouse to become one, then the disruption of your life is one of the consequences.
Mrs Woods, as the daughter of a politician, was better prepared than most women to know that. The sympathy which people will have for her is not because she had her picture in the paper but because of what her husband has put her through. Compounding the interest in this latest story of the frailties of the political flesh is the dash of hypocrisy that will continue to rear its head whenever one of the Liberal Party fold is shown to be human after all.
It is the Prime Minister, John Howard, who has been preaching about traditional Christian family values and is aiding and abetting the imposition of his moral standards on the majority of Australians who have, for example, a quite different view to him on a question like voluntary euthanasia.
That puts a new dimension on questions of this kind and should lead to a more intensive scrutiny of the personal moral actions of those who are preaching morality to others.

Sunday, 2 February 1997

Minority poised for victory

Edition 1SUN 02 FEB 1997, Page 047
Minority poised for victory
THE moral minority is on the verge of a horrible victory. While the opinion pollsters might tell us an overwhelming majority of Australians favour voluntary euthanasia, the Federal Parliament is about to veto a Northern Territory law that allows it.
The House of Representatives has already voted that way and the Senate is almost certainly going to follow suit.
Yet again, what the people think is being proved irrelevant.
There are two reasons that occur to me in explanation of the willingness of our elected members of parliament to ignore the views of those they are elected to represent.
The first is the unfortunate ability of a minority which feels strongly about a question to influence MPs in a way that a sensible majority never can.
Very few, if any, of the 75 per cent of ordinary Australians who support euthanasia would switch their vote from one candidate to another on the basis of this issue alone.
Sensible people see the way we are allowed to die as but one of a myriad of important issues. Yet among the militant "antis" there are many whose moral indignation about euthanasia runs so deeply they would change from Labor to Liberal or vice versa on this question alone.
In these circumstances politicians, who naturally enough see their primary interest as being elected, are far more influenced by the minority that will change than the majority that will not.
What the politicians might think themselves in many cases becomes irrelevant.
Added to this electoral self-interest of the politician is a second influence which favours disregarding the wishes of the majority.
Almost by definition, the people who enter parliament are those who have a belief they know what is best for their fellow men and women.
MPs tend to have a great confidence that if it were not for the restraints imposed on them by the need to be elected they could solve all the problems of the country.
When this do-gooder desire to meddle in the lives of people is reinforced by the electoral imperative of winning votes through the meddling then there is no stopping them.
Thus it will prove on euthanasia and would have proved on abortion if it had been left to the parliaments of Australia to make laws, rather than to the courts to find a way of giving expression to the view of the majority.
Our system of government does not produce rulers capable of making even popular decisions because the very good sense of most voters, who see each decision as but one minor part of a whole rather than as an end in itself, prevents them punishing politicians who pander to the militant minorities.
It is a depressing truth.