“Maintain the rage!”
So said Gough Whitlam to his supporters after Malcolm Fraser, back then no friend of the left, blocked supply and effectively ended Whitlam’s remarkable reforming (if chaotic) Prime Ministership.
Whitlam didn’t just change laws, change funding arrangements for health and education. He changed the way Australians thought about ourselves and our place in the world. He changed our very culture, through his actions and leadership.
The egalitarian, caring, ambitiously forward-thinking spirit he brought to government has slowly been eroded over the intervening four decades, by Liberal and Labor governments. So slowly that most of us didn’t notice most of the time. Until now, when Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey took a sledgehammer to it.
But is the answer to this really to use against Abbott the tool that brought down Whitlam? Should we really, as quite a few people are arguing, be pushing the Senate to block supply so as to bring down the government and trigger a new election?
I suggest that doing so risks squandering the greatest opportunity we’ve had in decades to really shift the debate back to the left. We need to maintain the rage, and harness it to drive change, not use it all up in one big burst that could well blow up in our faces. Now is our best chance to reprioritise values, shift social norms, put caring for each other and our environment at the heart of our culture.
So why would blocking supply not do that?
Firstly, it’s critically important to understand the difference between blocking budget measures and blocking supply. Budget measures are contained in suites of legislation – vast omnibus bills to amend the tax laws generally called TLABs (Tax Laws Amendment Bills), as well as specific bills to set up new structures (eg the so-called Emissions Reduction Fund) or abolish old ones (eg the Clean Energy Finance Corporation). Blocking or amending these bills is annoying for the government, would stand in the way of their harsh and nasty agenda, and could trigger a new election if Mr Abbott chose to swallow the double dissolution pill. But it doesn’t cause a constitutional crisis of any kind.
On the other hand are the Appropriations Bills. These are the bills by which the government effectively withdraws cash from its bank account – Consolidated Revenue – and spends it on everything from schools to fighter jets, unemployment benefits to middle class welfare, hospitals to hand-outs for billionaire mining magnates.
Blocking the Appropriations Bills, commonly known as blocking supply, means the executive arm of government is effectively paralysed by the parliamentary arm. That is what causes a constitutional crisis.
Now, let me clarify that I’m not worried about causing a constitutional crisis, per se. On some levels, that kind of shake up is exactly what our torpid democracy needs. But it’s only useful if we can be reasonably confident of the outcome. And I am not.
Here’s the first key risk. In 1975, Governor General Sir John Kerr dismissed Whitlam, appointed Fraser caretaker Prime Minister, and dissolved both Houses of Parliament, triggering an election. There have been books written about the appropriateness and legality of that decision to use his ‘reserve powers’. He didn’t have to. And there is absolutely no guarantee that our current Governor General would follow the precedent. Indeed, given what it did to Kerr, who drank himself to an early grave, it might be surprising if General Cosgrove did so.
“Then what, hmmm?” as the grandfather in Peter and the Wolf said. What would happen if we’d set this wolf free and couldn’t capture it? What if it dragged on, as it almost inevitably would, perhaps for weeks or even months?
That’s when we’re staring down the barrel of a US-style shut down and all that goes with it. Except triggered not by a Tea Party that wears its abhorrence of government on its sleeve, but by a broad left that wants government to play a vital role but through its actions is preventing it from doing so.
Bear in mind that the primary impacts of blocking supply would be felt by some of the most vulnerable in our society. We’re not just looking at the irony of seeing public servants, nurses, teachers, firies – public servants we want to protect from Abbott’s agenda – going unpaid. We’re talking about those on disability benefits, struggling single parents, the long-term unemployed, living hand to mouth – the very people we are trying to defend from Abbott’s knife – going without for the duration.
And what would the political impact be? If this scenario plays out, frankly it’s not unlikely to backfire very badly indeed. Even if the Governor General did eventually dissolve parliament, support may have melted away, partly due to the simple annoyance factor, partly due to the patent clash of stated values and actual actions. We could win the battle but lose the war and end up with a renewed, even strengthened, Abbott government.
There’s a chance this wouldn’t happen. Of course there is. The Governor General could call a snap election, Labor could win and Bill Shorten would… um… oh. Do you really reckon he’d change things if we hadn’t changed the discourse first? Wouldn’t he continue the gradual erosion, the slow shift away from fairness and caring and sustainability toward the corporate state? Wouldn’t he still cut single parent support, send desperate refugees out of sight to lose their minds, mouth platitudes about climate change while funding coal ports?
Now is our moment to actually build change! Tony Abbott has made it easier for us by making this so explicitly about values and culture, about the kind of country we want Australia to be. Now is our chance to have that conversation, to shift the discourse, to demand the space to talk about making education more important than war planes, research and innovation more important than coal exports, people more important than the “economy” we ostensibly constructed to serve us but have now allowed to overshadow and overpower all other goals.
We’ve had years of a creeping shift to the right, aided by Labor often, but really driven by the Liberals, years when we’ve been able to pretend to ourselves that we were still the egalitarian society we believed we were, long after it had been eroded beyond recognition. The bubble has now been burst.
That gives us the opportunity to really fight back. Not just to use right wing tactics to kick out a government we oppose, but to actually do the hard yards of rebuilding a caring society, a daring society, a sharing society.
Let’s do it properly this time. Because, with climate change bearing down on us, we haven’t got another chance to stuff it up.