Democracy, Protest and the Parliament

01 December 2016

The last Parliamentary Sitting week of the year rarely shows the institution at its best. Despite popular cynicism, parliaments comprise human beings, the majority of whom work very long hours and as such, by the end of the year proceedings are often tired and cranky affairs. So it was when protesters in the public galleries of the Parliament shouted down the beginning of Question Time and forced the Speaker to suspend proceedings.

It was around this time that I got dragged for being a cranky old man about the protest on Twitter. My mentions quickly filled with ideological fellow travellers parting company. It got so bad that even Sam Dastyari was telling people to ease up on me.

So why was I whinging about a half hour disruption to Parliamentary proceedings? I certainly don’t have any problem with protests, they’re a core part of my job as an MP. On the very morning of the protest I’d said in the Chamber:

Itell all of my staff and all of my campaign volunteers that they will inevitably encounter people who are dissatisfied, people who are angry, in the course of our work. That is part of being in the community and part of being an elected representative. But I tell (them) that, anytime anyone in our community criticises us or even abuses us, this should give them a warm inner glow. They should take this as a reminder of the great blessing that we enjoy, living in a democratic society where people feel free to speak out, to dissent, to criticise members of the government, without fear of being jailed, being tortured or having family members disappeared.

This is especially true with respect to asylum policy, an issue of nightmarish policy and moral complexity and the defining humanitarian crisis of our times. People of good will can, and do, look at the same set of facts and come to a wide range of conclusions. Given the stakes, we should expect these disagreements to be passionate. On this issue, as Robert Kennedy once said “It is not enough to allow dissent. We must demand it. For there is much to dissent from.”

And there have been no lack of forums for this protest. Activists have rallied at MPs offices, the grounds and foyers of Parliament House, party conferences and in the streets of our cities. All to the good.

But as a society we should object to protests that shut down the proceedings of the Parliament. The objective of the protest inside the Chamber wasn’t simply to express a view, it was to stop the proceedings of the Parliament. To stop elected members from speaking. I don’t doubt the passionate commitment of the protesters or the importance of the issues they raise. But many people hold passionate views on important issues. Our Parliament, our democracy, couldn’t function if all of them were allowed to shout down debate in the chamber.

That’s the purpose of the Parliament and our system of representative democracy. To provide a forum for the competing points of view in the community to be represented and debated. The MPs speaking in the Parliament, even the dopiest ones, speak in that place with the legitimacy of democratic election. I’ve used the forum to talk about the very issues raised by these protesters, on many occasions — as have many other MPs.

Our democratic institutions are imperfect, but they are the best tools we have for aggregating and mediating public opinion. Yet these institutions are currently under siege in Australia and around the world. Public confidence in democracy in Australia is alarmingly low, and declining. And yes, as Clare O’Neil and I wrote in our recent book, “Two Futures”, some of this is a product of the behaviour of MPs and some a result of the Parliament failing to move with the times and provide more direct opportunities for citizens to participate in its proceedings. We should do more to fix this.

But there are also darker trends afoot. Around the world, representative democracy is being actively attacked by newly emboldened fascists; neo-Nazis who hate diversity and hold our plural democracy in contempt. The next group to decide that they are entitled to shut down the Parliament could easily be fascist thugs doing it in the name of banning Muslim immigration.

We only hold the high moral ground against these forces if we stand up for representative democracy. Our democratic institutions, and the conventions that enable them to function, are our best bulwark against fascism. This is what I had been speaking about in the Parliament earlier that day, during a debate mourning the death of Jo Cox. Representative democracy matters, and at the moment, it needs people to defend it.

So protest! Dissent! Unfurl banners at Parliament House, stage sit-ins in MPs offices, flood my Twitter timeline with abuse. Our democracy depends on it. But please don’t shut down Parliamentary debate. The alternatives to it are not appealing.