Hung Parliaments and the Importance of Literature, Philosophy and History

 

The political uncertainty of the election ‘result’ that Australians watched unfold last night will lead to concerned discussion about what a hung parliament will mean for our democracy. There will be many at the moment worrying, including myself, about the NBN plan and what will happen to the Digital Education Revolution, if Mr Abbott is annointed. 

However, another interesting question is, obviously, how did a recently popular, first-term federal government manage to lose so many seats? The focus will be on the ‘knifing’ of Mr Rudd, ‘faceless’ power-brokers and the failure of the ALP to address ‘the greatest moral challenge of our age’. Many will point out that social progressives – especially those who want quality public education, sustainability and compassion for asylum-seekers – are deserting the ALP in droves and now look to The Greens. A friend asked the question, in relation to the collapse of support for the ALP, about how many commentators now consider the analysis of the much maligned (but incredibly well-read) Bob Ellis, prescient, especially where teachers votes and Public Education are concerned? What do you think? 

The Greens leader, Bob Brown, gave the most uplifting post-election interview and it was great to see him smile. The stunning image, of hope and renewal, of the first birth of a whale in the Derwent River, for almost 200 years, worked well as a clear opening message – that this is just the beginning for The Greens. Who could not agree with his statement, “we will measure everything in this parliament by…the dictum, if it is good for our grandchildren, it is good for us”? 

This all makes for interesting political discussion but one wonders how much of the debate will focus on the larger human saga that has unfolded in the context of what literature, philosophy and history tell us about ‘the state’, ‘the family’ and the ‘natural order’ of things? How important to our civil society is it to understand the human drama, not just the events of the day

The Greeks, Shakespeare, Chinese philosophers, poets and many other creators of our greatest works of literature, philosophy and history explore political issues concerning ‘right’ behaviour and action, or rather, what results when the proper order of things unravels. 

Shakespeare, in King Lear, his most challenging play, shows what happens to ‘the state’ when foolish decisions are made with no sensible consultation and flattery, for expedient reasons, exceeds common sense and goodwill. The state is torn asunder, families and individuals detroyed, the world is turned upside down. 

The ‘ALP family’ may well decide to add ‘Lear’, as a political primer, in their post-election analysis of what went wrong. Julius Caesar, I’m certain, is already on the list. 

Many works of Chinese philosophy and literature explore what happens when relationships are not tended properly. If the parent, child or elders do not behave as they should, as in Lear, the natural order, the tao of things, is upset and our civil society disturbed. 

Hubris and ambition are two of the character flaws often explored in the writings that are our human, or cultural legacy. Xerxes’ whipping of the Hellespont, reported by Herodotus or the mistreatment of Hector’s body by Achilles in Homer’s, The Iliad being two of our most vivid examples. Has our ‘two party state’ and the ‘cult of personality’ led to poor collaboration, respect and less democratic processes taking place in recent decades? The parliament side-stepped on important issues like committing our nation to war or even proper debate within cabinet before decisions being made? 

Achilles drags Hector’s body away to the ships while the two sides and Andromache on the walls looks on*

Public reflection

I could continue…but last night, I wondered what public writing, as reflection, would be shared about the larger human drama that these texts explore. There will be an excess of analysis and one could seriously jest that political commentators are the only winners from the events of last night. 

Literature, philosophy and history are essential and this garden needs to be carefully tended along with our economy and public infrastructure. 

David Williamson has retired but surely some of our playwrights, film-makers, novelists and poets are scribbling, typing and thinking how to represent the events on our national stage to coming generations of Australians, as well as us all who watched last night. One wonders what sources they will draw on to weave their webs. I suspect, to paraphrase William Blake, that few, although in a rage, will predict the ruin of the state but dream of a stronger, more enlightened, healthier democracy. I can imagine Bob Ellis writing intertextually well. 

However, the above reflections, made last night, ended up reminding me of an anecdote about some of the attitudes towards our liberal arts tradition. 

On my first day of university I walked into the toilets and saw some grafitti that echoed what the deputy principal had muttered about my decision to study a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in English and History. There was an arrow pointing to the toilet paper holder which said: 

 BA – PLEASE TAKE ONE 

I laughed but this image (wish I had a photo of this c. 1987) haunted me a little and various attitudes towards our education system seem to echo the sentiment. 

I suspect that, as the century advances, our society will need to benefit from being cognisant of our shared histories, philosophy and cultural influences. We need to do better at ensuring our citizens are widely read and attitudes towards an ‘old-fashioned’ liberal education are positive and valued. The debate about the Australian Curriculum, what learning looks like in the 21st century and what it means to be a teacher or a what a school looks like, are of fundamental importance to our civil society. 

One worries, when reportedly, such a large percentage of our fellow citizens made informal votes after some very public urging.   

I wonder if these people had a precedent, from literature, history or philosphy in mind when they threw away their voice? 

Image Credits

Cable noose courtesy of Don Solo 

*Painted by David Claudon based on Archaic geometric oinochoe designs. From Greek Art & Archeology by John Griffiths Pedley, p 118 and located here

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5 Comments

  1. David Chapman:

    Excellent reflection Darcy. I think perhaps I was lucky/naive when I headed to Uni and completed a BA (the whole teaching thing fell into place later). There are few students today that appear comfortable headed into further study for the mere sake of learning.

    However, the immediacy of news, gossip and the 24 hour news cycle has changed all of our lives, including politics forever. There is a glimmer of hope I can see though (yes, I am an optimist at heart) – perhaps like the Slow Food movement there may be a shift in political discourse. I am encouraged by the emergence of a real third part option.

    I will finish on a negative however. The staff room has had several political discussions in the build up to last weekend. The vast majority expressed opinions that demonstrated very little knowledge or engagement with facts or party policy. It was all ‘Telegraph’ headlines and myth based gossip. If we cannot get degree holding professionals actually aware of Political Party positions, how do we get our students to make future critical decisions?

  2. Janie:

    I remember the old toilet paper joke from when I first started Uni back in 1978. I stand by my degree – and it has stood by me – for some 30 years now. It taught me the value of critical thought, of wide-ranging and sustained reading and investigation and of the joy of learning for learning’s sake. (It taught me a whole lot of other things too, but those lessons mostly involved cheap wine and so will not be shared at this point.)

    • William Barwick:

      Like you, Darcy, I was somewhat relieved by Bob Brown’s sensible comments yesterday concerning future developments within the national parliament. For the moment, one also has to have an amount of faith in the good intentions of the three country independents who echo his comments. This suggests that the first priority for them is stability in government,whomever forms the next government.
      If the independents are true to their words (so far) and bring some reform to the level of political discourse within the parliament and make policy development and implementation a priority then perhaps we can have some confidence in more effective government into the future. The record here is good. Tony Windsor was part of an independent grouping within the NSW parliament that brought about worthwhile reforms to several state parliamentary practices.
      Still, it’s going to be a long wait. With Hasluck (WA) back in contention for both major parties, some uncertainly in Denison (TAS) and Brisbane, who knows what will eventually pan out. Only one thing is certain in the short-term: there will be lots of speculation, sooth-saying and entrails reading in the media which will only serve to trivialise the decision the electorate has made.
      As Bob Brown has said, there’s a lot of counting still to be done before final decisions are possible. Let’s leave the AEC to do its job!

  3. Troy:

    We sat around the TV, it was not cool nor hot outside. Somewhere, some place, someone was working a second job to pay the mortage on a McMansion. My parents were looking retirement in the face, as if it were not liberation, but death (perhaps of their materialist ways- not that is they would call it that). We had held nervously to the light a few years before, and before that someone threw vision, logic, common sense and a fair go over board. I wanted this to be our Don’s Party. It kind of was. We ate Indian and smiled as at 7:45 the trusty Aunty proclaimed a victor.

    That was 2007. Now I joke with a colleague that he helped end the war in Vietnam when he was at Uni and all I did was work part time at an orange juice factory owned by a World War II veteran.

    This could be good for our democracy. Imagine Joe Hockey and Wayne Swan as Treasurers, Kevin as Foreign Minister, Tony Winsdor as Minister for Rural Affairs, Penny Wong and Malcom Turnbull as Environment Ministers, John Alexander as a Minister for Tennis. Sounds like a piece of Utopian literature.

  4. masealake:

    What democratic societies should learn a lessen from Australia election 2010:
    1. What goodwill of Australia parliamentary reform? Peoples power to ease their pains?
    The Australia historical hung parliament demonstrated the big gap of inequality society between the small educated elite groups who get highest pay by talk feast used mouth work controlling live essential resources of the country in every social platforms against the biggest less educated groups who get lowest pay by hands work squeezed by discriminative policies that sucking live blood from poor/less wealth off?

    Voters’ voices do not hear?
    Voters’ pains do not ease?
    Voters’ cries do not care?

    1. Poverty will not be phase out if no fairer resources to share;
    2. Illness will not be reducing if no preventive measurement in real action;
    3. Agriculture will not be revitalize if urbanization continuing its path;
    4. Housing affordability will not be reach for young generation if government continues cashing from young generation debt by eating out the whole cake of education export revenue without plough back;
    5. Manufacture industry will shrink smaller and smaller if no new elements there to power up to survive;
    6. Employability will not in the sustainable mode for so long as manufacture and agriculture not going to boost.

    Ma kee wai
    (Member of Inventor Association Queensland since 1993)

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