Public ideas

Is liberalism worth saving?

That’s the provocative title of an article in the February edition of Harper’s Magazine.

The article is a transcript of a forum, chaired by the magazine’s Christopher Beha, involving Francis Fukuyama (now at Stanford University), Patrick Deneen (University of Notre Dame), Cornel West (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Chair of the Union Theological Seminary) and Diedre Nansen McCloskey (University of Illinois at Chicago).

Anyone who sees the world as a theological vs secular struggle might see the contest as a two-against-two argument: Fukuyama and McCloskey from a secular perspective vs Deneen and West from a Christian religious perspective. But that’s not how the discussion plays out. There is some discussion of the difference between Christian and humanist perspectives, but in the main it is about the contest between social values and the supposedly valueless operation of the market.

It can be read as a polite confrontation between McCloskey, who presents a fairly straight neoliberal argument for the primacy of unfettered markets as the normative standard that should govern the social order, and three critics. Deneen’s perspective seems to owe much to the teaching in Rerum Novarum and to later papal encyclicals on social morality. West’s perspective is similar, with a Protestant label. And Fukuyama’s is from a secular humanist perspective.

Much of the discussion is about what liberalism is, what it isn’t, and how it relates to and is threatened by populism. One central question is whether liberalism and democracy are inextricably linked, or if a society can have one without the other. Another is whether liberalism can be or should be promoted as a universal standard. And there is the perennial question of whether liberalism, through its tolerance, nurtures the conditions for its own destruction.

All four are prolific writers. Their most recent books on or related to liberalism are:

Francis Fukuyama Liberalism and its discontents

Patrick Deneen Why liberalism failed

Cornel West Race matters and Democracy matters

Deidre Nansen McCloskey Why liberalism works and The bourgeois virtues

Harper’s allows non-subscribers one paywall-free article a month.

Is the Westminster system worth saving?

If the figures from the latest Essential Report are a guide, if a federal election were held today it is unlikely that either of the main parties would be in a position to form majority government. Both Labor and the Coalition have 32 percent voter support – the lowest in 80 years, but in line with an established trend of declining support for the main parties. The Gillard government was in minority; in our current Parliament Labor holds office by only one seat; and it has been only on rare occasions that one party has had a Senate majority.

Yet, even though our Constitution is reasonably open on our parliamentary rules, we are trying to work within conventions, some codified in letters patent, others assumed, that were established in a different country, with a different culture, and a different constitutional history, known as the “Westminster” system, based on the idea of majority government and a strong executive.

In last week’s Saturday Paper there are accounts of two dysfunctional aspects of that system. The first is about the Robodebt commission, written by Rick Morton. Morton paraphrases former minister Stuart Roberts’ testimony:

I was lying but it was my job to lie. He says this is how the Westminster system works. Even though he knew the robo-debt scheme was illegal, as a cabinet minister he couldn’t say so.

That’s not a cheap swipe at Roberts. Rather, it’s a serious exposure of a seriously deficient system of government. If such unwavering cabinet solidarity is indeed an essential aspect of the Westminster system, it is a dangerous system at odds with any reasonable principles of good government.

The other instance is in Mike Seccombe’s article on the Senate committee examining the government’s proposed legislation on a carbon emissions safeguard mechanism. If the safeguards mechanism is to become law, it has to have support of the Senate. True to pattern the Coalition, in opposing the bill outright, has consigned itself to irrelevance, but if this important measure is to become law it has to meet with the agreement of adults in the Senate, including the Greens and at least one independent Senator.

Seccombe recounts that Senator Hanson-Young put a reasonable question to public servants about the extent that large polluters, subject to the mechanism, would be permitted to use offsets to meet their obligations. But, citing “commercial-in-confidence” considerations, public servants from the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water declined to answer her questions, even though they had the information.

That suggests public servants see themselves bound by a loyalty to executive government, rather than to those who are responsible for shaping our laws, elected by the public.

Surely we want our lawmakers to be as well-informed as possible. Public servants may need to remember that their salaries and program administrative costs are appropriated not by administrative decree from executive government, but by Parliamentary appropriation. Is not the reluctance of public servants to cooperate with Parliamentary committees, highlighted so starkly in this case, a case of insubordination?

We may need to re-think how we handle the relationships between executive government, Parliament and the public service. Fortunately our Constitution seems to allow plenty of leeway for the way we shape our democracy, and there is no need to be bound by the so-called “Westminster” conventions. We need to develop some conventions more in keeping with our evolving democracy.

Gender equality: “Progress won over decades is vanishing before our eyes”

That’s a short extract from the UN Secretary-General's remarks to the Commission on the Status of Women. The UN is referring not only to the most egregious examples of institutionalized violence against women in Afghanistan and other male-dominated theocracies, but also to the effects of war and Covid-19 on girls’ education, and the situation of disadvantaged women in “developed” countries. “Gender equality is growing more distant. On the current track, UN Women puts it 300 years away”.

On Wednesday, International Women’s Day (let’s not forget the other 364), our government released the Status of Women Report Card – 2023. It is well-supplied with data on women’s situation in Australia with positive and negative indicators. For example Australia has the fourth highest percentage of tertiary-educated women among OECD countries, but in the last 10 years there has been a three-fold increase in intentional self-harm hospitalisations for young girls, and almost a quarter of young men believe men should take control in relationships.

On a separate page the government has a discussion paper on a National Strategy to Achieve Gender Equality. The same website has a link to an online survey.

We have some way to go. On the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report we rank at position #43, way behind New Zealand and the Nordic countries, behind almost all other European countries, behind the USA, and even behind countries like Mexico and Ireland, presented in popular stereotypes as male-dominated.