Midnight Oil. Democracy and the Power to Make a Difference

Last night (Friday 13th) I went to the 2nd Midnight Oil “Up Close in the Capital” concert. I was instantly carried back 20 years or so in time, to an Australia when music and politics were not incompatible, Peter Garrett was a rock star, and the Australian Democrats held the balance of power in the Senate.
As Midnight Oil and their charismatic, energetic frontman belted out such classics as: Armistice Day, Power and the Passion, Progress, Don’t Wanna Be the One, Truganini, Read About It, Blue Sky Mine, Forgotten Years, The Dead Heart, Beds Are Burning and Dreamworld, I wondered if Peter Garrett actually still believes the stuff he sings about. But then….wait for it….the encore actually also included US Forces!!! Garrett said something about it might not please some of those in my party, but lets just play it. I must admit I was impressed.
So, what’s changed in the 20 or so years since Peter Garrett and Midnight Oil regularly graced the RSL and Workers’ Clubs of Australia. Well, we’ve all become bit more conservative. I remember “relaxed and comfortable” was the term somebody once used (although the Global Financial Crisis might change all that). Openly protesting or speaking an opinion isn’t quite the norm it was in the 80s. Music has become somewhat bland (for my part anyway), it certainly doesn’t have that political edge. One time NDP candidate and ACF president (and rock star), Peter Garrett is now a Labor government minister. The Australian Democrats, for the time being, no longer occupy the crossbenches of the Senate. And people look to sensible Independent Nick Xenophon (and maybe one or two possible Liberal or National mavericks) to get common sense and fairness into legislation.

So what hope is there for Peter to achieve the things he so passionately sang about in the glory days of Midnight Oil (and once again last night)?

When parliamentarians are elected, they take an oath/affirmation of office to serve their country to the best of their ability. This means, as I understand it, to speak the truth and to vote according to the truth – as determined by conscience. However, representing the Australian people in such a way rarely (if ever) occurs and parliamentarians vote according to the dictates of their party. They toe the party line. It makes no difference if they are in government or opposition. One party proposes one line and the other party mindlessly and deliberately opposes it.

That the right to vote according to conscience is deliberately taken away by the party machine, effectively stopping parliamentarians from representing their constituents is surely a denial of democracy and an abrogation of their oath/affirmation of office. If Peter Garrett truly believes the things he sang about last night, he must truly find this a compromising situation.

Australia cannot claim to be a true democracy until each and every Member of Parliament can exercise a conscience vote on every issue. This is why the conscience vote is so important to the Australian Democrats. Elected Australian Democrats are not entitled to or privileged to vote with their conscience – they are obligated to do so.

Whilst, Australian Democrats would be drawn to similar principles and therefore often vote in a similar way, the obligation to vote according to conscience remains paramount. Of course, with voters expecting party bloc voting to be “par for the course” and a media which criticises or labels as “rebels’ parliamentarians who vote against the party line – the big parties get away with their discipline and the authority of the party Whip.

Labor and the Coalition, are realistically at the moment the only parties with a chance of forming governments – at least for the foreseeable future. But a significant amount of power can still be exercised from a Senate crossbench.

Peter may achieve great things in the Labor Party. Then again (with Labor almost as conservative as the Coalition) he may not. As Environment Minister he has been somewhat silent on the things he once seemed outspoken about. Damned party machine!

But there is always the Senate. And there is always the crossbench….

In the meantime, Midnight Oil and the values they once espoused have given me a great night’s entertainment. And a wonderful nostalgia trip.

Darren Churchill

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