From Integrated Questions

How Can I Fulfil My Civic Duty?

I have spent the last few years flirting with various political parties. The Democrats, the ALP, the Liberals, the Greens once or twice, and on one particularly unfortunate night the Libertarian Party.

I’ve always had a soft spot for the Democrats, a product of growing up in a left-of-centre household in the nineties I imagine. Amazingly I even agreed with most of their policies. At least until a couple of years ago when it seemed that they suddenly took a hard left turn and lost all semblance of sanity. I have since discovered that they shifted only slightly to the left (from where I fell in love with them at any rate), whilst I had leapt quite some way to the right of my starting point.

Traditionally I have ranged from solidly left to left-of-centre, but over the past five or so years I have slowly drifted to the right. At least it seems that way. A view strengthened by the attitudes of my friends and the fact that I am about as right-wing as most of them could tolerate. The drift has been especially noticeable over the last 18 months. A fact I contribute to my work towards my soul-consuming economics degree.

Where I started on the left puts me somewhere in the less-centrist aspects of the ALP, a position I always supported even though they have often left a bad taste in my mouth. My grandfather was a brickie. I grew up in the outer-Northern suburbs of Adelaide – mostly in Elizabeth and Salisbury. Until recently I have always lived in a very safe Labor seat for both federal and state electorates. My grandparents voted Labor. My parents voted Labor – except on those few occasions when they voted Democrats. My siblings and the vast majority of my friends tend to view the Liberal Party as evil, immoral, and heartless.

Yet, despite this strong history and family support and my (past) general agreement with most of the Labor party’s policies, there has always been something that held me back from joining. I could never quite get behind them. This confused me a little, but I put it down partly to their strong love of affirmative action and their hatred of all-things nuclear. Mostly, I marked it off as a dislike of the way they worked in federal opposition – after all if we were just looking at a state level I was quite happy to support Rann. Though I must confess to supporting Olsen in principal at least (it should be noted that I was not nearly as politically aware during the Olsen government as I have been in recent years).

More recently I have worked out why the ALP always leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I can’t stand the unions. This has become increasingly evident to me as I continue my studies and as I lock horns with various left-activists around the campus grounds. It’s not that I am against the underemployed, the poor, or the underpaid. I have a strong desire to help all of these groups. I’ve belonged to each of those groups at one time or another. The unions do not, in my mind, support the labour movement. They support the labour movement as it stood in the 1950s. I have my doubts about the WorkChoices legislation. It goes too far. But it is a superior system to what we have now, and a far superior system to what many unionists seem to crave. Is it any surprise that union membership is so low? I want to work part-time, I want to work flexi-time. I don’t want to work full-time. I’d rather work nights than days. I’d rather negotiate my own contracts without any award underpinning. I’d really rather not have my union stand up to the government and say they represent my moral views on abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage or any other moral position (*cough* SDA *cough*). I’d rather have a higher base wage than penalty rates. Unions have an important part to play in society. Workers have as much need and right to a special interest group as does any other subset of society. Collective bargaining is not an inherently evil thing.

No, my problem with the unions stems from three things. My first concern is their tendency to thuggish or militant actions – a methodology that seems ingrained into the culture of some unions. My second concern is that they do not represent the actual workers but instead represent their ideal view of their workers and try to mould industry into a shape that only supports this ideal 1950s view. My third concern is the same concern that I have of (nearly) all special interest groups. They are blind to the bigger picture. They do not care about the unemployed. They do not care about the corporations that employ their members. To my eyes they either do not care about the broader scope of society or the economy, or they have no understanding of the economy.

This is where I would normally explain the price-floor concept and talk about the damage done by excessive minimum wages. Then I’d talk about the fact that even working at minimum wage you are far, far better off than the long-term unemployed, the homeless, and the destitute. Would our efforts not be better focussed on the most disadvantaged aspects of our society rather than those who can already feed themselves?
These are questions and examinations for another time though. The purpose of this post is not to bash the unions I once thought were heroes.

My problem with the Labor party is the same as my problem with any other party that is strongly influenced or controlled by a single set of special interest groups. Special interest groups represent only their specific set of interests, I want my leaders to represent the interests of Australia as a nation. Not just the environment. Not just the religious. Not just the unions. I believe that special interest parties are nearly as bad as, and far more dangerous than, single-issue parties.

As I have come to realise over the past four or five years, I am not a Labor supporter. Nor do I support the Democrats. Family First and One Nation make me gag. The Greens have enjoyed (or suffered as the case may be) my support on only a few rare occasions, and normally they embody everything that I hate about the left. The Liberal party has always been taboo and anathema to me. Never would I consider joining their ranks. I may find myself supporting certain aspects of their policies, but surely this is merely a bizarre coincidence.

That is how I thought for quite some time. I was a closet-Liberal supporter. I wasn’t even willing to admit my support for the mainstay of their policies to myself. I certainly wasn’t about to do it in front of my friends. I have slowly slid to the right over the past five years and I have slowly come to stand in a more Liberal position than I ever would have thought possible. I still rile against some of their social policies. I am most strongly pro-choice, pro-euthanasia, pro-gay rights. Others of their policies are perhaps harsher than I would like to see, but I am not a strong supporter of affirmative action – it has its place and its uses, but it is over-utilised and over-loved by the left and by Australia today. The further I run down the Liberal party platform the more I find myself agreeing with and the more I start thinking about joining the Liberals. Though there is always a nagging concern that the Liberal party is merely a special-interest party of big-business, I have yet to see any compelling evidence of this fact (feel free to point me towards some).

I went to the South Australian Youth Parliament in July this year. It was a thoroughly exhilarating, exhausting and stressful week. Indeed, I have never had a more stressful week in my life. I have never had a more entertaining week in my life. At the start of the week a guest speaker (I think it may have been the YMCA director) spoke about how the program could be a life-changing one for the participants. I scoffed at this notion. I still don’t support it fully. It is an over-statement, but not an especially egregious one. My confidence has grown exponentially. It was, perhaps, the catalyst that has spurned a major shift in how I view myself and the world around me. I may not appear at all changed to those around me, but I feel different. The week was phenomenal and I met a large number of interesting people. Including some like-minded individuals (at least on the politics and policy front) who, it turned out, are members of the Liberal party. It was an eye-opening and thought-provoking week. I left convinced that I would be joining the Liberal party within the week.

After recovering from the sleep-deprivation that permeated the program I did some further research – including reading the party’s charter and latest platform. I was convinced. I may not support all of their positions, but I support most of them. Yes, the current federal leadership irritates me at times, and yes I would be a very wet Liberal. I thought (dreamt?) that maybe if I joined I could work my way into a leadership position and bring the Liberal party around on those few areas on which I disagree. I signed up for a membership kit that night.

Two things followed on from this decision. I had not expected either of them, though in retrospect I should have expected both. The first thing was that more than a few of my friends suddenly weren’t so friendly. It would seem that it is fine for me to argue a right-wing conservative position in our regular lunch-time debates, but that it is not even remotely acceptable to actually belong to a party which supports that position. I have never been quiet about my beliefs. I have never been shy to voice my opinion on any topic, regardless of the controversy, regardless of the political incorrectness of my view. So it was surprising when a collection of friends started treating me differently, started treating me like I was the enemy. My views hadn’t changed. My beliefs hadn’t changed. My opinions hadn’t changed. My desire and willingness to stand for what I believe in hadn’t changed. I was still the same person. I remain baffled as to their reaction.

The second thing was the federal government losing their minds in regards to the Haneef case. This flagrant civil rights violation had me sitting up and re-examining everything I had thought about the Liberal party. I cannot support the mainstay of the current federal leadership. The mainstay of Cabinet hold views I cannot support, views that I will not support. How can I join a party that I cannot publicly support on important issues?

I thought for quite some time about it. I still agree with the Liberals on a large number of issues. Indeed, I agree with them on far, far more than I disagree. They probably occupy a position closer to my views than any other political party in Australia today. If I join a political party I will be aiming for the important positions, probably even a state or federal seat in parliament and ultimately the parliamentary leadership. I cannot join a party if I cannot toe the party line. I cannot toe the Liberal line on any security or civil-liberties matters. They ban books. They detain innocents. They act against the judiciary. They blur the separation of powers. They ignore States-rights. They ignore Ministerial-responsibilities and accountability. I agree with them on much, but I am neither capable nor willing to toe a line that I do not believe in. Joining the Liberal party would merely set me up for failure.

This leaves me in the same conundrum I was in at this time last year. I have strong political views. I believe, fervently, that there is a social and civic duty, a responsibility to voice your opinions and beliefs. I believe that one is obliged to stand for what they believe in. I believe that one cannot sit by and blithely watch others mismanage their nation or their state. You have a social responsibility to watch for wrongs and evil. If you see them you have a moral obligation to voice criticism. If you see them you have a civic duty to act. For me this means standing in the public eye and presenting my argument. For me this means actively working within a political party to bring about the change that I see as necessary, to work to protect us from abuses of our civil liberties and freedom.

How can I do this if I can support no political party?

Daniel O’Brien.

Note: In the above post I talk about being right-of-centre. Whilst this is not a grossly inaccurate statement it is not a simple truth. The Political Compass notes me as slightly left and slightly libertarian. My own examinations note me as slightly right on an economic scale and moderately libertarian. Defining a political position is a complex and likely impossible thing. I am pro-choice and pro-gay rights. Two strongly left positions. I am against affirmative action and dislike unions. Two strongly right positions. Overall, if you were to sum all of my positions on any given topic you would find me somewhat in the centre. I believe that no position is permanent. On any given topic what is wrong today may be right tomorrow. This is especially true on economic policies. Protectionism has its time and its place, though a free and competitive market is the aim and will bring the greatest good to most. Extreme positions – left, right or otherwise – are foolish and will ultimately fail. A considered, researched and integrated portfolio of solutions that are regularly, frequently and critically reviewed is the only responsible choice.

5 thoughts on “How Can I Fulfil My Civic Duty?

  1. (Apologies, posting to an ancient entry, but just found the blog 🙂 )Regd. unions:I would say your arguments against unions are, aside from being against particular actions of unions rather than against the theoretical purpose, also biased to noticibility – certain aspects or behaviours, that might be in the minority in the real world, are raised to noticibility by {Media|Politicians|Interested Parties}, and therefore seem more prevelant in your awareness than is in fact the case. Just a possibility. I would agree though that it’s entirely likely that unions (like any large group of people in a politicised field) have significant ideological inertia.Not having done any economics myself (hey, I’m an IT guy, my head lives in boolean logic and C++ 😉 ) what is the effect of, or is it significant to have, large powerful organisation within an economic system acting from an economic viewpoint fairly “randomly” (following ideological or internal principles that may or may not randomly align with economic goals)?Does that even make sense? Meh I did just wake up.


  2. Bleh – missed the point of the article anyway…Of course you can fulfil this without affilitation or support of a party – parties are without a doubt (in my mind at least) a cancer on our political landscape anyhow – how can free political discourse and opinion exist within a system that forces adherence to one of a few party lines? Indeed, rather than working “within a political party to bring about the change [you] see as necessary”, what prevents you from working within the political framework, but outside of an established political party?Anyway – enough rambling from me.


  3. Firstly, there is no need to apologise for posting on an ancient entry. If anything, I am thankful for the incentive to review my post and consider if the positions I espouse within it are still valid and optimal.I agree with your criticism that my concerns with the unions are somewhat targeted at specific unions. I do not believe this is the case for my views of unions as special interest groups and the problems that entails.Since writing this post I have put a lot of consideration into unions within Australia. I now consider the predominant problem with unions to be that of monopoly. Any company which featured the purview that many unions possess would be in violation of Anti-trust laws. One wonders why, if competition is such a good thing for everything else, it is eschewed by unions. Surely, a greater number of unions within each industry would provide for fairer outcomes.In regards to your question about the impact of a ‘random’ economic agent: Economics is largely concerned with the study of preferences and maximising welfare. As such, ‘random’ can be a hard criteria to fall within. Certainly, my understanding is that unions are seen as a traditional agent within the economy. They act so as to maximise the income of their members (in the traditional model at least) and thus their actions are not at all random. {Other models look at unions maximising their membership, maximising their revenue, or maximising their executive’s income. Undoubtedly, all are factors in the real world and I am certain that some complex models exist which look at all of these as factors}.In regard to your second comment. You are right, there is nothing about not being able to support a politicial party which prevents me from fulfilling my civic duty. Standing as an independent is unlikely to provide the reach that I would desire to enact the changes that I see as necessary. My views have changed somewhat since this post. I know believe that I can accomplish more from outside parliamentary or party politics. I believe far more can be accomplished by encouraging discussion and debate, by promoting questioning and scepticism, and by combating apathy. Apathy that is far too prevalent within our society. Watch this blog for further discussion of how I intend to work towards these goals in coming months.Daniel.


  4. “I now consider the predominant problem with unions to be that of monopoly […] Surely, a greater number of unions within each industry would provide for fairer outcomes.”I reached that conclusion about a year and a half ago myself – albeit from a different starting point (eliminating some of the complaints about Unions, which I see as a necessary counterbalance to the political power large business increasingly posesses)Regd random agents – I wasn’t entirely referring to Unions as such – more a train of thought sparked from unions that terminated with that question. I’ve always thought powerful random/chaotic agents in systems tend to spur those systems to greater ends 🙂 Is Economics as darwinian in nature as I’ve always been led to believe? ( which is of course a nonsense question – you’ve no idea how I’ve been led to believe… ignore everything after “in nature”)Standing as an independent is a long shot yeah – unfortunately the party system is so ingrained in our political tradition (although thankfully not explicit in the federal constitution as yet) that to overturn the party political system would require a party! (or tanks. or battlemechs… mmm mechs) I applaud your desire to increase political awareness and combat apathy. I’m very cynical of your chances though, not because of you, understand, but rather the average Joes of Australia… Good luck, you’ll need it!(parethetical trains of thought are a product of thinking too much in computer terms [nested parenthesese are even worse]. Avoid at all costs – it can get confusing!)


  5. Is economics darwinian in nature?How so? If you mean, does economic theory evolve in a darwinian fashion, then I’d have to say yes. After all, everything does.As for random forces, the thing about economics is that it tries to predict what will happen. Random forces are an obvious irritant to that (oil price shocks are a common one. I have lost count of how many times I’ve had to study the 1970s oil shock [aren’t nested parentheses fun?]).My point is that, if there are sizeable forces in play, then unless they are (nearly) truly random economics will attempt to explain them. Models which do so more successfully will produce more accurate results and thus have a greater likelihood of being taught to the next generation of economists. Assuming of course that you can pass the other tests – easy to use (many brilliant models require measurements that are just too impractical to collect) and useful for policy makers (since otherwise you don’t get any grant funding and no one cares about you).I should point out that I am only an undergrad and thus my knowledge of economics research is more than a little skewed.Actually, I believe an outside force (of a non-violent nature) would have a greater impact on the party-structure than a an inside-force would. If only becaues an inside-force would be even more likely to be ignored by the general public.I also think that many politically savvy people underestimate the general public. Joe Average is more than capable of realising when he’s been led astray. He just doesn’t have the time to do all the fact checking himself. What’s needed is a greater availability of information and superior checks to ensure that politicians can not intentionally mislead us. For a start, political advertising should be as subject to consumer protection laws as commercial advertising is.Thanks for the luck. I’ll take whatever I can get.


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