Guest Notes

Democratic Notes

26 October 2019

9:00 AM

26 October 2019

9:00 AM

Let’s start with the usual disclaimers. Neither Donald Trump nor Boris Johnson are ideal leaders or paragons of virtue. And they are no oil paintings either!

What the UK and the US currently have in common, however, is that the 2016 US election result and the 2016 UK referendum vote on Brexit are both unacceptable to the established forces that normally, whatever the results of particular elections, control the day-to-day administration of the UK and the US. This is why Trump and Johnson are the subject of constant litigation and inquiries designed to overturn those earlier electoral outcomes. The hallmark of their opponents, however, is that they are indifferent to the results of elections.

No one begrudges the opponents of Trump and Johnson their views or suggests that they should not be able to campaign against them to their hearts’ content at the next election. In Trump’s case, this will be in little over twelve months’ time and Johnson has asked the opposition forces in the parliament to agree to an election now but they have refused. It is the continual attempts to by-pass the electoral process that underline the contempt these groups have for the verdicts of the general community.

Does anyone now acknowledge that the first half of Trump’s presidency was dominated by the Mueller inquiry into the so-called collusion between the Trump campaign and some never identified Russian agents? The inquiry was conducted over two years by a huge team of lawyers and found nothing.  This did not, however, for a moment disconcert the Democrats who have now commenced impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives. This is despite the fact that there is almost no realistic prospect of securing the two-thirds vote in the Senate that would be necessary to convict at the trial that follows impeachment by the House.

There have been calls in the US for the abolition of the electoral college on the basis that Trump’s narrow win there in the tally of the fifty states should not have been allowed to overcome a narrow loss in the total of the popular vote. But the US founding fathers always intended that there would be a balance between the popular vote and the size of different states. As it happens, the entire difference in the margin of the overall vote between Trump and Hillary Clinton can be accounted for by just one state in the form of California. Why should that outweigh a much more even spread of support for a candidate across the country generally?

In the case of the UK parliament, the opposition groups that now control it have destroyed the British negotiating position with the European Union by ruling out a no-deal Brexit and at the same time refusing to pass a no-confidence vote in the government so that this impasse could be resolved at a general election.  They have been aided in this exercise by the UK Supreme Court that ruled the government’s decision to suspend the parliament for five weeks as unlawful, despite this kind of decision having been considered for centuries a political question and beyond the jurisdiction of the courts. There are now calls for inquiries into Johnson’s conduct in various previous lifetimes, including his period as Lord Mayor of London.

These campaigns in the US and the UK are both targeted against what are in some ways conservative administrations but the only real analogy in Australian political history is the refusal of conservative groups to accept the election – twice – of the Whitlam Labor government between 1972 and 1975. The shock of losing the 1972 election after twenty three years of one-party rule seemed to unhinge the Liberal and National parties.

As in the case of Trump and Johnson, there are plenty of criticisms that can be made of Whitlam and of his government. But over the three years it was in office almost every significant piece of legislation was rejected by the senate and ministers were the subject of constant allegations of improper and illegal conduct, most particularly in relation to the so-called Loans Affair which, although the height of political stupidity, involved no illegality. A little over twelve months after the government’s election the senate blocked the budget bills in early 1974 and forced another election. The government was re-elected but nothing changed and the senate blocked the budget bills again in October 1975. On this occasion Whitlam refused to call an election and the government was dismissed by the Governor General, Sir John Kerr.

It was said by the Liberals and Nationals that all this was entirely democratic because it had resulted in an election where people could vote on who should be the government. But, as in the current situation in the UK and the US, this overlooks the fact that a government is elected for a particular term to administer the affairs of the nation and it is only a refusal to accept the earlier vote that has produced a campaign to overturn the result of the last election or, in the case of Brexit, the result of a nation-wide referendum.

As already noted, there might be plenty of reasons for voting against Trump and Johnson when they next face the voters but this is not the point of the current campaigns against them. What those campaigns demonstrate is that there are powerful forces in Western countries – the media, the bureaucracy, the intelligence agencies, the corporate sector – that can make it almost impossible for a government to function if large sections of those groups decide to resist its policies and, in the most extreme circumstances, work for its removal. In some parts of the world governments have been removed on occasions by military coup. The establishment forces in the West proceed in a more subtle fashion but they can be just as effective in frustrating the views of the general community as expressed in an election result.

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