Chapter 36 - The Task of Democracy

Posted in The Forgotten People

If I were writing a treatise on this great problem I would need to occupy many broadcasts, and your patience, so freely extended to me for nearly a year, would be exhausted. But this will be no treatise. It has been my experience that the most complex problems turn upon one or two pivotal matters, and that once these are understood, question moves rapidly towards answer.

As my previous talks have shown, I, like you, am aware of the weakness of democracy, of its occasional stupidities and shallowness, its temptation to prefer the rabble-rousing spell binder, its habit of giving way to envy, hatred, malice and all uncharitableness. But, giving all this in, I believe in democracy as the only method of government which can produce justice based upon a recognition of enduring human values. The nonsense that is talked, of our choice being between fascism and communism, has never appealed to thoughtful men of our race. For our tradition is of freedom, not of dictatorship - whether the dictatorship be that of one man, a Führer or a Duce, or of what left-wing people, with their passion for long words, call the proletariat. Of us Australian people it will be written, "They were born democrats; as democrats they died."

But democracy's task will not be performed by a race which merely says, "We thank Thee, Lord, that we are not as other men." It will not be performed by men who look complacently at the past and who avoid looking with clear eyes at a troubled future. Our destiny will not be achieved by wordy phrases and empty but resounding promises of a new heaven and a new earth. William Blake, in his famous poem, sung as a hymn in many churches, said:

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England's green and pleasant land.

This is a great verse. It sees that fighting by the sword and fighting by the mind must go side by side. We cannot leave war to the soldiers and the problems of peace to chance. We must think hard if we are not to find that a war has been won and a peace lost.

What, then, must democracy do if it is to be a real force in the new world? In my opinion, two things. Its must recapture the vision of the good of man as the purpose of government. And it must restore the authority and prestige of Parliament as the supreme organic expression of self-government. Let me take them in their order.

What is the good of man? This is the oldest of philosophic questions. It admits of a variety of answers. To some advanced political thinkers (I think that is the right expression) it involves making the citizen a pensioner of the State from the cradle to the grave. This is, to adopt a phrase of Mr J L Garvin, the very ecstasy of national suicide. I do not want my children and their children to be dependants upon the State: I should much prefer the State to be dependent, to some degree, upon them. The fallacy of this ideal of universal pensioning is that it assumes that the State has unlimited resources which have only to be tapped for all of us to live in ease and comfort for ever. But the State has no resources except those that its citizens create or make available. You cannot have a strong State made up of weak men, or a generous State in which nobody has worked and saved so that there is something to give.

The best and strongest community is not that in which everybody looks to his neighbour hoping for something from him, but that in which every one looks to his neighbour, willing and able to do something for him. In brief, we achieve the good of man when we help and encourage him to be a man - strong, self-reliant, intelligent, independent, sympathetic and generous.

Teach us the strength that cannot seek,
By deed or thought, to hurt the weak;
That, under Thee, we may possess,
Man's strength to succour man's distress.

This means that in the new world we must seek to develop all the intelligence and strength and character in every child. Each one of them must have his chance. We must spend much more on education; we must show that discipline is not the enemy of freedom but its best friend; we must get to know that at least as much genius is to be found and nurtured in Collingwood and Bankstown as in Toorak or Bellevue Hill; that in any event it is better to be a poor man furnished with ability and conscience than to be an advertised member of the "wealthy lower orders". We must alter our standards of value. The Twelve Apostles are amongst the immortals, yet they were poor men as the world calculates wealth.

When the war is won, for every hundred boys and girls who now pass into higher schools and universities there must be a thousand. Lack of money must be no impediment to bright minds. The almost diabolical skill of men's hands in the last forty years must be supplemented by a celestial skill of men's minds and a generosity of men's hearts if we are not to be destroyed by the machines of our creation. In common with other members of Parliament, I must increasingly realize that my constituents are not seventy thousand votes, but seventy thousand men and women for whose welfare and growth I have some responsibility. To develop every human being to his fullest capacity for thought, for action, for sacrifice and for endurance is our major task; and no prejudice, stupidity, selfishness or vested interest must stand in the way.

And to do all this, as a democracy, we must restore to Parliament its authority and responsibility. During 1942 we have been governed by regulations - so far almost five hundred of them - most of them representing the passing will of one or two men. That there must be great executive power in time of war I, as the author of the National Security Act, will be the last to deny. But we must be careful not to slip into the habit of accepting easily and permanently executive legislation.

Parliament is for the time being in the discard. We meet occasionally to pass budgets and estimates; we mildly criticize, and we listen to exhortations; we bow our heads to censorship, hoping that it is all for the best. But parliamentary government is in suspense, and the Executive is in charge; even the law courts inevitably bow to its discretion and judgment.

When the war ends, this too must end. Our rulers must feel the cold wind of public opinion. The minister must cease to be the absolute master and become in truth the servant. Parliament must be recruited from the best we have, and politics once more become a noble and glorious vocation.

There is a quite natural cynicism about these matters which we must overcome. It is dangerous, even though it is quite natural, that we should shrug our shoulders contemptuously when we see the posturing of much-photographed nonentities and listen to the resounding echoes made by tub-thumpers.

The truth is that ever since the wise men gathered about the village tree in the Anglo-Saxon village of early England, the notion of free self-government has run like a thread through our history. The struggle for freedom led an English Parliament to make war on its King and execute him at the seat of government, confined the kingship itself to a parliamentary domain, established the cabinet system and responsibility, set in place the twin foundation stones of the sovereignty of Parliament and the rule of law on which our whole civil edifice is built.

"The sovereignty of Parliament." That is a great phrase and a vital truth. If only we could all understand it to the full, what a change we would make! Sovereignty is the quality of kingship, and democracy brings it to the poor man's door.

Let me end with a note of warning. We must beware of cheap substitutes for the rule of Parliament. We must resist the rule of any sectional body, whether the employers' association or the trades union.

There is some tendency today, as there was in the Italy of the early Mussolini, to organize the community by giving to each trade or industry a separate collectivist control of itself through the employers and employees engaged in it. At first sight, this seems reasonable. But second sight will tell us that the most important person is the party of the third part - the member of the general public. He must never surrender his rights. The community is greater than the trade or the business or the craft. There can be no substitute in a democracy for a free and representative Parliament which thinks in broad terms, and makes our own laws for our own purposes as a free people.

13 November, 1942