Time for a new way (2) Peter Henning

Reproduced from Tasmanian Times

“Freedom is actually the reason that men live together in political organizations at all.  Without it, political life as such would be meaningless. The raison d’etre of politics is freedom, and its field of experience is action.” (Hannah Arendt)

LAST WEEK I attempted to put a case for the need to reshape Tasmania’s political landscape and to refashion the direction Tasmania is going: Tasmania: Time for a New Way

I suggested that 2009 presents an opportunity for the development of a coalition of political forces which understands the vital importance of the interconnections between the social-environmental-economic.

The response to what I wrote indicates that it is clear that there are multiple voices within Tasmania’s diverse communities who recognize the importance and the urgency of a new political direction.

My closest neighbour, a farmer and labourer for all his working life, now in his early 50s, told me last week how he was dismayed that it was now apparent that the policies pursued by the Labor-Liberal accord (LLA) would ensure that the legacy of the current adult Tasmanian generations would guarantee a degraded heritage for our children and grandchildren.

My neighbour is no political ideologue.  He does not have a computer.  He has no savings.  He cannot afford a lawn mower.  He is frugal, practical and self sufficient.  He has to be.  But he knows he has no political representation from the LLA.  He grows much of his own food.  He uses fuel sparingly. He loves Tasmanian birds.  He has spent much time eliminating European wasps from our collective local environment in the last few years.  As Tasmania slides into recession, or depression, he will be minimally affected.  Ironically, he will be there to help others.  His life has prepared him for that.

In the range of responses to Tasmania: Time for a New Way, both on TT and by private communication, the key message was overwhelmingly affirmative, but seeking ways and means.


Understanding the political cultural context is important.  As a way of introducing that, having a quick scan of the names of those who responded on TT, it is quickly apparent that they are representative, in a collective sense, of the tip of the iceberg of an awareness of the malaise in the Tasmanian polity. Diverse to say the least.  No group-think in that lot.

These are not people who subscribe to a caucus mentality of uniformity and conformity by agreement to limit freedom of speech.

If you think about it, that’s an interesting contrast with current Tasmanian political orthodoxies.  Just consider for a moment what freedom of speech means.  Or should mean.  Members of the LLA are not free to speak.  They are bound by a group-think mentality called caucus.  Aided and abetted by the media, of course, who grab on any shift from caucus conformity as a sign of impending party collapse, rather than an incipient sign of – maybe, just maybe – a worthwhile discussion.

The fact is that the caucus mentality in Tasmania (and Australia in general) is extreme by comparison with many other systems which have contested elections.  Neither of the major parties in the US even come close.  Party politics in the US has its problems, but the vigorous public debates between Clinton and Obama in the struggle for the Democratic Party nomination for the presidency are in stark contrast with the way the caucus mentality holds sway in our system.

In the US Congress it is common for senators and representatives to cross party lines.  This makes for a much more robust political debate, for the greater likelihood of the acceptance of pluralism and respect for alternative viewpoints.  Again, this is not to say that the American party system is without flaws, but that any political party system which allows more discussion and debate is always going to be stronger and more resilient in its democratic processes than one which imposes strict caucus discipline.

Strict caucus conformity is an important characteristic of authoritarian regimes and should have no place in a polity like Tasmania.

Party politics in a democratic society should promote public participation and pluralism.  The way the LLA party system operates in Tasmania is the opposite.  It stifles debate, it vilifies, it ostracises, it demeans, it threatens and it expels.  The way the party system operates in Tasmania is to limit public participation, to reduce it, to inhibit pluralism, to suspect and reject.

The party political system in Tasmania has been described as a “tinsel democracy”, and that is especially true in the sense that it is exacerbating the existing fragilities of democratic processes in clear and deliberate ways, and has been doing so systematically for some time.

Bartlett, Hodgman and the rank of LLA politicians in both houses of the Tasmanian parliament would scoff, as would those who dishonestly call themselves independents. Who among the “independent” MLCs can really claim to be independents?  Some can, but in reality how many of them are just proxy candidates for the LLA?

In the interests of democracy perhaps it should be mandatory that so-called “independent” members of parliament put on the public record how they vote so we all know what their “independence” really means. The question is simple.  Who do they vote for when they’re not voting for themselves?  For example, who did they vote for in the last federal election, or who will they vote for in the 2010 Tasmanian election for the House of Assembly?

The real question about “independents” is whether or not they are merely de facto, non-card carrying members of the LLA caucus system anyway, but masquerade in their role and construct an image of independence which is a façade.

In seeking to move towards a new direction for Tasmania, the current reality and context of a rigid caucus party system cannot be ignored, and nor can the additional odd quirk of a house of review containing a majority of opaque “independent” members.

The current reality must be acknowledged because the political culture enshrined in the caucus mentality is part and parcel of public perception of the system and how it works, of “how the game is played here”.  The culture of caucus conformity, of rigidity, is transferred from the party system to the broader community in terms of discourse and political interaction.  The public discourse is influenced by the political culture, often to the extent of mimicking or mirroring it.  For example, any critic of the Labor-Liberal accord knows immediately that they will be subject to some sort of attempt to silence them, whether it be Warwick Raverty or the Weegana spray victims, or anyone else who dissents.

The means used to try to silence critics are much the same as those used to “encourage caucus conformity” - character assassination, vilification, ridicule, marginalization and labeling, to name some.

That is the public context, the social context of the Tasmanian polity.  Anyone seeking a new direction for Tasmania’s future must acknowledge that the pressures for social conformity are immense.  To speak, to advocate – even about such things as clean air and sustainable water supply – is to invite all kinds of invective.

The question of “how”? cannot ignore this conformism, this fear to be a democrat in a democracy which infects our public spaces.

One modern writer who spent much of her life trying to resolve this question was Hannah Arendt.  Arendt (1906-1975) was a German Jew forced to flee Nazism in the 1930s.  She was lucky to escape from detention in France in 1941 and reach the United States.  As a witness and a victim of how totalitarianism can replace democracy Arendt was always suspicious of political philosophy which was not connected with the real and the immediate.

For Arendt “the raison d’etre of politics is freedom, and its field of experience is action”.  To act meant to her to begin, to set something in motion.  “It is the nature of beginning that something new is started which cannot be expected from whatever happened before.”

Action cannot be justified for its own sake, but is an engagement of citizens in the public realm, where action corresponds to the human condition of plurality.  In practical terms Arendt advocated that it was only through direct political participation by individuals engaging in collective deliberation and common action that citizenship could be meaningful and political agency effective.

Her own life experiences persuaded her that political representation as a substitute for direct participation, based on bureaucratic parties and structures, always had the potential for the destruction of democracy, the transformation of any political system into the rulers and the ruled.

Arendt proposed a federated system of councils through which citizens could more effectively engage as participatory citizens.

Arendt’s ideas and model of how to connect political action and the exercise of effective political agency is posited here as useful for us in Tasmania because it stresses the fundamental importance of grassroots activism as the best reliable guarantor for strengthening democracy and working towards a better future.

In that sense her articulation of action as beginning, starting something new, is affirmative, I would argue, for those seeking to “democratize democracy” in Tasmania.

It is worth bearing in mind that the success of Barack Obama in his election as the US President in November last year owed much to the grassroots activism that occurred at the local level, that persisted through the length of the primaries and up until election day.

I would argue that Arendt’s federated councils are Obama’s local town, county and state citizen groups, and are northern Tasmania’s very own TAP organization, for “they began something new which cannot be expected from what happened before”.

Let me stick my neck out and say that TAP has only just started, and that while it may or may not change its name in the future, it is a grassroots political organization of the kind which Arendt argues is vital to the maintenance of a healthy democracy, and its members’ understanding of a whole range of public policy issues now extends well beyond matters associated with the pulp mill.  Many members of TAP have a more sophisticated understanding of the inter-relationships between the social-environmental-economic dynamics necessary to good policy formulation and implementation than LLA apparatchiks, regional media hacks, over-paid ministerial “advisers”, politicized bureaucrats and LLA politicians.

Now is the time to strengthen local “participatory citizenship” and a coalition of forces for a new way in Tasmania, and a further reaching out into the heartland of LLA support by exploring ways and means to show them (and enlist their support in stopping) what is happening in Tasmania’s water catchments.

Now is the time to offer an alternative print media of the kind which replicates and extends the invaluable contribution of Lindsay Tuffin’s TT (without him, where would we be?) to those who do not access online news and information, for they are the heartland which enabled the Labor Party to grow quickly from a marginal influence at the beginning of the 20th century to form federal government in their own right in 1913, only 12 years after federation.

Now is the time to remake those connections between the social-environmental that Jack Mundey began in the early 1970s.

Now is the time, and let us recall this is not a new struggle, but a continuing affirmation of the human condition.  “Men are free…as long as they act, neither before or after, for to be free and to act are the same”.  Hannah Arendt, I might add, also recognized that the “prioritization of the economic eclipsed the possibilities of meaningful political agency and the pursuit of higher ends which should be the proper role of government”.

If “the raison d’etre of politics is freedom, and its field of experience is action”, what does it mean to be an activist?  In the words of a fellow Tasmanian, Pete Hay, an activist “is to be truly adult; to insist upon good and right behaviour, to be morally autonomous, to identify, name and confront all that is an offence against ethical principle.  It is to partake of a collectively constructed ethical life – to think one’s own thoughts, to mediate these in converse with others – and, the way once determined, to act”.

Let’s get our act together, together, together.

Peter Henning


Newton & Hay, The Forests, 2007
Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951; The Human Condition 1958; various online sources for Arendt.



Hi Tappers,
Please pass on to Peter Henning my thanks for his two articles “Tasmania- Time for a New Way” and “Time for a New Way (2)” - published on your web site. They hit the spot (in a similar way that Richard Flannagan’s ‘Out of Control’  did for me)
It’s  so good to hear or read the words that  most people are afraid to say.  I found them confirming and inspiring – at a time when some of us can be overwhelmed with the enormity of everything  and prone to becoming un-grounded at times.
With best Regards,