After its formal closure in 1988, Old Parliament House in Canberra became a museum of sorts. Its guides, most of them people who had once worked in the building, gave walking tours to parties of visitors and tourists. Rather than recite from a script, the guides told first-hand stories from their own observations and experiences. They started their tours in Kings Hall, visited the chambers of the House of Representatives and the Senate, and then proceeded to the cabinet room. The guides loved the old place so much they worked without pay.
In February this year, the Special Minister of State, Senator John Faulkner, announced that Old Parliament House was to become the Museum of Australian Democracy. He appointed the actor William McInnes as chair of the new administration. Instead of consulting the guides, the government employed consultants to advise it on the content.
In May, the guides were summoned to a meeting and told they would have to change their ways. From now on, the tours would be conducted under new rules. Where the guides went and what they said would now be dictated by the administration.
The guides could no longer begin their tours in Kings Hall in the centre of the building. Instead they would start at the site of the old post office and, in place of the cabinet room, they would take visitors to the old kitchens.
The first of the twelve guides to resign because of the change left that day. The rest left on May 9, the day the changeover came. They took particular exception to being told what they could and could not say.
The Museum of Australian Democracy went wrong from the beginning. It is worse than a mere disappointment. It purports to tell the story of the Australian development of representative institutions, but does so with a chip on its shoulder. On some issues, it seeks to change the fundamental nature of our Constitution.
Many of the museum’s displays are interactive. They offer touch-screens that pose questions and invite responses. All of them question the way democracy functions in Australia. All of them suggest that the way we are governed needs fixing. Disguised as polling, they undermine the Constitution and belief in our institutions.
Taken together they look like a conspiracy, although it is just as plausible to argue that they represent the naivety of those who devised the exhibits and their ignorance of the political process, or, as they say nowadays, both of the above. They collect the views of those with little or no understanding of the processes of government, and marshal them into arguments for unnecessary and undesirable change.
But let us begin with the good bit. Around the walls in the first gallery are the views of eminent Australians presented in epigrammatic form. One of them is outstandingly sensible, the contribution of the historian Geoffrey Blainey:
Australia won democracy with relative ease in a series of bloodless steps. We tend to take it for granted and to think that it is an easy system to operate. It is not, however, so easily operated. In fact it depends partly on a society which emphasises individual responsibility as much as individual rights.
After that, the legends become more aphoristic and less profound. Sir Robert Menzies: “Democracy is the greatest system of government yet devised by man. But it has weaknesses and its dangers. So far from lessening the responsibilities on the individual, it magnifies them.” Gough Whitlam: “All governments in a democracy involve compromise.” Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Malcolm Fraser: “Democracy is the only form of government that respects human rights and human dignity.”
The museum has turned the former cabinet room into a forum for visitors to consider three issues: John Curtin’s withdrawal of Australian troops from the Middle East during the Second World War; the attempt by Menzies to ban the Communist Party (lost on appeal to Britain’s Privy Council); and the arrival of refugee boat people on Australian shores. Whether the banning of the Communist Party and the treatment of boat people are issues of such central importance to Australian democracy is highly dubious. The museum presents the recall of our troops during the war entirely from Curtin’s perspective. The views of Australia’s wartime allies, some of whom were contemptuous of Curtin’s decision, are not presented for debate.
The questions asked by the museum’s interactive voting devices are also highly contentious. Indeed, they all seem determined to persuade visitors that changing the Constitution is a good idea.
Should Australia have a Bill of Rights? That was a concept that seemed a good idea at the time, in the wake of the Second World War and the German death camps. It set a standard to aspire to, and by which governments could be judged. The best guarantee of individual rights, however, is a freely elected government, and especially a government such as that of Australia which has devised complicated voting systems to produce an excessively representative government.
But “Bill of Rights” has a persuasive sound to it. A few days ago, museum visitors had voted 56 per cent Yes to the question, “Should Australia have a Bill of Rights?”, 29 per cent No, with 14 per cent unsure. That is to say, the museum makes it look as if most Australians want to hand over a share of the power held by an elected government to unelected lawyers who will impose their views, at the bar and on the bench, over the parliament, and as individuals make a lot of money.
The museum is clearly sorry that Aborigines did not get the vote through campaigns of violence that cost lives, as in the United States. It has also done its best to generate an impression of injustice to Aborigines. There is the tent embassy, the march across Sydney Harbour Bridge in 2000, and Kevin Rudd saying sorry as his first parliamentary act as prime minister.
Within this loaded context, the interactive screen asks: “Are Australians equal?” But what does equal mean? Do Aborigines have equal rights under the law, including the right to vote? Of course they do. Do other Australians believe they should? Of course they do, as the overwhelming support for the 1967 referendum transferring authority over Aborigines from the states to the Commonwealth demonstrated.
Are Aborigines behind other Australians in their economic and social development? Yes, but the taxpayer spends huge amounts of money on their welfare—$673 million in the last Budget—and of course they are economically and socially backward, having successfully sought and imposed on themselves a form of apartheid, even to the extent of educating children in Aboriginal languages instead of English.
There is a section on women’s suffrage and the fight for the vote, which women received in South Australia in the nineteenth century. The struggle never happened, and as issues arise, there are elaborate processes for dealing with them.
So to the question, “Do you believe you have a voice?” the response was Yes 64 per cent, No 22 per cent and Unsure 12 per cent. “Would you have voted for federation?” drew Yes 76 per cent, No 13 per cent and Unsure 10 per cent.
How is it that 22 per cent of Museum visitors don’t believe women have an equal voice with men, and how is it that 13 per cent don’t believe we should have a federated country? Is the museum picking up those people who are by nature contrary, or who cannot understand a question, and putting their views forward as considered and valuable?
Let’s move on to the section on rebellions, and its references to Magna Carta, Oliver Cromwell, Thomas Paine, George Washington, and the French Revolution. The tenor of the display is that revolutions are a good thing. The computer then asks: “Do you think rebellion is ever justified?” Yes, say 64 per cent, No say 20 per cent, and not sure say 15 per cent.
Are they answering a question about rebellions in Australia, in the past, anywhere in the world, today? It would be useful to know to which of those questions the museum visitors were responding. Perhaps those who believe in rebellions in Australia today might leave their fingerprints on a register.
“Should citizens pay taxes?” Yes, say 57 per cent; No, say 34 per cent; Unsure, say 7 per cent. What? Is it really the case that one person in every three believes we shouldn’t pay taxes?
“Should a government be allowed to ban a book?” (or by inference a DVD, a film and so on?) Yes, say 27 per cent; No, say 61 per cent; Unsure say 10 per cent. But are we talking here about the censorship of literature with an erotic content, or instruction manuals for terrorists?
Finally, the museum asks visitors: “Should Australia become a republic?” Yes, say 60 per cent; No, say 39 per cent. That’s unequivocal enough, but when during the referendum debate discussion began about what sort of republic, support evaporated.
Should the president be elected, or appointed in some other way, perhaps chosen by a vote in the parliament? What should be the powers of the president? Should they be the same as those of the governor-general, which are extensive but rarely exercised? Should the president become an executive president like presidents mostly are, and would this tend to happen anyway if the president had a popular mandate, at the expense of the prime minister and of governments formed in the parliament? The vote was lost overall and in every state and territory, vindicating the former Governor-General Bill Hayden, whose pithy comment was: “It won’t happen. It’s too hard.”
At one stage in the development of the displays, the museum referred to the Queen as the Queen of England and as head of state. She is not. Her status in this country is the Queen of Australia. The head of state, with powers to summon and dismiss parliament, and holding the position of Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Defence Force, is the governor-general. Fortunately, that display was changed.
The essence of parliamentary democracy, and what makes it so successful, is not the methods of voting, but the fact that heads of government, if they don’t work out, are easy to get rid of. They are voted out at an election, or lose the confidence of the parliament, or of their party.
In most republics, the departure of the president is usually attended by all sorts of dramas. The mechanisms for saying farewell to a leader who is both head of state and head of government are rarely well defined. Presidents who have had the job for twenty-five or thirty years are not at all uncommon, even today. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak has been there for twenty-eight years, since the assassination of Anwar Sadat, and Muammar Gaddafi has run Libya for forty years. In a parliamentary democracy, with the functions separated, it is not necessary to hold a pillow over the head of a sick man, or impeach him, or just put up with economic and social stagnation.
The Museum of Australian Democracy doesn’t bother itself with such niceties—how, for example, you might run a country without revenues, or the impact on parliamentary authority of a bill of rights. What would be the human rights of rebels who set about achieving their goals through violence? Just keep it simple, and stupid.
The cases for a bill of rights and for becoming a republic both remain firmly on the museum’s agenda. So is that what Professor Davison meant when he said democracy was not just a precious heritage, but a history still in the making?
Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy had been proposing that Old Parliament House become a museum to tell the story of the growth in Australia of parliamentary institutions. The proposal became feasible when the portrait gallery moved to its new building on the lakefront. The museum as a whole is reminiscent of an old school curriculum. It starts with the Chartists’ agitation after the Reform Act of 1832 when limited suffrage was introduced in Britain. There is nothing much that is new, insightful, or relevant, except for Blainey’s point, that we didn’t have to fight for parliamentary representation.
The interactive touch-screen polling is copied from the “Newseum” media museum in Arlington, Virginia, where the polling is on the issues of the day. As adapted by the Museum of Australian Democracy, it is a bad idea. If the questions were about current issues, of which there are plenty, it would make more sense. Emissions trading, stem cell research, climbing Ayers Rock, speed cameras, recycling water, a federal takeover of state hospitals, are all issues on which one could expect a lively response. What about uranium mining and nuclear power stations? Continuous polling on such issues might actually be useful.
Is this museum as now constituted the fault of the Rudd government? Almost certainly not. Blame the bureaucrats, the consultants and the academics who created the museum. Is it the fault of our educational institutions, where postmodernism and the Left agenda have been a worry for years? Yes, because that is what has produced the people who made the museum.
What should be done? If the museum wants to know what people think today, give them the issues of today to play with on the touch-screens, and pose the questions in neutral language. The battle for rights and freedoms in Australia never had to be fought, not for parliamentary democracy, not for female equality, not for political rights for Aboriginals, and is well and truly over. By reviving issues from the distant past, the museum is taking us backwards.