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“I wouldn’t give you two cents for all your fancy rules if, behind them, they didn’t have a little bit of plain, ordinary, everyday kindness and a little looking out for the other fella, too.”– James Stewart as Mr. Smith
Illusions of democracy
It’s 1939. America is still suffering from the aftermath of the great depression, Europe is on the brink of war, and Mr. Smith goes to Washington. For the uninitiated, the latter refers to the movie that launched James Stewart as a major star and is still on most top 100 movies lists.
Mr. Smith is the accidental Senator who goes to Washington without a clue and becomes the rebel who exposes blatant corruption on Capitol Hill. In his naivety he launches a bill to set up a national boys camp on land in his home state, unexpectedly receiving massive support from the public. He is unaware his fellow Senator and mentor – Joseph Paine – is in on a scheme to develop an irrigation dam on the same land, subject to the passing of another bill in the Senate. Paine and his business cronies stand to make millions and do everything they can to stop Mr. Smith and his bill.
Water rights and corruption is a theme explored in many other movies – most notably the epic “Chinatown” in 1974. But it is the depiction of the blatant cronyism and obvious corruption director Frank Capra puts on display which seems so eerily familiar 80 years later; especially as our very own “Watergate” scandal seems to run deeper. We can only hope there will be a reckoning in our Parliament. Although it is hard to envision the slippery Angus Taylor finally admitting to any sins as dramatically as the suave Joseph Paine does before the closing credits of the movie classic.
Another mirror of what we witness daily on our mainstream media is the way Senator Paine is merely a puppet of the media magnate Jim Taylor (no relation to Angus) – a bully who controls most of the newspapers in the state and spreads fake news about Mr. Smith. Sounds familiar?
In a recent piece on media failures and politics I referred to how Keith Murdoch used his papers and his power to make and almost break a Prime Minister – Joseph Lyons – in the thirties. So when we decry the way mainstream media selectively reports and writes to serve their own interests today, and lament the far to close relationship between Government, politicians and business, we also need to recognise how little things have changed.
Corruption and cronyism in Parliament is nothing new. And fake news has been around since the day the first newspaper was printed in Strasbourg in 1605.
We live in illusions of democracy. Every few years we go to the polls and do our democratic duty, then we watch our politicians attack each other rather than respectfully debate issues that matter to our nation. Political commentary is not much different to the sports reports, as we allow our senses to be dulled by the spectacle, ignoring the substance.
It is the system that is broken. Our democracy is under the absolute control of the political operatives and their moneyed masters – the donors, the bagmen, the lobbyists and the media king makers. Just like Mr. Smith had to learn the hard way. It is a lesson we, the people, seem to have to learn again and again until one day – and that day is drawing closer – it may be too late.
It is a system that has not changed materially for hundreds of years, whilst everything else has. It is steeped in ancient conventions established in a world where white men of property were the divine rulers, when horse and cart was a luxury and reading the papers mostly confined to the literate elite.
Our system of democracy was designed for a time when men got together to debate in rooms full of cigar smoke, the claret decanted by black servants and women mere child bearing underlings of limited consequence.
The Australian variant of democracy was designed when the federation was a established and our states had just ceded their sovereignty. Having a senate was important then, now it is merely a chamber of political obfuscation.
And although the intentions were to have the elected representatives of the people writing the laws of the land, the advent of the political parties soon usurped control. The only thing “modern” in our democracy is how we now elect party delegates, not representatives – the majority of them lawyers – beholden first and foremost to their party and the ecosystem that sustains it, to their constituents in name only.
Or as Mr. Smith put it – it is the “political machine that rules”. Democracy reform is long overdue, and unless we start reforming we cannot expect any different outcomes – the machine will continue to rule and democracy remain an illusion of the freedoms we will eventually no longer enjoy.