Are there lessons to be learnt? Well, of course there are, but as so often happens, the measures that immediately occurred to people were probably the wrong ones. More and better fences, more heavily armed police and troops on hand, more restrictions on social media access, classifying more groups as “terrorists”, tougher laws and penalties – all these things that tend to entrench fear and division in a society are at best temporary expedients, nor solutions.
We in Australia are, of course, very lucky. We have a deeply rooted civil society. The military stays out of politics. The police are rarely used to political ends. Our “safety nets” don’t entirely prevent the formation of disadvantaged underclass groups, but there’s still a pretty good level of social mobility by world standards. We have issues with racism and demonisation of some ethnic and religious groups, but they are at least “submerged” attitudes, not socially acceptable to most of the community most of the time. Historically, the right-wing militias of the interwar years died of their own absurd posturing, the courts stopped Menzies banning the communists, Gough Whitlam went peacefully if not quietly, and the anti-war demos of the ’60s actually succeeded at the ballot box in the end. We’ve come through our crises peacefully. Can we learn anything from the Trump saga that will help keep up that record?
Here are a few things that I think are relevant to Australia. First, the importance of education, and particularly liberal education. America has many of the finest schools and universities in the world, of course. But to the outsider looking in, it does seem to be a two-class system. For many decades there’s been plenty of talk about the decay of public education in the US, but that doesn’t seem to have arrested it. Too many states and cities seem to provide good schools to their middle classes but the bare minimum to farming communities or poor suburbs. It is hard to believe that so many Americans could have fallen for slogans, conspiracy theories, demagoguery or downright lies if they had ever learnt any serious history or how to analyse a text or dissect an argument. I know this is a very 19th-century thought, but the purpose of education is to produce educated people, not simply people who are “job-ready” for the sort of work fate has assigned to them. We in Australia have to be careful that we educate all-comers to participate knowledgably in their society and not simply in the job market.
Second, we must preserve an independent judiciary. The blatant stacking of superior courts with political allies of the government destroys confidence in the system, as we have seen. We don’t really have any protection from this in Australia, except for tradition. We must therefore be watchful. Much the same could be said of the heads of the public service. Once upon a time they stayed in place despite changes in government, but we have seen a growing tendency for incoming ministers to get rid of senior public servants and bring in others more aligned with their party platform. For all the faults of Sir Humphrey, however, a professional public service, not beholden to the government of the day, is a strength of our system worth safeguarding.
Third, and this is significant in Australia, we have to stick up for politicians who sometimes cross the floor. Votes “on party lines” are already too prevalent in Australia, in my opinion. Watching the Brexit debates, it has been instructive to see how many Tories voted against their own government and those Labour members who voted against the direction of their leader. Equally, it has been instructive to see how few Washington Republicans have felt free to express an opinion critical of their party’s man. Essentially, it has only been some Senators who don’t face election for six years. “My party, right or wrong” is an abdication of the responsibility we give to our representatives in parliament to engage intelligently with the issues of the day.
There are other things to watch, of course, such as the quality and variety of news services, the hazards of personality politics – let alone celebrity politics – and the dangers of gun culture among others. I do like to believe that what happened in the US between 2016 and now couldn’t happen here, and I don’t think it could, but the biggest lesson of all is that the strength of our democracy mustn’t be taken for granted and we must keep an eye on some potential weak spots.