Most Victorians wouldn’t have a clue what you were talking about if you said Premier Daniel Andrews was acting like King Charles I.
Coronavirus or not, the government of the state of Victoria – with its arbitrary police arrests, the locking of people in their homes and the bankrupting of their businesses by executive decree, and the suspension of Parliament to avoid any measure of public scrutiny of the government’s actions – now has more in common with rule exercised by the imagined authority of the divine right of kings rather than with any notion of liberal democracy.
Because so much of the Melbourne establishment – including its business elites, its cultural leaders, and particularly the legal profession – as well as Victoria’s media have supported Andrews for as long as they have, they’re reluctant to acknowledge this truth.
Paul Keating famously declared the upper house of the Federal Parliament to be “unrepresentative swill”, but when Parliament isn’t there, you notice it – which is the situation now in Victoria.
This week, when Andrews, after spending the last six months trying to shut down the State Parliament, said he wanted to recall Parliament so his emergency powers could be extended for 12 months, it started to finally dawn on Victorians that enough was enough. In a poll of 1000 Victorians commissioned by the Institute of Public Affairs, 60 per cent of participants said the Victorian Parliament should continue to sit during the COVID-19 pandemic, 12 per cent said it should not, and 28 per cent had no opinion.
That’s an overwhelming result. But if Australians took their parliamentary democracy more seriously, the poll result might have been even more overwhelming.
Taking the country’s parliamentary democracy more seriously requires, for a start, knowing where it comes from. And that is a topic almost entirely absent from Australia’s education system.
Practically every aspect of the Westminster-style parliamentary democracy of the Australian Commonwealth and of the states derives from the English Civil War and its consequences.
Yet in the Australian national curriculum – which is compulsory for all schools, government and non-government, to teach – there is no reference to the English Civil War. There are many mentions of Gandhi, Rosa Parks and Eddie Mabo – but none of Charles I, or Cromwell, let alone Pym or Hampden. (It’s sometimes forgotten that dead white European males did have some role in the creation of Australia’s democracy.)
Lack of historical understanding
Today the average Australian 16-year-old would be shocked to discover that British history is responsible for something other than colonialism and slavery.
The absence of the origins of our parliamentary system from the education of young Australians is not an accident. One of the authors of the national curriculum notoriously dismissed the relevance of the English Civil War to this country by claiming it was “arguably just a series of confused and confusing localised squabbles that may have a special significance for UK history, but not for anybody else (unless they like dressing up in period costume)”.
Comments such as this betray precisely the same lack of historical understanding being bequeathed to Australian students.
There’s another reason too why the English Civil War has no place in the nation’s classrooms.
It has come to be profoundly unfashionable to argue that democratic rights are not the gift of the governments and the United Nations, but are instead inalienable to a country’s citizens. (As is to be expected, under the national curriculum Australian students are taught a lot about the UN.)
The situation is no better in our universities. In 2017, the IPA surveyed all 746 history subjects that were taught in the 35 Australian universities that offered history programs. There were 41 subjects that taught the history of cinema and film, while 69 subjects examined the history of gender. Seventeen subjects covered British history, and of those only seven dealt in any way with the English Civil War.
In other words, only 1 per cent of all history subjects offered by Australian universities dealt with the period of British history from which our parliamentary democracy was derived.
One of the benefits of that parliamentary democracy is that, compared with the fate that befell Charles I, elections are a better way of dealing with overmighty rulers.