Set This House In Order, Episode One: All, All Honourable Men — Transcript

G’day Australia.

Welcome to Episode One of Set This House In Order, on this first day of the year 2018. I’m Loki Carbis, thank you for joining me.

I’m very flattered by the strong response I had to the trailer episode. I know from reading the opinion polls that a lot of Australians are dissatisfied with the way things are in our politics, but how widespread that recognition is surprised me – why just this last week, a man was found not guilty of failing to vote after claiming that he found it “morally corrupt” (and Mr. Easton, by the way, if you’re listening, I’d love to have you on the podcast) Personally, it was very gratifying to find out how many other people out there would also like to see this problem fixed. I won’t let you down.

Now, for what it’s worth – given that I’m about to spend quite a number of weeks talking about it, I actually think our system is a pretty good one. In broad strokes, it does what it’s supposed to do, and it does it fairly well. But it’s not perfect, and its imperfections are only getting more problematic year by year – or more recent years, week by week.

I don’t intend to be partisan about this – while I do have a political stance, the problems I want to address in this podcast are more systemic rather than partisan. There’s very few issues I’ll be raising that don’t affect every politician, regardless of their affiliation. I recognise that it may at times seem like I’m unfairly targeting the current government, but that’s an inevitable structural bias of the system: the government attracts more complaints than the opposition because the government are the one actually doing things. To counteract this, if I have to address a matter arising from the current government’s actions, I’ll try to cite another example of the same thing done by a previous government or a different party, to provide some balance.

There’s no shortage of things we could try to fix in our system. Some fixes are minor and simple, some are large and complex, and arguably, some are more important than others. I don’t intend to worry much about that: an improvement is an improvement, and all the pieces matter. I will be talking about the difficulty of making the necessary changes and the possible benefits – and possible problems – of each reform, and giving my opinion on whether or not this is one that’s worth the effort of making – and I’m hoping I’ll hear your thoughts on the subject as well. You can contact me either at the podcast’s Facebook page, or at its web home, www.lokicarbis.net/house. Both these links will in the show notes.

Right. Enough preamble.

Today I want to talk about a fairly trivial reform – although it’s one people have been agitating for since at least Shakespeare’s day. That is, the use of the word Honourable in Parliament.

Under Australian law, Federal officials such as the Governor-General, the Prime Minister, the Speaker, the President of the Senate, and other ministers are entitled to be referred as “the Honourable” whatever their name is or “the Honourable Member for” whatever electorate they represent. The formal name for such a form of address is a style, and those eligible for the title are referred to as being styled that way. The Queen, for example, is styled Your Majesty.

In common usage in the house, almost everyone gets called the honourable member; in the Senate, the honourable Senator – although technically, the formal title is “Senator the Honourable”, hardly anyone uses that in the day to day business of the Senate. Which is fine, because they shouldn’t – but they use the other title when they shouldn’t too. Even the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate, who really should know better, frequently fall into this error, and Hansard is rife with it, especially when describing group actions – you’ll often find descriptions like “the honourable members applaud” or the like.

The problem with this is obvious: many of these people are conspicuously lacking in what non-politicians would understand to be honour. But there are secondary effects that make things worse.

First of all, it’s an unearned compliment. We Australians pride ourselves on giving credit where credit is due for a job well done – it seems to me that the flipside of that is that we shouldn’t be giving credit where none is due. But by calling our politicians Honourable – before they’ve had any chance to prove in Parliament whether or not they are, that’s exactly what we’re doing. And let’s face it, a lot of them already have over-developed egos – let’s not try to put out that fire by pouring petrol on it.

Secondly, it’s an incitement to hypocrisy for a class of Australian that rarely seems to need much convincing to be hypocritical in any case. If you know that whatever you do, you’re still going to called honourable, there’s that much less incentive to actually be honourable.

Thirdly, it’s an inefficiency. It wastes time, and Parliament is an institution that’s all too good at wasting time already. Sure, it’s only a few seconds every day, but any excuse for Parliament to waste time – time that you and I, as taxpayers, are paying for – is an excuse it shouldn’t have.

Fourthly, it debases our language. And while this might often seem to be one of Parliament’s primary functions in our national discourse, it really shouldn’t be. Not to mention that Parliament is massively outclassed by social media in this respect anyway.

Finally, it’s just a bad look. Big noting yourself always is. All it really achieves is to make our politicians sound like pompous, insincere windbags – which is not something most of them need much help with. I mean, the Taliban calls itself “the noble Taliban” and the Inquisition called itself “the holy inquisition”, and since clearly neither of them was actually those things, it passes all understanding why anyone with even half a brain would want to sound like them, even in such a small way.

I’ve looked around, and there’s really only one argument against ceasing the use of this honorific, which is that it’s part of our cultural inheritance from Britain, as it is a tradition that originates in the British Parliament. Seeing as we’ve already got rid of a number of other traditions we inherited from the United Kingdom, such as allowing women the vote or not treating the traditional owners of this land as a species of inconvenient wildlife to be eradicated, I hardly think that this argument holds much water. We abandon our traditions when they no longer serve any useful purpose, or when we belatedly realise that they are immoral. Calling people who’ve done nothing to earn the accolade honourable is both of those things. And while it’s true that there are a number of other nations that also use this style, such as Bangladesh, Canada, New Zealand and a fair few other Commonwealth countries, all that means is that we have an opportunity here to show that we’re less hidebound than they are.

Removing this from our procedures would be relatively simple. The original grant of the titles was made by the King in 1901, when Parliament first sat, and since as of 1987, we have no further connection to the legal system of the United Kingdom, we could in theory do away with this title simply by passing a law. There are two obstacles to this. The first is a lack of political will for it, which is going to be an obstacle that gets mentioned so often on this podcast we’ll all be very, very bored of it by the time I’m done here. Although it occurs to me that this is exactly the sort of thing a canny crossbencher could demand of a government who desperately needed their vote. Food for thought.

The other obstacle is that all bills of the Australian government require Royal Assent, and it’s possible that the Queen might choose to withhold it in this case. Unlikely, but possible, since to a certain traditionalist mindset, a rejection of this royal gift could be seen as insulting to the Crown.

But honestly, I don’t think that there is any reason good enough nor obstacle great enough to make us hold on to this archaic form of toadying. The reward to the ego offered by positions in our Parliament should be the warm feeling of a job well done, not a title that makes you think you’re better than everyone else. Whether or not you are honourable should be a thing you know about yourself, not a thing you need to be told by others. To think otherwise is to confuse the distinction between honour and reputation. And surely, our Parliamentarians should know without being told whether they are not all, all honourable men?

That’s it for this week. Please feel free to get in touch on either the Facebook page or the website, and your response might get addressed in a future episode. In the meantime, I’d like to remind you that no matter what problems you might have, jumping into a billabong is never the solution to them. I’ll talk to you later.


Notes:

  • “all, all honourable men” is a line from Mark Antony’s speech about the fallen Caesar in Shakespeare’s “Julius Ceasar“. Get the full context of it here – and read it aloud, it’s a great speech.
  • “all the pieces matter” is a line from “The Wire“, said by Detective Lester Freamon in describing the importance of getting the details right when building a case. The full context is “We are building something here, and all the pieces matter.”
  • “the distinction between honour and reputation” which I imply rather than state here, comes from Lois McMaster Bujold’s novel, “Memory“. The full version is “Reputation is what other people know about you. Honour is what you know about yourself.”