Turkish Echoes Close To Home


Australian interest in things Turkish goes back at least a century, probably to the tragic ambush of a train outside Broken Hill by two Turks a few months after the outbreak of World War I. Then there was the subsequent invasion of Turkey involving Australian troops a few months later. Even now, each year, Australian tourists make an April pilgrimage to Gallipoli, on Turkey’s west coast.

Given this continuing, if sporadic, connection to Turkey, we should be paying attention to the country right now. After all, the political situation in Turkey has some parallels with developments here – both present and in the probable near future.

True, Hyde Park is not being threatened with a shopping mall and cathedral on the model of a colonial army barracks like the one being proposed in Istanbul, but there are numerous examples of serious attempts to impose planning decisions and monstrosities on communities both in urban and country areas.

For instance, I live within cooee of the proposed 26-storey towers on the old Tigers site in Rozelle, and the decision on this has been taken out of the hands of the local community by the state government. Likewise, the people of Gloucester are faced with extensive CSG drilling, despite ongoing local opposition. These are just two examples of the numerous communities faced with giant coal mines, shopping centres and high-rise towers that they definitely don’t want.

Worse still, NSW now has a state government which wants to make these situations the rule. The White Paper on Planning proposes legislation to wipe out any local say in up to 80 per cent of developments and will give the Planning Minister wide discretion to “call in” any development he wants – with no environmental, heritage or bulk and scale restrictions.

The O’Farrell Government, like the one in Ankara, can undoubtedly claim that it has been elected to govern, and that it received well over 50 per cent of votes in the last election. But neither of these governments received a mandate to monopolise planning decisions. In fact, in the O’Farrell Government’s case, it explicitly promised to return planning powers to local communities.

This is where we need to turn out attention back to Turkey, in particular to a statement from the Turkish President. In responding to the Turkish PM Erdogan’s claim that he could do what he wanted because he’d won a previous election, President Gul made two points (as reported in The Guardian): "Democracy does not mean elections alone," he said, in what appeared to be a sharp riposte to the prime minister's repeated insistence on the strength of his parliamentary mandate.

"There can be nothing more natural for the expression of various views, various situations and objections through a variety of ways, besides elections," the president said.

No democrat opposes elections – in fact there is an argument for more frequent polls if we are to have a more responsive democracy. But there is validity in the argument that at elections voters are ceding their power to make decisions to representatives.

From the 1960s onwards many voters have not been prepared to settle for this bargain and have continued to search for “natural” ways to have a voice on decisions between elections. When the issue is an important one – like developing a park (as in Istanbul) or invading another country, or ruining farmland by mining or fracking – people will take to the streets to bring public pressure to bear on their government.

That is one way of trying to have a say – and I’m all for it. But we need more regular and guaranteed ways for citizens to have a real and continuing say. In NSW this can be done by genuinely returning planning powers to local communities and by, for instance, introducing citizen-initiated referendums. We should also expand the freedom of industrial action to workers – the Turkish unions are staging solidarity strikes, currently illegal in Australia – and actually giving workers, along with consumers, seats on company boards.

Only by increasing the ways citizens can have a voice can we restrain what might be called “democratic or parliamentary dictatorships”. Another president in another country long ago gave us the classic definition of democracy as “the government of the people, by the people, for the people”. It’s that essential middle element, “by the people”, that is being fought for in Turkey – and in parts of Australia – right now.

In all likelihood, this problem is about to go national in Australia. If the seemingly inevitable Abbott government achieves a majority in both houses of federal parliament, they will in all likelihood use that power to legislate well beyond their mandate.  The Liberal/National conservative Coalition has form on this issue – recall that WorkChoices was the result of a Coalition majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate after the 2004 election.

Current forecasts point to stormy – Turkish even – times ahead for Australia.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.