On Friday 13 January 2017, Professor Nancy Gertner from Harvard Law School held 45 senior Victorian public servants spellbound with her feisty account of the current state of US politics, political institutions and political culture. A renowned civil rights lawyer, retired US District Court judge and global gender activist, Professor Gertner spoke with both the knowledge and the emotion of someone who had expected to be ‘measuring the drapes’ for her office in the Clinton White House this month.
Hosted by the Department of Justice and Regulation on ANZSOG’s behalf, the discussion gave the audience an opportunity for a deeper understanding of the historical roots of the US electoral system, the inextricability of law and politics in their system of government, the shifting distribution of power between the Federal Government and the states, the role of the media in the election campaign and beyond, and the many explanations of Donald Trump’s victory.
While audience questions ranged as widely as Professor Gertner’s own interests, a key focus was trying to tease out the role in the surprising election outcome played by American exceptionalism versus an international shift to hyper-nationalist, anti-globalist sentiments. Or put another way, is the explanation to be found in the Democrats’ choice of an unpopular and (apparently) tainted establishment woman who failed to campaign effectively in key states? Or is this, possibly like other major political fractures around the world, about displaced and angry white working class males, with clear implications for Australia?
Having pointed out the irony that a US system of government which institutionalises checks and balances is now so strongly tilted in one direction, Professor Gertner encouraged the group to keep valuing our own system. She highlighted compulsory voting, the capacity to change political leaders by a vote in the lower house rather than an impeachment and, certainly by comparison, a more measured and less divisive political culture.