Part 1: The trust gap and the two-party political system.
In the orgy of reflection on how to ‘read’ the federal election result, a consensus seems to have formed around one factor – that public trust or legitimacy has contracted alarmingly. Thereafter comment has mostly focused on renewing party attachments. There are no doubt many individual steps parties can take to increase their memberships, grow member roles etc. But there is no evidence either here or in countries like our own that political parties by themselves can renew public trust. Parties of government of course remain essential. But the days of encompassing mass parties are past. The two party system is the structure that is past (or passing) its use-by date.
So what is to be done? In earlier postings on this site and in other writing I have argued that renewal of the Senate committee system is an important step. As this does not presently enjoy any currency, here is a summary of the arguments. First, some ‘threshold’ considerations concerning dysfunctional features of the wider political system are noted – then more detailed reasons for looking to a revamped Senate committee system as a significant source of repair are explored.
What is legitimacy or trust? One critical and on-going source of legitimacy is the ‘quality’ of the public political conversation. In effect, trust is its artefact. As Rousseau observed: ‘Opinion, queen of the world, is not subject to the power of kings. They are indeed her first slaves.’ Malcolm Turnbull’s see-saw in public opinion over the last 9 months demonstrates this fundamental truth. This same experience demonstrates another fact about the formation of trust. It is the contingent outcome of a slow-drip, day-to-day process. Over the whole term of a parliament, what the public hears, reads, or sees reinforces – or leaches away – this critical relationship.
Since Australia is now a country of ‘publics’, a better reach into the formation of opinion is even more significant. In our pluralised society more people are more interested in more issues on their merits. And they are not always the same people or the same issues. The citizens of Whyalla or Rockhampton have a current set of pressing concerns that differ from those of Newtown or South Yarra. They are all entitled to recognition.
But our present political system has almost no capacity to create an influential conversation around these single issues. Moreover, it cannot do so with any serious distance from partisan conflict.
This is a fundamental challenge. The political conversation needs more capacity to register single issues and subsequent consideration needs to be aligned more closely with their merits.
Parliament is an underappreciated setting and a potential constructive influence: Many years ago the late Bernard Crick, described the forms and procedures of the two party system as ‘tantamount to a continuing election campaign.’ This description is exactly right. Parliamentary processes are designed to concentrate powers of initiative almost wholly in the executive, the current Team A. They also guarantee the Opposition, Team B, sufficient airtime to display its alternative programme.
The system is designed to serve the interests of major parties that are divided programmatically. The way the conversation now unfolds in parliament is wholly adversarial. The incentive structure is wholly adversarial. This means that almost from their first appearance, issues figure in a partisan framework. There is no chance for the Opposition and more particularly the cross bench and other protagonists to contribute to the formation of the strategic agenda. By forcing all these actors into a reactive position, constructive reflection is poisoned. Partisanship dominates.
But since 1983, there has been substantial convergence between the major parties, particularly around economic matters. On particular issues, there is likewise substantial convergence between sections of the cross bench. For example, in the recent election campaign the major parties both agreed that the deficit is a fundamental issue, but they disagreed on how to approach repair. Would the average voter have recognised that differences were about means? Or that the end project is claimed to be a vital bipartisan national concern?
The rules of the parliamentary game can be changed. Partisanship cannot and should not be transcended. But can it be muted? Can it play out more constructively? The answer is yes. The Australian constitution is silent about the construction of executive power. This is determined by convention. Three are critical – confidence, collective cabinet responsibility, and ministerial responsibility. These have been determined differently in our past – for example federally, in the three party period between 1901 and 1909. They are now interpreted differently in multi-party New Zealand. And a variety of interpretations have figured in British parliamentary history. Different interpretations are associated with a different relationship between parliament and the executive. If we want a somewhat more consensual system, it is within our grasp. The rules of the game can be changed by votes in parliament.
The Senate is the right House. If we want to introduce a consensual element in the broader public conversation, the Senate is the right place. It has very substantial powers – save for money bills, these are virtually co-equal with the Representatives. In addition, the Senate is elected by a proportional, not preferential voting system, albeit one that is focused on the States. This means minority voices that would otherwise not be heard do have a platform.
Few other Upper Houses have such power. Indeed, in the three party period of federal politics between 1901 and 1909, the Senate played a constructive role– it basically acted as an agenda gatekeeper. The executive or other actors proposed measures. Committees, particularly Senate committees, then became important sites for developing understanding, registering disaffection etc.
In other words, there is a more transparent and accessible political structure in waiting – it is immanent within the existing Australian system.
The politics of policy making have changed: Australian society is now more pluralised and public opinion more preoccupied by single issues. There is thus at the level of the formal political system, a rough analogue between present circumstances and those of the more plural 1901-1909 period.
We also continue to need expert inquiries. Think tanks have proliferated and their voices should be heard. The Productivity Commission is rightly influential. Numerous interest groups champion new causes or fight to preserve advantages. Governments appoint inquiries on specific issues. There are proposals for the wider use of citizen-based deliberative fora.
But as the record only too clearly shows, opinion that is not informed by analysis and judgment will be shallow and fickle: analysis unsupported by opinion will be irrelevant.
The foregoing are reasons for looking to a new configuration beyond the present political architecture.
Part 2: The trust gap and the Senate Committee system.
The Senate Committee system could play a constructive role in rebuilding the public conversation. It cannot by itself renew democratic legitimacy. But a development of its powers is likely to be associated with a cascading series of associated changes affecting access and transparency and the relative responsibilities of the civil service and ministers.
Partisan and sectional arguments need to be brought before the court of public opinion. Ideally, this will be done in a way that also allows space for reflective consideration.
The Senate Committee system can create this space. It cannot by itself rebuild democratic legitimacy. But a development of its powers is likely to be associated with a cascading series of associated changes affecting access and transparency and the relative responsibilities of the civil service and ministers.
What are the key advantage that Senate committees might bring to the table? Their fundamental promise is a lengthening and deepening of the public conversation, prior to decisions being taken by the executive. How so?
First, Senate committees can open up access at the right moments in the policy cycle – at the agenda entry end when issues are still being defined and their significance evaluated. These matters are now largely the prerogative of the executive. If deliberation is to shift somewhat to recognise single issues, if reflection is to have any chance of moderating partisanship, and if other actors are to be given access to the formal system as of right, the agenda entry moment is critical.
The dynamics of agenda setting hearings can reinforce this. Of course some members will bring passionate conviction to the process. But the majority will usually exercise independent judgment. In any case passionate disagreement around particular issues can be constructive. The losing side at least feels its voice has been heard. And this is only the beginning of the issue cycle. Disaffected actors have later opportunities. But this is an important moment. This is the point when the first definition of an issue is provided and when possible remedies are first defined. This can set the frame for later discussion.
By creating space for public consideration of contested issues at this agenda entry point, committees can deliberate when partisan factors are least influential and when disinterested judgement is most likely to figure.
Second, committees can constitute a point of access for interest groups and social movements. Such organisations are now ubiquitous. They are at least as democratically grounded as any of the major parties. Hence, their engagement as of right in the formal political system is essential to broaden representation. Public hearings oblige these protagonists to disclose their arguments. They can alert the executive and other actors to sectional views. They alert sectional interests to each other’s arguments.
There has also been much comment about the power of wealthy disaffected interests to disrupt policy making. They can mount hostile campaigns to changes they oppose. But a hearing can ensure winners as well as losers get mobilised. Even more, those who are yet to recognise their stakes. Thus coalition building can be instituted. Take the campaign on the mining tax or poker machine legislation. The ‘losers’ (the clubs and the mining industry) mobilised but not the putative ‘winners’. In more fragmented times, mobilising a majority coalition is a key tactic of policy making. The current legislative process does not facilitate this.
Third, committees have access to the voting power of the legislature. Drawing on this access, committees can constitute a medium for improving the alignment between parliamentary rituals and policy making realities. The ‘theatre’ of parliament can then better contribute to social learning. Committee reports lead on to floor debates. They can lead on to compelling motions. This might be reinforced by petitioning processes – for example as these have developed in the British parliament. Inter-House conflict can be constructive if it leads on to wider attention to the merits of particular arguments. Again, a critical factor is to try to locate these differences in the phase before the executive determines its actions. This moves protagonists from a wholly reactive positon. It gives every participant space to reflect on their approach before partisan positions are taken up.
Fourth, in offering a new focus for media attention and new content for media reports, committee activity can reach wider audiences. In an era of significantly weakened major parties and of a more fragmented or differentiated society, the media have attained a more prominent role. They constitute primary conduit between the formal political and policy making system and its publics.
In this context, an influential role for committees might establish a better alignment between policy making processes and the development of interest group and wider public opinion. Parliamentary deliberations that are more closely aligned to the substance of issues might reinforce this outcome.
Social media can play a particular role in this – a role which the parliament now largely bypasses. In building wider public awareness, social media will increasingly play a more critical role. The Hansard Society, in an invaluable 2013 report, suggests parliament should seek to be the go-to site for information about ‘democracy’, including the current issue agenda. This is a critical aspiration, carrying many implications for the presentation of information on the parliamentary web site.
Fifth, the many other proposals to increase the deliberative quality of the political system require a more open and transparent formal system. There are many proposals for steps to improve the deliberative quality of the system. And also to bring more voices and more citizen voices to the table. Citizen juries and such like fora are a potential step here. But for their promise to be realised the established representative system must itself become more transparent and accessible. These add-on structures require a political context in which the findings of these closed forums move out to engage a wider public.
Social media also offers many opportunities to engage the public in new ways. Critical to this is reciprocal connections – so that exchange can occur, not just one-way transmission – and also so that citizen voices can be heard influentially. Indeed, a key reason to focus on committees is because of their potential influence and powers of initiative – otherwise changes will rightly be discounted by a sceptical public. Political authority is a capability which committees are uniquely placed to institute.
What are next steps? There has not been a major inquiry on committee roles and powers for some years. No recent inquiry has contemplated the arguments outlined here. A Procedures Inquiry on the Senate Committee system deserves to be an early priority for the incoming Parliament.
Ian Marsh is a Visiting professor at the UTS Management School. His study Democratic Decline and Democratic Renewal: Political Change in Britain, Australia and New Zealand (with Raymond Miller) was published in 2012 by Cambridge University Press.