Ian Marsh. Part 1. Democratic Renewal: towards a post-majoritarian policy making structure?

Fairness, Opportunity and Security
Policy series edited by Michael Keating and John Menadue.

Whoever wins the next election, the challenge of dealing with a hung Senate will almost certainly loom large. Perhaps also a hung House of Representatives. Malcolm Turnbull tells us that the appropriate response is a compelling narrative delivered with conviction and resolve by a sufficiently competent leader.

Is this enough? In this short note I will argue that the problems in present political arrangements are much deeper – they are systemic and structural. The present political and policy system is largely gridlocked. This is the result not of incompetent leaders or deficient narratives, important though both certainly are, but rather of a slow-burn legitimacy crisis that has been many years in gestation.

Put another way – recent decades have witnessed not one but two seismic shifts: economic globalisation and social pluralisation. The former has been more or less addressed by the major parties. The latter has yet to be assimilated.

Evidence of social pluralisation and the consequent political gridlock is clear in the recent political record. John Howard passed the GST but at the following election lost the popular vote. Hardly auspicious. After much delay and much cash, he also privatised Telstra. Otherwise, despite ten years of office, tough reforms were conspicuous by their absence. Moreover, he governed with a windfall revenue gain of $283 billion. Despite this, in the ten months prior to defeat, the Howard government u-turned on not one or two but seven measures. These were not minor matters: they were issues at the heart of its programme – Work Choices, climate change, broadband, the Murray-Darling, education funding and so forth.

Things hardly improved thereafter. The only significant policy matters to survive the Rudd and Gillard governments were based on bipartisanship – plain cigarette packaging, the NDIS and perhaps the Abbott-Morrison-led race to the gutter on refugees. Climate change is on-going.

Short of bipartisanship, we have no recent examples of successful policy change on a major contested issue. Not one.

If further confirmation is needed, look no further than the rise and decline of Tony Abbott. As an uncompromising and negative Opposition leader, he was lauded by some for his ruthless pursuit of office, reflected in wholly populist negative campaigns. But in government he faced the reality of office. Nemesis intervened. His slogans created expectations that even his most ardent supporters must now recognise to be contrary to Australia’s national interests. At one level, his fate is testament to combative hubris. At another, to a dysfunctional political incentive structure.

Underlying political gridlock is a crisis of democratic legitimacy. This will afflict any government. It derives from a disconnect between the formal political and policy making system and its publics. This is a fundamental systemic problem. It has not sprung up overnight or over one government. It has been driven by a variety of structural changes. The following sections explore first, the nature of these structural shifts; second, the requirements for renewing citizen engagement; and third, the systemic changes that might be required to make this wider engagement a reality.

Three Structural Changes

Why has democratic legitimacy so eroded? This outcome has been driven by three structural changes: first, the decline of major party organisations; second, a convergence of major party (particularly economic) agendas; and third, and most importantly, a pluralisation and differentiation of citizen identities. Let’s look briefly at each.

First, the story of major party organisational decline is well known. From a membership of some 8% of the entire adult voting population in 1966, the major parties now attract only some 0.8%. Moreover, whereas only 2% of citizens did not identify with either major party in 1967 the number rose to 28% in the early 2000s and has since hovered around this level. Hence, around 50% of the electorate now have weak or no identification with either major party. Further, about 20% of us vote for minor parties and independents and about another 20% of those eligible do not vote or do not enrol or vote informal. An astonishing number!

But decline extends well beyond public support. Party organisations used to be important sites engaging activists and aggregating interests. Party branches were widespread and embedded in local communities. Party conferences were important policy making forums. Citizens could advance motions at local and regional party meetings and thus experience political efficacy. These capacities are long gone. Conferences now only occur infrequently and are largely stage managed. A small coterie of parliamentary elites substantially influence manifesto design. Member influence is marginal. The dense tissue that once connected the major parties to their publics has gone.

A second reason for citizen disaffection arises from convergence of major party agendas. The days when they stood for significantly different directions for national social and/or economic development have long gone. The Hawke-Keating government led a national response to economic globalisation. The illusion of effective government continues to be sustained by memory of this era. But crisis-induced bipartisanship was its essential condition. The end of a shared sense of economic crisis around 1996, or even earlier, was also the end of that era.

Remember the political incentive structure rewards differentiation. Hence the amount of illusion and make-believe in the political world that we now experience. This is reflected in the short termism, populism and often opportunistic, fabricated or manufactured difference which characterises contemporary politics Moreover, responses are framed with an eye to media impact rather than any underlying values or ideology. Leaders who do not play these games have been given short shrift by their supporters.

These changes in the formal political system have marched in step with another more fundamental change. This is the transformation of Australian society. The social movements of the 1970s were the proximate cause. Think of the women’s, gay, environment, Indigenous rights, multicultural, animal rights, consumer etc movements, and the more conservative counter-mobilisations that they stimulated. These attitudinal changes have effected a fundamental transformation in the political orientations of Australians. The days when you could think about politics exclusively in binary or class terms are long gone

This change in Australian political identities is absolutely fundamental. The Australian community is now pluralised and differentiated and, in some contexts, increasingly regionalised. The best image is a kaleidoscope. This reflects not only the diverse values that are held by Australians, but also the challenge in framing persuasive political narratives. The assumption that basic partisan values are widely shared no longer holds. Rather leaders need to craft appeals that can reach out to majority coalitions.

In sum, the slow-burn crisis of legitimacy, which the three foregoing structural changes have occasioned, is perhaps only now fully apparent.

In Part 2 I will be examining the implications for policy-making practice.

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.

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