JOHN MENADUE. The urgent need for democratic renewal. We don’t trust the major parties

Australians are sick and tired of politicians. The community is deserting the major political parties in droves.Most recently we have seen it in Longman and Wagga.  We have lost trust in our major political parties and most particularly the Liberal and National Parties in recent months.

In the 1980s we embraced economic change and reform. It was necessary but painful for some. Today we need democratic reform and renewal. Like the 1980s, it is necessary but it will be painful for some.

After the next election we need a government that will assist us in major democratic renewal. It is urgent. We could start with a post-election summit in the same way that Prime Minister Hawke called an economic summit many years ago. We need a summit of community leaders to help chart a new course for democratic renewal.  

I have written many times about the collapse of trust in business, the banks, churches and the media. But our immediate concern must surely be the failure of our political institutions and the urgent need for political reform.

The alienation has not occurred because institutions have changed.  The problem is that they haven’t changed enough in the face of globalization and automation . The ground has moved beneath them and they have not responded. The information and education revolution has made us much better informed and much better equipped to participate in institutions, but we are often denied the opportunity. The ‘insiders’ are reluctant to cede any real power. Women particularly have more time to be involved in institutions outside the family, but they are often excluded.

The media and particularly TV have contributed to the alienation.  Public figures are trivialised and their personal foibles and politics take pre-eminence over temperate and informed policy debate. I don’t think some of our media can even spell the word ‘policy’. At election times, what matters is the swinging voter in the swinging electorate, rather than the important policy  issues of concern to the wider community.

We are clearly not the innovators we were a hundred years ago in institution building.  In 1856 Victoria led the world when it introduced the secret ballot for parliamentary elections.  It was known internationally as the ‘Australian ballot’.  In 1859 all male British subjects in the eastern states and South Australia had the vote.  In 1894 South Australia was an international pacesetter in votes for women.  The first democratically elected Labor government in the world was in Queensland in 1899. In 1901 six disparate states joined together in our federation.

How then can we renovate our public institutions and restore public trust.?

Politics is about how power is exercised and for whose benefit.  It is a noble calling and disparaged too much, particularly by those who want untrammelled private power for themselves.  But to change the way our institutions operate, faces one major obstacle – the power of those who benefit from the present system.  Insiders want to hang on to power. That is very true of our media and major political parties. They are run by insiders.

In many pre-selection ballots for either the ALP or the Liberal Party, a hundred or so members select the party candidate, yet in the wider electorate there are probably 40,000 to 50,000 supporters.  As a result of declining memberships and tight control, successful candidates are, not surprisingly, insiders – staffers of politicians, friends or relatives of faction leaders. Many of these new ‘white bread politicians’ have limited life experience. Wealthy interests rather than members finance political parties. We have a ‘donocracy’

There are possible options to address some of the clear democratic deficiencies in our major parties.  We need to debate them.  Party members in federal electorates could directly choose delegates to federal conferences and break the power of state officials. Whilst guarding against abuses the community as well as party members should be able to vote in party pre-selections for parliament.

Unless the political parties broadly represent their voter constituencies, we will continue to tread the slippery road of personalities and political spin, rather than addressing the real issues and concerns of the community.  While the major parties refuse to treat the community seriously and run away from public discussion, their natural constituencies are disenfranchised.  Those that are really enfranchised are a small group of party power brokers and aspirational swinging voters in swinging electorates.  Because the major parties are out of touch with their constituencies, the debate on the big-ticket items runs into the sand – reconciliation, the republic, relations with Asia, drugs and climate change.

Parliaments are in need of renovation.  The cabinet and party machines dominate parliament.  The executive has become arrogant .‘Question time’ is ‘spin time’.  The community would welcome parliamentary renovation which should be guided by the principle that the separation of powers must be enhanced and the cabinet/executive power curbed.  Particular reforms could include: four year fixed term federal parliaments to discourage excessive and almost continual electioneering; an independent speaker to encourage a more inclusive, open and less adversarial parliaments; regular audits not only of the entitlements of MPs but also their performance; more conscience votes by MPs with less party discipline on ‘non-core’ issues.

To assist members of parliament to counter the power of the cabinet the parliament established a Parliamentary Budget Office. It provides independent and nonpartisan analysis of the budget cycle. It was a good start. But its work is restricted to budgets. Similar offices should be established in such areas as health, defence and foreign affairs. The research resources of the Parliamentary Library should also be enhanced. Cabinet wants public discussion but on its own terms. All public authorities should be required to facilitate public discussion on key public issues.

We need an improved parliamentary committee system where hopefully we can begin to see again the art of negotiation and compromise. The Senate has shown that improvements are possible.  A good start in our next parliament would be an all-party committee to consider ways in which the performance of the parliament could be improved and the power of the executive contained. The late Ian Marsh wrote an excellent article in this blog several years ago (Australia’s gridlocked Parliament, reposted from 9/9/2016) urging an enhanced role for Senate committees.

The professionalism of the public service must be restored with much less reliance on expensive and often inexperienced outside consultants.

There are other important issues that cripple our parliamentary and public processes and which the major parties have not been prepared to address.

Citizen juries and citizen assemblies must be considered.

Lobbyists have to register, but they should also be required within a week and on a public website to disclose any contacts with ministers, ministerial staffers, members of parliament and officials and the substance of those contacts. This should include paid employees of interest groups as well as external lobbyists. They should all be banned from Parliament House. The polluting lobbyists swamp needs urgent draining. It is corrupting public life.

Ministers and senior officials should be barred from taking employment for three years with any organizations with which they have dealt in government.

Election campaign donations by corporations and unions should be banned and limitations tightened on individual donations and expenditure by candidates. Election campaigns should be publicly funded. Property developers and liquor interests would hate these changes but our democracy would be the winner.

Foreign companies should be barred from political advertising both in their own right and through industry associations.

Ministerial staffers should be dramatically reduced in number, their names disclosed and a strict code of conduct for them introduced.

Freedom of information should be strengthened to enforce more disclosure. Whistle blowers need more protection.

We need a federal anti corruption commission.

Further down the track we need a review of federal/state relations and our Constitution

The major party that is credible on democratic reform will reap a large electoral dividend. The best way for Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten to prove their bona fides as parliamentarians is to demonstrate by actions how they value the Parliament and use it as their forum and not television grabs, and talk back radio. What a pleasure it would be to see the parliament as a lively forum for debating policy and asking genuine questions to elicit information rather than a means to score political points. If only our politicians would seriously endeavour to find common ground by starting on such issues as senate electoral reform, political donations and ending the abuse of power by lobbyists. Leadership by Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten in such areas is the best way to restore confidence in parliament and politics. Don’t talk about it. Do it.

At the political level the Hawke Government provides us with an example of the way we need to proceed. It was about building consensus- within his government, within his party, with the opposition and with the community which responded to this consensual style of leadership by being prepared to consider the need for reform. Consensus building was politically appealing and effective in policy outcomes. We are a long way from this style of politics today.

Institutions, like people, are all prone to error and abuse of power.  Robust democratic institutions and democratic debate are critical. Too often we avoid addressing institutional failure by suggesting that they are all leadership problems.  ‘If only we had a better Prime Minister, or a better Chairman, all would be well’.  But all leaders inevitably disappoint us.  We need institutions and a public culture which are in good order.

In addition to renewal of our democratic institutions, I suggest there is something even more essential – the values and conventions that we need to hold in common. Decades of failure to keep promises have taken an inevitable and heavy toll. Fairness, respect for others, openness, integrity and trust, are the glue that hold us together.    A democratic and free society will remain free only if the virtues necessary for freedom are alive in our community.  Democracy cannot be separated from public morality. The democratic project and institutions within it must be informed by what is right and true. Every society needs a moral compass.

Moral behaviour is in the end about how our words and actions enhance human dignity and human flourishing.  Robust and well functioning institutions are an important means to that end.

We have a lot of work to do.

It was a national economic summit that sparked the economic reforms of Hawke and Keating.

Today we need a national summit to spark democratic renewal.


John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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9 Responses to JOHN MENADUE. The urgent need for democratic renewal. We don’t trust the major parties

  1. Stephen Morris says:

    The most depressing thing about Australia is that whenever people set out to discuss “Democracy” they invariably proceed to talk about “elective government” instead. And their invariable “solution” to the defects of elective government is to have fewer elections.

    Under current laws, an Australian living to average life expectancy can expect to vote a mere 21 times in a federal election. And then they get to vote only for a politician. Reducing that to 16 votes per lifetime is not going to improve things. It’s going to make it worse.

    The essential defect of elective government – or government-by-politician – is something known as “adverse selection”. The Economics Nobel laureate James Buchanan described it thus:

    [S]uppose that a monopoly right is to be auctioned; whom will we predict to be the highest bidder? Surely we can presume that the person who intends to exploit the monopoly power most fully, the one for whom the expected profit is highest, will be among the highest bidders for the franchise. In the same way, positions of political power will tend to attract those persons who place higher values on the possession of such power. These persons will tend to be the highest bidders in the allocation of political offices. . . . Is there any presumption that political rent seeking will ultimately allocate offices to the ‘best’ persons? Is there not the overwhelming presumption that offices will be secured by those who value power most highly and who seek to use such power of discretion in the furtherance of their personal projects, be these moral or otherwise? Genuine public-interest motivations may exist and may even be widespread, but are these motivations sufficiently passionate to stimulate people to fight for political office, to compete with those whose passions include the desire to wield power over others?” (James Buchanan and Geoffrey Brennan, “The Reason of Rules”, Cambridge University Press, 1985, p64)

    There may be exceptions at lower levels of the Legislature, but the tendency of elective government is to adversely select aggressively narcissistic, machiavellian, megalomaniacal individuals who crave a monopoly on power.

    This is not just an Australian problem. It is being seen in all countries. Elective government might have been workable in earlier times when the role of government was relatively small and representatives were personally known to those they were representing. But the inexorable increase in both the scale and scope of government has rendered it no longer fit for purpose. This trend is not going to reverse. On an increasingly crowded planet the role of government will necessarily increase and the Rulers will become increasingly remote from their Subjects.

    Increasing the term of the monopoly franchise from 3 years to 4 years will solve nothing. It will make the competition even more desperate and brutal. It will give the adversely selected agents more time to exploit the monopoly. And when they leave office they will pick up their rewards – their consultancies, their directorships – from the rent-seekers whose pockets they have help to line.

    As Gilens and Page have shown, elective government works for the benefit of the wealthy and the well-organised. Longer terms will not change that.

    Hoping that politicians will change their characters is vain. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau astutely observed, the trick to designing good government involves “taking men as they are and the laws as they may be”, not the other way round. Creating the conditions for adverse selection and then desperately hoping that the adversely selected individuals will behave out of character is no solution.

    There is a solution to the problems of governance but it requires thinking outside the square. And it requires contemplating things that some people will find repulsive.

    Monopoly breeds rent-seeking. That applies to a monopoly on power as much as to any other monopoly. And the solution is to address the monopoly power:

    In sum, the effects of direct democracy add-ons to existing decision rules surely work toward reducing the range and scope for politicization . . . ” James Buchanan, Direct Democracy, Classical Liberalism, and Constitutional Strategy, 2001.

    This may be seen in Switzerland where the seven-person Swiss Federal Cabinet is a multi-partisan body with Ministers selected from all major parties across the spectrum roughly in proportion to the proportion of their members in Parliament (the so-called “Magic Formula”). It is not unknown for Ministers to be responsible for implementing policies contrary to their own party’s platform. The sterile Australian notion of “Government vs Opposition” is meaningless. Rather, it is an efficient administration of the polity on behalf of the citizens. Just what government is supposed to be.

    Like politics anywhere Swiss politics can be heated, but the absence of a monopoly on power minimises adverse selection. Megalomaniacs do not seek the job because any attempt to “rule over the People” in the Australian sense would be stopped instantly by the system of initiative-and-referendum.

    Democracy – genuine democracy – is not a substitute for elective government. Even in Switzerland the vast majority of decisions are made by the elected legislature. In more than a century of genuinely democratic government only 23 popular initiatives have ever been approved, because the elected legislature moves preemptively to address grievances. Democracy – genuine democracy – complements elective government. It helps elective government to do what elective government ought to be doing in the absence of adverse selection and rent-seeking.

    I could go on for pages and pages on this topic but it might be easier simply to provide a link to the issues here:

    Unfortunately, what stands in the way of genuine democratic reform in Australia is the snobbery of those who would prefer any form of government – no matter how corrupt, not matter how dysfunctional – rather than contemplate the obscenity of seeing “bogans” and “deplorables” – and generally people they regard as their inferiors – being given any real say in the government of their country. Thus we see that the proposed “reforms” of democracy always involve LESS participation from the people being governed and MORE power to the adversely selected politicians doing the governing.

    Until that snobbery is confronted, things will get worse not better.

  2. John Ball, fdormer publisher The Asian newspaper, Melbourne says:

    I agree with Mr Menadue: people have lost trust in Australian political parties. The Liberal dog has been chasing its Labor tail for years, leaving little time for our pollies to figure out what’s happening up North. Australia is already becoming a vassal state to China, one of subservience based on the supplies of raw materials to key manufacturers. This is how China – and Japan – classify nations. After World War II, Australia was basically self sufficient in most manufactured goods. This allowed it to quickly change over to making guns, rifles, tanks, ships and machine guns, as Sir Laurence Hartnett well knew. He introduced the Holden car to cap off the achievement. At present, Australia is less reliant on its own goods than at any time in its history. At least during the gold rushes, we made our own wheelbarrows! It is time to use the infrastructure in outback and country towns to absorb any new waves of migrants – and make it easier for families in Australia to have children and become much more self reliant. China runs our east coast energy supplies, controls the property market, motivates our universities and floods the nation with shiploads of plastic rubbish. It dominates most nations in South East Asia and is now moving into small nations surrounding us. Shades of the old Japanese Co-Prosperity Sphere!

  3. George Cloughley says:

    John raises a number of important problems with our current political system.
    “Unless the political parties broadly represent their voter constituencies, we will continue to tread the slippery road of personalities and political spin, rather than addressing the real issues and concerns of the community. While the major parties refuse to treat the community seriously and run away from public discussion, their natural constituencies are disenfranchised. Those that are really enfranchised are a small group of party power brokers and aspirational swinging voters in swinging electorates.”

    In my opinion, this is the key issue, namely just how representative is our current electoral system? The electoral system determines just who gets elected and how and this determines who forms a government. As John says, “Politics is about how power is exercised and for whose benefit.”

    As an example of what’s broken in the current electoral system, at the 2013 House of Representatives election, the Coalition won 45% of the primary vote and this translated into a “landslide” of 60% of the seats. The ALP won 34% of the primary vote and 37% of the seats. The rest won 21% of the vote and 2% of the seats. Hardly the “will of the people” when over 20% of the first preference votes for smaller parties and independents votes are effectively lost and end up as a 2nd or 3rd or 4th preferences allocated at full value to the big two parties. The big two parties designed the electoral system to suit themselves, it works just fine for them and only when enough people stop voting for them, will they be dragged kicking and screaming to reform it to an electorally fairer, more proportional system.

  4. The electors have clearly spoken at State and Federal elections over the last several years that they are fed up with the lawyers and banker politicians on one side and the union technocrats on the other side who have little real word experience, only respond to polls and election cycles , blame the Upper House and provide little long term policy in the national interest and come up with macro solutions for complex problems that require a series of micro responses. Yet as soon as the poll is declared both sides ignore what an increasing number of Australians have just said and go back to power games rather than seriously address the real issues in the community debate.

    • Simon Warriner says:

      That behavior stems from the nature of people attracted to party politics.

      It comes down to the voters taking responsibility for the nature of those they elect to power.

      The real question that needs to be answered is “what do we have to do to encourage alternatives to those people to stand for election as our representatives ?”.

      I reckon a politically agnostic organisation to promote the value of truly independent parliamentary representation would be a useful step towards a better future.

  5. Simon Warriner says:

    “How then can we renovate our public institutions and restore public trust.?”

    Dead simple.

    Stop electing party twits who don’t understand the damage conflicted interest does to governance and elect independent candidates instead. Independent candidates may have varying levels of understanding of this issue, but have the advantage that they do not have a party structure wrapped around them that protects them from their own stupidity. They become obvious and fail to be re-elected.

    The problem is that party politics is repugnant to the sort of people who are naturally inclined to provide good governance, and it attracts the sort of people who are functionally illiterate when it comes to understanding the requirements of good governance. We have bathed our body politic in this carcinogenic soup for so long that the tumors are now appearing on a daily basis, and what I am proposing is that we, THE VOTERS, simply lift the body politic out of the carcinogenic soup. The tumors will resolve themselves absent the endless damage done by twits who do not understand conflicted interest.

    Perhaps an organisation needs to exist that promotes this idea that independents have something more to offer than business as usual party politics. It shouldn’t be a hard message to sell, given the gold mine of examples available. Anyone want a french au-pair?

  6. Chris Parsons says:

    Because of the constant criticism of each other. If this is all they can do and not work together for the common good what do they think will happen but that which is currently going on.

  7. Bill Legge says:

    Here’s my two cents worth:
    – Term limits for reps and senators. Say two terms and then they have to sit out a term (before being eligible to run again). I think this will encourage more diversity and greater turnover. You get one term to get the hang of things and one term to do something useful. Knowing you’re out at the next election means you can’t be scared of losing your seat.
    – Index members and senators pay to the mean Australian income – say +20% for backbenchers, +40% for ministers and +50% for the PM. I’ve no objections to reasonable expenses and a decent severance for members who make it through their second term. (If your electors kick you out; tough.) If you’re in it for the dough and the perks, you’re not in it for the community.

  8. Kim Wingerei says:

    Well said John, and I would add to fixed terms limited tenure (two terms max) to discourage the career politician from usurping control over the democratic discourse (at the expense of diversity and quality of representation). And as part of the much needed education, emphasising the difference between advocacy and policy/law making.

    But, most importantly as you say, championing a summit to help accelerate the process.

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