JOHN MENADUE. We need a national political summit to promote democratic renewal.

Bob Hawke’s Economic Summit following the 1983 election promoted cooperation and consensus which led to remarkable economic and social reform.  With the loss of trust in our political institutions and politicians today, we need a political summit to build consensus on democratic reform.  Such a proposal, if carefully implemented, could produce real political and policy dividends for its advocates and more importantly, for Australia.

Australians are sick and tired of politicians. The community is deserting the major political parties in droves. 

After the next election we need a government that will assist us in major democratic renewal. It is urgent. We need a summit of community leaders to help chart a new course for democratic renewal.  

In this blog on Monday and Tuesday this week, Michael Keating (The Future of Democracy Part 1 and Part 2) described how governments have lost the capacity to promote important and necessary changes.  He outlined possible solutions – leadership to convey a sense of national purpose and direction on issues such as inequality;  improved systems of consultation and collaboration and enhanced parliamentary committees.

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, politicians 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 , automation, growing inequality and climate change.. The ground has moved beneath our institutions 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. 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. Rupert Murdoch has debauched democracy in three countries. Without blushing he gives us Abbott, the Brexiteers and Trump .What gifts to democracy!. The ABC still sees itself as a branch office of London and New York.

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  ,both Church and State 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 ,churches and major political parties. They are run by insiders for the benefit of insiders.

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 given over to hectoring and personal abuse.  The community would welcome parliamentary renovation which should be guided by the principle that the separation of powers must be enhanced and  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.

NZ has a unicameral system but our Kiwi cousins have shown us under both National and Labor governments that a multi party system can be successfully managed.

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

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 senior 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 organization with which they have dealt in government. The revolving door particularly in the Department of Defence must be closed.

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 , liquor and gambling interests would hate these changes but our democracy would be the winner.

Foreign owned  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 or 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 or Bill Shorten in such areas is the best way to restore confidence in parliament and politics. Don’t talk about it. Do it.

We need to curb the ‘war powers ‘of Prime Ministers who took us into war in Iraq,Afghanistan and Syria without Parliamentary approval.

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.

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

Today we need a national political summit to spark democratic renewal.

PS. In the minds of many,  democracy  and capitalism are twinned.. But billions of people around the world have now  come to accept that capitalism works well for the few but not the many. Not surprisingly the failure of capitalism is binging democracy under challenge. ‘Strong men’ are responding with a corrosive message. A subject for another day! John Menadue

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8 Responses to JOHN MENADUE. We need a national political summit to promote democratic renewal.

  1. John, this is a terrific article, thank you so much.
    “Christians for an Ethical Society” in Canberra has decided to make this subject the topic for it 2019 Forums

    George

  2. James Knight says:

    John, I can agree with many of the suggestions here, however, a significant flaw is self identified – if not actually realised by your good self.

    “The information and education revolution has made us much better informed and much better equipped to participate in institutions…” and again “what matters is the swinging voter in the swinging electorate, rather than the important policy issues of concern to the wider community.”

    I agree that, for the first time since the arrival of the printing press, people have greatly improved access to content and a variety of sources near unimaginable even only a decade ago. But, as I constantly point out to all and sundry, access to information does not translate into knowledge or wisdom, and, the capacity or will to act intelligently and/or get involved, or at least back those who are prepared to challenge the interest groups.

    The most serious abuser in this process is the lack of independence and active policy formation of our electoral commissions who most clearly demonstrate your lament for independent advice. They are pipers playing to their masters tunes. The sycophancy of the NSW Electoral Commissioner is self evident in parliamentary inquiry transcripts.

    He and his staff are culpable and will be taken to task this year with some ‘malfeasance in public office’ torts once funding is secured. That citizens have to do this to bring them to their senses is part of your identified malaise.

    Finally, if our High Court and GG cannot defend the Constitution – and act with treasonous intent (or creative legal procedures) to redefine established natural law and legal truths, what hope indeed!

  3. Derek Baines says:

    I would recommend Madeleine Albright’s new book “Fascism: A Warning”.
    It illustrates well the downhill slide of democracy in many nations, including the US, and the dangers being faced in nations with still-well-functioning democracies.
    Bring on a political summit in Australia, to help strengthen our democracy.

  4. Kim Wingerei says:

    Many excellent suggestions and applaud loudly the call for a “democracy summit”, and as you say much can be achieved without constitutional change, much of the problems are inherent in the Westminster system of convention which can be changed if the will is there.

    But aye, there is the rub, the resistance to change from the vested interests.

    Maybe the most important change needs to come from people demanding transparency in Government and forcing ethical behaviour by not voting for professional career politicians who refuse to change their ways – we know who they are!

    Otherwise, it’s all in my book… 😉

    And don’t forget – supporting independent media!

  5. Evan Hadkins says:

    Hi John,

    I love your idea of a democracy summit.

    I don’t think four year fixed terms will improve the situation. I think they just give security to those playing political games. Witness what happened in NSW.

    I like your emphasis on institutions. A focus on leadership can make the situation worse I think.

    A worthwhile reform I think would be the introduction of proportional representation (Hare-Clarke, simply the best).

    I endorse this (approx.) 200%, “All public authorities should be required to facilitate public discussion on key public issues.”

    I also love the suggestion of citizen juries and assemblies.

    I’m pretty sure that most if not all of your suggestions would attract widespread support among voters. The problem as you point out is the insiders.

    Hawke did have a kind of consensus – around neoliberalism (the debate being about how its nastiness should be ameliorated). There is currently a kind of consensus in the political class; professionalism and gamesmanship.

    Which means that I think you are right about the need for a sense of morality. This is most people’s approach to politics – though not the politicians’. This is being addressed by the ‘Cathy McGowan method’ I think. Not directly but by involving people in the process.

    I would love to see these kinds of discussions happening more broadly. Many thanks for starting one.

    • Kim Wingerei says:

      Hare-Clarke is far superior to the preference system, I agree. Fixed term is not a solution unless it comes with limited tenure – we need real people in the legislature who are allowed the time to think about long term solutions, not just career politicians with an eye for the next election.

  6. Inigo Rey says:

    I think you have clearly identified most of the significant procedural holes through which democracy leaks out of our political system. A political summit can provide an ‘end-run’ around a great deal of opposition from vested interests, not the least from vested interests of ‘strategists’ in party back rooms. To be realistic though it needs to be accompanied by a defensive strategy to counter the barrage of criticism and mis-representation that will come from captive economists, financial industry spokesmen (sic), and the ever-present flacks and fakers of talk-down radio and the anti-democratic areas of the media.

    If only we had a few leaders with the imagination to see that a massive proportion of the Australian public would cheer these reforms to the rafters, especially if they can be seen to all be parts of a jigsaw of mutually reinforcing pieces of democratic change, we might just dare to do these things. Certainly, in analyses of political problems that are emerging around the developed world, support for wholesale procedural reform is growing. Here’s hoping.

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