DAVID SHEARMAN. Parliamentary reform is vital to address the complex problems of environmental change.

Apr 23, 2019

The poor standing of politicians and the lack of expertise in their ranks and Ministries increasingly results in inadequate policy in complex problems such as climate change. It is essential that the next government commences reform of Parliamentary processes and harness necessary expertise.

The Notre Dame fire at the very moment when President Macron was to address the nation on the persistent “yellow vest” riots was symbolic to me of the conflagrations in French and Western democracy. The skeletal walls of both are still standing but they require national and international efforts to rebuild.

Indeed I felt emotional with the loss of heritage that is part of us all. My reaction is part of the solastalgia feelings which we often suppress and which our democracy fails to recognise in Aboriginal people. Their Land is their Notre Dame.

This leads me to commend John Menadue for his article on “We need a national summit to promote trust in politics”. This would certainly allow steam to be released as a first step to reform.

I comment on the increasing problems of democracy that I have encountered in several countries and suggest some incremental reforms.

My learning curve from expressing views on democracy commenced in 2007 when I co-authored, with a philosopher Joseph Wayne Smith, the book The Climate Change Challenge and the Failure of Democracy as part of a series from the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy. It resulted from my previous thirty years of experience in climate change and its health and social implications. In summary democracy could not cope with this issue and the reasons and necessary reforms were explored.

The book concluded with a tongue in cheek question, to paraphrase, do you think that liberal democracy has the capacity and resolve to manage this impending world crisis? In thinking about your answer, we suspect you will read Chapter 8 once more. Chapter 8 had the title, “Is There an Authoritarian Alternative?”

The book had been widely reviewed in the US media and the ensuing abuse, denigration and threats of death in my flood of emails totally disarmed me.

My professional life was that of a practicing Physician seeing daily the courage in suffering patients and their devoted caring from families. I was not prepared!

This lesson taught me that democracy was seen by many individuals solely as a means of securing ones individual rights, whereas democracy has to balance these rights with collective need. Today, these responders increasingly believe in absolute free speech whatever the collective harm they inflict via social media.

Democracy has been hollowed out by embracing neoliberal and market dogma on the primacy of economics. Each election campaign soon degenerates into a succession of antics and an auction for votes on how much money will go into an individual’s pocket whereas the single most needed financial decision is a living wage for the poor, the unemployed and the homeless. It is the linked issues of the global environmental change threat to our sustainability and the sacrifices needed to provide a future for our grandchildren that require debate.

Reform of democratic governance requires Parliament to vote for it. Even though public regard for politicians is at an all time low, human nature is such that reform needs to offer some personal advantage. Taking into account the psychology of many politicians this has to be enhancement of their status.

From meeting with countless politicians over the years as part of small teams from Doctors for the Environment Australia(DEA) and other non-government organisations, I am conscious that in general they accept and indeed admire members of the professions whose expertise has a vital role in the community. Every national politician might aspire to a professional status and so deliver the cooperation it brings in the patient’s or client’s interest.

Like doctors, lawyers and others, elected representatives could be subject to codes of behaviour and like other professions participate in ongoing education in relevant matters e.g. governance. This need for education has been noted in Submissions to Parliament from DEA since 2009. Transgressions would be managed not just by parliamentary rules but by statutory groups including lay persons. The country is tired of the deep ocean of irrationality, invective and spite in debate which has self and Party first and country last. The Party dogma reminds one of “four legs good two legs bad” in Animal Farm.

In democracy we elect representatives to work together to provide solutions. Loyalty to Party has become a curse to progress in many countries as we see in three years of UK parliamentary warfare over Brexit. In Australia, Coalition unity is more important than saving lives with a progressive climate change policy. Professional status would redefine responsibilities. Indeed the European community has become an example of international cooperation for the common good between the European nations which have in the past waged recurrent war between themselves.

The second reform that Parliament would be wise to accept is deployment of expert bureaucrats to departments hollowed out by the appointments of political staffers; this will arrest the knowledge deficit so apparent in many decisions. This need is explained clearly in the essay Political Amnesia by Laura Tingle. The depth of expertise in our nation is remarkable and is largely untapped in decision making. It must be used to rebuild the advice to Ministers.

President Macron understands the urgent needs of the world by recognising that there is no second planet. His appropriate reforms were not explained to the public and yellow vest disorder erupted. There is the lesson for our leaders as members of a profession, always explain truthfully the treatment to the patient.

The response of the French people to the terrible fire indicates to repair both Notre Dame and its democracy. If Labor is elected to government perhaps Mr Shorten will commence the resurrection of the Australian democratic process in his first one hundred days.

Dr David Shearman AM PhD FRACP FRCPE is Emeritus Professor of Medicine at the University of Adelaide

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