GREG BAILEY. On the Importance and the Difficulty of Renewing Australian Democracy

Nov 24, 2017

John Menadue has offered a series of nine excellent practical proposals as to how the current two party system – which has virtually assumed monopoly status as a duopoly–might be converted into a multi-party system. This would seemingly reflect the real concerns of Australian voters whose voting patterns – by the increasing percentage of votes going to minor parties – show increasing support for a multiparty system. But can the very useful suggestion of “a professional and independent review of our parliament and the democratic renewal” really come to fruition and what would be needed to bring it into operation?

In the last decade, but increasingly in the last three years, the monopoly status enjoyed by the two major parties has been steadily noted by the media and academic commentators. But is it not the case that Australia has really had such a system since 1949 when Menzies set the Liberal Party up for a twenty-five year period of dominance. It is true that the DLP emerged after 1955 and the National Party continued in coalition with the Liberal Party, but the desire of both main parties to capture the middle ground established by the governing Liberal Party meant they functioned as two sides of the same coin in terms of policies and outlook. This changed in 1972 when the Whitlam Labor government was elected and began to modernize Australia, yet arguably the ground for this had already been set up by the Gorton Liberal government. In this period from 1969-75 the extra parliamentary pressure of the emerging women’s movement and environmental movement, plus resistance to the Vietnam War, all anchored within the rather amorphous and incoherent Counter Culture movement, effected a change in public attitudes that took Australia away from the middle ground it had so long enjoyed. Arguably a new middle ground was created.

Then there was a kind of interregnum from November 1975 to March 1983 when the Liberal government tried to wind back some of the important social reforms of the Whitlam Labor government, to rescind Medibank and tame the ABC. Ultimately they were unsuccessful because of the new middle ground of policy and society that had been established.

Since 1983 neoliberalism has dominated public policy making in Australia and the two main parties have firmly placed this as the centre of their policy portfolio, if indeed they have one at all. With corporatism as its institutional framework the corporate structure – emphasizing strategic plans, a strict hierarchy and a clear gap between management and employees – has come to pervade the government, big business and the union movement, as well as semi-government institutions such as universities and councils.

The cultural side of neoliberalism has promoted individualism against cohesive social groupings, allowing the individual career path to achieve a much greater prominence over a more socially networked orientated workforce/community where previously the vertical line of command may not have been so pronounced. Thus the politician’s role is now to prosecute a career path and not to function as a servant of the public. And where an elected position to parliament eventually becomes a pathway to a position in a large consulting firm or the government relations department of a large corporation, or the head of the Australian Bankers’ Association, it does not matter to those ensconced in the party system that it is a duopoly.

And the mass media too still thrives on competition in politics, whether this is between individual parliamentarians competing for higher positions to fulfill their personal ambitions or between the two main parties at election time vying for electoral dominance, even where ideologically they are very similar. In this environment ideas, while treated in an ephemeral way, are sublimated to the competitive, combative ethos, that conceals the two party system as really being a monopoly of common ambitions despite the brawling of party spokespeople.

Further, it may be no coincidence that over the last thirty years there has seemingly been a greater number than usual of sociopaths and unreconstructed egotists who have sought for and gained positions of power in political parties, but also in many other institutions as well. For them power is the gift in itself and need not be extended to anyone else. I remember reading many reports in the financial pages of the media in the late eighties and nineties lauding aggressive CEOs whose ambitions were short term and personal, not for the benefit of the organization as a whole. This is now what so many of our leading politicians appear to have become. And it is this that will make it very difficult to achieve democratic reform as it is anathema to the individualism so dominant in politics now and requires a fundamental cultural change.

How could his proposals be most effectively carried through in an atmosphere where the duopoly will oppose them vigorously, even if quietly? Any kind of expert committee established to seriously examine Menadue’s nine proposals would be one easily attacked as being elitist by the Murdoch press and much of the electronic media. Because, it would require both experience in the execution and construction of public policy and an informed knowledge of Australian political history, as well as knowledge of how democracy has functioned in those European countries not so strongly influenced by neoliberalism as Australia.

I say this only because such a committee’s recommendations would carry much more weight if somehow it could bring a broad consensus of support from the general community with them. Voters’ confidence in governments and democratic processes has been run down over the past thirty years, and this lack of confidence has received much publicity. Accordingly, it may well be difficult to convince people of the great merit in attempting to redraw the parameters of democratic decision-making by governments in order to bring them back into a state where there is much more recognition given of benefit to the public and the commonweal.

So often over many years I have heard people say of politicians “They are all corrupt,” “You can’t trust any of them,” “They’re only out for themselves.” To some extent this reeks of the tall poppy syndrome and severely underestimates the genuine difficulties involved for someone at the centre of political life. It also suggests a short-term pragmatism coloured by a strong dose of “common sense”, whatever the latter might mean. This kind of attitude means it will be difficult to persuade such people that anything looking like a reform pushed by “political types” will really do much more than tinker with the existing system and entrench advantage even more.

If, however, it can be shown that a Commonwealth ICAC might have real teeth and that the large lobbying groups will no longer be given special privileges, and that politicians were to be severely restricted from entering the corporate sector after they retire, then the general public might be able to be brought on side. If the duopoly resisted this and if their resistance was well publicized, it would be yet further proof of the manifest self-interest of the duopoly.

There is also a further problem. In the neoliberal state politics has really just become a branch of corporate business, where the duopoly exists as an extension and legislative sustainer of the activities of the large corporate institutions. If democratic values are to be restored to parliament, then there will have to be a considerable delinking of parliament and the duopoly from the corporate sector, as well as from the union sector, because it too has been very successfully corporatized. This is going to be very difficult as the corporations as a group put so many financial resources-probably tax deductible – into spruiking themselves through their various business associations, their paid economists, and the four big consultancy/accountancy firms. The neoliberal publicity industry also pushes singular agendas for its members, but this is underpinned by a much broader ideological position that has reigned supreme over the past thirty years.

For democratic values to be rejuvenated there will have to be a considerable softening of the main features of the neoliberal project, including both ideology, institutions and culture. This is necessary to buttress the kinds of democratic values that a society dedicated to social cohesion and equity, and not a grouping of atomized individuals whose interrelations are defined primarily by competition and net-working, needs to achieve. Of course, some of the principal neoliberal cultural features interact with broader aspects of Australian culture expressed in the media: strong competitive behaviour, a tendency to short-termism, rugged individualism and a disdain of intellectualism. These are foundational in the media and popular culture, but their influence can be ameliorated. A complete change to a much more socially inclusive culture is probably a pious hope. Neoliberalism extracts the negative features of individualism and competition and propels them into the forefront as a model of behaviour as opposed to social cooperation, long-term thinking and social inclusion, for example. Serious democratic reform must be a model of what the rest of society can achieve in these latter areas, and it must be explained as such. Menadue’s nine points provide a valuable foundation for this.


Dr Greg Bailey is an Honorary Researcher, College of Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce, Latrobe University.


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