JOHN MENADUE. Democracy or oligarchy .

Our political contest used to be between Left and Right, Labor and Conservative.  That has changed with growing anger that power is now rigged in favour of a largely unchallenged and powerful oligarchy. Our democratic  system including our traditional parties are just not  properly responding .Voters are fleeing the major parties and particularly Labor.

In a recent article  Robert Reich a former Clinton adviser said that today’s great divide in America is not between left and right. It’s between democracy and oligarchy- that today’s anti establishment fury is against a rigged political, social and economics system.

It is true also in Australia- dis illusionment with the major political parties and an economic oligarchy of powerful people who rig the system for their own benefit.

The real contest now is between those who want to renew our democracy for the many or allow the oligarchy to further entrench  and abuse its power.

This abuse of  power is now expressed in many pernicious ways

-Continuing re distribution of wealth in favour of the privileged often through inheritance.

-Disgraceful behaviour of our banks,.  Not content with the power they now abuse they  call on the Coalition to curb the role of industry superannuation funds that have outperformed them for years

-Obscene executive salaries and widespread wage theft

-A generational divide between the old and the young in housing through favoured treatment of housing investors. Home ownership used to be the way to reduce inequality but it is not so any more. The property lobby is winning the day.

-Corporate avoidance of tax on a vast scale,

-Abuse of media power by Murdoch Media for the benefit of the oligarchs  including Murdoch himself. He has debauched democracy in three continents

-Most important of all  unchecked capitalism in pursuit of economic growth and profits is prejudicing our planet. Remember the mining oligarchy that overthrew a Prime Minister!

Remember also that with over sixty per cent of our metropolitan print media owned by Rupert Murdoch we are remarkably indolent in facing the global warning emergency.

Not content with its largely untrammelled power, our non-elected oligarchy now seeks to extend its power further by attacking the already-weakened position of trade unions. And  to please the oligarchy even further Scott Morrison  wants to punish ‘eco anarchists’ who are demonstrating against  mining companies that are putting our planet at risk.

Unchecked capitalism is not delivering for many people.  Not surprisingly, many  have now come to the view that democracy is failing .

The community is frustrated that all this is occurring whilst governments and the major political parties are unable or unwilling to address our current democratic crisis.  The will of the many is being crushed by the power of the few.  Democracy is not working for the many.

Not surprisingly, we are seeing the flight of voters from the major political parties and support for minor and  populist parties.  Crackpot leaders like Trump are responding with corrosive and false promises. We are seeing around the world continuing public demonstrations, protests and riots. But the best place to remedy abuse of power is in the parliament and not in the streets.

This democratic failure will continue and worsen unless we start rebuilding a democracy that works for the many . Only a robust democratic renewal can deliver justice for the many.

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  particularly by those who want untrammelled oligarchic  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 ,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 who want reform are disenfranchised.  Those that are really enfranchised are a small group of party power brokers in thrall of the oligarchs. We see them on show together at the Melbourne Cup. Because the major parties are out of touch with their constituencies and continually doff their caps to the powerful, the debate on the big-ticket items runs into the sand – reconciliation, the republic, relations with Asia, drugs and climate change.

The major parties do not represent the constituencies that vote for them. Perhaps the US primary system despite its abuses could be reshaped so that registered Liberal or Labor voters could select party officials and parliamentary candidates.

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. Our foreign affairs policies are now determined not by government or even Parliament but by a cabal of defence and intelligence officials who are in thrall to their US counterparts who have endless wars in their DNA.

The research resources of the Parliamentary Library should also be enhanced and all public authorities should be required  by legislation 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 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. NZ has much better functioning political institutions than we have.

The professionalism of the public service must be restored with much less reliance on expensive and often inexperienced outside consultants. The public service should not just be about implementing policy as Scott Morrison suggests but helping governments tease out good policies.

Citizen juries and citizen assemblies must be introduced so that an informed public can better inform governments of what is politically feasible.

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.  Lobbying is corrupting public life. It is a very serious problem

Ministers and senior officials should be barred from taking employment for five years with any organization with which they have dealt in government. The revolving door particularly in the Department of Defence must be shut.

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 stronger.

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

Ministerial staff 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  robust 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 a political party to prove its bona fides as is to demonstrate by actions how it values 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.

Party leadership  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.

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.  That binding was  seriously broken by the  behaviour of a Governor General in collaboration with High Court judges deposing an elected Prime Minister.

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 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.

Our history shows that we can renovate our public institutions in the interests of the many.

Unchecked capitalism is putting democracy at risk.

The continual denigration of parliament and politicians plays into the hands of the oligarchs. Democratic renewal is the best way to serve the many and curb the power of the oligarchs who serve the few.


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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20 Responses to JOHN MENADUE. Democracy or oligarchy .

  1. Avatar Rosemary O'Grady says:

    Always remembering, Charles – & Stephanie – that ‘the world cannot bear very much reality’ -… (TSEliot).

  2. Avatar Allan Kessing says:

    It’s difficult to disagree with any part of this comprehensive statement of fact and subsequent analysis.
    I would only add, still reluctantly, that Multi Member Electorates might be an improvement but only if via rigorous & precise proportional representation.

    On the matter of donations, no law can stop corruption so the best way to negate the effects of bought & paid for parties would be to require, on pain of nullification of the result, that full accounting be given, preferably in real time, of all expenditure.
    This is there for all to see in the form of razza-matazz stunts & political advertising.
    Not just how muck is spent but whence the largesse came.
    No ifs, no buts.

  3. Such a clear and vital article, John. Thank you for every word. Every thoughtful citizen should be reading:
    “Politics is about how power is exercised and for whose benefit. It is a noble calling and disparaged particularly by those who want untrammelled oligarchic 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 ,churches and major political parties. They are run by insiders for the benefit of insiders.”
    Please P & I readers, let’s all do more than read any articles with which you strongly agree. Where you can, spread the word via links on social media, through conversation, by sending on as email. This is not the time to “stand and stare”. It’s more than time to add our voices.

  4. Avatar Philip Ludington says:

    The effects of nearly 40 years of neo-liberal economic “reform” in Australia has produced the problematic outcomes that John has so clearly elucidated. Wolfgang Streeck’s analysis of the evolution and implications of post war capitalist development is instructive. His book “How will Capitalism End” puts both global and local developments into perspective and explains the current ineffectiveness of our democratic institutions.

    In an interview with “Jacobin” magazine some years ago, Streeck summed it up like this:

    “Democracy under capitalism is democracy to the extent that it corrects the outcomes of markets in an egalitarian direction. Economic liberalization disconnects democracy from the economy — makes it run dry, as it were. The result is what is called post-democracy: democratic politics as a mass spectacle, as part of the entertainment industry.”

  5. Avatar Steve Georgakis says:

    Great article john. My late father use to tell me the real story of “Efialtes” and the 300 Spartans. “Efialtes” was the Greek who betrayed the 300 Spartans and others by showing the Persians a secret path which ultimately outflanked the Greeks. My father told me “Efialtes” wasn’t a person, he represented “tyranny” and the “oligarchs”. Basically the story wasn’t about Greeks and Persians, it was about Democracy versus Oligarchy; 2,500 years later, still relevant.

  6. Avatar Jocelyn Pixley says:

    Just two points to the careful ones above, and to John’s terrific article. The first is that it’s difficult to imagine a system without major parties, and I give you the US Democrats as an example that may, but may not, reform and turn to FDR type revamped New Deal policies. A lot of people would say the ALP is moving, if that’s possible, even further to the Hilary Clinton counter-position.
    From that, I am all in favour of fixed-term elections but not when we are stuck with one or other major party in power for four years. The NSW Government exemplifies this situation. But a three-year fixed term is good: it prevents PMs from “picking” the timing and from basking in a cosy four years. The US has mid-term Congress elections and, at present, it’s sharpened the Democrats’ ability to scrutinise Trump. Our Parliamentary system cannot do that. But Trump has never stopped campaigning despite a fixed four years.

  7. Avatar Peter Binns says:

    John, your post evokes the most disparate of feelings – the pleasure of seeing the maladies that currently afflict Australia laid out so succinctly, comprehensively and methodically; but depression at the prospect of what we might do to address these problems before it is too late. Thank you anyway.

  8. Avatar Colin Cook says:

    Another wonderful, truth-full article John. Many thanks.

    Just one suggestion; you write
    ‘Ministers and senior officials should be barred from taking employment for five years with any organization with which they have dealt in government.’
    A simple discouragement would be that Parliamentary Pensions be reduced by the post-parliament earnings. I understand that this would apply if a Government funded post was taken – and this is why all this ‘talent’, on retirement is only on offer to the private sector.

  9. Avatar Kien Choong says:

    A non-partisan Parliamentary Budget Office is an excellent innovation in democratic institutions, which I understand have already been adopted in many other countries.

    On countering oligarchy, I wish we had a National Equality Policy (like the National Competition Policy) which requires every policy/bill to include an assessment of how the proposed policy/bill would affect equality in the country. There may be good reasons to implement policies or enact laws that adversely affect equality in the country, but these reasons should be made transparent and defended under public scrutiny.

    BTW, I enjoyed reading your autobiography. Thanks for making it available!

  10. Sainsbury Peter Sainsbury Peter says:

    Yes, great article, John. Agree with all you say and the commentators (except I’m not sure I’d be holding Putin up for adulation for anything at all).
    For anyone wanting to understand better how the oligarchs have taken over politics (and the legal system in the USA) and their ultimate goals, I cannot recommend highly enough ‘Democracy in chains’ by Nancy McLean.
    And for a more light hearted, cynical but well-directed assault on politicians (especially Putin) and the twittersphere, readers might like to try Ben Elton’s new book ‘Identity Crisis’.

  11. Avatar Bruce Holmes says:

    1. Link creative people with young people to force change.
    2. Capitalism lead by Corporations ‘ legal people, lobbyists and the beauracracy.
    3. Create ways for purposeful participation in the Labor Party.
    4. Independent speaker with an office with clout. E.g. able to stand Ministers down.
    5. Cap Ads, donations, MP expenses.
    6. Open diaries of Ministers meeting with lobbyists to be made available.
    7. Review of question time by former speakers, real consequences for lying to Parliament.
    8. No offshore donations.
    9. Price on carbon emissions.
    10. Reduce migration levels to 50,000 to lessen infrastructure, food and water problems.
    11. Return to civilised and compassionate refugee policy.
    12. Ads in biased Media to be seen as a political donation and not a tax deduction.
    13. Major appointments to legal and Government agencies to be considered by a joint Parliamentary Committee, so they work for the public and not their Political interests.
    14. Restrict post parliamentary employment that the politician has favoured while in office to 5 years after as per Canadian Legislation.

  12. Avatar Rob Stewart says:

    On the few occasions I comment on a post on P& I it’s usually long and detailed. On this occasion all I can say is: great post John, agree with you 100%.

  13. Avatar Peter Johnstone says:

    A concise ‘tour de force’ of the challenges facing Australian democracy! Thanks, John.

  14. Avatar Jane Wright says:

    John, democracy isn’t failing, it has already failed. I remember when privatisation kicked in and premiers such as Kennett sold the public utilities to rich corporations … I thought and said at the time that the BS about how competition was the going to benefit the ordinary Australian consumers was just that: BS! Our ever increasing gas and electricity prices bear witness to this. Remember when you could trust the CBA? Remember when the press were pretty much unbiased?
    I say again, democracy is dead!

  15. Avatar Robin Wingrove says:

    What you say is so correct it doesn’t need any additions. However, pardon my cynicism when I say that I think pigs have more hope of flying than this.

    As you point out, the rot has gone a long way in our society and I don’t believe that any of the power takers, be they of the so-called left or right will be willing to change their course. This corruption is sanctified at the highest levels and they won’t change, they have too much to lose. It is really quite simple, greed rules; Gordon Gecko is alive and well and corporate fascism is our lot. It’s already here with the oligarchs; they are the ones directing the show.

    The only one in the whole world I know of who has had any form of success in reining in his country’s oligarchs is Putin and I wonder just how far he really got as well. At least he jailed some, exiled others but it took the total collapse of his country to even start the process but I haven’t the first idea if he was 10% or 100% successful. My guess is about 33% for what that’s worth.

    I wish you well in this and you have my 100% support but I’m afraid it’s way to late for real change. Let’s hope I’m so wrong that I spend the rest of my life eating humble crow but I feel some form of societal collapse is in our future now, it’s gone too far.

  16. Avatar Delaney Michael says:

    Yep. Entirely so John. Bravo

  17. Avatar Andreas Wagner says:

    A comprehensive catalogue! A reformed Parliament, in addition to fixed 4-year terms and a independent Speaker, could also limit Parliamentarians to a maximum of 2 terms.

  18. Most of us probably couldn’t agree more but how not to despair given that the oligarchs control the mass media and the lumpen community seems (or rather is) so gormless.

  19. Avatar Bill Legge says:

    To your excellent suggested reforms, I shall add two more:
    – Consecutive term limits for members and senators: incumbency shall be limited to two consecutive terms (if re-elected) and then the member or senator must sit out the next parliamentary term. I think this will limit careerism and free members who make it to a second term. (After all, if the party apparatchiks can’t threaten my preselection, I might be more likely to speak and vote on the national interest).
    – Parliamentary salaries to be pegged to the median family income as determined by the ABS. Ministers can have 125% and the Prime Minister 140% in recognition of the additional responsibilities. If potential candidates don’t think this is enough, well there are plenty of more financially rewarding careers to choose.

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