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.

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John 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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