In this blog  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.

Unfortunately ‘democracy’ has been narrowed down to the idea that it is only about elections and mandates and not about institutions and conventions. How ironic it is that the Trumps, Johnsons and Morrisons are the people trampling on institutions and conventions. We used to think that conservatives cared about such things. But not any more.

It is also true that the least educated are also the least trusting of political institutions and politicians. Trump’s appeal to his ‘base’ shows that clearly. The voting pattern at our last elections also points the same way.

Reformers today need democratic institutions and conventions to nurture progressive ideas.

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.

With unfettered capitalism, democracy is losing it’s appeal.  The two often seem linked.The failure of capitalism is eroding confidence in democracy . People around the world  feel alienated and are concluding that the ‘system’ may be working well for a few but not the many. ‘Strong leaders’ are responding with corrosive  but appealing messages.

The media and particularly TV have contributed to the alienation.  Public figures are trivialised and their personal foibles highlighted.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.  He gives us Morrison, Johnson and Trump. Not surprisingly the Murdoch media is the least trusted in Australia. And the ABC still acts like a branch office of New York and London.

Conservatives in their criticism of government are in fact contributing to the malaise that ‘all politicians are bastards’

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.?

There is no one or simple answer.

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. They abuse their power.

The success of Gough Whitlam was that he shook and shook the incompetent controllers of the ALP until the public strengthened his hand sufficiently to get many of the ‘witless men’ sacked. But it was very risky and he almost lost his own job.

It is highly unlikely the present ALP leadership will force the ALP controllers to give ground.The ALP is still controlled by an unrepresentative coterie of factional heavies and  state and union officials.The ALP is not a national party. It is a federation of eight state and territory parties.

Important though it is,the left of the ALP is preoccupied with gender politics which is marginal to many traditional ALP voters who are more concerned about jobs and inequality. Like the voters in Central Queensland and Tasmania.

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  from public discussion, their natural constituencies are disenfranchised.  Those that are really enfranchised are a small group of party power brokers and  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 – climate change,reconciliation, the republic, relations with Asia and drugs .

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  in the Gillard period 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.

All public authorities should be required to facilitate public discussion on key public issues. Transparency is critical.

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 shut. Julie Bishop and Christopher Pyne have recently shown us how flimsy ministerial guidelines on this matter really are.

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.

We now have over 450 ministerial advisers at the federal level The UK has 90. These unaccountable  advisors  promote their own careers . They lack policy skills but contest the advice of senior and experienced accountable public servants. They have undue influence as we now see in the sports rorts. Ministers and even the Prime Minister concede power to them. 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 strong federal anti corruption commission with real powers.

We need a Human Rights Act to enshrine our civil liberties.

The Australian Federal Police need a thorough shake up.In the Clover Moore/Angus Taylor saga over false documents they didn’t see any need to interview either of the two protagonists. Like the wise monkeys the AFP will never see or hear any evil if it might embarrass the government-any government.

Further down the track we need a review of federal/state relations and our Constitution

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

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 economic 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. For me the loss of trust goes back to the dismissal of the Whitlam Government in 1975. We saw then that not even the Governor General and High Court judges could be trusted.

Decades of failure to keep promises have  also 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.

See also article on 25 February 2019, by Mark Evans, Professor of Governance and Director of Democracy 2025, University of Canberra.  He assets that ‘Trust in politicians and government is at an all-time low. The next government must work to fix that’.