John Menadue. Democratic Renewal and our loss of trust in institutions

May 12, 2015

Fairness, Opportunity and Security
Policy series edited by Michael Keating and John Menadue

We speak often about the need for new ideas and policies to fill the void in the public debate.

We will be examining these issues in this series Fairness, Opportunity and Security.

But I think there is a prior problem.  We need political reform to restore trust in our political system and our polity.

In the community there is a pervasive sense of powerlessness and disillusionment with governments, parliament and political parties.  We are tired of one liners, zingers and endless rhetoric. We want to be treated as adults in a serious discussion, on issues like climate change, fairness and our colonial type dependence on the US.

That disillusionment goes much wider to many other institutions-e the churches, the media and corporations. In late April this year the Governor of the Reserve Bank Glenn Stevens criticised Australia’s major financial institutions for treating their customers poorly and forgetting that the financial system relies on trust. He spoke of ‘the erosion of a culture that placed great store in acting in a transparent way’ He added ‘where trust has been damaged, repair has to be made’ In early May this year the former Secretary of Treasury Martin Parkinson told the Australian Financial Review ‘I think our institutions are being eroded in their capabilities and eroded in public trust’

But my focus here will not be on corporations or government departments. It will be chiefly on our ‘political’ institutions.

In examining our institutions, I make two important assumptions.  The first is that we need institutions for stability, cohesion and progress.  The second is that over time power exercised through institutions is always abused, even by the best of our fellow citizens. Reform and renewal must be an ongoing process.

In January this year Essential Research outlined our alarming lack of trust in institutions. Asked how much trust they had in institutions and organizations the interviewees responded as follows.

ABC 53%
High Court 53%
Reserve Bank 48%
Charitable organizations 44%
Environment groups 33%
Local Councils 32 %
Commonwealth public service 32%
Newspapers 30%
Online News Media 27%
Federal Parliament 25%
The News media 25%
State Parliament 24%
Trade unions 23%
Business groups 23%
Religious organizations 22%
Political parties 14%


It is disturbing reading.  Other surveys tell the same story. Perhaps it is noteworthy that the three most trusted institutions are public institutions, the ABC, the High Court and the Reserve Bank.

The Nordics are probably the most successful societies and economies in the world. As I have argued the key to their success in my view is trust- trust of the government by the governed and vice versa. There is preparedness to pay quite high taxes based on a confidence that the government will spend money wisely. If only!

Major political parties in Australia are losing support.  In the 1970s over 90 % of people were basically committed to a major party. At the 2013 federal election it fell to less than 80%. According to an ANU Social Research study 43% of Australians at the last election believed it did not matter who was in power. In particular young people are opting out. About 25% of eligible people did not enrol at the last federal election, did not vote or voted informal. According to a recent Lowy Poll 40% of Australians did not believe that democracy was the best form of government.

Membership of the ALP and the Liberal party has declined from about 300,000 after WWII to about 50,000 today.  No one will admit how bad the numbers are. Money, not party membership has replaced membership as the driving force of political campaigns.  It is called ‘donocracy’ in the US.

In 1950, 44% of Australians claimed to attend church at least monthly. It is now about 20% and falling.   Almost all the churches have been damaged by the cover up of sexual abuse.

Union membership is now down from over 50% in the 1950s to about 20% of the workforce today. In terms of trust unions are on a par with organizations like the Business Council of Australia.

This breakdown in confidence and trust in institutions is not because we don’t want to participate in institutions in our community.  The republic referendum some years ago was lost because of the quite strong view by many Australians that they wanted to be directly involved in choosing our future president.

I don’t think the alienation has occurred so much because institutions have changed.  The problem is that they haven’t changed enough. The ground has moved beneath them and they have not responded. The information and education revolution has made us much better informed and much better equipped to participate in institutions, but we are often denied the opportunity.  Women particularly have more time to be involved in institutions outside the family, but they are often excluded.

The media and particularly TV have contributed to the alienation.  Public figures are trivialised and their personal foibles 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 issues of concern to the wider community.

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 at least some of our public institutions?

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 operate, faces one major obstacle – the power of those who benefit from the present system.  Insiders want to hang on to power.

In many pre-selection ballots for either the ALP or the Liberal Party, a hundred or so members select the party candidate, yet in the wider electorate there are probably 40,000 to 50,000 supporters.  As a result of declining memberships and tight control, successful candidates are, not surprisingly, insiders – staffers of politicians, friends or relatives of faction leaders. Many of these new ‘white bread politicians’ have limited life experience.

There are possible options to address some of the clear democratic deficiencies in our major parties.  We need to debate them.  Party members in federal electorates could directly choose delegates to federal conferences and break the power of state officials.

Whilst guarding against abuses the community as well as party members should be able to vote in party pre-selections for parliament.

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 are disenfranchised.  Those that are really enfranchised are a small group of party power brokers and aspirational swinging 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 – reconciliation, the republic, relations with Asia and climate change.

Parliaments are in need of renovation.  The cabinet and party machines dominate parliament.  The executive has become arrogant ‘Question time’ is ‘spin time’.  I am sure the community would welcome parliamentary renovation which should be guided by the principle that the separation of powers must be enhanced whether it is to discourage a Prime Minister dragooning parliament or a minister intimidating the judiciary.  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 and the public service the last 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. The research resources of the Parliamentary Library should also be enhanced. In the development of Gough Whitlam’s policy program the Parliamentary Library was a critical enabler.

We need an improved parliamentary committee system where hopefully we can begin to see again the art of negation 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.

We need a broad agenda for parliamentary reform.  The major party that is credible on parliamentary reform will reap a large electoral dividend. The best way for Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten to prove their bona fides as parliamentarians is to demonstrate by actions how they value 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 politicall 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. Leadership by Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten in these areas is the best way to restore confidence in parliament and politics. Don’t talk about it. Do it.

At the political level 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 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. 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.    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.

We speak about the failures of our political leaders to outline policies. That is valid criticism. But behind that failure is an even more important issue, the failure of our institutions and the institutional processes necessary to assert the public interest in the face of very powerful vested interests.

Like individuals, institutions also depend on trust. That trust must be shared and reciprocated.

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 have a lot of work to do.

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