Our democracy is decaying from within. A repost from 16 September 2021

Apr 15, 2022
parliament house canberra politics night
“Democracy” has been narrowed down to a view that it is only about elections and not about well-functioning institutions. Image: Unsplash

We need a summit of community leaders to help chart democratic renewal.

Bob Hawke’s economic summit following the 1983 election promoted cooperation and consensus which led to remarkable economic and social reform. It could be a useful model to promote democratic renewal.

With the loss of trust in our political institutions and politicians today, we need a political summit to build consensus on democratic reform and the restoration of trust. Such a proposal, if carefully explained and implemented, could produce real political and policy dividends for its advocates and more importantly, for Australia.

“Democracy” has been narrowed down to a view that it is only about elections and not about well-functioning institutions. Our democracy is becoming more and more a facade. There are so many signs of decay — unchallenged lies and falsehoods, exponential growth in rorts and wasteful expenditure, corporate capture, favours to political mates (JobKeeper), lobbying in secret, a highly partisan and corrupting media and Clive Palmer-style disinformation. Our democracy is more and more up for sale to the highest bidder.

The military intrudes more than ever into our civil life, from the appointment of Generals as Governors General, Operation Sovereign Borders to harass asylum seekers and now a General to take charge of the vaccination program.

Under Foreign Interference legislation ,thought police are attempting to control the activities of Universities.

I have written many times about the collapse of trust in business, banks, churches and the media. But our immediate concern must surely be the failure of our political institutions and politicians.There is an urgent need for political reform.

Democracy is losing its appeal. People around the world feel alienated and are concluding that the ‘system’ is working well for a rich and powerful few but not the many. There is a pervasive sense of unfairness.

“Strong leaders” are responding with corrosive but seemingly attractive messages. We are heading down the quasi fascist road.


The media and particularly TV and radio have contributed to the alienation. Public figures are trivialised and their personal foibles highlighted. Politics and personality take pre-eminence over temperate and informed policy debate. Rupert Murdoch has debauched democracy in three countries. Not surprisingly the Murdoch media is the least trusted in Australia.

We are clearly not the innovators we were over 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.

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 corporate 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. Our media, churches and major political parties are run by insiders for the benefit of insiders. They abuse their power.

Conservatives preach small government but use government powers to advantage themselves and political supporters in the fossil fuel sector, for example.

The Australian Labor Party (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.Party members have little influence.The ALP does not represent the people who vote for it. 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.

How then can we renovate our public institutions and restore public trust? I suggest in no order of priority some ways we can renew our decaying democracy.

Parliamentary reforms could include 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.

All public authorities should be required to facilitate public discussion on key public issues. Transparency is critical. The office of the auditor-general must be adequately funded.

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 September 9, 2016) urging an enhanced role for Senate committees.

To assist members of parliament to counter the power of the cabinet and provide independent advice the Gillard government established a Parliamentary Budget Office. It provides nonpartisan analysis on the budget cycle. It was a good start. But its work is limited to budgets. Similar offices should be established health, education, defence and foreign affairs.

The research resources of the Parliamentary library should be enhanced.

NZ has a unicameral system but our Kiwi cousins have shown us under both National Party and Labor Governments that a multi-party system can be successfully managed. Fortunately NZ does not have the malign influence of the Murdoch media.

Australia would be well served in the next parliament if we had, say, six or seven strong independents in the House of Representatives who would force urgent reform on climate, corruption and several of the issued mentioned here. Proportional representation would help but a strong group of independents may be possible even without proportional representation.

The professionalism of the public service must be restored. We need less contracting out of work to expensive and inexperienced outside consultants like the big four accounting firms who provide convenient advice. They lack corporate memory.

Citizen juries and citizen assemblies could be introduced to ascertain the views of well-informed citizens.

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. Lobbyists are corrupting public life.

Ministers and senior officials should be barred from taking employment for three years with any organisation with which they have dealt in government. The revolving door particularly in the Department of Defence must be closed. Julie Bishop and Christopher Pyne have recently shown us how flimsy ministerial guidelines 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. US-owned companies dominate our banking and mining sectors. No wonder they are as quiet as mice in calling out the hostility of our government towards China. There is no greater example of foreign interests working against the interests of Australia. They have no real allegiance to Australia and our interests. They serve corporate America with links to the military and business complex.

We now have more than 450 unaccountable ministerial advisers at the federal level. They provide deniablity for ministers They lack policy skills to contest the advice of senior and experienced public servants. They have undue influence as we now see in the sports rorts scandal. 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. Whistleblowers need more encouragement and protection.

We need a strong federal anti-corruption commission with real powers.

We need a Human Rights Act to enshrine our civil liberties. Before 9/11 we had no counter-terrorism laws. We now have 91 that threaten our freedom and privacy. We are no safer!

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) needs a thorough shake up. Like the wise monkeys, the AFP will never see or hear any evil that might embarrass the government— any government. With breathless TV coverage for yet another record drug haul it provides political cover for the failed “war on drugs”.

We need to curb the war powers of prime ministers who have taken us into disastrous wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria without parliamentary approval. It is politically easy for prime ministers to promote fear and lead us into failed wars that have little to do with our national interest.

Our failing monopoly mainstream media must be reformed with support for new and independent media.

Defamation laws must be reviewed. To shut down examination, the rich and powerful threaten prosecution.

The major party that is credible on democratic reform will reap a large electoral dividend. The best way for Scott Morrison or Anthony Albanese to prove their bona fides as democrats and parliamentarians is to demonstrate by actions how they value the parliament and use it as their forum rather than television grabs and talkback 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.

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 that are in good order.

The agenda for democratic renewal that I have mentioned cover a wide range of possibilities. They will not cost a great deal. In fact far less than the JobKeeper, sports and car park abuses.

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.

Moral behaviour is in the end about how our words and actions enhance human dignity and human flourishing. Robust and well functioning political institutions are an important means to that end.

We desperately need democratic renewal.

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