Our democracy is broken – but it can be fixed

May 30, 2021

Democracy is broken. Or at least, gutter politics has dragged it off its pedestal. And certainly, if our quality of life is any measure, democracy is failing the majority of Australians. But there are solutions if the will is there.

We only need to look at how inequality, poverty, hunger, homelessness, Indigenous disadvantage, and mental health problems have all grown over the last decade to see that the privilege of living in a representative democracy doesn’t automatically translate to a better life.

To these sorry trends we can add the stark and steady decline in educational attainment for school children, the increasing unaffordability of higher education, the growth in government corruption and corporate irresponsibility especially in the banking, fossil fuel and news media sectors, and the loss of a swathe of human and legal rights and freedoms since September 11 2001.

Add the attacks on vulnerable Australians under schemes like Robodebt, the cashless debit card and more lately, the new eligibility assessments for the NDIS, the failure to provide sufficient access to essential services for children, the aged and domestic violence victims and the continuing imbalance between genders on income and superannuation balances.

Furthermore, the significant growth in the prevalence of diabetes and obesity, the unnecessary exposure of our economy to the risk of climate change, the massive losses of the biodiversity on which our future depends, the flattening of wage increases for workers – even as profits rise steeply for business, and the sorry rate of growth in GDP since the Global Financial Crisis; the list is endless.

Lots of solutions are being proposed and organisations are linking up to form associations for reform of democracy in Australia.

Some of the suggested solutions are about reform of the instruments of democracy, such as our Constitution, codes of conduct for politicians, corruption investigation bodies, fixed terms for parliaments, and transparency or prohibition of donations to political parties.

Others are about increasing participation by the people in democracy through more deliberative mechanisms like citizen’s assemblies or juries, and by enfranchising younger voters.

Others still have suggested that we can use the internet better if we create a new space for an open public square on a non-profit social media platform. The Australia Institute has recently posed the option of a publicly owned social network that could be run by the ABC.

Every one of these solutions has merit and if implemented together they would go a long way to fixing what’s broken. But the chances that they will make it onto a party of government’s political agenda are slim. But even if they were all implemented, they would still not reverse the decline in our quality of life. They wouldn’t help Australians set an agenda that can safely propel us towards a better the future. And they wouldn’t stop politicians ignoring our long terms needs and to escape their accountability for their repeated failures over the last decade to improve our lives.

Citizen’s assemblies and juries can certainly help us because they at least offer people a way to increase their influence in local decision making and problem solving. But these forms of community participation in democracy are small-scale, time-consuming and aren’t set up to help us think ahead as a nation.

They can be used to diagnose problems and can draw people into evidence-based decision making on the best way to solve whatever problem they identify – usually after the damage is done. But they’re often simply ignored by politicians and, at best, only solve problems in piecemeal fashion and certainly not as fast as more problems keep piling up on us. They’re fundamentally inefficient.

What’s needed – in addition to all those other solutions – is a new way of assembling both ourselves and our intelligence to make our preferred future a reality. This entails more than just a new public square. It requires a new method for working together within that square so that we can build a coherent plan and stop blundering into the future blindly. Having such a plan would help us increase our influence with leaders, our control over our own lives, and the real shares of power of individuals in democracy. It would help us reverse the blundering of politics by allowing us for the first time to insert a simple extra step into our democracy.

Before we vote, we need to get together and use an organised planning framework – one that can help us get a fix on our real health and wellbeing as a nation, and what risks and opportunities are on the horizon. From there we can build a long term plan and with that we can send a clear message to politicians about what we want them to do for us – for all of us – and how we want them to do it. We have never sent this message before and it’s time we did.

In the age of the internet the public square is wide open for this purpose; but like our democracy it lacks a framework and a well organised space that we can use to collaborate in an orderly way to select and integrate the best strategies for reaching our preferred future.

Fortunately that framework exists – although not many people know about it. It’s called Integrated Planning and Reporting and it has been operating successfully for over a decade at the local community level in Australia; under legislation requiring local councils to assist their communities to develop long term plans for their society, environment, economy and democracy.

This hasn’t yet been used at the national level but research by experienced practitioners, Australian Community Futures Planning, has shown it is entirely possible to adapt Integrated Planning & Reporting for use by any and all Australians to set out their own long term plan for the nation we want to become, and chart the safe paths to that future.

Australian Community Futures Planning has started helping Australians build that plan. It’s called Australia Together and it already includes the reforms of the instruments of democracy being suggested by concerned groups alongside so much more that can reverse the decline in our quality of life. This plan won’t be able to bind governments; but it can guide them. And moreover, they can be judged impartially against it.

At elections now, we give away all power to those we elect but we never tell them what they can use that power for, and how. With an integrated plan that we build together we can reverse the decline in our quality of life and reinvigorate democracy at the same time.


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