RAY BRICKNELL. Fixing our Democracy – Step one – Community Involvement in Policy Formulation

Jan 29, 2020

The Problem. As indicated in an earlier post, there is a fundamental deceit in the concept of governments claiming to have a mandate to introduce particular policies on the basis that the policy was presented as part of a multi-policy election platform, and the party proposing that policy was subsequently elected.

At each election we each get only one vote. We exercise that vote either on the basis of supporting one major policy which the other legacy party opposes, or (more normally) on the assumption that a particular party will generally favour us in legislation and regulation, or whose basic philosophy we generally agree with, at least in principle.

An associated problem is the practice of governments springing major policy proposals on the electorate at budget time, without those proposals having first been put through a process typified by the production of Green and then White papers for public comment, as was previously standard government practice. Too often this secrecy and surprise leads to bad policy being adopted in haste, often deliberately intended to favour one or more particular interest groups, primarily for political gain, regardless of the national interest.

The Proposed Solution

In a previous post I expressed the view that, having achieved a stranglehold on our democratic process, the two major parties have turned politics into a career, to the advantage of themselves and at significant cost to the community. I concluded by saying that I have not yet worked out how to incentivise either of the legacy major parties to surrender any of their power and to adopt common sense policies for the good of the community at large. In this post I would like to explore that practical problem a little further.

Perhaps it is reasonable to assume that our politicians are not so insular and arrogant as to be unaffected by their general unpopularity as a group? PM Scott Morrison was certainly motivated into hyperactivity by the shellacking he copped when visiting fire fighters and residents in places badly affected by the recent bushfires, or at least by his sudden drop in popularity in the opinion polls. So, whilst not prepared to release their stranglehold on our system of representative democracy, maybe they could be persuaded to at least become more genuinely consultative in the exercise of their power to govern?

In this age of advanced communication technology it is clearly practicable for governments to seek guidance from the community at large on all or most major policy proposals before implementing them – witness the ease of conducting the recent plebiscite on marriage equality, a first for the Australian Electoral Commission. A government wishing to at least appear to be truly representative would surely make full use of that technology?

In a recent speech Australia’s then top public servant, Dr Martin Parkinson, said our governments have so far failed to take advantage of the advances in communication technology “to genuinely engage people online – rather than simply using online platforms as a way of pushing out information”. This needs to change, now and forever, he said. He proposed that the APS “conduct a regular, non-partisan citizens’ survey, as recommended by Terry Moran’s 2010 public sector reform blueprint”.

Ten years after the original proposal, that idea now needs to be taken further. Apart from the urgent bi-partisan root and branch reform of our tax system, and probably even ahead of that, a political commitment is needed that no new major policies will be legislated until after the following community consultation process has been followed: A Green Paper, and then a White Paper, should each in turn be made publicly available for comment for at least three months. An electronically conducted, non-compulsory, non-binding public opinion poll should then be conducted on the intended basics of each proposed major policy. Only in exceptional circumstances should policies be implemented which do not receive majority community support in that poll. Any government which regularly acted contrary to public opinion without providing convincing justification for its actions would doubtless pay a price for that behaviour.

This, however, does not address the fundamental problem: how to incentivise one of the two legacy parties to adopt such a consultative approach to government?

Vern Hughes in Melbourne has done a highly creditable job of forming a new centrist political party. You can find details of it here. How could the 80 percent of us in the sensible centre not support such a party if it were on offer at a future election? Surely we are not so blindly welded on to one or other major party as to prevent this? Well, actually, most of us are, if the views of one group I am closely familiar with are in any way representative of the broader community. Astonishing actually.

For the past ten years I have been facilitating a Current Affairs discussion class at the University of the Third Age (U3A) Brisbane. During that time I have been trying to motivate this group of around 70 retirees, of whom close to 50 turn up for the discussion each week, to become more actively involved in politics – e.g. to write to their local federal member on issues of national importance, even if they are not personally impacted by them. Getting 15 out of 70 to even forward a pre-written email is about the best I am ever able to achieve.

This group almost unanimously expresses disenchantment with our current system of no-longer-representative democracy. So I once asked the group to indicate which of them would vote for a sensible centrist party if a credible one was on offer. Barely any hands went up. Instead, people sought to avoid making such a commitment by asking questions such as: what would be the specific policies of such a party? An assurance of political centrality and moderation was not enough. Actually, such a Charter of Policies is now on offer here if you would care to review it.

The closeness of recent elections in Australia actually suggests that such a centrist party would only need to win a few seats in either house to have the balance of power. That, of course, would equip it to block any extremist legislation from either of the major parties, but its power would primarily be blocking power, not policy initiation power. That would be a start, but the two major parties have a track record of voting together to bring down any such upstart party which threatens their duopoly. To force the formation of a moderate coalition government will need at least ten or fifteen centrists to be elected to either house.

The experience of working with my Current Affairs groups suggests that even getting a few centrists elected, presumably in the few marginal seats, will be quite a challenge – especially in the face of concerted opposition from the currently supreme duopoly of parties. I am still looking for that magic duopoly breaker. Any suggestions please?

Ray Bricknell is a retired project management consultant who now tutors classes in Current Affairs and Macroeconomics at the University of the Third Age, Brisbane.

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