An extract from “Reboot”

It is commonplace to say that most Australians today, like most citizens in other Western democracies, are disillusioned with their politicians. Few voters identify with any political party; few people feel an urge to belong to any of the main political parties; most believe that the decisions reached by parliaments and political leaders ultimately reflect the narrow interests of those elites that currently finance the two major political parties—the trade unions and big business. But no one seems to be actively looking for a solution to this malaise.

The truth is, the system we presently operate under is ill conceived. Its weaknesses and internal contradictions are more obvious to us now than ever before. 

In a true democracy the federal parliament needs only one house, and that house should represent accurately the will of the electors. But these days in any election for the Australian House of Representatives each seat ultimately, after the inevitable culling of sundry optimists, represents a battle between two main contenders, sometimes three. None of them accurately reflects the totality of any individual elector’s views. Basically we are forced to vote for the imperfect candidate who is kinda close to what we believe in—the one who is just that bit closer than the other, slightly more imperfect candidate.

Is this a recipe for voter satisfaction? When we go to the supermarket, we are typically faced with a mind-numbingly nuanced range of choices within our favourite household brands—gone are the days when Henry Ford magisterially pronounced we could have any colour, so long as it was black. So why are we being forced to make such a limited choice in such an important area of decision-making? Why is there a wider choice among the kinds of milk we can purchase than among the candidates who have a real chance of being elected?

How members of parliament vote on legislation is full of contradictions. The theory is that they should vote according to the wishes of those in their electorate, but the practice is that they fall in behind their party’s policies. When that policy is clearly at odds with what their own constituents want, they of course advocate passionately on behalf of their constituents in the privacy of the party room. Occasionally they will even make a speech in the chamber that is at odds with how they eventually vote.

There are other seductive theories about how MPs should vote. One is that they should ‘lead’ public opinion, which is a genteel way of saying that they should be allowed to vote against the will of the people if they deem their electors to be ignorant fools. This is actually more fascist than democratic. No matter how informed and enlightened we may feel on a particular issue—climate change, gun control or whatever—there is a mighty obligation on us to persuade others that we are right. The modern tendency is to ignore the persuasion bit and to simply attempt a bit of moral bullying; and it is this that is causing so much of the divisiveness and disillusionment in which we now find ourselves.

And then there is democracy’s Get Out of Gaol Free card—the theory that MPs can under certain circumstances follow their own conscience, rather than the wishes of their electors. This is the grossly undemocratic argument that has led us to the impasse on euthanasia and same-sex marriage, two issues on which the will of a clear majority of people is currently being thwarted.

Politics has become a debased and brutal business, totally unsuitable as a calling for anyone who possesses a skerrick of idealism. Of course there are some decent people in the federal and state parliaments, but I have no idea how they got there and remain—the stink in which they are mired is so great that they must be suffering from anosmia.

Within the two major political parties factionalism is dominant, which means that loyalty to the factional warlords—they  are  mainly  men—is  more  important than anything else. Malcolm Turnbull once straight-facedly told a NSW State Liberal Conference that, unlike the Labor Party, ‘We are not run by factions’; he was then forced to grin sheepishly when some in his audience laughed out loud and he realised that every single party loyalist in that room believed he was cracking a joke. He is now so humiliated in his obeisance to the most reactionary members of his own party that, if he had a shred of pride left, he would have resigned a while ago.

In Western Australia, there was the instructive saga of the alarmingly conservative Joe Bullock, state secretary of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA, ‘the shoppies’) and a significant power broker in the ALP. He first gained preselection for a state by-election, where he proved so unattractive as a candidate that he lost a seat that should have been a gimme. He later gained the number 1 position on the Senate ticket at the 2013 elections, pushing aside a sitting senator, Louise Pratt, who happened to be left aligned. Bullock ultimately proved himself so wildly unsuitable and so utterly at odds with core Labor values that he was left with no option than to resign.

At the last elections in Tasmania, there was an equally instructive saga involving Eric Abetz, who dominates the Liberal Party in that state. As an act of petty vengeance against his Prime Minister, Abetz forced the most senior Tasmanian member in the Turnbull Government, Tourism Minister Richard Colbeck, down to the unwinnable fifth position on his party’s Senate ticket. Colbeck failed to get returned, given his impossible position on the ticket, but in protest 15 per cent of Liberal voters gave him their number 1 vote. Abetz’s custodianship of his party in his home state proved so astutely attuned to the electorate’s wishes that the Liberals at those elections lost all the seats they then held in the House of Representatives.

Not that the ALP can gloat too much over all this. Their own factional bosses in Tasmania, in the lead-up to the same election, relegated sitting Senator Lisa Singh to the seemingly unwinnable sixth position on their Senate ticket, allegedly because she was unaligned to any faction—these things always seem to befall women. However, Singh fought back hard and was re-elected, obtaining the first preference of more than 20 per cent of ALP voters—an act of protest by ordinary Labor supporters that had not been seen for more than half a century.

This is factional politics at its most bloody-minded, but evidence of branch stacking by both major parties continues to emerge and neither party wholeheartedly supports the establishment of a federal Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), a policy these days being pushed hard by the Greens. For Labor, if the party was not so obviously under the thumb of its power brokers, supporting a federal ICAC would be a terrific vote winner. The best that Bill Shorten can offer is the inevitable committee of inquiry into this matter.

That’s the kind of tough action you call for when you don’t want anything much to happen. Years ago, in my days as a fighting journalist, I was made to stand before federal parliament and, as punishment for my sins, to be publicly reprimanded. Vince Gair, who had been a former Labor Premier of Queensland but then sat in the Senate as the leader of the Democratic Labor Party, wanted me imprisoned. Clearly disappointed by the leniency shown to me, he described my reprimand as being ‘thrashed with a feather’, a memorable phrase that could now be used to describe Shorten’s efforts to urge forward the establishment of a federal ICAC. His feeble effort tells us what we fear: that the politics of this country is so compromised by large and small acts of corruption that no self-respecting citizen would want to devote much of their time to it.

The three major parties are in a downward spiral. They cannot attract ordinary idealistic rank-and-file members in the numbers they did in the past. As is typical of the double-talk in which politicians babble these days, these frontline soldiers for transparency and freedom of information are particularly secretive about how many party members stand behind them. The best guess seems to be that both Labor and the Liberal Party have about 50,000 members each nationally, and that the ALP once had 100,000 and the Libs may have once had 200,000. According to Nicholas Reece, who is an academic at Melbourne University, Australia has the lowest level of political party participation in the advanced world.

That fact alone should send a loud signal that our political system demands a radical overhaul. Essentially, only the hyper-ambitious and factional stooges are prepared to give up their valuable time to attend branch meetings. Anyone with half a brain knows that these organisations are breathtakingly undemocratic—the important decisions are top-down, not bottom-up. The lack of dedicated rank-and-file members means that the parties simply grow more and more dependent on their power bases—the trade union elite and wealthy business people—to provide financial assistance and to conscript those beholden to them to provide the grunt needed by these parties at election time.

We need a political system that faces up to these dilemmas and solves them. We need a political system in which ordinary people can become engaged. We need an electoral system that can operate at such a low cost that we can blunt the impact of political donations—the source of so much corruption and, more importantly, the distortion of public debate—and still have an informed electorate. We need a system that will attract as members of parliament conscientious and hard-working people who can focus 100 per cent of their energy on the needs and wishes of those who voted for them—a vocation that should in time rid us of the apparatchiks who presently blot our political landscape.

I am envisaging a new political system in which political advocacy, something that political parties should devote their energies to, is uncoupled from political representation, an area the parties will always want to corrupt. In which it is made easier for good and independent people to act as representatives and for them not to be beholden to any political party, so they can truly and single-mindedly represent those who choose them as their representatives. In which we can lower the cost of electioneering, currently the source of the poison in our system, by persuading as many citizens as possible to nominate publicly the person who should be their representative, so that they don’t have to be elected at all.

We  can  change  the  quality  of  our  parliamentarians by making them listen to arguments and listen to their electors, but by discouraging them from participating in debates. Those who speak in debates should not be some wannabe Cicero, puffed up by self-importance and pretentions to eloquence; they should be the people who are the best informed on the topic under discussion.

The people who vote on legislation should be those who have listened attentively, not the special pleaders—imagine if we allowed barristers, after they had finished their fine speeches in a court case, to then sit as the jury!

We can improve the quality of our parliamentarians by having fewer of them. The theory that the Senate is a ‘states house’ has, of course, gone the way of horseshoes and slide rules. We can liberate ourselves from the superfluity of the Senate and the upper houses in the states— except in Queensland, which wisely rid itself of its upper house almost a hundred years ago.

We can improve the quality of government administration by allowing the prime minister to appoint the best people in the land as ministers and by merging the role of minister and department head into one person. The cabinet minister, instead of being the public mouthpiece of the department head, would then be able to do something useful with their life and be possessed of sufficient expertise to be able to run the department.

At the same time as there is so much loud and persistent dissatisfaction with the current state of politics, we are heading glacially, but it seems inexorably, towards an Australian republic. But why just change the head of state when we have a unique opportunity to undertake a wholesale renovation and renewal of our democracy? Why don’t we explore a radically new system that might allow our chosen parliamentarians to represent us more effectively?  Why don’t we  shake  off  our  torpor  and become the kind of agile pacesetters we once proudly were and have always aimed to be.

Our predecessors were pioneers in making it compulsory to vote and in granting women the right to vote and to stand for parliament. Today we operate a preferential voting system that is virtually unique in the world. Surely we can be inspired by these past glories. Surely we are capable of again thinking outside the square, of harnessing digital technology and embracing a system better suited to the twenty-first century.

This is an extract from Richard Walsh's Reboot: A Democracy Makeover to Empower Australia's Voters.

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