A Radical Notion: More Democracy, Not Less

Public policy is a field where you soon learn that no matter the soundness of your evidence, the acute perceptions of your analysis, and the insight of your ideas with regard to furthering the public good, your policy recommendations can struggle to gain traction. It makes it easy to lose faith in democracy.

So it is with some sympathy that I note the publication of new report by a collection of concerned organisations and citizens which proposes 15 ideas for Reforming Our Democracy. The proposed reforms are intended to help “restore trust” in a political system perceived to be failing badly in its purpose of meeting the challenges the nation faces. The view that our democracy has reached something of a crisis point (necessitating substantive changes to established practices) may be somewhat understandable — inspired as it is by the sclerotic and reform-shy political events in Canberra over the last decade. However, it is important to keep any talk about a contemporary ‘crisis in democracy’ in perspective by remembering that it has ever been thus — and that such complaints are as old and as perennial as democracy itself.

It is also important to ensure the kind of reforms that might be contemplated target the right problems with respect to the factors contributing to a loss of trust in our public life — a loss of trust, I would argue, that stems from the social and cultural polarisation evident in many Western countries, including Australia.

My perspective on the subject of democracy and its complaints has been shaped by the fact that before I became a public policy researcher, my formal qualifications were in history. For my PhD, I studied the history of Australian liberalism from Federation until after the Great War. What my thesis traced were the hopes that liberals like Alfred Deakin, and other federal fathers, held for a higher spirit of citizenship in Federated Australia. What they hoped would develop was a greater democracy in which the people would transcend the selfish vices of factionalism, sectionalism and parochialism, and instead pursue the national interest through the free and representative institutions of the new Commonwealth.

Unfortunately, what the story ultimately became was how political events cruelled the idealism that had animated such high hopes for Australian democracy — which to liberal minds, appeared to manifest all the vices and few of the virtues of good citizenship and the wise pursuit of the public good. It was only when I started working in public policy that I fully understood the bitterness of liberals’ disappointment. It is very tempting to self-pityingly attribute this to the inherent vices of our democratic system, and to question democracy’s merits by doubting the wisdom of those voters who refuse to heed your excellent advice. My occasional indulgence in such unworthy sentiments is always tempered by the knowledge that such is democracy. As the saying goes, all political careers — especially of humble think-tankers — end in failure, for that is the nature of politics.

But in recent times — as the Reforming Our Democracy report tends to bear out — there has been a more concerted questioning of democracy. This was particularly — and quite alarmingly — highlighted by something that recently passed my desk from another think tank, which in the name of updating our political system, talked seriously about handing over important policy decisions to independent bodies — that is to say, unelected ones.

I think the questioning of democracy arises from a particular contemporary social, cultural and political context, and is a response to the shock results that democracy has recently produced in Western nations. This includes not only the election of Donald Trump in the US and the Leave camp’s victory in the UK’s Brexit referendum, but also the rise of populist parties across many European nations that have displaced the establishment governing parties.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that the lack of faith in democracy, and much of the talk about democratic ‘crisis’, has come from the Left, which has found itself disaffected by democratic results that are not viewed as sufficiently progressive. I don’t subscribe to the conventional view that Australian democracy is in crisis. But that this view exists raises some important questions about politics and government in a democratic society.

What the existence of this view actually reflects is the polarisation between elites and so-called ordinary voters along social, educational, and geographical lines. This polarisation occurs along a progressive vs conservative axis on contentious issues, and not only regarding policy subjects such as energy and immigration. It also extends to divisions over fundamental freedoms of speech and religion, and to foundational liberal-democratic principles such as equality under the law and equality of opportunity. If this analysis is right, then the question it raises is whether democracy is broken because Western societies have become too polarised on a range of divisive questions to generate the consensus and consent that democracies rely on to function freely and effectively.

The ramifications are important with respect to the capacity of our democratic institutions to create the level of trust — between political-class elites and the broader electorate — that is required to deliver the leadership needed to address the national challenges we face. If we face a democratic crisis, I believe this is its true nature.

These are pertinent issues for Australians to contemplate, given a general sense of despair about the inability of successive federal governments to deliver effective national leadership. A 2018 national survey conducted by the Museum of Australian Democracy and the University of Canberra found satisfaction with Australia’s democracy has more than halved between 2007 and 2018. This is surely a reflection of the leadership turmoil that has engulfed both Labor and the Coalition since the defeat of the Howard Government in 2007.

The polls, while tightening, still suggest the current federal government is highly likely to lose on May 18 and for the same reason the previous Labor government: politicians who have made it all about themselves, and not the people they are meant to serve, will again be punished by the voters with whom they have broken trust. I don’t want to suggest that polarisation here is on US or European scale.  There are a number of reasons why not: one is the 28 years of unbroken economic growth Australia has experienced; another is that immigration is not the disruptive issue it is elsewhere due to the Australian government maintaining control of the borders. Australian democracy also has unique features that minimise the potential for disruption: compulsory voting and compulsory preferential voting means that many swinging voters do their civic duty by first preferencing one of the major parties, and that all voters end up having to preference one or other of the majors. 

That said, we shouldn’t ignore the rise of minor parties, nor the fact that at the 2016 federal election, nearly forty per cent of voters didn’t vote for the majors: twenty-four per cent voted for minor parties and independents, five per cent voted informal and nine per cent didn’t even turn up to vote.

But these signs of apparent disenchantment with politics being ‘business as usual’ are not grounds to undertake structural renovations of our democratic framework. Rather than a new democratic crisis, we are facing an old-fashioned political problem of politicians being on the nose and out of touch with significant parts of the electorate. The good news, therefore, is that in a democracy this problem — and the lack of trust in politics —  might be ultimately self-correcting when political reality dawns. Depending on how political elites respond, this correction need not result in disruption, if it is realised that the salvation of democracy — and the saving of the political establishment — lies in applying the simplest rules of retail politics and seeking to better represent the views and values of the electorate. We don’t need structural changes that give us less democracy. What we need is more of a genuinely representative democracy.

So the one structural change I would be inclined to support is the democratisation of the major political parties to make the political class more representative of the electorate. If there were, say, democratic plebiscites of party members for pre-selections, a number of improvements might follow.

First, it would be worth joining political parties once members had real power and authority over their direction. It would also open up the political class to preselected, and then elected, candidates who do not tread the now standard career treadmill of student politics to MP advisor to a spell in a government relations job, and then to entering parliament.

It would also ensure that MPs have to ensure their views and values are more aligned with a broader mass of voters inside their parties — and that the successful candidates are likely to have the retail political skills that are most needed in our parliaments. Party democracy would also provide a check on the leadership ‘game of thrones’ — especially if party leaders were also elected by membership-wide ballots.

Most of those who talk about the crisis of democracy believe the problem is that ordinary voters don’t think like elites. But the real problem is that political elites don’t think enough like ordinary voters — and that party democratisation would reduce polarisation, and also the trust and leadership gap in Australian democracy.

Jeremy Sammut is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies. This is an edited version of a speech originally delivered at the RSA ANZ forum on ‘Ideas for a More Productive Politics’ in Sydney.


2 thoughts on “A Radical Notion: More Democracy, Not Less

  • padraic says:

    Thanks Jeremy for the update on this important document “Reforming our Democracy” and the hotlink to it for detailed appraisal. I first came across a reference to it in an article by Nicholas Reece in The Australian newspaper on 30 April. I share your concern over the serious talk “about handing over important policy decisions to independent bodies – that is to say, unelected ones.” That concept is also found as Item 13 in the report under “Citizen Jury” which also gets a mention in Reece’s article, viz – “it is suggested that a trial of a citizen jury should be undertaken to provide advice and recommendations on a major national issue ….” I came across this same proposal a few weeks ago when a visiting friend from Canberra told me that the Government there was trialling such a jury and gave me the details which caused me great concern over the future of our democracy. This ACT trial (initiated on the suggestion of New Democracy Group – so it is hardly a “suggestion”) is almost complete and is being undertaken by one of the “directorates” (no longer a “department”). First of all the government selects a “jury” of citizens who are given a subject to consider and come up with proposal. The subject for this trial is not controversial – it is looking at how to improve the local Third Party Insurance scheme. The jury has access to the staff of the relevant government directorates and MPs and others to assist them in formulating several models. These models are then presented to a “stakeholders’ reference group” drawn from the insurance industry and legal profession, etc for consideration and final approval (by these experts). The final decision is given to the Assembly who have promised to pass it into law without further ado. This trial is the frog in a saucepan of cold water on the Green-Marxist stove. Third Party Insurance today but what tomorrow? It represents a change of tack by the Left similar to what the Communists did prior to Menzies’ referendum on communism in 1951 when they switched from their wartime tactic of subversion by sabotaging military equipment and refusing to load munitions (on the orders of their Russian masters) to infiltrating social organisations and used the referendum campaign to promote their cause by linking up with elements of the Labor Party and later on developing what they termed “People Power” ( now called Citizen Jury). Australian democracy could be made more effective simply by making Senate voting first past the post so the will of the majority (i.e. democracy) is identified and implemented. The periods of greatest stability in Australian politics have occurred when the Government of the day has a majority in both Houses and can get things done. This occurred under Menzies and Howard. Keating recognised this when he was frustrated by the “unrepresentative swill” outside the majority Parties.
    The 15 recommendations in the Report are not all as sinister as Item 13 and I agree with many of them and would suggest your readers click on the hot link in Jeremy’s article and see what is proposed. No1 is longer Parliamentary terms – a good idea. No 2 is a new idea about choosing a speaker as a “quasi-judicial officer” – I don’t agree as it is not in the spirit of democracy whereby any citizen can be elected to Parliament and take part. Instead I agree with Item 10 which proposes to establish a system of professional training for Ministerial staff, MPs and Ministers. The basis of this training should be the book “House of Representatives Practice” which gives a thorough outline of what Parliamentarians and their staff should know and with this training any capable MP could become the Speaker. You don’t need to have a law degree to be a good MP and MPs with other backgrounds and work/life experience can improve the quality of decision making. They should also check the High Court decisions before they want to make changes to the Constitution as set out in Item 14. They want to amend s44 so that dual citizens can be elected – sorry – not on – you can’t serve two masters – forget the multicultural “vibe”. I agree that s25 and s51 (xxvi) are archaic and should go. They are relics of the original drafting, necessary at the time to give the Commonwealth precedence over the States’ Constitutions in relation to making laws for Aborigines. Australia has to be for all people as equal citizens. Some of the other items are pretty motherhood or unrealistic, e.g. Item 3 – not sitting in party blocs in Parliament; Item 4 – Greater free votes, not on party lines (Ridiculous – you would get “fakes” joining a Party, getting elected under the Party banner and then voting against them – sounds like a GetUp hallucination). Item 5-Campaign Funding – too complicated for me to comment. Item 6. Transparency from Political Parties – sounds good but what does it mean? Item 7 – Candidate Information Pack – Great idea. This is used within professions to elect people to their professional bodies as well as organizations like the NRMA. Item 8. Citizen input into Elections ??? They can do that now by voting. I note that the report and Reece’s article are quiet on the subject of compulsory voting, but Reece raised that with a panel on his TV show last Friday and they were all were in favour of compulsory voting. Section 9 – Truth in Advertising – motherhood . Item 11 – Stronger regulation of lobbying – Looks good but what does that mean? Item 12 – Executive Appointments only after “rigorous independent process” – Not on – that means Parliament’s appointments and decisions are subject to control by non-elected people – not democratic – similar to Ministers’ decisions being overturned by non-elected Administrative Appeals Tribunal.

  • Bernie Masters says:

    Excellent article and the suggested solution – giving lay party members a deliberative vote on which candidates are selected to represent the party at elections – is both realistic and likely to be effective for the reasons described. The powerbrokers in the various parties won’t be supportive, of course, because they view their maintenance of control of their respective parties as being more important than winning government putting their policies into effect.
    There are many other actions that need to be taken:
    * heads of government departments need to be made permanent public servants so that we can do away with politically appointed departmental heads
    * in all parliaments during estimates week when each government’s budgets are being reviewed by non-government MPs, the extensive and comprehensive volumes of information brought into parliament by the public servants assisting their ministers should be made available to the non-government MPs in their entirety
    * public (taxpayer) funding of any and all election campaigns or candidates or political parties should be abolished, forcing candidates to actually talk to the people – to the voting public – in their quest to raise money which in turn will require the candidates to listen to people’s concerns and potentially make firm commitments to implement publicly popular policies if elected to government.
    There are other changes needed of lesser importance: abolish government credit cards and force all MPs including ministers to pay for travel and accommodation out of their own pocket, with all claims for refunds to be public documents.

Leave a Reply