It IS broke, so let's fix it……….

The last round of elections in Victoria, NSW and Queensland showed that voters are more disillusioned with politicians than politics.  People are as concerned as ever about the things that affect their lives but they aren't being given much choice of either good ideas or good people to vote for.  Part of the problem (to paraphrase Gore Vidal) is that  'there is only one political party in Australia, the Development Party, and it has two wings, the Labor Party and the Liberal Party.'

 It isn't the policy issues that are the problem in our political system as much the simple mechanics of how the system works.  It's nothing to do with ideology, the mechanics of the system need to be reformed and rejuvenated so they work better and more efficiently.  Simple things like fixed four year terms, already adopted by most if not all the States, would avoid the current unseemly bickering in the Federal Parliament, not on questions of principle but what is seen as giving one particular party some political advantage.  

The governing party should not be able to decide when elections should be called simply because it suits them; we must adopt a fixed term immediately.

 I'm not starry eyed and idealistic about political change, politics is the art of the possible, nothing's perfect, all we can do is to make the changes that are possible, but it's important to start!  I recommend reading  'Imagining Australia: ideas for our future,(Macgregor Duncan, Andrew Leigh, David Madden & Peter Tynan; Allen & Unwin), an excellent book published in 2004.  It received good reviews and then sank without trace as it's clear that neither of the main political parties has any strong desire to reform the system.  The need for changes in our political system was made crystal clear by the NSW elections in March 2011.  The Labor Party was trounced, losing by a large margin after fifteen years in office.  In that time there had been four Premiers, innumerable changed Ministers, corruption and government by party factions; it's clearly time to change the way parties and the Parliament work.  

 I've come around to thinking that a good part of our problem is the low calibre of our politicians; just remember back to NSW Labor in 2011!

People who have real life skills and experience in the real world are badly needed to cope with the uncommon problems that confront us. There are some great people in the parliaments of course, and although we are quick to criticize, we must acknowledge that politicians have a largely thankless task.  In general parliamentarians come from such narrow and self-perpetuating groups as the staffs of politicians, party apparatchiks, trade unions, industry bodies and the legal profession.  We can only vote for the candidates preselected by faceless people (mostly men) hidden in the inner core of each party.  The Greens are a bit different as they still have active branches with active members but most branches of the two major parties atrophied long ago.  Who would want to spend years in such a life-sapping environment as a party branch in order to get endorsement to stand for parliament?  A very small in-group selects who will appear on the ballot papers, and for all the above reasons I've become convinced that a more democratic system of open primary pre-selection like that used in the USA is worth trying.  

 Our system favors uninspiring insiders rather than dynamic and interesting candidates from outside the party, and I'm convinced this change would invigorate the selection process.  Based on the US experience, I reckon over time that eventually up to 50% of the voters in any one electorate could be involved in pre-selecting better candidates for the party of their choice.

Prime Minister Gillard floated a similar idea in 2011 as a reaction to the poor electoral performance of her party, although she thought pre-selection should be by paid up party and union members; it wasn't as democratic as my proposal that pre-selection should be made by voters who register as supporters of a particular party, and of course nothing has happened.

 Just as urgent is the need to reform the current way the political parties are funded.  I would like to see legislation to limit individual and corporate funding of political parties and candidates to ten thousand dollars in any one year. Furthermore, contributions should have to be acknowledged at the time they're made.  Television advertising should also be banned once the poll is announced.  This would immediately lower the cost of elections and the undue influence that had been wielded up till now by big mining companies and to a lesser extent the unions.

 Moves should also be made to reform the Senate.  Our founding fathers saw the Senate as a States House to defend States Rights, but in the intervening century it's always divided along party lines.  It's been suggested that, like the US Senate, our Senate should become the place where wide ranging multi party committees could tease out and question national policy issues, that the Senate committees should become 'the engine room of national policy.'   Twelve senators from each State is thought to be unwieldy and unnecessary so it is proposed that the number of senators should be reduced to 7 senators from each state and 2 from each of the Territories, a total of 46 rather than the current 76. 

 And in order to reinforce the independence of the Senate, senators would no longer be eligible to serve in the Cabinet.  This would free the senate from links with the government and the House of Representatives.  At the same time, it was proposed that the prime minister should be able to appoint non-voting ministers from outside the parliament in order to get the best people into ministerial positions.  All these changes would make for a stronger parliament and prove their worth in the hard times ahead.  One would hope that these improvements would also have a sobering effect on the way Parliament operates. 

 I don't know how, but the incessant popularity polls by the media that have had such a destructive influence on the decision making of recent parliaments  must be stopped. Polls about who is the preferred PM are irrelevant and destabilizing, particularly as the broad electorate don't select the PM, the party with the majority in the lower house does; politics should be more about policies than particular people.  It's become clear from all this that the increasingly fast pace of physical, cultural and technological developments, stimulated and fuelled by the relentless media cycle and the trivialising of political debate for instant headlines, is not compatible with sensible 'deliberative democracy.' Lindsay Tanner, Minister for Finance in the Rudd government, retired at the last election and wrote an incisive book that was very critical about the adverse way the Press was wagging the dog. 

 And we need some simple agreed guidelines to manage situations like the current one with the Speaker Peter Slipper and Labor member Craig Thompson.   Apart from the mile high hypocrisy of the Liberal opposition, where every Australian knows that they would have behaved in exactly the same self interested way as the Government if they had been in office, the presumption of innocence must be maintained, otherwise vague allegations requiring someone like the Speaker to stand down would become a slippery slope (no pun intended).

 'Imagining Australia' has dozens of other straightforward suggestions for improving the way our political system works, all of them able to be simply incorporated without the need for any constitutional change.   Once Australia led the world in its parliamentary reforms, votes for women, the eight hour day, arbitration and a living wage, why are we so reluctant to change when none of the changes proposed are fundamental, only designed to make the system work better and more efficiently.  Yet both political parties resist any changes at all.   I can see why all those factional leaders and apparatchiks don't want to lose their power, yet the people have no way of forcing change onto the political agenda.  Roll on the introduction of Citizen Initiated Referenda.  Let's hope that some government will be so desperate to hang onto power that they will risk the introduction of CIR.  Once we have it, the power will be with the people.

Don Gazzard
May 2012