The level of confidence in our democracy today is at an all time low.
Despite compulsory voting, citizens don’t turn up. Young people surveyed in a Lowy Institute poll saw only 39% agree with the statement “Democracy is preferable to any other kind of government.” Every survey of trust in elected representatives seems to find ever lower numbers.
Ignore for a second the merits or otherwise of the carbon tax, the mining tax, of asylum seeker policy, of economic stimulus or what level the surplus or deficit should be – the core problem is that we don’t trust the decision taken. The Foundation holds no view on any policy, instead, that our current process champions adversarial point scoring over all else. The result of this focus on electioneering is that it becomes harder for leaders to lead once they have earned office.
This is not a new phenomenon. Partisans of the Left have been raising the ghosts of the GST and WorkChoices for a decade, and partisans of the Right will doubtless use the No Carbon Tax promise for an equivalent or longer duration. It never ends. Questions of real importance such as how we handle gun control, renewable energy, coal seam gas, poker machines, obesity, gay marriage equality, planning laws and the like become rallying cries for arguments and a chance to ‘win the evening news’ rather than topics open for sensible discussion and a chance to find common ground.
We have many politicians in the ALP, Liberal Party, Greens and among the independents (and of course numerous minor parties – some of whom like the Katter Australia Party may end up not so minor!) who are good, genuine people. But a big part of their job is to win and retain office – and this means a focus on marginal seats and swinging voters. That’s not a criticism: it is a reminder to us as voters that we have built the incentives to which our elected leaders respond.
While there is highly personal and acrid criticism of Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott, it is worth noting that they are also both highly qualified people. I would ask you to consider that they are both people who have simply learned better than most how the electoral and media dynamic works and they execute their plan well. It is becoming doctrine now that the Opposition be a “small target” and not reveal policy. We may not like this, but we should acknowledge it is sensible. By the same token, the act of the Prime Minister in delivering the misogyny speech is politically astute – and that is its ultimate measure of value within the constraints of today’s democracy.
We have a glut of comment on the game of politics. What will the next opinion poll say? Who is our preferred Prime Minister this week? Again, we have built a political model that allows for this: the challenge is to build a better one.
Let’s not forget we have some genuine reasons to be concerned as voters – and I understand why increasing numbers of young people don’t bother to enroll to vote at all or show disdain for the compulsory vote. In NSW the ICAC Inquiry into the affairs of Ian MacDonald, Eddie Obeid and their various enterprises at Bylong create mistrust. But we should perhaps look at how we elect the Upper House and our Federal Senate and ask whether our democracy can be improved, rather than always suggesting it’s “one bad apple”.
We have to stop bagging politicians we disagree with because their party brand is not the party brand we may believe in. Juliar, GetUp putting Tony Abbott on billboards in speedos, the parody pictures of Bob Brown and Christine Milne as Martians. It may be entertaining, it may catch media eyeballs – but it’s not productive and conducive to good government.
I founded newDemocracy with some like-minded colleagues because I wanted to find out if innovation in democracy was possible. It is. Our focus is on everyday people being randomly selected to deliberate and see if a consensus view can be reached. I am willing to trust these people because of the diversity of skills in the community, and the fact they are beyond the reach of so many impairments we place on the judgment of the representatives we elect today. They have no political donations, no factions, no pre-selections to worry about, no special interest groups to campaign against them, no lobbyists with connections to them, no faceless men looming in the background! I could go on… so could most of us!
I have been cheered by the number of retired politicians willing to help us in all sorts of capacities. I would ask you to see beyond whether you agreed with their policies in their time, and see a group of people with the firsthand experience to say we need to be willing to innovate and find better ways to let leaders lead and for trusted public decisions to be made.
There are many possible solutions to a range of public policy issues – the ‘best’ one is the one we have reason to trust because of the sensible way it was formulated.
Let’s embrace that innovation is possible. Let’s allow government to try, and occasionally fail, as we work to implement these changes. Let’s share the idea and keep trying to come up with better ones.
Get started here.
Founder, newDemocracy Foundation