Luca Belgiorno-Nettis. Democracy flounders in a sea of voter discontent

Since the 1970s, the major political parties have seen their power slip as the ground moves from underneath them. Growing affluence, education/media access and discredited ideologies have helped tipped the balance in favour of the people. Yet the parties still lurch from one election to the next; forever hopeful that, out of the inane contest, their version of the public good might prevail.

The popular vote is still regarded by most as the strongest arsenal of democracy, yet, in the absence of principled differences, elections have degenerated into popularity contests and beauty parades. Cheap point-scoring is now a trademark of contemporary democracy, best exemplified by the current US presidential campaign.

Of the 30 professions in the Roy Morgan Australian survey of public perceptions around ethics and honesty, only four ranked lower than politicians: car salesmen, advertising people, real estate agents and insurance brokers. Nurses topped the list, regularly scoring 90 per cent of respondents who regarded them highly. Doctors were next at about 82 per cent.

Politicians sat in the low teens, with their trend line declining over the decades. The affable Baird may seem an exception, but he is a blip in the unstoppable slide of his cohort. Well intentioned as individual politicians may be, the system requires their profession to be Machiavellian: to win and retain office at any cost, even to the detriment of public policy.

At the end of last year, our leaders promised us an “intelligent dialogue with the community”. However, that “dialogue” quickly became a revenue/tax vortex, swamped in sloganeering and manufactured differences. GST or no GST, negative gearing or not; or is it super concessions now? Does it promote economic growth? Is it in the public interest to have higher or lower property prices? Who’s benefiting? Tenants? Middle class welfare? Affordable housing? Developers?

As Bob Hawke recently remarked, Parliament has degenerated into “a charade”. There is no real debate, let alone deliberation and collaboration. But it’s not the politicians’ fault: it’s systemic. Our MPs must diminish their counterparts, even when their ideological positions have evaporated.

The “circus and shemozzle” that was supposed to be the dialogue around tax reform, has prompted many to support the establishment of an independent tax authority. If that isn’t evidence of declining trust in our political actors, what else might be? I think it’s time to ask ourselves if this is the best way to effect political representation.

When once the adversarial framework may have proven useful, it seems to be rapidly reaching its use-by-date. Fortunately, backstage, behind the curtain of the grandstanding politicians, the executive and the public service carry on, managing the policy formulation and trade-offs for what is an increasingly dysfunctional political class.

In other parts of the world (not the US!) there are promising experiments in alternative models of political representation.

A constitutional convention in Ireland in 2012 began a serious dialogue with the community, and became a hopeful event for anyone despairing of modern democracy. For the first time in Ireland’s history, people were given a genuine opportunity to participate in the future-making of their country. The convention’s radical premise was its composition: 66 randomly recruited citizens, together with 33 MPs. The jury recruitment process introduced the classical Greek “anti-power” device.

The jury privileges people over politicians, collaboration over conflict, and issues over candidates; and proved that a “mini-public”, rather than elected MPs, could legitimately represent their peers. Deliberative democrats the world over applauded this break with tradition.

The Irish experience confounds the accepted wisdom: that only elected politicians make for effective representatives. The original Athenian democracy was conceived as an inclusive, deliberative process, absent the divisiveness of elections.

As electoral democracy flounders, dominated by sinking dreadnoughts in a sea of voter discontent, new vessels of political representation are urgently required. Everyday people, when given the time and the place, can ‘take the hard, right decisions for our future’; it helps when the ship, and its company, are one.

As it was published on Sydney Morning Herald, Comment, 17 February 2016.

Scroll to top