Meet four men who have prospered hugely under our current political system, yet want to dramatically overhaul it for the greater good.
On the cover of Oz magazine’s February 1964 edition three young men – one dressed, incongruously, in a suit – stand at the Tom Bass public sculpture in Sydney’s Hunter Street, pissing into its trough-like bronze cavity. Or, more precisely, appearing to. Magistrate Gerald Locke fulminated throughout the obscenity trial provoked by the cover before sentencing the three young Oz editors – Martin Sharp, Richard Neville and Richard Walsh – to jail with “hard labour”.
This wasn’t the 23-year-old Walsh’s first brush with obscenity laws – and it wouldn’t be the last for Oz – but it was the event that vaulted him to counter-cultural notoriety. It was, he explains, a “piss-take” of conservative Australian attitudes to art; the idea being that the sculpture might endear itself to the Sydney public if it served as a urinal. (The convictions were quashed on appeal.)
“You were an angry young man back then,” I suggest to the 75-year-old agent provocateur and author of a new book calling for a radical overhaul of Australian democracy. “And now you’re an angry …?”
“Geriatric,” Walsh roars with a great gust of laughter, before leaning forward and groping theatrically at thin air. “Bring me my Zimmer frame!”
More than half a century has passed since that harmless piece of advanced toilet humour made Walsh a cause célèbre, and he shows no sign of wearying. His fists are still gloved but his sparring partners have changed. In the early 1960s he was jabbing away at a dreary, conformist, white Anglo society. Australia, he believes, has altered profoundly – and much for the better.
His fight today is with the democratic machinery he believes fails to honour that society – to dignify it, to better it. And in Reboot: A Democracy Makeover to Empower Australia’s Voters (out July 3, Melbourne University Publishing) he portrays an ill-made electoral system that has “allowed us to fall into the hands of political leaders who no longer represent us adequately or accurately”. The only thing left, he concludes, is to scrap it and start afresh.
Could it not be improved by incremental changes though, rather than a root-and-branch institutional makeover? He shakes a head of silver hair that, while thinning, has changed in neither length nor style since the early ’60s. “The system is broken,” he insists in the rather magisterial, educated accent of his era. “The system is not going to change willingly. I’m calling for what amounts to a revolution.”
His proposed changes include a popularly elected president buttressed by an advisory council of “national treasures” responsible for filling “non-political” positions like the head of the ABC. The lower house would be a mixture of “closed” reps elected much as MPs are now, and “open” reps detached from geographical electorates – picture the country as one big electorate. The voters, rather than party allegiances, would direct the voting of “open” reps.
The Senate, meanwhile, would be shredded and binned. The bipartisan political circus would die a slow yet inevitable death. The reforms would lead to cheaper elections, doing away with union and corporate donations and making for a healthier political culture.
“There is an ethical problem in the current system about whether you obey the party or your constituents,” Walsh explains. “In the new system, constituents will be top dog.”
Walsh’s reservoir of anger and frustration was alchemised by opportunity late last year, when Melbourne University Publishing’s chief executive officer Louise Adler urged him to write his jeremiad on the dire state of democracy. He penned it quickly, at the rate of 1000 words a day, in high summer.
But Walsh is no Robinson Crusoe. Joining him on the isle of disenchantment is a handful of other well-to-do ageing men, connected by nothing but a firm belief that things need to change, and the means to try to foment that change from outside established political structures. They include Transfield Holdings managing director and newDemocracy Foundation head Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, Melbourne property developer and publisher Morry Schwartz; and Sydney venture capitalist Mark Carnegie.
Can I feel overwhelmingly confident that I can leave a better society to my kids than my parents left me? I don’t feel confident at all.
Mark Carnegie, venture capitalist
They are the silvertail subversives determined to shake up a moribund political culture. Their prestige in the corporate and cultural worlds insulates them from charges of left-wing ratbaggery but leaves them vulnerable to blue-collar scorn and the scepticism of a tall-poppy-scything society innately hostile towards intellectual elites. Or elites, full stop.
I meet Walsh the democracy warrior on a sleepy non-sitting day at NSW Parliament House. A former hospital built in the colonial plantation style and financed by money from the rum trade, the building was home, in 1829, to the colony’s first democratic experiment: a five-member legislative council.
Stepping with a jaunty air beneath the building’s old barrel vaults, Walsh clearly knows his way to the public cafe at the rear, which has views of the Domain. We share a table at what must be the only business in town with a direct feed of the parliamentary proceedings in Canberra. Momentarily, we find ourselves drawn to the image of a supercilious Christopher Pyne and seemingly stupefied Barnaby Joyce, sitting side by side on the Government benches. Walsh seems a little mesmerised by the shenanigans on screen, but not in a good way.
“I had two of my most positive experiences of democracy in this building,” he explains, with expansive hand gestures that put me in mind of a pizzaiolo without a pizza. One was the NSW Drug Summit of 1999; the other the Child Obesity Summit of 2002. One of these occasions also furnished him with a cautionary tale, when he strained to listen to the evidence above two NSW politicians chatting ceaselessly through it. They had, he believes, “no interest in listening to the experts”. Their minds were closed.
Walsh’s proposed changes would make for a very different kind of politician. “We need a parliament of listeners, not egotistical orators,” he says. Under his system-wide fix, there would be less bombast in parliament; more considered discussion, analysis and deliberation. “I am,” he concedes, “an idealist. An optimist.”
An optimist, then, with a keen sense of indignation. The book wouldn’t have been written if controlled rage hadn’t propelled Walsh to blaze away at the political system with both barrels.
“I’ve been frustrated that my own personal politics finds no expression. Every time I go to a polling booth I have to scratch my head. I’m very conscious of the fact that one’s making a very imperfect choice and it seems ridiculous to me that there are more choices at the supermarket – just look at milk: with permeate or without! – than are offered in the political system.
“And then you have a party,” he huffs, “that falls over the line and claims this false idea of a mandate.” He pauses. “Malcolm Turnbull – my local member – didn’t get 50 per cent of the popular vote and yet he talks about a ‘mandate’ and part of me is maddened by that.”
While his dissatisfaction with the electoral system has been brewing for a decade or more, the experience of living in the Prime Minister’s safe Liberal seat of Wentworth and watching him battle his party’s conservative faction has sharpened Walsh’s chagrin. “Most of the voters in this electorate would be for marriage equality, but Malcolm’s struggle is with the party.” The politicians he most admires are those he sees as robust centrists such as former prime ministers Bob Hawke and John Howard.
Coming as he did from a long line of accountants – Walsh describes his childhood in the northern Sydney suburb of Gordon as “the middle of the middle of the middle class” – he developed an early, and lifelong, aversion to stasis and conformity. Married to this is an equally enduring, complementary passion for vigorous public debate.
And yet his own career drifted gently from the fringe of Australian cultural life to its mainstream. After Oz, Walsh edited the punchy, satirical countercultural
beacon Nation Review, and with each subsequent professional role he moved further into the folds of corporate life. From 1972 he was chief executive of publishing house Angus & Robertson, and from 1986 the director and publisher of Australian Consolidated Press, responsible for its magazine stable. The anodyne comforts of retirement hold no allure; he still works as a consultant publisher for Allen & Unwin.
His political philosophy, he believes, has
remained pretty consistent; the world has changed around him. “I’ve probably voted Labor more often than Liberal but the NSW Labor Party disgusts me.” He lifts his head as if taking in a bitter scent. “The smell of corruption in this state. It’s awful.”
Something unforeseen has happened to Western democracy in the early decades of the 21st century, and professors and pundits around the globe are struggling to make sense of it. Seven years after the empty democratic promises of the Arab Spring, a bleak Occidental Autumn has settled over the landscape. Populism is on the rise. And the political class – statesmanship itself – is on the nose. The future of mainstream politics may depend on its capacity for renewal and reform, a point both Walsh and Luca Belgiorno-Nettis are keen to drive home.
Belgiorno-Nettis, scion of the Transfield empire founded by his Puglia-born father Franco, helms his voguishly titled newDemocracy Foundation, to which his family has contributed more than $2 million. The firm founded by his father built bridges, tunnels, ships, rigs, dams and power stations. Luca’s ideals take a different course, but are no less ambitious; he is determined to rebuild the nation’s political infrastructure.
I visit the 62-year-old Belgiorno-Nettis on a fine, late-autumn afternoon at the offices of his foundation, located on pier 8/9 at Sydney’s Walsh Bay. Built originally to handle wool exports, the old wharf has morphed into a warren of architects, designers and tech types in expensive jeans. An architect by training, Belgiorno-Nettis is right at home. But his dress style – pale suit, moccasins, and striking eyewear with a tint of Vesuvian red – is more euro-corporate than creative.
Before our meeting, he sends me a national survey of 1071 people, taken for newDemocracy in March, in which 54 per cent agreed that “the current political system is broken and isn’t working”. An even larger proportion – 71 per cent – felt that “everyday people should play a bigger part in government decisions that affect their lives”.
The survey revealed support for Belgiorno-Nettis’s big reform idea: citizen juries of randomly selected people asked to debate, deliberate and recommend policy to arms of government; in short, to participate in the political process. It’s an extension of the criminal jury principle that wisdom resides in the informed ordinary citizen; the proverbial man on the Clapham Omnibus.
Belgiorno-Nettis would like to see a “citizens’ senate” to supplement (at least in the first instance) rather than replace the existing upper house. Thirty-one per cent of his survey sample said that they needed more convincing about the citizen jury idea. And that is precisely what Belgiorno-Nettis intends to do.
His office is on the most westerly of Walsh Bay’s splay of finger wharves, and the mid-afternoon sun streaming through the windows forces him to squint a little as he maps out the if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it case. “We all like the way we have robust discussion in our democratic system, we like the contest of ideas – it allows for some refinement of arguments. Politicians are tested in a most rigorous fashion on TV, on discussion panels. And you get to test it every three or four years. Not a bad model, you might think. It’s what we know. It’s what we’ve all grown up with.”
Belgiorno-Nettis, a slim man with regular features and a fetchingly cowlicked fringe of grey hair, would present well in a political contest. But he is not in the slightest bit interested. “Elections are counterproductive,” he says, emphatically. “I think they’ve reached their use-by date.”
His ambitions are focused on reform of the system from the outside. “When I say to people that a lot of political debate seems quite shallow and self-interested, that it’s more about winning the daily news battle than the long cycle of policy formulation, that it’s about cheap point-scoring, they begin to see the need for an alternative. Our democratic structure is sub-optimal. We can do better. But unless you can provide an alternative as robust as the present model, they think you’re talking hot air.”
A keen student of history, he turns to the taproot of Western democracy for inspiration. “In fifth-century-BC Athens, representatives were recruited from the citizenry,” he says in a slightly stilted way, searching for the mot juste. “The parliament was constituted equitably. There wasn’t an argument about who was going to be there. And it provided stable government, successful government. Athens was the most successful city-state in Greece and it was at war all the time. They weren’t, you know … wusses, intellectuals sitting around talking.”
The core political institution in classical Athens was a popular assembly of free men. The assembly’s business – its agenda – was shaped by a 500-member administrative council. Citizen juries were another instrument of Athenian democracy. And in all these organs of government, representatives and officials were largely chosen, after careful vetting, by lot. This principle, which goes by the technical name “sortition”, underpins the citizen jury idea championed by Belgiorno-Nettis, and it provides him with a model of democracy that engages ordinary citizens and sweeps aside the hoo-ha of bipartisan politics. “It’s possible for democracy to be an inclusive space without it being at the same time a contested space,” he says.
Along with tragedy and philosophy – the former invented by Athens, the latter refined by her – democracy is one of the abiding gifts of the city-state crowned by its lovely temple to Athena. But it’s complicated. Just how golden was Athenian democracy in practice? That question has occupied the minds of philosophers and historians for 2400 years. Neither women nor slaves could participate in a democratic system that was never free from demagoguery, not always wise, and now and then plainly wicked.
Under this system Athens destroyed itself by waging a disastrous war with Sparta and her allies; and she dispatched the saintly Socrates to his death by poisoning on charges of impiety. But as Belgiorno-Nettis points out – a little tetchily – there is a hint of state-assisted suicide in the story of Socrates’ trial and death: “Socrates could have saved himself plenty of times.”
He goes on to point out that the first American congress was no more broadly constituted than its Athenian predecessor two millennia earlier, while Athens had the special distinction of opening its democratic institutions to “poor men. In the US [Congress] there were none”.
The newDemocracy Foundation, with three-full-time staff, aims to “discover, develop and demonstrate” alternatives to the electoral system. That’s a broad remit in theory; in practice its work is taken up with a growing number of trials of citizen juries.
One helped overhaul the Geelong city council after it was dismissed in April last year. NewDemocracy was engaged by the Victorian state government to design, select and run the 100-member citizen jury, whose main recommendations were adopted by the Victorian Parliament earlier this month. On the night the bill passed Belgiorno-Nettis sent me a follow-up email – his tone as glowing as a proud parent – declaring this a “very promising and pioneering endorsement of citizens’ juries”.
Morry Schwartz is relaxed. Not that long ago, the sounds of concreting, bricklaying and planing ceased at his last Melbourne apartment development. He is, for the foreseeable future, out of the property business that has undergirded his publishing and intellectual concerns for more than four decades. “Well,” he offers with an equivocating tone, “maybe I’ll come back in later. If I have the energy.” He leans forward, with a telling glint in his mild blue eyes. “I do like property.”
Drive, or the lack of it, doesn’t seem a particular problem for the publisher of Black Inc Books, The Best Australian Essays, The Monthly, The Quarterly Essay and The Saturday Paper. He has, he tells me over lunch at Lygon Street eatery D.O.C. (named after the Italian wine classification system), this year launched a new imprint with La Trobe University, modelled after the great endowment-rich American university presses of Harvard, Chicago and Yale. “Our university presses have tended to become diluted,” he says. “We’ll be concentrating on work by people with serious academic clout for a general educated audience.”
Melbourne’s Hungarian-born impresario of ideas is not – and he is at pains to point this out – rumbling for a new system of government. “I do care deeply about our democracy but, you know, I don’t wake up every morning thinking, ‘I am off to work to fix it.’ ” He is the fox who knows many things, to use Sir Isaiah Berlin’s famous nomenclature of intellectual types, rather than the hedgehog that knows the one big thing.
But the foxy Schwartz, 69, is an instinctively political animal. His first publishing venture was Outback Press, founded at the dawn of the Whitlam era, and an early statement of intent was an exposé of Queensland’s Bjelke-Petersen regime of minority government. In 2001, he started The Quarterly Essay with the aim of publishing penetrating long-form pieces that were at once “political and Australian”.
How political has it turned out to be, 16 years later? His eyes shift a little as he makes a quick inventory: “Sixty-five editions. More than half of our essays, I would say, are political. For me, the idea was not to push my own political viewpoint but to have the best minds address the political issues of the day.
“With The Monthly, which published its first edition in 2005, there is no doubt that we became very political; political in the sense of searching for truth, unearthing what is false and wrong. And then with The Saturday Paper [launched in 2014] it changed again. Anyone who reads the editorials will see that each week we’re in there fighting for a better politics for the country and a more decent politics for the country.”
Where Walsh and Belgiorno-Nettis aim to scuttle and rebuild the boat of bipartisan politics mid-ocean, Schwartz is content to rock it. But there’s a single issue on which he won’t settle for agitation alone. “One big change is essential,” he tells me. “It’s a sad joke that we are not yet a republic. I have always been sure that being subject to a distant monarchy has an infantilising effect on the nation. Time to grow up. We don’t need wholesale changes but we do need an Australian president, elected by a significant majority of parliament.”
No cookie-cutter commonalities bind Walsh, Belgiorno-Nettis and Schwartz with Sydney-based venture capitalist Mark Carnegie. What ties these elites from the worlds of industry, publishing, construction and entrepreneurship is their common frustration with the status quo and determination to use their own resources and talents to shake it up. All are, in their way, fighters. Of the four, Schwartz is perhaps the most fiercely committed, despite his light-footed manner. He has no book to promote, no burning issue; but he has spent the past four decades putting the money from his construction business into the cause of new ideas and media diversity.
It is fear that motivates Mark Carnegie to speak out publicly on troubles to which most people of his kind, enjoying the view from the first-class lounge and the marina, are inured. “Fear for my kids.”
The 55-year-old son of businessman Sir Roderick Carnegie cut his teeth on Wall Street under the tutelage of former World Bank president Sir James Wolfensohn before working for Lloyd Williams at property development company Hudson Conway in London. His Sydney-based private equity firm has invested $120 million (out of a total of $400 million) in new medical technologies. While waiting for these investments to bear fruit, the financier is working to improve another kind of asset: society. In 2015, he sponsored a lecture series, Ideas for a Better Australia, at the Sydney Opera House, reeling in speakers that included philosopher Peter Singer and QC Julian Burnside. He speaks regularly at conferences and in the media.
Optimism is the lubricant that keeps the speculative sector of the economy – in large measure a punt on the future – humming. The striking thing about Carnegie is that he is not afraid to give voice to pessimism or to call repeatedly for radical measures, such as higher inheritance taxes, regarded as nutso-socialism by the political establishment.
His ideal Australia is a more equal Australia. It’s not, though, a levelling instinct that drives him; more a case of broadening the opportunities to rise. The alternative to greater equality of opportunity, he insists, is “leaving a whole lot of social potential on the scrap-heap”.
Carnegie says things that those dealing chips worth $400 million generally don’t; he also does things that aren’t often done. When we meet he’s just finished taking his office team to Guatemala. Gazing with them over the ruins of the Mayan settlement at El Mirador, he got to thinking in an Ozymandias kind of way about the fate of civilisations. “Here’s a society that in structure was halfway between Greece and Rome, and now it’s completely and utterly consumed by the Guatemalan jungle,” he says brusquely at a cafe below his Paddington office. “Societies that seem permanent can collapse very suddenly.”
That’s not, he stresses, where Western society is inevitably heading. Australia, in particular, is “remarkably untouched in a relative sense” by the fragilities – and deep inequalities – of the United States and Britain. But that doesn’t seem to still his angst. He leans back in his chair, folding his arms. “We’ve had 500 years of
a secular form of improving lifestyles but history tells us that within one or two generations society can go backwards and be a really bleak place.” Surveying the political landscape with a wide-angle lens, what he most fears is the rise of populism, worrying that the forces that made Hitler are loose again in the world. “It feels like the median outcome from here is some kind of variation on the 1930s,” he says.
A keen rower at Melbourne University, where he studied zoology (later he would earn a BA from Oxford), Carnegie is a big guy with an intense, sharky gaze and a surprisingly soft handshake. His size is probably accentuated on this crisp Sydney morning by a puffy down vest, checked shirt and chinos: he wouldn’t look out of place in a Milwaukee saloon. But it’s a good match for his tough-talking approach to the big questions of economic and social policy.
Like Walsh and Belgiorno-Nettis, Carnegie is frustrated by the political culture, particularly the choke-hold of political parties on ideas – he calls it “vote politics”. But he has no whiz-bang structural reform to promote. In fact he’s not so much concerned with the structure of government as society: social capital – the economist’s term for the social fabric – is one of his big themes.
He bridles against the seemingly ineradicable inequalities between rich and poor, young and old, the city and the country. The absences worry him just as much: the lack of common decency and common purpose. Compulsory civil service is an idea he floated at one of his many public appearances as a way of fortifying social ties.
I ask where it all began, conscious of Carnegie’s refusal to be nailed to any point on the political spectrum other than the agnostic middle. He strokes his jaw.
“It started with a question: can I feel overwhelmingly confident that I can leave a better society to my children than my parents left me when I started my working career?” he says in a trans-Pacific accent bearing the stamp of Wall Street and no discernible trace of Oxford. “It’s not that I don’t feel overwhelming confidence. I don’t feel confident at all.”
It’s not in Carnegie’s nature to leave urgent concerns unattended. He is, he tells me, looking for a new way to give them a practical outlet. “I don’t think,” he confides, “that I’m the only person frustrated with the status quo but unclear what to do.”
Shall we say, “Watch this space”? I ask.
“Perhaps it’s better to say,” he replies, with a boisterous chuckle that shakes his big frame, “I wish I could see something in this space.”
After meeting with Carnegie I recall something that Belgiorno-Nettis, a keen student of political history, told me at his Walsh Bay office: that the radicalism of the Left has been provoked, in essence, by the severity of the Right. And it’s true that untold revolutions, rebellions, insurrections and putsches had acutely and widely felt grievances as their root cause. One of the defining features of contemporary Australian politics, in stark contrast, is that some of the most astute critiques of the political status quo are coming from men of means with no reason to feel personally aggrieved.
That’s not, in itself, unusual. Some of history’s greatest political warriors, such as Karl Marx, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and William Godwin, were of the middle class. Others – Lord Byron and Mikhail Bakunin – were out-and-out aristocrats. But they are exceptions to the general rule: those who want for nothing are inclined to want nothing changed.
Whether things really will change because a small group of Australian elites is determined to argue for a better democracy and a fairer, more vibrant society, may depend, ultimately, on the ability of these anti-politicians to find allies in the political class.
Speaking truth to power – through a new book, a foundation-think tank, a stable of publications, or the undeniable force of public pronouncement – is one thing. Turning good ideas into action: that, paradoxically, is a political act.
Luke Slattery, Sydney Morning Herald, Good Weekend, 23 June 2017