With rising disaffection and public debate, democracies around the world are facing a crisis of confidence. Does Australia need to rethink its democratic structure?
Deborah Richards, Australian Institute of Company Directors
01 February 2019
Around Australia, disaffected, angry voices — from community groups to business leaders to striking school students — are demanding change.
“It’s so obvious that the political game is all about cheap point-scoring, and we’re just tired of it,” says Luca Belgiorno-Nettis AM, managing director of infrastructure and services company Transfield Holdings and chair of the newDemocracy Foundation. “Frankly, most people are just p***ed off.”
“The whole system wants a reboot — we need to refresh,” says Ansell chair Glenn Barnes FAICD.
Barnes and Belgiorno-Nettis come from different perspectives, but they share concerns about the increasing shortcomings in the governance of national government. They’ve joined the chorus of passionate advocates for finding a long-term fix of a political process they see as no longer fit for purpose.
Barnes’ concern peaked when dealing with ministers at state and federal level, where he encountered a resistance to engage with the healthcare crisis fast bearing down on us.
“Most of them were well aware of a large and building tsunami of needs and costs, but there seemed to be a lack of political will to openly and transparently address them,” he says. “Being the one to fully out the problems and the associated costs looked to be too great an electoral risk for the major political players to take.”
Likewise, Belgiorno-Nettis’ frustration grew from his work at Transfield, seeing shortcomings and self-interest in government at all levels in the handling of major infrastructure projects.
“Australian citizens are demonstrating a growing lack of satisfaction with, and trust in, a governance system struggling to bring our country together in addressing many of the big issues we face,” says Barnes. He reels off a list of similar policy issues that aren’t being adequately addressed — tax, energy policy, atmospheric emissions, housing, recognition of Indigenous Australians.
The Edelman Trust Barometer has been monitoring opinion and trust levels internationally over 18 years. Its 2018 study showed trust in government among well-informed people remained stubbornly down at 53 per cent, and among the general population the level is even lower, coming in at 43 per cent.
In Australia with its Westminster parliamentary system, studies show we have a complex relationship with our democracy, where people care about politics, but increasingly distrust the system. Just 26 per cent of Australians trust the government — an all-time low according to a longitudinal study of trends in Australian political opinion from the Australian Election Study (AES) conducted by Australian National University’s School of Politics and International Relations. The survey shows two thirds of us care a “good deal” about who wins elections. A healthy majority (72 per cent) discusses politics, but that has declined from 88 per cent over the past 25 years.
But the key figure is the 40 per cent of Australians dissatisfied with their democracy. That trend is increasing (see chart p46). The AES looks at long-term trends in federal elections, based on 100 questions put to thousands of voters and hundreds of candidates at every election since 1987.
Former political advisors Andrew Charlton of AlphaBeta Advisors and Lachlan Harris, CEO of RevTech Media, argued at a recent Sydney Salon that while it’s easy to blame politicians and the media, AES data shows that the cause of our democratic “disease” is more complicated than previously thought. They argue that to survive in an increasingly ideological and disparate electorate, major parties and business will need to adopt a more aggressive policy agenda.
“Instead of managing debate in an effective and productive way, we have a government and an opposition locked in a fight,” says Belgiorno-Nettis.
Most agree there are three related problems: voters who are disengaged from the process, poor policies and policy development, and unproductive, polarised debate. There is no single solution.
Ringing the changes
In 2017, Barnes, Belgiorno-Nettis and a group of concerned Australians from a range of socio-political backgrounds gathered for two symposia. Among them were former Queensland premier Campbell Newman, former federal Labor MP Maxine McKew, political commentator Paul Kelly, publisher Richard Walsh and Peter Hunt AM, co-founder of investment bank Greenhill Australia.
The question put was: “What changes can we agree upon to deliver effective long-term decision-making which earns public trust?” They identified eight key recommendations clustering in three categories:
• Improved transparency and accountability in government — specifically regarding groups with favoured political influence, donations and a federal Independent Commission Against Corruption
• Evidence-based and consultative government policymaking on matters of significance
• A rebooting of Australian democracy — aiming to broadly re-engage citizens in processes for making policy decisions required for the common good.
The symposia also identified tensions between the three tiers of government, where power has drifted to the federal government, weakening local autonomy and was often blind to problems that decisions made at a national level can cause on the ground.
Barnes says it was clear the political structure needs to change and a group is now strategising the best way to engage the community in discussion on the symposia recommendations.
“Perhaps this could be addressed through a facilitated public process, culminating in a referendum redefining the roles of the governments,” says Barnes.
Opinion leaders attending the symposium described it as a stimulating and valuable experience, although thoughts varied as to what initiatives are most desirable and achievable. While some felt the system so bad it needed a total revamp, others expressed a view that Australia was “not as bad as the UK or US”, and that strengthening existing systems with a federal ICAC or tightening political donations laws would make an effective difference.
“It was bold and ambitious”, says Emma Dawson, CEO of Per Capita think tank. “I think evidence-based policy is really achievable, whereas citizen juries might be only applicable to use in resolving some issues.”
Belgiorno–Nettis has advocated for research on solutions and innovation to drive better engagement with communities since establishing newDemocracy 15 years ago. He favours deliberative democracy — facilitating policy development through citizen juries.
Having worked on projects with local and state governments, newDemocracy executive director Iain Walker is emphatic. “There is now widening acceptance that meaningfully involving everyday people is the starting point for many solutions,” he says.
“Our approach is to go for vastly more time and information in assisting decision-making, so people’s decisions aren’t just based on uninformed opinion.”
There are several important steps in the citizen jury process. Picked at random, participants are provided with information about an issue from a range of different sources. Information is key to developing evidence-based decision-making — largely lacking in the current system, Walker argues. The model is an engaged citizenry wrangling with complex issues, allowing for nuance and trade-offs.
The experience is exhilarating, according to Belgiorno-Nettis. “They aren’t able to build a bridge, but they can decide if a bridge or a footpath is needed. These are social and political issues.”
The possibility of the randomly selected groups of citizens becoming a fixture helping to inform policy in our political system isn’t as far-fetched as it might initially seem. In a recent NPR TED Radio Hour interview, Brett Hennig — the director and co-founder of the Sortition Foundation and the author of The End of Politicians: Time for a Real Democracy — argued that democracy and the voting process is broken. His radical suggestion is to replace politicians with a demographically representative selection of random citizens, also called “sortition”.
Elections produce people good at winning elections, Hennig argues. “To do that you need a war chest… but it doesn’t mean you’re good at policy and lawmaking. Evidence from modern examples is that if you give people responsibility, they act responsibly.”
Citizen juries are one way for everyday people to engage in decision-making. Participants are chosen randomly, after being matched to census data on variables such as age and gender. They receive training in critical thinking skills and bias recognition, access to appropriate information and time to discuss and feedback views.
Citizen juries have made bold decisions on issues that politicians can find too thorny, from urban planning and budgeting to energy policy. In 2014, Melbourne City Council entrusted 43 citizens with the duty to recommend on a $5b financial plan to arrest a budget deficit. The jury met the challenges and delivered sensible recommendations, which included asset sales, rate rises and community infrastructure.
In 2016, the process was used to decide on the complex, and controversial topic of nuclear waste storage in South Australia. In this process, newDemocracy’s goal for success is simple — does the wider public look back and say, “That was fair enough. Whether or not I agree with the decision, the process was open and my voice was heard”.
In Ireland, choosing citizens randomly by ballot to be involved in the lawmaking process had a profound impact. In 2012, a Constitutional Convention was assembled to discuss proposed amendments to the country’s constitution. It has 100 members — 66 of whom are chosen through a sortition process. The issue of abortion had become so charged it had reached political deadlock. The constitutional convention discussed evidence over a period of five months and ultimately recommended amending the constitution. The government put it to a referendum in May 2018, where it was approved by 66.4 per cent of voters.
The same Citizens’ Assembly in Ireland has also recently recommended putting climate change at the centre of policymaking — from promoting electric cars, to retrofitting public buildings — with 80 per cent of participants saying they would be willing to pay higher taxes to achieve this.
Big in Brussels
In Belgium, last year, the city of Brussels held talks to formulate a new process of government. Belgiorno-Nettis was a participant and is excited it’s now bearing fruit, with a recently announced Citizens’ Council being established. The regional parliament will have one elected chamber and a randomly selected citizen council. The new council will form citizen juries to deliberate on various major policy issues to report back to the parliament. “It will be a formalised way of getting citizen participation, building trust in… the elected parliament,” he says. “Of course, these [councils] have to demonstrate they are effective, that they build trust in the community.”
Belgiorno-Nettis can see large-scale political reform — possibly a people’s parliament, supplanting the Australian Senate or as a third chamber of parliament. “This current political system has reached its use-by date,” he says. “Let’s have a discussion about alternatives.” In this he’s joined by Barnes, who says it will require several decades. “Our system has served us well, but it’s not coping well with changes in technology, news flows and globalisation.”
A central concern for Barnes is the Senate, which he says has morphed from a house of review to a politicised chamber of obstruction, deal-making and promotion of minority interests that often produces frustration. “The processes, transparency, accountability and public trust of the federal government could be greatly improved if we could transform the Senate into an effective people’s house of review, broadly untainted by partisan politics.” However, wholesale changes to systems of government can be a long time coming, as former head of Treasury NSW Percy Allan AM knows. He is looking at bite-size reform. “Change can come about if it’s realistic and deals with what’s possible,” he says.
Allan’s focus is to bolster the quality of advice given by departments to their ministers and de-politicise what, in recent years, has become a highly compromised procedure. “Currently, department heads find out the minister’s preference before they make a recommendation, [so it doesn’t] get knocked back,” he says. “If they have other opinions, they put post-it notes on the advice. They don’t want anything that could be found under Freedom of Information, so you don’t get an honest discourse. Rather than giving well-informed independent advice, the public service simply becomes a justification agency for a minister’s predilection or bias.”
He supports a suite of reforms that would include a federal anti-corruption body, and a policy process complemented by citizen juries. But his primary concern is a simple independent process of advice to develop government policy.
Allan points to the problems of policy made on the run. “When policy is made by instant decisions without much consultation or thought, like the NBN or moving the embassy to Jerusalem, the government spends a lot of time in a rearguard battle dealing with the backlash,” he says.
Progress requires dealing with the “friction factors” at work in Australian society due to persistent inequalities, according to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA). “Democracies depend on a high degree of social cohesion and a broad consensus that the benefits of growth are reasonably distributed through society,” states CEDA’s recent How unequal? report. One of the key mechanisms CEDA identifies to reduce this problem is to ensure people aren’t left behind by rapid technological and social change. “Too many Australians feel disconnected from the opportunities and benefits brought by economic growth,” said CEDA CEO Melinda Cilento GAICD when launching its recent Connecting people with progress report. “We need to draw a line in the sand and say this is the lowest point of disconnect we will accept.”
Cilento argues we have no choice but to bridge the divide and that demands a new approach to policy development and engagement. “If we are to deliver greater opportunity for everyone… we need tailored solutions and collaboration across business, community and government.”
Bridging the politics-community engagement gap is something the Victorian Women’s Trust understands. It pioneered the Purple Sage project in 1998, obtaining the opinions of 6000 people from all over the state at a time of massive socio-political change under the Kennett Liberal government.
That process, based around kitchen table conversations, has been adopted in various areas to enhance public participation in policy development.
“It was originally designed to allow a process to unfold across the whole state in which ordinary people could come to the table and have a say about the issues really cutting them up in their democracy,” says project coordinator and Women’s Trust director Mary Crooks AO. “You have 6000 men and women having discussions and there is enormous wisdom and experience around every table. It’s just that it’s not tapped into,” says Crooks.
There is much optimism and goodwill focused on the problems in our democracy, but as yet no single solution. While those engaged in the discourse may have different priorities and approaches, they seem unified in one belief: a democratic system that leaves people out will fail.