It seems like almost everyone agrees our system of government simply isn’t functioning properly: it is no longer fit for purpose. It’s time to change it.
Lots of thoughts churning in my head in the wake of the fiasco of Turnbull’s removal. We seem to have ended up with the worst possible outcome.
- an uninspiring PM that no-one much likes, including most of his own party
- a losing challenger humming “It Shoulda Bin Me” as he waits to strike again
- said challenger relentlessly leaked against, in an attempt to bring him down
- Tony Abbott foisted off on Aboriginal people, who don’t want him (nor does anyone else)
- coal boosted, just when the data tells us that renewables are now, and evermore will be, cheaper.
- PMs fellow Christalibans seeking new laws to endorse their sense of superiority
- a former foreign secretary shooting death glares from the back bench
And on it goes. Why? Can we Stop it? How?
SHORT TERM THINKING
Elected representatives making decisions that will boost their popularity and help them hold onto their seats. Overall, making decisions for short term gain. regardless of whether those decisions are good for the country in the long term.
Timing those decisions for personal and political advantage. Unpopular measures, say, tax hikes, tend to be scheduled early in their term, to take advantage of any honeymoon effect, giveaways scheduled closer to election times.
Suggested answers to this include longer terms of government – raising them from the current three to four, or even five years, as in the UK – and fixed terms, so governments cannot dash to the polls to take advantage of a temporary lift in popularity.
But the real answer is not minor tinkering. It is major reform.
Australians forget that we do not elect our Prime Ministers. And it’s pretty clear that from here on, they want to be able to do so.
At present, the Prime Minister, by convention, is the leader of the largest party in the lower house. When the ruling party changes leaders, the country changes Prime Ministers. Policies change when the leader changes. We get, in effect, a new government that we didn’t vote for. This annoys the voting public. They voted for a Liberal government led by Malcolm Turnbull, not one led by Scott Morrison.
This longstanding convention is no longer fit for purpose. It is undemocratic. It needs to change.
One way would be for parties to change their own rules, preventing a change of leader while they are in government. In other words, the leader could not be removed while they held the office of Prime Minister. They could only be tipped out at election time, or in opposition.
That could be reinforced by a law stating that, except in the case of incapacity or death, the government of the day cannot change leader (and hence the Prime Minister), without calling a general election.
The law could further reinforce that by mandating that a leader can only be elected by a one-person one-vote ballot of all party members, with an MPs or Senators vote counting for no more or less than anyone else.
MPs are fond of saying that they don’t pay attention to opinion polls. That the only poll that counts is the election. Clearly, this is a bare-faced lie. MPs are driven by polls: the revolving door leadership changes are proof enough of that. You have to wonder why this is so, since a poll years or even months out from an election can have little or no relevance. Can we better regulate polls so as to lessen their influence?
Already in some countries, it is forbidden to undertake political polling or publish results once an election has been called, and I think this would be a good start. Once an election date is announced, all polling activity, public and private, should cease.
I think there is also a case for regulating the types of political poll that can be carried out, setting out permitted methodologies, minimum sample sizes, and time between polls, etc., to try to eliminate or at least minimise skewed and misleading polls.
We also need to change the behaviour of politicians. This is the other half of this problem, and stems from the kind of people who nowadays go into politics.
For better or worse, politics has ceased to be a vocation, like a secular religion, and become a profession. Beliefs and principles nowadays drive only the most fanatical members: the highly religious, for example, or the culture warriors from the unions or the think tanks.
Most MPs climb a defined career path, through student politics, branch politics, a stint as a staffer, to preselection and so forth. Like contestants in a high end reality show, they are no longer driven by the need to achieve something. Instead they are driven simply to be something.
It also means that many of them are, broadly speaking, of one type, and hence highly susceptible to groupthink and mass hysteria. This leaves them highly vulnerable to manipulation by the incessant polls and nefarious media manipulators.
Having no strong personal principles (except for the aforementioned religious, trade union, IPA etc exceptions), such principles as they have are easily bent, undermined, and even discarded. Principles are less important to them than career, status and position. These are a very distorted set of people charged with representing us. Frankly, a lot of them are not very representative of anyone but themselves.
This system produces a parliament which tends to burn out the good, leaving only the bad to thrive. Katherine Murphy has an excellent piece on this in meanjin https://meanjin.com.au/essays/political-life/
Earlier this year I wrote a weekend column positing this hostile-for-humans thesis for Guardian Australia, and I was intrigued by the response. Politicians from across the spectrum expressed relief that someone was talking about it. One MP sent me a text shortly after the piece was published that summarised the tenor of the feedback. ‘I liked your questioning about politics as hospitable to humans. I guess we have to continue to act as though it is.’
The column was triggered by a conversation I had with a senior member of the government over the summer break. During this conversation, this person observed his vocation was becoming unsustainable for normal people. By normal people, he meant balanced people. If balanced people could no longer cop the life, the profession would shrink back to representation by a very narrow type of personality—people who live for the brawls and the knockouts, and can’t function without the constant affirmation of being a public figure. We would end up with representation by ideologues, adrenalin junkies and preening show ponies, posturing for a media chorus as unhinged as the political class
If the current political system selects such people, perhaps elections as currently run are not the best way to select our parliamentary representatives. You only have to cast your gaze across the benches of the chamber to see that they are overwhelmingly white, middle class and male. The diversity of Australia is not represented.
Perhaps the answer lies in blending several selection methods, so that, for example, we select, say, 50% of our representatives, instead of electing them: perhaps being an MP should be like National Service, or Jury Service – an obligation on all Australian citizens.
We also need a mechanism to guarantee meaningful representation of Aboriginal people in our governing bodies: the Uluru declaration pointed to one such possibility.
I think the government should call a Constitutional Convention to consider these and all other feasible ideas and draft a new constitution. Light a beacon on the hill. Republican, of course.
The media are another distorting factor. One commercial media organisation dominates the landscape. Its only real competition is the publicly owned broadcasters, ABC and SBS, which it constantly tries to kill off. It goes without saying that this must not be allowed to happen.
Publicly owned and funded state owned media are the essential counterbalance to the self-interest and commercial imperatives of private media. That remains true whether that private media is owned by one, two or a hundred and two companies.
Publicly owned media are our national theatre, national museum, national concert hall and national gallery all rolled into one. They are our informal universities and schools. They are the defenders and guardians of the national culture: the drivers and incubators of creativity.
Unconstrained by the need to garner huge audiences, they shelter and protect diversity, which commercial media, interested only in what is profitable, planes flat. They are central to Australian life and culture, without which Australian society and culture will be reduced to a monochrome cardboard copy of cheap Americana.
And it is the commercial media which drives the incessant polling, manufacturing repeated ‘crises’, whipping up hysteria over, basically, nothing. Generating controversy like a fairground spruiker, pulling together an audience, to whom much may be sold. Simplifying complex issues into simple headlines and soundbites.
An old reporter taught me a great truth: “News is not born, it is made”. Even the most benign reportage is driven by an agenda. “News” is a product, manufactured by journalists, editors and proprietors.
Nothing is news until some reporter, some editor, some proprietor, decides to make it so. Brown people caged in a tropical hellhole while the government solves the problem of what to do with them by slowly driving them to suicide? Not news. Rich spolit celebrities throwing tantrums on TV reality shows? Front page. Because it brings in the dollars.
And in Australia, one news organisation strives constantly to manipulate politics for their commercial advantage.
We need to get private media back under control, break up the monoplies, restore a variety of voices in every town and city, in the press, TV, radio and online. Serious consideration should be given to establishing publicly owned and funded print and online “newspapers”, national, regional and local, to counter the privately-owned monopolies.
And we need to make sure that this essential counterbalance, this publicly owned media, including the ABC and SBS, always have the funds to withstand the attacks on them. They must be ring-fenced so that politicians cannot get at them. Take the determination of media funding away from politicians and put it into independent hands. The only role for politicians should be to hand over the cheques.
This has turned into a long post – because there’s lots to be done. Some other issues:
Get organised religions out of education, care, and health systems.
- It is wrong that medically necessary treatments can be refused on religious grounds.
- It is wrong that staff can be sacked or barred from promotion, or clients refused service, because of their private lives
- Segregated religious educational establishments are inherently divisive and socially harmful
- Religious owned businesses and property should be taxed like any other.
- We need to take religion down off its undeserved pedestal and treat its demands, its officers and its leaders equally, so that they operate on a level playing field with the rest of us.
Political parties need to be reinvigorated and wrenched from the hands of the dedicated extremists who stack out branches and twist them to their own narrow ends.
We need to know who is paying off whom.
- The register of members interests is a farce.
- Detailed records of lobbyist meetings with government officials, party officials and elected representatives must be publicly available.
- Donations to political parties, or to entities that then donate to political parties in an attempt to mask the source, must be made fully transparent, in real time.
- Ditto the funding of think tanks.
And we need to start doing all of these things yesterday.