What's wrong with Australia's democracy?

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Kevin Bain reviews three publications offering diverse perspectives of what is ailing Australia and what should be done.

THESE THREE BOOKS give a platform for a diverse bunch of Australian commentators, activists, politicians, system operatives and academics.

Some drill down on functional aspects, others reflect on populism, fear of what might be coming, visions of something better and change strategies.

Naturally, diagnosis and remedy go together but the terrain is tricky: the Chifley’s “Light on the Hill” is more ambiguous today and the old saw that “change is difficult” is challenged by impressive mobilisations via social media. Hopefully, readers will look at these books and find a forum to make their contribution.

Richard DennissQuarterly Essay 70, 'Dead Right: How Neoliberalism ate itself and what comes next', Black Inc, Melbourne 2018

Richard Denniss, an experienced political operative, doesn’t think our system is broken but needs a “reset” — a switch in the political language to reclaim the important things in life from the technical language of economics. He rejects “joyless prosperity” and embraces populism because society is divided and needs a discussion about the winners and losers from government policy.

Language matters, because neoliberalism and incentive-based policies based on fear, stress, and insecurity dominate society’s goals. He rejects the “marketisation” of social relationships by scary, but largely meaningless, references to “international competitiveness” in the “global economy”.

Denniss is more process than content-oriented — he doesn’t automatically incline towards government ownership and isn’t suggesting a progressive economic agenda. A broad debate about what society we want and how to get it comes first, with the economics a means, not an end.

I think he has his finger on the national pulse. A TV ad which resonates with me is Australian Super's, "We’re all in this together”,  because most non-delusional people know that it is teams that deliver and most hero leaders end up looking not so clever or admirable, after all. Yet business leaders try to frighten individuals by telling vulnerable workers that if they don’t measure up they can be replaced and they get much airtime but little criticism from governments.

This division and fear of losing a job or welfare benefits have bad consequences: people not taking full leave entitlements (Denniss says over half the population don’t) and a reluctance to exercise union and civil rights or speak up. Perhaps the zenith of brutalist thinking is seen in the calculus of cruelty of indefinite refugee detention — exemplary punishment for some, so others don’t drown at sea. This majoritarian view of utilitarianism is an ugly one.

Denniss suggests “growing the economy” is less important currently than attention to our major political deficits. Focusing on what Australians care about is more important than the endless elite debates – without much ability to deliver – on tax, political donations, excess gambling, housing inflation or industrial relations “reform”. Substantial benefits can be made without grand programs and roadshows. For example, he cites former Treasurer Wayne Swan’s taxing of condensate in 2008, which was not a headline reform program, but has since obtained billions of dollars for the Federal Budget.

Along the way, Denniss has insightful comments to make about the worsening relationship between Australian people and their institutions. Conservative opinion leaders who criticise populism don’t admit that their campaign of ridiculing government as fatally flawed and corrupt, has resulted in a “don’t care” attitude by many voters towards which major party governs and results in the parliamentary herding of cats we now see.

Denniss says former PM Julia Gillard’s listening and negotiating skills showed that much can get done within the system but we do need some changes — such as a charter of rights, a national interest commission, a federal corruption watchdog, democratic (civic) education and a sovereign wealth fund. He doesn’t see referendums as a reform instrument, or plebiscites as useful for the drafting or amending of legislation, although they have value in revealing the public mood on issues.

'The Knowledge Solution: Politics, what’s wrong and how to fix it', Melbourne University Press 2018

These 22 short contributions are excerpts from writings over recent years from Melbourne University Press' stable of journalists, ex-politicians, academics, bureaucrats and political advisers. It is a more diverse range than I expected and there are some lesser known but insightful voices in this collection, such as Gray Connolly, Ruth Barcan and The Piping Shrike — an anonymous blogger who is presumably from South Australia. Both Shrike on contemporary populism and Barcan on Hansonism in 1998, start off the collection very well. Below are other highlights.

Stephen Bell and Michael Keating say why the old supply-side economics based around the three "Ps" of productivity, population and participation, ignores the distributional effect on growth when the benefits go to powerful interests and undermine implicit traditions around equality.

Noel Pearson explains the “radical centre” concept, Paul Strangio and colleagues make some historical comparisons of leadership styles, Richard Denniss and Brenton Prosser respond to the fragmentation of parliament by saying we must adjust our lens to see governance as being what parliamentarians do, not what governments want to do.

Katharine Murphy brings some honesty to official politics with her exit interviews to find out what MPs say after they let their guard down.

The introduction is by longterm observer Michelle Grattan, who lists the patient’s symptoms. For Grattan, we have the paradox of a better capacity for good politics but a worse outcome, because we have too much of everything leading to a continuous campaign. (An economic view would be that the high political rents available explain the high expenditure to get them and reducing those rents will reduce allocative inefficiency and increase output.) The Grattan Institute’s (no relation) recent paper is cited with approval, which highlights vested interests in decisionmaking and windy politicians’ rhetoric as running down public confidence. She reports the inevitable optimism of former Labor MP Gareth Evans, who says the rescue of democracy starts with the major parties setting higher standards by engaging respectfully – listening, thinking and acting – with the electorate. The fact that the major parties have declined to about 100,000 members between them (about the same as the largest AFL club) shows the horse has bolted on community representation.

Kim Wingerei,  'Why Democracy is Broken: A blueprint for change', self-published

The author is a Brisbane businessman, blogger and an idealist. Much of his book is a cry from the heart, calling out the shortcomings of current Australian leaders and seeking structural reform, such as a bill of rights, abolition of the Senate, rewriting the Constitution – not amending it – and an end to the party system.

He has much historical awareness from which broad conclusions such as this one emerge:

'... the overall feeling of wellbeing remained well into this century.' 

No mention here of the republic referendum, Senator Pauline Hanson, Tampa and SIEV X, GST, terrorism, Iraq war or Howard’s leaning towards Hanson and away from Indigenous support. Remember "Not Happy, John"?

I liked his interest in history to inform his prescriptions but more history is needed, including the underlying dynamics and it should be argued for. It’s not self-evident to me that 'the GFC precipitated – or rather accentuated – the decline of relative prosperity of the middle-class in the western world', rather than the rise of China and East Asian economies, the end of the Cold War, technology and communication innovations. The rise of inequality has been a creeping but persistent aspect of our economy for decades and a source of today’s discontent. How do his political reforms provide an economic pathway to best protect or mitigate for next time?

Another simplification is lumping together the reforms of Hawke/Keating and Howard/Costello because they

' ... were not based on any ideological platform, but rather driven by pragmatism.' 

But neoliberal economics was certainly an ideology and shared by the pragmatists in both parties, although now questioned by many for its social relations and regressive distributional outcome. And pragmatism is an ambiguous word, suggesting a grand reconciliation beyond classes and interest groups. How do horse-trading, compromises and principles come together? Who benefits?

He suggests that the longevity of Hawke and Howard was due to strong leadership, rather than party influence, but many would disagree. Keating’s view was that Hawke’s presidential style showed his lack of leadership. It is often argued that Howard gave excessive handouts to buy a win in the 2001 Federal Election and was lucky to have the September 11 events and boat refugees to achieve his longevity. To focus on great men 'who step up to lead from the front', is very much an “old power” framework in a world where the institutions are more hollowed out and on the nose with many skilled and purposeful political participants. The viability of their crowd power is providing a better alternative.

It’s not clear if the author is part of a political milieu, but workshopping the proposals with a group of experienced political operatives would help.

Kevin Bain is an economic analyst and retired teacher, mainly advocating through the Mornington Peninsula Human Rights Group.

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