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Party politics is holding democracy hostage

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Parliament struggles to find a leader, while the nation shakes its collective head in disbelief (Images via Wikimedia Commons)

In the latest Fairfax-IPSOS poll, first preference support for Labor and the Coalition was down 10% from the 2016 election to just two-thirds of voters — roughly evenly split between them. It is unlikely to have increased after this week's events. The decline in support for the majors is linked to how they conduct their internal affairs and is at the heart of why trust in politicians is at an all-time low, writes Kim Wingerei.

THE TREND AWAY from a two-party system has been evident in European democracies since the 1980s. From the North Sea to the Mediterranean, governments are typically formed by formal and informal coalitions as no single party is able to win majority.

In Australia, the major parties have held on to our sacrosanct preferential voting methods. It is a system that has broad support. It also led to the Greens getting one representative in Federal Parliament, despite receiving over 10% of the primary vote at the last election.

For all its virtues, the preferential voting system is helping the major parties cling to a power that does not reflect their actual support. Not only does no party or coalition have anything close to a majority, each of them now has roughly the same support as the one-third that would prefer neither of them — a third that has no voice in Parliament.

But they are still not listening.

They are not listening to a populace crying out for leadership on the important issues of our time; from climate change to housing affordability and youth unemployment, let alone even trying to understand that the war on drugs is failing everyone.

They are not listening to the persistent calls to end the age of political entitlements. They are ignoring that only 16% of those surveyed by Roy Morgan (in 2017) believe politicians can be trusted. They are not listening to the majority of people that say euthanasia legislation is long overdue. The Liberals were dragged kicking and screaming to conduct an unnecessary and absurdly expensive poll to legislate for same-sex marriage. They resisted the calls for holding banks to account for their misdeeds — now it is blowing up in their faces, as it should.

This week, it just happens to be the Liberals who are having their introspective wrangling about who should lead them. A few years ago it was Rudd and Gillard swapping places under similar circumstances. The voters haven't forgotten.

So, when a gleeful Anthony Albanese carries on in Parliament about how the Liberals “seek to define themselves by what they are against, not by what they are for”, he is throwing stones in the glasshouse. It's what you all do, Albo! Response to issues and policy formulation is more likely to be inimical to the opposition than considered on merit. Agreeing with any “member opposite” is a cardinal sin in Parliament House.

And in the meantime, commentators all along the faded spectrum of political colours wallow in the frenzy of speculation on what will happen next. The jibes are many, the ridicule of Turnbull's lack of guts universal, and Dutton appears in photos with cute puppy dogs and an awkward smile. At the time of writing, Julie Bishop and Scott Morrison have joined the fray, too.

Many of the commentators lament the fact that every Prime Minister since Howard has been rolled by the party room rather than at the polls (except for the brief Rudd cameo in 2013). Some acknowledge that the system is not working, a few point out that the root cause goes deeper than just electing another party. Some point to the need for cultural change, but not how.

Voters don't like that the party room dismiss and appoint the prime minister at their discretion and party politics is the real elephant in the room.

We have become so used to the dominant role of the political parties as de facto custodians of democracy, we don't question it. Over time, the role of the political party as advocates for change has been lost in the quest for power. Winning elections and then holding on to power has become the raison d’être of parties, not the pursuit of ideas and causes, or making the world a better place.

As democracy has evolved and become more inclusive, societies more numerous and more complex, the fundamental role of elected representatives has been sacrificed on the altar of party politics. True representatives should be elected not just because they hold certain values or views, but also because they have the capacity to reason, evaluate and debate to make good policy decisions.

On polling day, we are given the pretence of voting for individual representatives, but in reality we vote for party delegates who, once elected, are beholden to the party first, special interest groups second and to their constituents last.

The party rules, and it has become employer and career ladder. Parties are big business, requiring tens of millions of donations every year to operate and more still to run elections. And with donations follow the inevitable expectation of influence — corruption dressed up as charity.

With the emphasis on elections comes the short-sighted nature of policy-making and inability to address the big issues. Just like a business, party politics is about managing risk — don't take them unless necessary and fresh ideas are always risky. The fear of change runs deep in all of us.

As this week's events have confirmed, party politics is about who is right, not about what is right. It's about power and advancement for personal gain, not about leading the country.

Our Parliament should be the place where ideas and policies are respectfully debated. To be elected should be a privilege and a huge responsibility, and we should make every effort to ensure that Parliament is populated by the broadest possible cross-section of people, professions and backgrounds. A true house of representatives.

There should still be room for those pursuing politics as a career, but to represent you should stand on your own, not hide behind a party.

Kim Wingerei is a former businessman, turned writer and commentator. You can follow him @kwingerei.

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