Wentworth democracy

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Wentworth by-election candidates Independent Dr Kerryn Phelps and Liberal Party candidate Dave Sharma

Our Prime Minister has declared that the Wentworth by-election threatens the stability of our country unless a majority vote for the Liberal candidate.

The Wentworth by-election may be the most hotly contested in living memory and also reveals much about why our democracy is broken and needs fixing!

The Electoral Division of Wentworth is named after William Charles Wentworth — an Australian explorer, writer, politician and early advocate for Australian self-government. He never set foot in Wentworth in Cambridgeshire (UK), nor is it likely that many of that town's 211 inhabitants know what's happening in Australia this coming Saturday.

They don't know that our Prime Minister has declared that the very stability of our country is at stake if a majority of the 100,000 or so of the people eligible don't vote for the Liberal candidate. Nor should they care and nor should we. Quite the contrary.

Why are we having this election?

Enough has been said about the leadership coup that ousted previous Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and replaced him with Scott Morrison. Voters didn't like it, just as they disliked the other similarly party-indulgent leadership changes over the last decade.

Malcolm Turnbull didn't wait long to declare that he would leave Parliament. His reasoning was that he felt that "former prime ministers are best out of parliament not in it" — forgetting he was elected as a representative of his electorate, not as a prime minister. He used the well-documented sniping and backstabbing by other previous prime ministers ousted under similar circumstances – Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd – as his "rationale".

But the problem was with their rabid conduct, not with them remaining in parliament — which is not just their prerogative, but their responsibility. By resigning, Turnbull conceded his inability to conduct himself with dignity on the back bench and also gave the proverbial finger to his Party, knowing full well the consequences of his actions.

We've already had several Federal by-elections recently, mostly because of the dual-citizenship saga — some because the members had enough, skirting their commitments and failing their voters, all at huge cost to the public purse.

Electing parties, not representatives

To replace Turnbull, the Liberal Party selected an unproven candidate – former diplomat and, more recently, practising lawyer – Dave Sharma.

I first heard of him in an article he wrote about democratic reform in the Sydney Morning Herald, not long before his selection:

"There are the politicians themselves: increasingly careerists for whom politics is a profession, not a public service, and whose instinct for self-preservation readily overrides broader appeals to party unity, party discipline, and the expressed will of the electorate."

I agree, but how quickly he's forgotten! Since his ascension to political candidacy, Dave has been living proof of what he said he despised about politics, avoiding questions about his stance on climate change, meekly toeingthe party line on almost every issue he has been asked about.

Dave the aspiring reformer has been replaced by Dave the party loyalist.

This is at the core of what is wrong with our democracy — for too long we have allowed the major parties to usurp control. The Liberal/National Coalition, Labor and (to a slightly lesser extent) the Greens are self-serving organisations, not servants of the people. To be elected to the House of Representatives, you (usually) have to belong to a party and succumb to its will. Policies are decided by the party and debate in Parliament is a display of polarised antagonism, not the forum for informed and respectful debate it was meant to be.

Representing the party, not the electorate

The idea of a representative democracy is that each electorate has someone to represent their interests in Parliament. On average, each member (of the House) is backed by a majority of the roughly 100,000 voters of each electorate.

But that's just a theory. Through their pre-selection processes, the major parties choose who they think may be the best candidate. If he or she happens to live in the area, great — but if not, who cares? Dave Sharma has never lived in Wentworth but says he will move there. Tellingly, the Australian Electorate Commission's 'Qualification Checklist' for each candidate only deals with section 44 and most of the candidates list a P.O. box as their address.

One candidate – Tony Robinson of the Liberty Alliance ("proudly anti-Islam") – has previously stood for elections in both Bennelong and Perth.

Labor candidate Tim Murray does live in the electorate and leading independent candidate Kerryn Phelps lives just outside it (neither presumably in a PO Box).

One seat, 16 candidates

Sharma, Murray and Phelps are the only three candidates who stand any chance of being elected. Neither is likely to win over 50%, so the result will be based on preferences. According to a poll on 11 October, those three had just under 80% of the primary vote. The Greens had 5.9%, another Independent – Licia Heath – 7.4%, the other 11 candidates share the balance — around 600 votes each on average. So why do they bother?

It is, of course, their democratic right and, as most of them are single-issue "parties", they no doubt see any election as an opportunity to get some publicity for their causes. From voluntary euthanasia to animal justice via the arts, small business and science, they are all issues that deserve a voice.

Fact is, most of us have issues we care more about than others. I advocate for democratic reform and free speech, my partner writes about a more compassionate world, my stepdaughter has dedicated her life to preserving the languages, stories and culture of our Indigenous peoples.

Advocacy is not only important but should be integral to how policies are formulated in the myriad of areas making up our complex and diverse society. Advocacy in all its forms should be celebrated and supported. Advocacy informs policy and policy-making should be the focus of politics.

But instead of policy driving politics, politics is driving policy and advocacy of the real issues that people care about is so often confined to the back pages, in more ways than one.

The mainstream media is part of the problem, focusing on the politics of an issue rather than the substance. Just have a look at today's paper and see how much of the commentary is about who thinks what, political tactics, the posturing and the grandstanding, rather than in-depth analysis of what the issues are.

Democracy is not just about elections

When Scott Morrison declares the Wentworth by-election an issue about the national interest, he is disingenuous in his honesty. It is a clear demonstration of the de facto raison d’être of the modern political party. If the tables were turned, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten would have done the same. But in Opposition, he can do the statesmanlike thing and talk about how we need to "work together for the common good".

Yes, we do. Now prove it, Bill.

At the time of writing, the more likely outcome of the Wentworth by-election is that the Liberals will lose the seat (and Dave Sharma can stop looking for a new house). It will lead to a hung Parliament, where the Government will have to negotiate each issue on merit with the rest of the House.

And that could well be a great win for democracy.

William Wentworth may well have approved, too.

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

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