As Malcolm Turnbull was pushed from pillar to post on his National Energy Guarantee and renewable targets over the last month or so, Bill Shorten and his team were enjoying the spectacle from across the aisle. At no point did it occur to them that if they stepped in to support the proposed renewable energy targets – insufficient as they may be – they could have ensured that we at least had some targets. Labor’s own target is 50% renewables by 2030. But rather than compromising on a solution that could ensure at least a target better than no target, they sat on their hands. Seeing the self-destruction of a political opponent is, of course, more important than taking action against the destruction of our planet. It is another sign of how party politics is failing democracy in Australia.
Yesterday (22/8/18) we heard a gleeful Anthony Albanese carrying on in Parliament about how the Liberals “seek to define themselves by what they are against, not by what they are for” – as if that is somehow a vice unique to the Liberal party!
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 whenever a politician is asked a question, the answer is invariably twisted to refer to the opposition’s failings. It is probably not a record, but Scott Morrison managed to name the Labor party or Bill Shorten in one of every three sentences on the steps of Parliament this morning (responding to questions about the most recent policy reversal).
And in the meantime, commentators all along the faded spectrum of political colours wallow in the frenzy of speculation on what’s going to happen next. The jibes are many, the ridicule of Turnbull’s lack of guts almost universal – and Dutton appears in photos with cute puppy dogs and an awkward smile previously unseen.
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 – Dave Sharma in the SMH was one – points out that the root cause goes deeper than just electing another party. Some point to the need for cultural change, but not how.
Bill Shorten and his team are basking in it all; conveniently forgetting how the Rudd-Gillard saga unfolded, Shorten having had more than just a hand in it himself. Voters have not forgotten.
Voters also don’t like that the party room dismiss and appoint the Prime Minister at their discretion. It is one of the reasons trust in Government is so low.
In the ‘Westminster System of Government’ that Australia adheres to, the practice of selecting and dismissing Prime Minister’s at the whim of the party room is by convention, not law. Our Constitution has no actual reference to political parties or detailed procedures for how Executive Government is formed.
One suggestion is that our Prime Minister should be elected by majority vote in – and be answerable to – Parliament. And with executive ministers – the front bench – also answerable to Parliament first and foremost, not to the party.
It’s a start, but party politics is the real elephant in the room.
Party politics is failing democracy in Australia
We have become so used to the dominant role of the political parties as the de facto custodians of democracy that we don’t question it. I cover a bit of the history of the political party in my book – Why Democracy is Broken – A Blueprint for Change – and I won’t go into it here. But 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 represent certain values or views, but also because they have the capacity to reason, evaluate and debate in order 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 (or for independents who rarely get into the lower house anyway). Once elected our representatives 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 – the longevity vacuum – a profound inability to address the big issues: welfare, education, environment, equality and drug reform to name just a few.
The politicians we have are just not up to it. As this week’s events have shown us yet again, the focus of our politicians is on the politics, not policies. It’s about who is right, not about what is right. It’s about power and advancement for personal gain, not about leading the country.
To change it, we need to change the role of the party to its intended role of advocacy. We also need to attract a much broader cross-section of people to want a stint in Parliament, not just because it’s a career option but because they want to (and can) make a difference.
Our Parliament should be the place where ideas and policies are respectfully debated, where the central concern is what’s best for the country. 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 would still be room for those pursuing politics as a career, of course, but to represent you should stand on your own, not hide behind a party.
But if a party is still your thing join GetUp, the Greens, Liberal or Labor advocacy groups, or start your own – Tony’s Wreckers and GiddyUp (aka. The Barnaboys) may well become popular, too?