Party politics has been allowed to take control over the political discourse at all levels. The voters are disillusioned and disengaged. How do we break the Gordian Knot of partisan control over democracy?
Listening to journalists and commentators on the hustings this week, the apathy of the electorate stands out more than ever. As seasoned political commentator Laura Tingle said on the ABC’s 7:30 report: “we are seeing a level of disillusion and disengagement that I haven’t seen in 35 years of federal political reporting.”
The national papers are also showing little interest in the ‘Super Saturday’ by-elections. Four out of the five seats are held by Labour and one – Mayo in Adelaide – by The Central Alliance (previously known as the Nick Xenophon Team). As the balance of power in the House of Representatives is not at stake, nobody outside those electorates really cares.
One could argue that nothing is at stake, except for the careers of those being elected (or not).
The sad part is that voters are not disengaged because they are not interested. Nor disillusioned because they lack passion.
This election is no different from others in showing what people really care about, which is local issues. They care about their roads being upgraded, about their local hospital and about school funding.
The irony of the campaigning for these elections – for any federal election – is that when the focus is on local issues, they are generally not decided in Canberra, but locally or at state level. And to the degree they are issues decided in Parliament, the elected candidates, once elected, are beholden to their party, not to the electorate. And the party room decides how they vote for an issue, not the candidates – and certainly not on the floor of Parliament.
This is at the core of the chasm of disconnect that Tingle and others are observing. As we know – and have come to accept – the party rules. We elect party delegates, not people representatives.
Politics have become synonymous with party politics. And party politics is about winning elections. In the words of redeemed dual citizen ‘offender’ Susan Lamb (Labour candidate for Longman, QLD): “whether you are an MP or a candidate, campaigning is what you do”. Once in power, party politics is about staying in power.
Politicians care about power, people not so much.
People care about electricity prices, but don’t want the environment destroyed. They care about job security, not tax relief for big corporations. They care about their own security, but not at the expense of the well being of those less fortunate.
People do care.
So when Malcolm Turnbull stands in a pub in Devonport this week declaring that all people care about is “jobs and growth” he is nothing but an echo of his own rhetoric. And as maverick Braddon candidate Craig Garland (Independent) summed it up: “they come in every (few) years with bags of cash and false promises”.
People care about being heard, and they are not.
Instead, people feel they are being lied to, and that’s why they are disillusioned.
Politicians regularly make promises they don’t keep – an obvious reason only 16% of respondents to a recent Roy Morgan poll rates politicians highly on honesty and integrity. This is not a new phenomenon, it goes hand in hand with the decline in trust of our institutions in general, and Government in particular.
So how do we change it?
How do we change the proverbial ‘Gordian Knot’ where those who can change the system of politics are the same people that benefit from it – the politicians? If we can’t change people, we need to change the people. We need to change who we elect.
But first, we need to re-frame the role of the political party. Their role should be as harbingers of ideas and a base for advocacy, drivers but not determiners of change; a home for people that believe in an ideology or a cause and want to belong with others of similar outlook. In a democracy of free speech and open exchange of ideas, advocacy groups are paramount.
But the role of advocacy is different to the role of actual policy determination and law-making. Advocacy is there to inform and engage, not to rule.
Those standing for election to Parliament may still be aligned to a party, but not beholden to it. The core idea of representative democracy is that as voters we should be free to elect an individual to represent us, someone whose values we share and that we believe will look after our interests. Today the only choice we have is to either vote for an independent who have limited influence, or vote for a party delegate whose influence is limited by the party program.
In ‘modern’ democracy all important policy decisions are made in the party room. Parliament is merely a place of perfunctory debate and where votes are being held. Grandstanding and shouting matches define the political discourse, not respectful and informed debate. Question time is an unedifying spectacle of arguments being thrown around to satisfy the press gallery’s voracious appetite for sound-bites.
Parliament should instead be the primary forum for debate and where the laws of the land are made and amended. It should be where issues are raised and people are heard through their representatives. It should be a dynamic forum where solutions are found and compromises are made openly, not through backroom horse-trading. It should be the institution that holds executive Government accountable. It should be the protector of the Constitution – a chamber of high standing that people can look up to and respect.
To be elected to Parliament is a privilege and an immense responsibility, not (just) a career choice for members of a political party. It should attract the best of the best, people from all walks of life, bringing their experience to bear on issues important to the people. We must hold those we elect to the absolute highest ethical standards. The role of a Parliamentarian is demanding; challenging enough for good people to seek a seat, not to keep it warm, not to keep it safe, but to give it meaning.
There is an old and tired adage that says we get the politicians we deserve. I disagree, we deserve much better. We deserve representatives who listen and learn, who are accountable only to their electorates and to the law of the land; who are clear about what they stand for and act accordingly. And we deserve leaders with visions for the future, not just with an eye for the next election. We want leaders who have empathy and in-depth understanding of what people desire, how business operates; leaders with a social conscience who care for the environment and their communities and understand that we live in one world, not just one country or state.
Is this too much to ask when our collective future is at stake?