Democratic Disconnections between big ideas and election politics
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Democratic Disconnections between big ideas and election politics

Big ideas for democratic reform and the demands of electoral politics in an election year sit uneasily. There is usually a huge disconnect. Political leaders who try to link the two are brave, some would say crazy brave.

There have been two quite separate conversations going on over the summer. One is the usual jockeying and positioning by the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition as the next federal election looms, while the other is about major democratic reforms of an institutional kind which frequently come from outside the establishment.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

To be fair the major political parties do discuss institutional reforms and sometimes promote them, as Labor is doing with republican constitutional reform and political donations, but they usually have to be pushed from outside the system. If there is any parliamentary connection between the two conversations it often comes through Senate and House of Representatives independents whose presence is one direct outcome of the perceived failure of the status quo.

The major parties are already very much in election mode and that means not just increasingly frantic activity by party leaders but also that behind the scenes attention has turned to building campaign teams. It has been reported that the campaign preparations and team building on both sides combined add up to 300 individuals, including national secretariats, advertising agencies and consultants of various types. They will become increasingly influential.

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It is possible that big democratic ideas to do with executive government, the Parliament or the Constitution will make a late run onto the election agenda but the conventional wisdom suggests that largely they must be already embedded within party thinking to feature at the 2019 election. Despite this there is a plethora of ideas circulating.

Former federal departmental heads, Michael Keating and John Menadue, are among those who have led the way in promoting ideas for democratic renewal through Menadue’s blog, Pearls and Irritations. Menadue has argued that “The major party that is credible on democratic reform will reap a large electoral dividend”.

nfortunately, it is likely that the major parties are mostly seeking such large electoral dividends elsewhere, including through keeping their heads down, short-term vote-buying and/or scare tactics. They remain to be convinced of Menadue’s general proposition, probably viewing big democratic reforms as marginal at best and risky at worst.

Keating has despaired about the future of democracy, lack of leadership and the inability of governments to deliver necessary political changes. His suggestions include improved methods for consultation and collaboration as well as enhanced parliamentary committees.

Menadue adds proposals such as drastic lobbying reform, serious Senate electoral reform and expansion of freedom of information as well as campaign donation reform and a federal anti-corruption commission.

But his boldest idea is a national political summit of community leaders to “chart a new course for democratic renewal”. His model is the National Economic Summit called by Bob Hawke in 1983 after his election victory, which Menadue claims led to “remarkable economic and social reform”.

Menadue and Keating are not the only players in the big-ideas field. They have been driven by a longer- term conviction of widespread democratic malaise in Australia but others are sparked by particular problems which emerge on a daily basis.

Hamish McDonald, reflecting on the way that Indigenous constitutional reform has become tragically bogged down since the Turnbull government’s rejection of the Uluru Declaration’s idea of an Indigenous Voice to sit alongside the two houses of Parliament, has tried to resurrect the old idea of dedicated Indigenous seats in Parliament. Tony Abbott was one earlier advocate and McDonald floats the bold idea of twelve Indigenous senators.

The Coalition’s woman problem has led to many calls for party pre-selection reform through establishing quotas for women as Labor has successfully done. The Nationals and the Liberals must go way beyond piecemeal responses. It is not enough just to push for women to replace Andrew Broad and Kelly O’Dwyer.

O’Dwyer’s resignation at the age of 41 for family reasons has led WA Liberal Senator Linda Reynolds to raise again the need for a more woman friendly, or is it a more human friendly, parliamentary workplace? Such calls, including experimenting with part-time work and increased use of technology to enable MPs to work from home, have so far come to nothing. Reynolds is now advocating changes to parliamentary practice and to the parliamentary time-table as a way to make parliamentary life “more sustainable for both men and women to serve in our nation’s Parliament”.

If these big ideas, including substantial institutional and organisational renewal, are to make any immediate headway three opportunities for action must be taken. The first concerns legislation during the remaining parliamentary weeks before the election. Among the issues to be resolved is the Federal Corruption Commission. The initiative taken by the Greens, Kerryn Phelps and other Independents must be embraced by the major parties, especially the Morrison government, to the extent that a new strong, independent and transparent commission receives enthusiastic parliamentary backing.

The second concerns the election policies of the major parties. Both sides must recognise widespread community alienation and fully embrace substantial institutional reforms, including of donations and lobbying.

The third involves the honeymoon period of the new government, which looks like being Labor but could still be the return of the Coalition. The government will only have a short time to show that it has turned over a new leaf and will make a bold effort to address deep community despair about the future direction of our democracy. Business as usual is not nearly good enough.

John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University

John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.

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