The Decline of Democratic Governance and a Proposed Solution
Both academic and popular literature have covered the disengagement between the formal political system and its citizens. This disengagement can be measured in decreased turnout, a collapse in party membership, declining trust in political institutions and many others.
In analysing the source of this disconnect, Ian Marsh, University of Tasmania, begins with systemic and structural changes in society and politics that go back decades:
- Hollowed-out parties: the declining importance of class in political identity and the sustained and significant drop in party membership has left the major parties without the infrastructure of large branch networks, regional assemblies, policy groups and conferences.
- Loss of programmatic difference on economic policy: both left and right-of-centre parties now accept markets as the primary vehicle for resource allocation, leading to little noticeable difference between them on domestic economic policy.
- More pluralised and differentiated publics: new social movements on women's rights, the environment, indigenous rights, ethic rights and many others has weakened the once class and occupation-based ties to the major parties.
He continues with an analysis of how political elites have attempted to address the above structural factors and finds their efforts largely ineffectual. The major parties have adopted a centralised, celebrity-style approach built around party leaders and focussed on rigid control of political messaging and communication. Even beyond electioneering, parties now often make policy based on surveys and focus groups that reflect established concerns and attitudes. There is little room for agenda-setting and public deliberation beyond the centralised control of the party executive.
Marsh then turns to the contemporary consequences of these structural changes and the major parties response to them. He sees three major ones:
- Short-term focus in policy: the loss of mass-party infrastructure has weakened much of the capacity for long-term policy making. Parties are increasingly focussed on political messaging and managing the 24-hour news cycle.
- More disaffected and volatile publics: increasing numbers of voters no longer identify with the major parties and are more willing to either not vote or switch their votes.
- New channels of participation: with the major parties no longer serving their mediating role between governments and citizens, new forms of political mobilisation, many built around social media, are on the rise.
Marsh's proposal to address these issues is a parliamentary reform intended to reduce the power of the executive and cabinet and make legislatures once again active participants in representing their constituents, agenda-setting and policy-making. He argues for the creation of parliamentary committees, chaired by non-ministerial MPs and focussed on specific areas of policy. Marsh sees these committees as the potential focal point for interest groups and social movements, enabling broader engagement at all points along the policy-making process and acting as an alternative to the centralised authority of the executive.
Marsh is well aware of the entrenched interests that would resist his 'modest' proposal. But he believes that our current formal pattern of governance, largely developed over a century ago, has not adapted to a very different world. He argues that only through new forms of engagement can the gap between our political system and the public be closed.
Thumbnail image: Steve and Clare/Flickr.