Is Democracy in Trouble?

Opinion

In a recent article on The Conversation, Barry Jones laid out what he sees as the main causes of the current crisis of confidence in our political system. One of these is the presence of a large number of 'wicked problems.' These are characterised by 'incomplete, contradictory and changing requirements' and 'complex interdependencies.' They include terrorism, climate change, and the need to find an equitable and sustainable budget position over the long term.

One reason these problems are 'wicked' is that our political system is currently ill-equipped to deal with their complexity. It is difficult to explain the problems to a deeply cynical electorate; even more difficult to find a politically palatable solution; and most difficult of all to get the solution through two houses of an often fractious parliament.

These problems are 'wicked' is that our political system is currently ill-equipped to deal with their complexity.

There are many things we need to do to 'fix' politics in Australia. But we should begin, I believe, with the place where politics is first and foremost supposed to happen: the parliament. Politics in Australia would be improved if the parliaments of Australia were improved. I suggest a physical and a cultural change.

When I became Leader of the Opposition in Victoria in 1993, Jeff Kennett's government had a huge majority. When I stood up to speak in Question Time, 61 pairs of hostile eyes looked back. Legend has it that the distance between the Government and Opposition benches in the British Parliament is exactly the length of two swords, symbolising that the battles there are to be fought with words rather than violence. This may be true, but the contests are quite gladiatorial nonetheless. To find yourself standing eyeball to eyeball with your opponent, backed by the roar of your team, does not make for constructive debate.

Since then, of course, parliaments across Australia have become televised. One of the consequences of this is that Question Time and key debates have become more and more about theatre and presentation, and less and less about substance and real debate.

The change I suggest is quite simple. Frontbenchers should not stand face to face with their opponents. We might think of the position, to the right of the Chair, taken by those who addressed the 1998 Constitutional Convention at Old Parliament House. I was there, and it worked very well.

Discipline is ... extremely tight in this country, and a bi-partisan agreement to loosen it a bit would surely improve the quality of political debate

The cultural change concerns party discipline. Discipline is essential to stable government, but it is extremely tight in this country, and a bi-partisan agreement to loosen it a bit would surely improve the quality of political debate. How do I know? I observed what happened on those few occasions when our government did loosen it: the prime example being the abortion law reform process. This was an extremely difficult issue, with strong opinions held on both sides. No member could realistically be forced to follow a 'party line' on this question. And so we had what was, for the most part, a very respectful, informed and sensible debate, with a free vote on both sides of politics. Some members of parliament said they actually changed their minds during the debate, which shows parliament’s potential as a forum for ideas.

I prefer the term 'free vote' to 'conscience vote', because I think there is scope to extend these beyond what are currently defined as ‘conscience’ issues. This would make the parliament much less adversarial. Different opinions would be scattered randomly throughout the house rather than ranged up against each other in blocs. It would also provide added incentive for quality people to consider parliamentary careers. As a backbencher in the Federal Parliament I loved making speeches, but I’d be kidding myself if I thought they ever changed the world. A parliament with a substantially increased number of free votes, on the other hand, would be a place worth speaking in.

Of course, electors vote for parties because they like their policies, and need to have confidence that these policies will be supported by their local member. A new convention would need to emerge as to what kind of question a member could vote freely on, and which would remain matters of the 'party line'. But despite some potential teething problems, the Victorian experience on abortion and stem cells suggests that increasing the number of free votes would be worth a try.

Is it too much to ask that an Australian politician, who is about to assume responsibility for the interests of millions of his or her fellow Australians, be required to complete at least a short course?

Finally, I believe we ought to make an effort to improve the quality of governance within governments. In most industries today no senior executive or management figure would be allowed to begin work without undergoing a high level of management training. In industries like superannuation, stringent requirements apply in relation to training and skills development. Strangely, no such requirement attaches to government ministers.

We have some excellent schools teaching governance and leadership in Australia – the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) and Melbourne University's new School of Government are just two. The Australian Institute of Company Directors also runs an excellent company directors course. Senior politicians and public servants travel from countries all over the region to train here. Is it too much to ask that an Australian politician, who is about to assume responsibility for the interests of millions of his or her fellow Australians, be required to complete at least a short course? Minimum standards apply almost everywhere else. It's time for government to catch up.

 

Feature image: Flag atop Parliament House, Canberra. By Kari/Flickr

Author(s)
The Hon. John Brumby

Former Premier of Victoria
Professorial Fellow, FBE
University of Melbourne

Countries/Regions
Australia
Published Date
July 13, 2015