The Public is Fed Up With Politicians ... and Not Just Because of the Expenses Row


Once upon a time, Australia was regarded as a leader in democratic innovation, the ‘social laboratory’ of the world. We were at the forefront of the fight for women's suffrage in the late 19th century, we developed new forms of public institutions at arm's length from executive government, and gave the world the ‘Australian ballot’.

Our elected representatives seem willing to commit almost any crime against the safeguards designed to keep them in check

We still do many things well. In 2014, Australia remains in the top 10 of the The Economist’s ‘Democracy Index’, despite dropping three places. And despite problems at the Australian Electoral Commission with missing Senate ballot slips during the last federal election, we’re lucky to have it – the existence of an independent nation-wide body to manage elections and enrolment is still something of a rarity internationally. 

But like a fish that has to keep swimming to stay alive, democracy must be constantly defended and extended to survive. Instead, Australia has been starving it of oxygen. Our elected representatives seem willing to commit almost any crime against the safeguards designed to keep them in check. Dodgy expense claims are probably the least of our worries.

Which should concern us more – the questionable use of taxpayers' money to fund personal flights, or the questionable use of national security issues to undermine civil liberties? The new metadata retention laws show a cavalier disregard for the right to privacy, or in the words of whistleblower Edward Snowden “a radical departure from the traditional operations of liberal society”. In the early days of the Abbott government a proposal to curtail consumer boycotts was abandoned in the face of fierce criticism, but the current attack on the charity status of outspoken environmental organisations is a similar threat to basic civic freedoms.

Meanwhile, there is support from the Liberal party for voter ID legislation, which could effectively disenfranchise large numbers of Australians without passports or drivers licenses (in NSW only 2 out of every 5 Indigenous Australians have a driver’s license, for example). Is it a coincidence that this policy would be most likely to affect people who tend to vote Labor? If not, it represents a sad decline from the days of South Australian Liberal Premier Raymond Steele Hall: after winning the 1968 state election he went on to commit political suicide on a point of principle, by reforming a skewed electoral formula that had kept his party in power.

Australia, along with many other Western countries, allowed our strong reforming tradition to decline

The influence of business in New South Wales has been in the spotlight thanks to the Independent Commission Against Corruption, yet we still lack a federal corruption watchdog. And since the Gillard government’s watered-down donation reform bill was blocked in 2013, we remain in the dark on political donations: over $13,000 can be donated in secret, and still more if donors split their donations between multiple state branches of a party. Thanks to the Royal Commission, we now know about Bill Shorten’s failure to disclose an in-kind donation to his 2007 election campaign. Such convenient memory leaks are common, and not restricted to one party.

The same goes for the laundering of political careers into lucrative private-sector appointments. We’ve just learned that the Adani mining company has former Liberal and Labor figures on board lobbying in support of its plans, which include dredging in Great Barrier Reef waters. But Adani’s tactics are widespread. There are now 30 full-time independent lobbyists for every cabinet minister, leaving plenty of spots for politicians and their staff to slip into once they pass through Canberra’s revolving door.

Australia, along with many other Western countries, allowed our strong reforming tradition to decline because at some point we mistook democracy for an endpoint rather than an ongoing process. The cultivation of democracy is a journey without end, and when we stop moving we find ourselves going backwards – often quite rapidly.

In the United States, fans of the House of Cards series may wonder whether they are watching a documentary. Political scientists Gilens and Page studied two decades of data on the influence of ordinary voters, wealthy voters, and interest groups on US policy. Their forensic analysis provides evidence that the US is, essentially, an oligarchy run in the interests of wealthy citizens and business groups. Their findings may not be so strong if applied to Australian data, but no one witnessing the toxic politics of policy change in this country would assume we are immune.

The health of our democracy should not be a partisan issue. People who disagree on almost everything else can agree that all citizens should have an equal opportunity to influence the decisions that affect their lives. Economic liberals can see that successful rent-seeking undermines competitive markets, conservatives can see the threat to the institution of democracy itself, and egalitarians can see the unfairness of a society in which some voters are more equal than others. The constituency for stopping the rot should be strong. It’s time for a broad-based social movement in defence of democracy. Occupy the state, anyone?


Miriam Lyons and Ian McAuley's book 'Governomics: Can we afford small government?' is published by Melbourne University Press

Image source: Parliament House, Canberra. Serge Loode/Flickr

Miriam Lyons

Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development

Published Date
August 15, 2015