The newDemocracy Foundation newsletter for September 2015
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The current state of politics in Australia – a  glass half full or half empty perspective?

Dear Matt

Is Australia politically or culturally capable of dealing with the ‘wicked’ problems it is facing? Wicked problems – complex but intractable issues that get pushed aside for fear of their potential political damage; problems that must be resolved but rarely discussed in anything other than generalist comments; problems such as tax reform, climate change, population and immigration, social equity. According to John Brumby, former Victorian Premier,1

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 to get the solution though two houses of an often fractious parliament. 

Sadly my glass was emptying rather quickly after reading an analysis of political motivation and discourse by Paul Fullerton of the University of Queensland “The Politics of Fear have trumped the politics of courage – more’s the pity”2 in which he states that “politicians don’t try to lead, they try to herd”. According to Fullerton

…..politicians often do not want us to think, just to judge. Their role is not to provide evidence and argument to persuade by cogent engagement; it is more to frame the game so only certain choices seem palatable. The false dichotomy of “with us or against us”. ……,
Led by a new class of political advisers, the words politicians speak are not being used to convey meaning and intent. Instead, they are being used to elicit specific responses, to spark emotive reactions. These are workshopped phrases tested for effect on focus groups.

Note that despite all my despondency I fully acknowledge that individual politicians are not inherently manipulative. Most go into politics for public service but are forced by the aggressive, confrontational arena in which we all exist to treat voters as a mob of uncritical, unthinking sheep ready to be played and swayed but not to be considered.

Sadly though, I felt that my glass was running dry with an article by Gagnon, Chou and Bryan, from the Australian Catholic University, entitled “Democracy needs heroes to champion the cause”3. In it they claim

Countries like mainland China, Vietnam, Brazil and Yemen are increasingly at the forefront of institutionalising innovations like deliberative juries, citizens’ councils, public policy co-production and digital or televised town-hall meetings.
There’s a growing impression, especially in China or Vietnam, that citizens in these “non-democratic” countries are culturally more democratic in the way they live their lives and co-govern with local governments than the citizenries in “full democracies” like Australia, the US, Canada and the UK.

Help!!! - Surely we aren't running second to Communism in terms of democratic innovations? No, while thought provoking and somewhat demoralising, things are not quite as glum as they may seem. The glass may be indeed starting to fill.

We have an “innovation” of our own in the current composition of the Senate. There are eight independent Senators, who contribute to the 21% of senators not belonging to the Coalition or Labor. Tony Abbott has at times called this group feral; Paul Keating referred to the Senate as ‘an unrepresentative swill’. Yet better words to describe the crossbench are ‘new’ and ‘different’. Interestingly, the current Senate has passed about 95% of bills compared to 89% in the previous Parliament. According to Senator Muir the role of the Senate is not to be a rubber stamp for the government. In addition Senator Madigan4 has stated that

While the Senate voted down a small number of measures from the 2014 budget, such as the proposed co-payment for doctor visits and dramatic cuts to the family tax benefit, these were measures that were grossly unfair to the Australian people. In these instances, the Senate quite appropriately reflected the mood of the Australian public.

It is not just the public who is frustrated with the status quo. Times and attitudes are changing for five members of the federal class of 20135. MP Andrew Broad (National member for Mallee) senses a public yearning for politicians to focus less on denigration and more on policy and ideas.

Like the public, Clare O'Neil, and Tim Watts (ALP Hotham and Gellibrand) are dismayed by the unbridled aggression and one-upmanship of players on both sides. Question time shows Parliament at its worst and least productive. MP Craig Laundy (Liberal) and Alannah McTiernan (ALP) have launched the Parliamentary Friends of Democratic Renewal, a cross-party group committed to promoting a new form of political participation.

Parliamentary Friends of Democratic Renewal

On Monday September 7th, this group met for the first time to discuss what could be done to improve the quality of our democracy, and to help us get back to a point where everyday people have greater trust in public decision. Fifteen MPs attended – including Scott Ludlam (Greens), Dio Wang (PUP) and a good range of Liberal and Labor MPs. Nick Greiner as Research Committee Chair and Iain Walker from our exec team offered the newDemocracy view of the world and Janette Hartz-Karp (Curtin University) and John Fien (Swinburn) offered an academic perspective. Considering the tumultuous times in Parliament this week, this is a HUGE first step. A number of MPs and Senators were still there nearly two hours later despite their very extremely heavy schedules. Next step – to let them see firsthand the real impact of citizens’ juries.

The New Democracy Foundation’s list of projects for the second half of the year is expansive – ranging from a whole of budget process in Penrith, river management for Noosa Council to a major state health policy for VicHealth.

Our work isn’t solely of local interest – it is being recognised around the world. If you happen to be in London on 15 October, you may be interested in attending a forum organised by the Policy Network entitled “Contact Democracy in the modern world: An Australian perspective on democratic renewal”. Policy Network is an international think tank and research organisation whose aims are to promote the best progressive thinking on major social and economic challenges of the 21st century. Claudia Chwalisz, senior researcher at Policy Network and author of “The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change”, has identified that a significant proportion of UK voters feel that politics does not work for them and are willing to try innovative and inclusive methods of citizen engagement in political decision making. And who better to explain how this can work than nDF? The newDemocracy’s founder, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis is to be part of a forum with two Conservative and Labour MPs and moderated by Ms Chwalisz.

How full is my glass now? Filling steadily thank you. With a few reforms, democracies can be made more efficient, relevant and attractive to us all. Democracy is more important now than ever.

Manuela Epstein

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