For future’s sake…
This article is part of our Let's Talk blog series, presented as part of our exhibition Democracy. Are you in?. This address was originally delivered as part of the National Press Club event ‘Rebooting Australian Democracy; renewing faith with voters’ on 5 September 2018.
I don’t have time to run through all the arguments about why Australian politics needs a reboot.
But I don’t think I have to; we all know it does. And we think we know why.
My summary in two sentences would be: we don’t think much of politics or of politicians, they know that, and they know why, and too many of them (not all!) don’t seem to care. So we just hand them the country and turn away – I remind you that roughly 2.2 million of us did not even bother to vote in 2016.
And why would it change unless, or until we, the people, exercise our power to force change?
But when so many of those we employ to work in our interests can be so brazen about the supremacy of their own political games over the national interest, why would the rest of us bother?
I believe we have to bother. Because if we don’t, the outcome will be the Australia we end up with after more aimless drift riddled with infantile posturing and spin, underpinned by self-interest and grounded in a breath-taking hypocrisy that demeans us all.
To earn our respect and our trust there has to be more than endless electioneering climaxing in a three yearly ritualistic smooching badged with the ever-new Akubra. The solemn declarations of commitment to ‘Australian values’ or to the ‘fair go’ and even to a ‘new generation’ out there ‘listening’, is risible. If they really did listen to us we would have, just as an example, more focus on renewable energy (polls show approximately84% want more investment) , less on coal (60% support a global alliance promising to phase-out coal power by 2030) and more sensible emissions targets (56% want a 45% or greater reduction on CO2 emissions by 2030). And where are we – pretending this is less important than a $3 per week reduction in electricity prices.
A combination of cliché piled upon cliché, three-word mantras, endless quick fixes, avoidance of anything intellectually demanding, dog-whistling, vengeance politics and the adjourning of democracy (as just happened), is no way to build confidence or trust.
So yes, politics needs a reboot.
But how? I can’t change a preselection process that yields both what we see and what we lament; I can’t wave a wand and appoint talent to Cabinet from outside parliament to fill the gap that preselection leaves behind.
So today I’ll settle for a plan to increase accountability and transparency. If we can’t change the people, we can at least make clear what we expect. My suggestions are based on: 1. A reminder that politicians are of us and should be subjected to similar rules and obligations that the rest of us have (many of which they write for us); 2. Designed to start the rebuild of respect and trust in part by acknowledging that respect is a two-way street.
There are very few jobs in 2018 which can be secured with no qualifications and no relevant experience. One of them happens to be “Member of Parliament”. Another is “Minister of the Crown”.
Maybe that is how it should be in a representative democracy - they should be of us, ordinary people full of life’s ordinary experiences (although we’ve recently seen what happens to interlopers from outside the self-anointed political class).
But these people are not only of us, they work for us.
They don’t become special, or especially wise or knowledgeable just because we have given them that job; but we can surely expect from them what our employers expect from us – the capacity and the will to learn what is needed to do the job.
In 2015 the Royal Statistical Society of the UK issued a challenge to all candidates in the UK election: commit to a statistics training session if elected.
We could extend that idea.
Nearly everybody but the contemporary Neanderthals acknowledges the importance of science and mathematics, technology and innovation in our futures. All areas in which too many politicians seem both to be proud to declare ignorance and to be willing to demonstrate it.
MPs should be required to complete short courses to learn how science works and its methods; how to distinguish evidence from snake oil; how to distinguish the genuine from the noisy. And to learn a basic statistical literacy so they know that experiencing a ‘one in a hundred years’ event does not mean 99 years until the next one.
The MPs who choose not to attend or who appear to think that understanding was not relevant to the policies on which they vote should be listed publicly.
2. Competence/ Performance
Nominated Ministers are not required to demonstrate aptitude, interest, experience or competence relevant to their portfolio.
Any other employee in Australia with a professional or management position these days would be expected to demonstrate their performance to their employer against agreed objectives and outcomes. KPIs, indeed.
Incoming Ministers should be no different.
They should be required to articulate their goals for their portfolio and report publicly and formally on their progress on an annual basis, explaining to the Australian people the relationship between what they said they would do and what they actually did.
To help, question time should be re-worked so that 1. Every Minister would have to answer a minimum number of questions during each sitting; 2. Questions could only be taken from the Opposition.
There would be a formal and publicly available independent assessment of the goals, the achievements and the responses to questions – and importantly of the questions themselves.
The payments to politicians are administered by the Department of Finance. And we have seen how (inappropriately named) ‘entitlements’ can be repaid to ‘avoid ambiguity’ when unusual expenditure is exposed.
But we have a large and highly capable infrastructure that is purpose-built for the administration of payments to citizens from the public purse. It’s called Centrelink.
Let’s achieve some efficiencies, and improve accountability, by transferring responsibility for MPs so-called entitlements to the same agency. After all, they are of us.
No changes to practice guidelines would be required. MPs would be held to the same standard of proof regarding, for example, their personal arrangements, the declaration of their assets and liabilities, and their travel, exactly as required of other Australians in receipt of public benefits.
Debts would also be recovered using the approach that MPs have mandated for others.
Any MPs who considered the standard of service to be inadequate or wrong could call the Centrelink helpline, or argue the toss with the Robocall.
We have been told that Australia is the land of the fair go. Henry Parkes toasted ‘one people, one destiny’ way back when he and his colleagues persuaded us to vote ‘yes’ to federation.
Four words that capture one important characteristic of the nation the people of the time committed to.
Politics and politicians for all their faults and glories, their failures and their successes, all the good ones (and there have been and are good ones) and bad ones, were a means to that end. It is what was wanted, along with prosperity and security, and what they tried to deliver.
To presume nation-building will be a priority in an era dominated by a self-serving political class infiltrated by a ‘born-to-rule’ mob, is folly of a high order.
We must lift our expectations. We must require talent and principles and ethics in our politicians, and competence, consistency and vision. And leadership, along with courage – sometimes they will simply have to persuade us that they have to do things that some of us might not like. That might even include the so-called base we are now hearing so much about.
To get better politics, means more politics, I suggest, not more disinterest.
Change is what we have to demand. And we will have to engage to get it.