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. It was originally published as an article on The Machinery of Government.
Rather than lament the tribalism and political narcissism that is eroding confidence and trust in Australia’s once vibrant democracy, it feels more useful to try to identify root causes. That might allow us to turn our minds to the question that people across our country urgently want answered: How can it be fixed?
I have been thinking about this for a long time. Three years ago, in an effort to understand the deep-seated malaise dogging Australia politics then, I collaborated with founding Editor, Professor Julianne Schultz, to co-edit an issue of Griffith Review that we called Fixing the System. Published in January 2016, it included essays and reportage from some of the country’s best political analysts, journalists and thinkers — all of whom, in different ways, tried to explain what had gone so wrong; and what, if anything, could be done about it.
We thought at the time that things couldn’t get worse. Labor’s leadership woes; the bitter and rancorous minority parliament of 2010–13; and Tony Abbott’s difficulties making the transition from campaigning to governing, prompted the search for answers.
One-term governments had been defeated in Victoria in November 2014; and in Queensland in January 2015. Volatility, we were told, was the ‘new normal’. Looking back, we didn’t know the half of it. Donald Trump was yet to seize the Republican nomination to contest the presidential election in the United States; and it was months before the tumultuous Brexit vote in the United Kingdom.
My own quest for understanding led me to structural factors that might underlie the recurrent problems bedevilling both sides of Australia politics (and all levels of government); and the persistent failure of our political class to learn from experience. These are first, the pathway to attaining government. This encompasses the career backgrounds and experiences of political leaders; the nature of Opposition; and how transitions of government (and the now more frequent transitions of leader in government), are managed.
The second impediment is embedded in the advisory arrangements that have evolved to support the prime minister and Cabinet. These deprive them of institutional memory and the capacity to learn; they also empower the enemy within.
That Australia has its fifth prime minister in five years highlights a third structural factor that has become intrinsic to modern politics. This is the rise of careerists within political parties — whose primary raison d’etre is not policy or reform, but to gain and maintain power.
Nowhere have the toxic consequences of this development been clearer than in the challenge to Malcolm Turnbull, which we know was about politics, not policy, nor the government’s electoral prospects. Prime Ministers Hawke and Howard have both lamented the rise of the career politician, the demise of the parliamentary apprenticeship, and the lack of diversity of experience (not to mention gender, ethnicity and other characteristics) among elected representatives.
Two years on from its publication in 2016, Jonathan Raunch’s essay ‘How American Politics Went Insane’ remains a compelling meditation on the crisis of legitimacy in the United States. Raunch argues that Donald Trump’s and Bernie Sanders’ candidacies for presidential nomination of their respective parties demonstrates that ‘The political parties no longer have either intelligible boundaries or enforceable norms, and, as a result, renegade political behavior pays’.
The essay laments political insurgents’ lack of respect for the ‘unwritten’ aspects of America’s Constitution — or conventions, as they are known in our system. These are the principles, traditions and norms, the beliefs and practices that provide the framework for our democracy. They endured because they were respected; all sides accepted their legitimacy and value.
I am concerned this is no longer the case, and this gives Raunch’s analysis important local resonance. I worry that some members of Australia’s political class either don’t know, or have forgotten the obligations and responsibilities conferred on elected officials.
My list of casualties includes the conventions of ministerial responsibility; Cabinet confidentiality; the merit principle; the caretaker conventions; and the tradition of treating the Opposition as an executive in waiting.
Others would likely add the inability to comply with Section 44 of the Constitution and the failure of Senators to reflect their States’ rather than their party’s interests.
This lack of respect for tradition and convention has created more than uncertainty and confusion about what now constitutes appropriate relationships within the political executive, as well as with other institutions of governance: the parliament, the judiciary, oversight agencies and the Australian federation. It has created a spiral of dysfunction which is at it’s heart about disrespect — for self, others, alternative points of view; for anyone outside the faction, the tribe, the ‘base’ — including, as we have seen, those on your own side. Yet respect for the institutions, traditions and conventions of Australian democracy previously enabled our system of government to evolve and adapt to changing context.
Australia has been one of the world’s most successful and enduring liberal democracies. If we acknowledge the democratic practices of Indigenous Australians that Bunurong writer Bruce Pascoe has described as the “Great Peace”, it is arguably also one of the oldest. At the turn of the 20th century, Australia was recognised internationally as an innovator and leader in the practice of democratic politics, as well as in economic and social policy. Despite numerous imperfections, our democracy has delivered stable government, social cohesion, high levels of social protection and an enviable quality of life for the majority of our citizens.
But over the past decade, Australians’ confidence in political institutions and processes has declined markedly. The trend is clearly evident in data published in the Australian Election Study, the Edelman Trust barometer, and other studies, including by the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House, where I am proud to serve as a Member of the Board.
Democratic disenchantment in Australia is palpable. It has been exacerbated by hyper-partisan revenge politics that has destroyed careers, wasted time, money and opportunities and left the Australian public bewildered and dismayed. We know how fiercely the political parties resist reform and change. Despite the difficulties, we must focus on rehabilitating institutional thinking among the political class. We must become active citizens, who are informed and educated about key tenets of Australian democracy — the principles and norms that underpin its design and historic success. We must be prepared to hold to account MPs, Senators and others who show disdain for those principles. They must feel the political consequences of their recklessness, short-termism and disrespect.
Australia’s democratic past makes me cautiously optimistic about our future. But if the descent into ‘madness’, as Malcolm Turnbull described it in his final press conference, is to be arrested, Australians will need to step up.
I found inspiration in the farewell letter from the late US Senator John McCain, issued shortly after his death. In it, McCain, who dedicated his life to public service, urged Americans to put aside tribal rivalries and to focus on what unites:
Do not despair of our present difficulties but believe always in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here.
Nothing is inevitable in Australia either. Prosperity, good governance and quality public services don’t happen by accident — they are a choice, an investment, a design. They reflect shared values and are the outcome of a social contract between governments and the governed. In a political and policy environment as volatile as the one we are witnessing both here and internationally, they are not guaranteed.
Australia’s reputation for democratic innovation was won by generations of men and women whose institutional thinking and commitment to political, economic and social inclusion shaped our inheritance. They campaigned across the divides of age, gender, class and geography — and later, race, for the right to have a voice; and to be represented in the places where the decisions and laws that affect everyone are taken and made.
Respect was core to the long and arduous process of negotiating the Australian Constitution and designing the institutions, processes and political culture that have served our nation so well.
The cumulative actions of countless Australians working with and through our democratic system have stood us in good stead. We have weathered political recklessness and instability before. Ordinary Australians made the difference then. They did so by getting involved, building alliances and embracing the core Australian values of tolerance, compromise, fairness and respect for legitimate differences of opinion, experience and perspective. That respect and those capacities have been diminished. They’re barely perceptible among the extremists who dominate the parties and parts of the media. It’s time to bring them back to the forefront of what we ask and make of our democracy.