Australia doesn’t have a problem with politics – it has a problem with politicians. Most people say they hate politics and are disillusioned with politics. Scratch a little deeper and you will find in fact that it’s the politicians themselves with whom the public are disillusioned. We have a politician problem not a politics problem.
Consider what politicians believe – there are 55,000 people in each electorate but they believe, of every person in that electorate, that they are the very best person to represent those 55,000 other people, to speak for them, to articulate their fears and beliefs, their values and desires.
Politicians, in some form, are an essential part of our current political system. Someone has to do it after all. But it’s also, arguably, the most problematic aspect of our system. To believe that you are better, brighter, more informed, more articulate (or whatever your rationale) than 55,000 other people from your community is also a demonstration of egotism, arrogance, hubris and a form of narcissism that, in some senses, is extraordinary.
This born to rule assumption (for ultimately that is what it is) has a number of implications. If one believes that one is so much better than others then it usually implies that you also believe that you are nearly always right. This is born to rule attitude brooks no opposition and leads many politicians to behave as if they have an automatic right to respect and to obedience. In turn this creates an intolerance of criticism and an authoritarianism that they believe gives them the right to silence others.
Observation and experience suggests that at least 75% of all politicians and candidates of all political parties have these attitudes, to a greater or lesser degree. It’s a problem that is exacerbated by our own response to them; a response which leads us to put them on pedestals and treat them as demi-Gods – with journalists being some of the worst sycophants. Small wonder then that the longer they remain as politicians and the more senior they get, the worse their over-weaning sense of indispensability and entitlement.
The Abbott Government has taken this authoritarianism to an apogee, to the degree that there is an urgent need to control the worst urges of those in power.
If an authoritarian, arrogant personality is an inevitable aspect of the makeup of most politicians but we accept, at the same time, that they are indispensable within our political systems then, in effect, they are like the plague, unwelcome but unavoidable. Like most forms of plague the answer is hygiene, inoculation and control. We need to vastly improve the limits on politicians’ power and their accountability.
The solutions are straightforward, with there being a number of relatively straightforward steps that could be taken.
Firstly we need proportional representation at all levels of Government. Power is worst when it is untrammelled. Ensuring that no Government ever has absolute control is the essence of democracy. A part of the solution needs to be multi-member constituencies. I, for one, resent being represented by a politician whose views I cannot respect. Multi-member constituencies solve this by ensuring that everyone has a representative who, at least partly, represents their views. Ensuring that there are two houses of Parliament in each system also would assist in ensuring checks and balances. This would mean, in Australia, restoring a Queensland upper house.
Term limits, such as those that exist historically and currently in many jurisdictions, would solve several problems; it would mean no person would see political life as career rather than as a community service. It would reduce the issue of undue influence by removing the relationships that develop with long-term political careers. Lifelong politicians inevitably develop relationships that are corrupting and damaging.
These steps need to be combined with much stronger controls barring Ministers, from being employed by, entering into, or lobbying for industries, where they have had any portfolio associated with that industry. These restrictions should apply for a minimum period of five years and needs to be enforced by an independent body with significant minimum penalties for breaches. This would take the form of an enhanced version of the laws that currently exist in NSW,
Reducing the lengths of time politicians spend on the pedestal will reduce the sense of entitlement – an attitude that arises because almost every human is to some degree susceptible to the corruption that power brings. The default position should be two-terms. A single term would be better but has disadvantages in that many people would take most of their first term to find their feet in the arcane world of parliament. Even so there should be a maximum tenure of eight years meaning in some Australian Upper Houses it would be just one term.
A recall mechanism in the political system will also assist in increasing accountability. The possibility of being recalled for a by- election would make most politicians very, very nervous of behaving in ways contrary to good ethical values and wary of breaking promises.
A fourth essential item is an increase in controls on political donations. A complete ban on all institutional donations (constitutions permitting) – of all types, and a limit of $2000 on individual donations and $5000 on group donations, as in NSW, along with a number of other strong controls on various third-party mechanisms for donating, would go a long to removing the number of corrupt politicians.
Threshold limits, which ensure that all politicians represent at least, a minimum number of electors, combined with a requirement that a by-election would be required if someone resigns from a party (or is expelled for corruption or dishonesty) or switches from being an independent to party-aligned after being elected would ensure that electors get the representation for which they voted.
All politicians need to be subject to terms and conditions of employment that are much closer to those enjoyed by their constituents. The recent comments of politicians, from both major parties, demonstrate that the privileged level of parliamentary salaries, allowances, pensions and entitlements makes them incapable of understanding and representing ordinary Australians.
Parliamentary salaries need to be linked to the median wage, with no politician earning more than four times that wage. Based on the median full time average cash income in 2012 (most recent figures available), this would mean a Prime Minister on $252,000 (as opposed to $507,000) with all other salaries being adjusted accordingly. This would still put the Prime Minister in the top 1% of wage earners.
Legal rorts such as the one that allows Joe Hockey to “rent” his wife’s house and claim $1000 per month for doing so would be barred. Similarly super entitlements would be brought into line with general entitlements.
All the problems created by the behaviour and personalities of politicians would be reduced with more openness and transparency. Politicians of all political persuasions seek to hide their decisions and behaviour as shown by the current Governments refusal to be open in many areas of public concern, such as asylum seekers. We need to make disclosure of political decisions mandatory rather than the reverse; the use of “commercial-in-confidence” needs to be largely removed as an excuse for non-disclosure, especially where any public money is involved.
Freedom of information should be, literally, free and much more open and it should be mandatory for all public officials to report corruption, lying by their political masters and abuses of power (such as bullying or intimidation).
Finally an “ethics and truth in politics” policy could be administered by an independent “Parliamentary Ethics Committee”. Ordinary citizens would be allowed to lodge complaints about behaviour and broken promises along the lines with those expected of large corporations making statements to the stock exchange. If we expect large corporations to demonstrate standards of honesty in their public pronouncements why wouldn’t we expect the same of politicians? That committee would be able to fine politicians, suspend them from Parliament and for repeated offences have an ability to force them to another election.
The reality, which we haven’t yet faced, is that most politicians and, indeed, most others in positions of power, are sociopathic at a higher level than most of us, and will behave accordingly unless their worst urges are strongly circumscribed.