Democratic Follies

The Failure of Representative Democracy

Australia’s political parties and its mainstream media exist in a little bubble of self-satisfaction and complacency about our representative democracy – as exemplified recently by Scott Morrison’s reflection that ‘at least in Australia people demonstrating don’t get shot at’. If this is the best measure he can summon of the benefits of democracy, it’s a demonstration of a democracy in crisis.

But perhaps we should expect little else from the leader of the LNP which, for more than twenty years, has been reflecting a rightward and individualistic trend evident in the Anglo-Saxon based democracies and which values wealth, ambition, power and private consumption more than any community values or equality. 

These values are best exemplified by the ethos of the Institute for Public Affairs which is, essentially, the policy think tank for the Liberals and which is an institute deeply committed to the eradication of social democracy and any real elements of representative democracy.

On the other hand the failure of the Greens, in particular, and the ALP, as well as the mainstream media (MSM) to critique or challenge, in any serious way, the increasing absence of real democracy in our system, is a serious betrayal of all Australians (including mainstream Liberal voters).

This reflects that both those parties and the MSM are, these days, simply bastions of the establishment that are not interested in challenging the status quo.

The tendency is to simply accept these issues as being an inevitable outcome of the democratic system and processes. There are many obvious solutions to those issues; but they are ones which parties and MPs are reluctant to implement because they reduce their power and privilege. Almost all those solutions are, however,  mechanisms that would be considered normal in most workplaces.

THE SOLUTIONS

THE ISSUEWHAT’S WRONG WITH ITTHE SOLUTION
Length of tenureBecomes a career rather than a service where with each passing year MPs become more embedded in the system of influence, privilege and “who you know”Term limits of a maximum of 8 years as an elected representative in all jurisdictions (state and federal)
Lack of representativenessInability to relate to or understand the problems faced by ordinary AustraliansSortition; reduced salaries,  proportional representation where candidates no longer self select, where party representation reflects the popular vote and where the relative wealth status of MPs reflects the general population

Pre-selection

People selected who are unrepresentative and unqualified

Sortition and standards testing – leading to a more representative parliament and minimum qualifications based on knowledge of key national and international issues and scientific fact.
DonationsMPs and parties are corrupted by donor fundingComplete removal of all donations and public funding of all elections (if necessary via constitutional change)
Lack of scrutiny and oversightMinisters and MPs largely set their own standards and this leads to abuse of expenses and ministerial abuse of discretionary powersIndependent bodies to review behaviour, expenses and grants programs eg Establishment of ICAC and independent bodies to distribute grant programs (removal of ministerial discretion)
Parliamentary expensesWhile there is an Independent Parliamentary Expenses Authority the rules are set by the MPs via legislation a situation which has led to rules which are vague and largely unenforceable.Stricter definitions and independent review with ability to give automatic penalties for breaches.
Misbehaviour by MPsUnless in breach of relevant laws (including criminal offences) there is nothing that triggers disqualification due to misbehaviour. MPs can behave with a flagrant disregard for normal community standards without penalty; behaviour that would lead to instant dismissal in most other workplacesRecall mechanism for MPs or automatic triggers leading to disqualification for some behaviours (again perhaps administered by an independent body). There are a variety of models to allow recall of individual MPs or parliaments.
Over or under representation of political partiesPreferential voting (essentially a form of first past the post) distorts representation of parties. For example the Greens with about 10% of the vote have one seat in the HOR. The National Party with half the vote received by the Greens has 16 members of the HORProportional representation would ensure all voters are properly represented by the party they vote for.
Table showing some issues and solutions to in Australian democracy

THE ISSUES

The most obvious issue, among many, is that we claim that we are a representative democracy. 

Keating claimed that the Senate were “unrepresentative swill” but if any house is constituted of unrepresentative swill, it is the House of Representatives (HOR). It’s hard to find a single way in which the HOR is representative of the community. Interestingly, on every single criteria except LGBT and income (where the figures are identical) the Senate is more representative than the HOR.

On gender, colour, ethnic background, party representation, class, education, background, income, assets, social attitudes and pretty much every other data set it is entirely unrepresentative. As such, it’s completely out of touch with how ordinary Australians live and think.

ISSUEAUSTRALIAN POPULATIONHOUSE OF REPS
Gender49.6% (M); 51.4% (F)31.1% (F); 68.9% (M) note – women in the Libs = 21.3%; NP = 12.5%, Labor = 46.3%
Education (bachelors degree or higher) % with degree34.6% (of total population) 38.5% (of women)87% of total HoR
Income 2019$64,540 (Average FT income) Median wage = $55.000 (50% of population. earn less than this)Backbenchers: $211,250 not including allowances (3.2 x avg salary or nearly 4 times the median salary with 50% of ordinary Australians earning less that this)
Ministers: $364,000PM: $549,250Leader of Opp: $390,820
Property assetsAverage property ownership = approx. 0.5 properties per person or about 20% of the number owned by the average member of parliament.Average for HOR/Senate 2.4 properties per personLNP = 2.75 each
AgeUnder 34 = 31%Under 34 = 2%
LGB3%4%
Non English Speaking background (NESB)23%6%
Indigenous 3%1%
Australian Population as a whole relative to numbers in the House of Representatives

Perhaps the most egregious corruption of the political system is the absence of proportional representation. This deliberate distortion of representation by the two largest parties is a deliberate distortion of the system that is designed to maintain their oligarchical control of the parliament and power. The introduction of proportional representation would almost certainly ensure that, in order to form government, they would have to share their power with smaller parties.

It’s not just on numbers of MPs that the Parliament is unrepresentative. The fact that someone on $200,000 plus per annum finds it hard to effectively understand or represent someone on $60,000 is scarcely surprising. 

Similarly, how does someone with a career for life and a guaranteed pension understand the insecurity of someone doing casual work. Even for those not entitled to the old pension scheme they will have paid superannuation, funded by taxpayers, at 15.4%, substantially higher than the 9% currently received by other Australians.

MPs are also entitled to a “resettlement allowance” after their term finishes. Senators who sit in parliament for more than three years and MPs who serve more than one full term are eligible to receive the equivalent of six months’ salary, around $103,000. 

Below that, MPs and senators who lose their seats at an election after one term are ­entitled to three months’ pay, more than $51,000. Essentially, someone who arrived in parliament with barely a vote cast in his name  but was subsequently disqualified after a few days could pocket more than 50 grand of public money.

The old pension scheme, scrapped for new MPs in 2004 entitled MPs to massive pensions for life.  Coalition ministers such as  Christopher Pyne, Julie Bishop and Nigel Scullion will receive between $188,000 and $220,000 a year for the rest of their life as set out in this table”.

Compared with MPs who remain in Parliament for around 12 years on average, most Australians change jobs 12 times throughout their life, with an average tenure of 3.3 years. To get that job as an MP requires, unlike every other Australian, no qualifications of any type that guarantees that they are qualified for their employment. This is a fact well demonstrated by the poor quality of many of our representatives.

So how do you get this job? Certainly not by dint of competition based on knowledge or qualifications. Pre-selection which is the route to a seat is largely a function of ego and political ambition. 

If you think you are good enough and have been prepared to serve the time as a political functionary or servant of a political party, then you have a shot of being one of society’s most privileged. In other words you have decided that you are the best qualified person out of approximately 120,000 others to be an MP.

As a result those elected are, arguably those who we should consider the most unsuitable to be elected. Egotistical, narcissistic, often arrogant and not subject to any real test of suitability. 

It is not accidental that the behaviour of MPs is so problematic. In fact it’s baked into the personalities of the people we select to stand as MPs and the process we follow. In my estimate something like 80 per cent of all those selected to stand have problematic attitudes or behavioural traits.

We will not change that without changing the type of people we preselect and the processes we use to do that. Additional rules, training and “cultural change” will not be sufficient. The answer is to move to Sortition which will eliminate almost entirely the process of “self-selection” and internal party privilege. 

Sortition is a process of choosing people for a role by random lottery as described here and here. In the case of parliamentary candidates instead of people putting themselves forward for pre-selection and then having a vote, parties would run a lottery to select candidates

These issues are not restricted to one party or even to a small percentage of MPs and candidates. Although the worst of the behaviour might be limited to a smaller group, bullying, intimidation and harassment is widespread. 

I have spent 20 years as a member of the Labor Party and, later, the Greens and six years working in political parties and Federal Parliament & saw the same patterns over many years and all parties. In 1982 and early 1983 I was a lobbyist in Canberra in the dying years of the Fraser Government. Between 1985 and 1990 I was a member of the Labor Party and attended several ALP conferences 

Later, I worked as an advisor to Federal Senator, Norm Sanders and from 1994 onwards I have been a member of the Greens, working also as their National Campaign Coordinator for 3 years and as the NSW Campaign Coordinator on the 2014/15 state election. Throughout this time I witnessed the narcissism and egotism of MPs and candidates. 

During the 2015 NSW state election campaign, I witnessed MPs and lead candidates bullying and intimidating staff members. I saw them storm out of meetings when they couldn’t get their own way. I witnessed ordinary party members abusing staff members when something occurred that they didn’t like. 

I saw candidates being allowed to influence the allocation of funds to their own electorates. I observed MPs refusing to give up speaking rights on issues even when it was in the best interest of the party and other candidates.

I witnessed, first hand, factional leaders in the Labor Party threatening to knee cap others (metaphorically) for voting or not voting in specific ways. I was abused by Liberal MPs for having the temerity to try and persuade them to change their stance on some issues. 

I was lied to and threatened by leaders of the Australian Greens, for having the nerve to do things they didn’t like or for revealing their duplicity. These are people who are, generally, good people with good values but whose arrogance leads them to hate being questioned or challenged and who, in many senses, are not good team players. 

I heard several times and witnessed once the bullying of staff members by Greens Senators and their staff. I know of multiple members of political parties, especially women, including some of the most talented women, who left because of the toxic internal culture. 

Worse still members of the party had false accusations made against them simply for being a member of a different faction or because they had crossed an influential member of the party. This often occurred in a context where they were either unaware of those charges or where recourse was unavailable. Mostly this was not due to any substantive policy differences but was solely about power and control. 

This behaviour is rampant in all political parties and won’t change so long as the process for choosing candidates bestows power on people who are the worst possible choices to hold that power.

The defence of this power is universal. We can see this, for example, in the failure of the Greens MPs to support election of the leader by ballot of members, in the use of factional power, in the pre-selection system and in the refusal to countenance effective term limits.

Where once a being a member of Parliament might have been considered a form of community service with each member and senator receiving an allowance, albeit a generous one. Now, for many, it is a lifetime career with a number serving well over 20 years. The average current tenure is 12.6 years nearly four times that of an average Australian in any given job.

Leaving aside the careerism and associated privilege that sets MPs apart from those they are supposed to represent, the length of service brings something else extremely problematic. The longer you stay as an MP (or as a parliamentary press gallery member) the more you develop symbiotic relations with the rich and powerful. 

Combine this with the power of millions of dollars of, often undisclosed, donations and you become part of a system which is deeply corrupting, something we see on a weekly basis with the current government. 

Once, this corruption was restricted by an ethical framework of ministerial responsibility that has now been entirely discarded. This means that the influence of longevity/personal relationships and money has entirely undermined any meaningful set of values and ethics in politics.

In short, our so-called democracy is as far from a representative democracy as we could be while still being a democracy. It’s a system entirely subverted by privilege, by power, by money and by the corruption those things bring. And it’s a system largely unchallenged by the fourth estate where the most powerful potential change agents in journalism are themselves a part of that same corrupt system.

Sources: 

  1. Guardian Australia – Parliamentary diversity
  2. Remuneration Tribunal (Members of Parliament) Determination 2019
  3. New Daily – Australian median and average incomes 
  4. Australian politicians salaries
  5. Crikey – MPs pay after they leave office
  6. Parliamentary Pensions
  7. The 43rd Parliament: traits and trends.
  8. Changing Jobs – How Often is Too Often?.

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