Sick to death with the current state of political parties in this country. Not aligned with a union or an old boys network ? Well this story might just be the pick-me up you need.

In Canberra, John Howard is besieged. His one Big Idea takes effect on 1 July. After that, he has no more cards to play. His economic reform agenda has run out of steam. He is spooked by the grievances of RARA, and seems resigned to squandering the proceeds of asset sales on buying votes in the country. On social issues his government is constantly on the defensive, having long ago conceded the intellectual and moral high ground to its opponents.

At the next federal election, ideas and good policy will be hard to find. The Coalition will attempt to limp across the line, hoping enough people remember that tax cuts were a good idea before they were absorbed by interest rate hikes. Labor will also try to fall over the line, hoping enough people can be persuaded that the past is a safer place to live in than the future. The Democrats will try to hold on in the Senate, thankful that they have seen off One Nation, but fearful of what their core voters really think of the GST.

All this will take place at a time when cynicism about politics in Australia is at an all-time high. The gap between our political elites and the electorate is vast. Traditional party loyalties are eroding. The spinners call this ‘volatility’. Voter allegiances are probably more fluid now than at any time since the federal election of 1922, when voluntary voter turnout dropped below 50% and independent candidates polled extremely well. (The party managers responded to this by colluding to introduce compulsory voting as the first act of the new parliament.)

What the country desperately needs is a new party on the non-Labor side of politics. Anti-subsidies, anti-pork barrelling, anti-rorts, pro-competition, pro-ethical standards, pro-political reform.

The ACTU has its party. The big end of town has the Libs (no-one needs the Nats anymore). What’s missing is a party of ordinary consumers and taxpayers, those of us without special privileges or vested interests or access to the corridors of power. What’s missing is a genuinely radical party of the little people. A party that stands against privilege, big money and the abuse of power.

Isn’t this what’s missing in Australian politics? Isn’t a party of this sort the only real antidote to the cynicism and disengagement we see everywhere? Isn’t it the only thing that will stop the plundering of the public purse for the benefit of sectional interests and favoured elites? Isn’t it the only way now to reconnect the political system with the electorate?

A party of ethical renewal and power to the people could make a good fist of the fight for the sixth Senate spot in each state in the next election. Seven or eight per cent would probably be enough. Even a breakthrough with one Senate seat would set the ball rolling.

A new party of this sort would find itself parked on the non-Labor side of politics since Labor is the more stable and resilient of the old blocs (and has been since 1890). Voters for a new party would be drawn more readily from the decaying Libs and Nats than from Labor (as was the case in the loony One Nation exercise).

Would this be a party of the Right? The terms Right and Left have well and truly passed their use-by-dates, and it would be fairly pointless to define a new party in these terms. Both the Left and the Right have been wedded to a concentration of power and rule by elites. A new party would aim to empower the little people and disempower the elites. This takes us into new territory that is neither Left nor Right.

What would a new party stand for? I’d hope it would stand for a people’s capitalism with a high degree of share ownership, consumer choice and devolved decision-making. It would aim to empower individuals and communities, and seriously tackle powerlessness and welfare dependency. It would be low tax. It would aim to strengthen civil society and revive our traditions of voluntarism and community service. It would stand for a renewed sense of ethical community, without paternalism or politically correct zealotry.

Its manifesto might look something like this:

1. People’s capitalism

A wide distribution of property and economic ownership. Encouragement of small shareholders. Stronger competition policy to weaken the market power of big corporations and encourage new entrants. And end to corporate welfare. A check on excessive trade union power.

2. Power to consumers

Greater consumer choice in public and private provision. More power to consumers rather than producers and bureaucrats in education, health, welfare and the arts.

3. An ethic of self-help

An ethic of self-help and personal responsibility as the basis of social policy. Encouragement of mutual self-help organisations to address regional disadvantage and welfare dependency.

4. Devolution of power

Devolution of authority and service delivery to the lowest levels at which they can be effectively carried out. Self-governance for schools.

5. Local is important

Restrictions on the market power of the retail giants. Support for local government de-amalgamations. Support for new locally-owned financial institutions.

6. Ethics in public life

The highest standards of accountability and ethical conduct in public life. A massive crackdown on rorting and snoughts in the trough. Reduced government dependence on gaming revenues. Restoration of an ethic of service amongst those holding public office.

7. Strong civil society

Encouragement of voluntary associations, volunteering and philanthropy. Wage, tax and productivity trade-offs to enable voluntary service leave. Support for the institutions of civil society rather than quangos as expressions of public voice.

8. Limited government

Limits to big ‘g’ government and a strengthening of governance throughout society. An extension of the rights and responsibilities of citizens.

9. Political reform

Revival of parliament as a legislative body not a rubber-stamp for executive decisions. Fewer MPs. An end to the public funding of interest groups. An end to the adversarial party system aligned with sectional interests.

10. Pro-republic

Support for an Australian republic with a head of state selected by an electoral college chosen by lot from the adult citizenry.

In short, power to the people.

A huge number of Australians are former members of political parties. Most just get tired of being electoral fodder, with no real say in the party’s policy or direction. In the end most people make a rational judgement about their allocation of time and energy and decide that going to all those fundraisers is just not worth it.

A new party in Australian politics would have to offer a seriously compelling product in order to attract the critical mass of participants needed to make it work. It has to be intellectually fresh and ethically irresistable for people with a conscience. It has to be organisationally brilliant in order to compete.

Labor and Liberal confine their role to putting up candidates for parliamentary elections every three or four years. This is a very narrow role. A new party committed to ethical renewal and power to the people might also put up candidates for election in trade unions, football clubs, voluntary associations, mutuals, business organisations, motorists’ clubs, and the like.

Why not ? Why should the hacks and the careerists define what is possible for us ?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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