Can the Australian media be impartial when it comes to covering a new political party that has policies that could adversely affect some of their operations? The treatment of planned new political entrant People Power will be interesting to watch.

However, it is very interesting to watch how the media cover the intended establishment of this political party. Many sections of the media don’t like Crikey and therefore will go out of the way not to mention People Power. Given that media law reform is a big part of our platform many outlets will be leaving themselves wide open to accusations of self-serving censorship if they refuse to give People Power a fair run. With 1100 subscribers and more than 20,000 page view a week, we now have our own soap box and will certainly point out any outlets that appear to put media grudges ahead of balanced political debate as the federal election approaches.

To those who don’t take us seriously, we point out that Stephen Mayne go 6.7 per cent of the vote and defeated the Green candidate when they went head to head in the Burwood by-election in December 1999.

And last year we also achieved shareholders votes of 40 per cent when standing for the Commonwealth Bank board, 44 per cent at NRMA and 56 per cent at Woolworths.

Given that several commentators wrote that contributed to the defeat of Jeff Kennett, it will be interesting to see how seriously the mainstream media treats the establishment of People Power which will be directly tackling the agrarian socialism and rural pork barrelling that all sides appear to be embracing at the moment.

The People Power prospectus has been on the web site for more than a week now and only one journalist, Sunday Age columnist Ray Cassin, has deemed it worthy of any analysis. Meanwhile, more forests have been culled writing about the other contenders for those final Senate spots, the Greens, Democrats and One Nation.

We have so far received 20 expressions of interest to join the seven member People Power board and will be formally launching the party and the people behind it in late April. Without trying, we’ve had a handful of memberships come in from people who’ve printed off the entire prospectus and found the membership page at the back. Others are welcome to follow suit.

Anyway, this is what Ray Cassin wrote and below that is a response from Vern Hughes, the man who has been the driving force behind the establishment of People Power.

No market difference from the Mayne stream


Sunday 1 April 2001

New political parties are a frequent, and usually short-lived, phenomenon. They announce their creation in a newspaper advertisement informing the world that the necessary signatures required for registration has been lodged with the Australian Electoral Office, and are never heard from again. Only rarely does a new party, such as Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, strike enough of a chord in the electorate to rattle the existing parties. Sometimes, however, the announcement that a new party has been formed is interesting for reasons not connected with its prospects for survival.

Stephen Mayne is a journalist who, under the Kennett Government, was a persistent critic of that government’s contempt for democratic scrutiny and accountability. He has since sought to play the same gadfly role in the shareholder meetings of several large corporations and, as the proprietor of the gossipy website, is endeavoring to provide the public with information that other media may disdain or, perhaps, fear to publish. And he is one of the backers of a new political party, which rejoices in the name of People Power.

People Power has not yet acquired sufficient signatures for registration, but it has issued a prospectus explaining its principles and proposed mode of operation. The prospectus announces on its title page that the party is for democracy, choice, competition and participation, a combination of values that should set off a preliminary warning bell.

The zeal for competition that has been shared ground for Labor and the Coalition in the past two decades – and which has resulted in the widespread voter alienation that is manifest in, among other things, attempts to form new political parties like People Power – does not always sit easily with democratic values.

Consider, for example, the current debates about whether Shell ought to be allowed to buy Woodside or about whether there should be a re-regulation of the financial system to compel banks to provide better levels of service to small account-holders. Those who argue that markets ought to decide which companies should be allowed to buy other companies, or how banks ought to behave, are effectively denying that citizens, acting through the governments that represent them, should be the arbiters of such questions. If the market is to prevail, democratic process cannot.

The tension between the demands that citizenship places on members of modern societies and the demands placed on them by being buyers, sellers and shareholders is present throughout the People Power prospectus, without much effort to resolve it. To condemn the authors of the prospectus for this might seem unduly harsh, since the mainstream political parties have hardly made great efforts to resolve that tension, either. But a new party promising to rescue us from our present disenchantment with the political system should surely at least tackle the question.

To the extent that the advocates of People Power do so, it is through proposing to contest elections in all sorts of institutions that are not normally stalking grounds for political parties. Mayne & Co “… will be the only political party in Australia that participates in elections in trade unions, football clubs, mutuals and public companies, as well as elections for local, state and federal governments”.

Someone with Stephen Mayne’s redoubtable record of pursuing politicians whose partisan interests and private commercial interests conflict might have seen a problem here. How might a People Power government decide whether the takeover of one company by another was in the public interest? By checking to see which company had a People Power majority on its board of directors?

The public and the private realms interpenetrate in all sorts of ways because we all necessarily inhabit both of them. But conflicts between them have to be resolved by deciding which interest should be paramount in a particular context, for example, in the Woodside case, either the interest of the nation or that of a borderless global corporation.

A final quibble about the new party. It is in favor of a republic but wants the president to be chosen by an electoral college. It seems that the People Power populists have not entirely shed elitist assumptions about the people.

Ray Cassin is a staff writer. E-mail: [email protected]

Vern Hughes responds for People Power

Dear Ray

I am a co-author of the People Power prospectus. Can I pick you up on one point in your review in today’s Sunday Age.

You conclude with an inaccuracy. You say we support a president chosen by an electoral college which demonstrates we have not “shed elitist assumptions about the people”. The full sentence in the prospectus reads: “an electoral college chosen by lot from the citizenry”. I don’t know why you left this part out, since it completely changes the meaning. We are drawing on the ancient Athenian practice of selections by lot from the citizenry to form an electoral college, not one chosen by the parties or by the parliament, or by ’eminent persons’. The Australian Electoral Commission would be given the brief of making these selections by lot, effectively by-passing the elites.

Since you made a big point of this, based on inaccurate information, I do think a public correction is in order. I will assume this is an oversight on your part, and not a selective editing to fit your argument.

On matters of opinion. You say there are unresolved tensions in the project between economic competition and democratic values. I don’t accept this. There is a conscious linking of competitive mechanisms in economics with the practice of democracy and choice in all kinds of institutions. Both the left and the right want to confine democracy to parliamentary institutions, and assign them a sovereign exclusivity that is not desirable. I know you have an interest in strands of thought such as guild socialism and distributism, which maintained that the state is ‘one association amongst many’ not the sole arena for citizen choice and participation. I’d encourage you to read further in this area, and explore what it would mean for contemporary politics if we take seriously their emphasis on sub-state associations of citizens as arenas for democracy. And because these associations are diverse, they are, necessarily in a highly differentiated society, in competition for the allegiance of citizens in their various roles and identities.

On tensions between People Power in government and People Power representatives in the boardroom, I must say you’re a little more optimistic about our immediate electoral prospects that we are. People Power will select candidates for public office (as do conventional political parties). It will support candidates in contests in other types of organisations, but we won’t for instance be selecting a candidate for the Commonwealth Bank board (or any other kind of board). We will facilitate the process of people putting themselves forward in all kinds of contests (sometimes as a team, sometimes on their own) and promoting those who are good.

For instance we will facilitate candidates contesting elections for the Carlton Football Club and we will openly seek to oust John Elliott. There is a facilitating and organising role to be played here, but precisely how it is done and around what program will be determined by those interested amongst CFC members and the ballot will be determined by CFC members. People Power will play a facilitating role, making things happen where otherwise the status quo would prevail by default.

We will do the same in organisations like the NRMA, sleepy credit unions, public companies, advocacy ngo’s like the Australian Consumers Association and Greenpeace and even some Australian churches which are in a terrible state.

All that said, I remain firmly of the view that your column is the only thing worth reading in the Sunday Age.

Regards, Vern Hughes

Co-founder People Power Inc