Crikey is stepping back from People Power but still fully supports what co-founder Vern Hughes says in this discussion paper on the way forward.

Stephen Mayne will be stepping back from the board once People Power has federal registration with 500 members.

Vern Hughes is absolutely genuine in his long-planned desire to establish a third force but People Power has been too heavily associated with Crikey.

And Crikey find its role of media critic sits uncomfortably with the stunts and grovelling to the media necessary to get any oxygen in the political arena. You can run a gadfly website whilst banned by much of the mainstream media but it is difficult to try and get a new political party up in this environment.

At the moment we have about 100 members so we’d love you to help us get registered by printing out this membership form and sending it back to us. The more of you that do this the faster I’ll be formally off the board and just cheering from the sidelines.

Anyway, Vern Hughes is the real man behind People Power so let’s have a look at his analysis on the way forward.

Where to for People Power

By Vern Hughes

With a federal election looming and policy paralysis everywhere, the challenge of creating a serious third force in Australian politics remains as urgent as ever. Political debate is trapped in a mind-numbing adversarial ritual, and our two political establishments survive by dispensing patronage with a finely-tuned professionalism. Parliament remains the venue for the tired old game, but in every other respect is dead. The barrackers in the press gallery cheer on the two establishments, relishing their status as insiders. Meanwhile cynicism and mistrust of the system spirals upwards, but no-one (ourselves included) seems able to do anything about it.

So what is to be done?

People Power was formed to nurture the difficult and arduous process of political and institutional reform. That remains its brief. It is not a job for the faint-hearted or the thin-skinned. Australia’s political and institutional culture is in crisis, and every serious-minded and honest observer knows it. The question is whether reform is possible, or whether the erosion of trust and civic disengagement is now too advanced to make the idea of reform comprehensible to any but a small minority.

What are the prospects for People Power as Australia’s only political party that aims to break up concentrations of power in politics, business and media? Does this objective have any resonance when it runs counter to the century-old ideologies of both Left and Right?

Is there a place for a political force that has the nerve to stand against vote-buying, corporate welfare, and taxpayer-funded handouts to the privileged, when these practices have become part and parcel of political life as we know it?

And what are the prospects for a political party that tries to speak about civil society and its erosion by our continuing obsession with governmental power, when the media still doesn’t know what the term civil society means?

My personal political convictions are a mix of classical liberalism, Third Way thinking, and an anti-elite populism born of a loathing for taxpayer-funded free-riders and a deep hostility to education, health and welfare bureaucrats (refined in the course of steering my disabled son through institutions). I last gave a first preference primary vote to the two majors back in 1983 when in a moment of weakness I voted for Bob Hawke. Since then I have yearned for a serious third party to vote for.

Four starting assumptions:

1. No other minor parties or independents have any chance of dislodging the two-party system in Australia despite the current wave of political cynicism, mistrust and disengagement. They are good for a protest vote (which will vary between 10 and 20% between them) but they are incapable of getting beyond this point. A serious third party has to identify a set of constituencies that are not locked into the networks of patronage of the two parties, but more importantly it has to find an ideology that is capable of breaking the polarities that are the foundations of the two-party system itself (individual/state, self-reliance/paternalism, capital/labour)). This is where all of the minor parties and independents fall down: they are never able to articulate a third way that breaks open these polarities. And without an ideological third way, voters will make the odd protest vote, but in the end return ‘home’. People Power will have to articulate a third way to have a chance (see the grid at the end of this piece), but the debate about a third way in Australia has barely begun and lags years behind that in the UK or North America.

2. The establishment of a serious third political force in Australia requires a systematic and deliberative process that is commensurate with the size and complexity of the task. Simply announcing the existence of an alternative does not guarantee people will want to support or join it. It also requires a timeline that is commensurate with the job. Rushing the process to meet an approaching election or by-election is self-defeating. A third force will require a mix of ideological self-confidence and political relevance that cannot be created overnight. It can only grow out of a sustained process of debate and a testing of ideas which reflect the self-understanding of social constituencies who are at present politically unrepresented.

3. The media is sceptical of all new political initiatives, especially if these are perceived to be publicity-seeking exercises. It doesn’t matter if the reality is otherwise, the perception is all that matters. People Power has suffered greatly from being seen (wrongly) as an expression of Crikey. A new political force has to be seen to be broadly owned by a range of serious-minded citizens. Otherwise it is death.

4. People Power is a registered association, with a membership, a board, and a website. These things, albeit small, are vitally important first steps. Having been created, they now need to be accompanied by a strategic rethink to create a new political force over a realistic timeframe.

Five building blocks:

1. The idea of building an organization to promote ethics, participation and accountability in civic and business institutions is an idea whose time has come. It is critically needed, challenges understandings about democracy and its boundaries, and resonates with many people across the political spectrum, including those who are members of other political parties. This will be developed as a core activity of People Power.

2. A focus on civic and business institutions is, however, not enough. It must form part of a larger ideological self-understanding that represents a distinctive third way. If it doesn’t it will be perceived as power-seeking or publicity-chasing activity for its own sake. There is nothing more offensive than being labelled a power-seeker or publicity-chaser when your motives are actually to pursue a dispersal of power.

3. Internationally, many of the themes of People Power form part of the burgeoning debate around a Third Way with a big T and big W. This debate is relatively poorly developed in Australia, mainly due to a perception that this is a Blair/Clinton thing and is therefore ignored by the conservatives and loathed by the paternalists in the ALP. Yet the core themes of the Third Way debate are People Power themes (an acceptance of globalisation and economic reform, devolution of power, institutional reform, extending economic ownership as widely as possible, re-inventing the welfare state, inclusive social policy with an acceptance of individual autonomy, and a reconfiguration of rights and responsibilities). Ideologically, the Third Way debate has now generated a vast literature that can be drawn on to refine the People Power philosophy and policy outlook, with rich historical roots in distributism. This carries with it useful resources for situating the project historically and ideologically.

4. There is an emerging third way social constituency in Australia around the ideas and projects of Noel Pearson in the indigenous field, the work of social entrepreneurs and community-business partnerships in the community and welfare field, shareholder activism and ethical investment in the business world, the entry of a new generation into self-employment and owner-operated small businesses, and self-help movements in rural and regional areas. These movements form a natural social constituency for a political third way (though they do not immediately recognise themselves as such).

5. The identification of a social constituency will go hand in hand with a political breakdown of the old polarities. For instance, People Power is a small government/strong society party. It favours lower income tax, but it is not a party of the libertarian right. Very few of our members have come from a libertarian right background. Most are attracted to a neither left nor right stance. I am emotionally and intellectually attracted to a low tax/small government agenda, but my head tells me that the low tax crowd won’t be detached from the Liberal Party, and my experience tells me that most of this crowd are uneasy about too much talk of “society”. Our positioning on tax will probably be something like: low tax/strong community.

Yet for many people, low tax and strong community are opposites. For as long as these things are seen as opposites, People Power will have no base. We will only acquire a base as people find that strong community can be created in ways other than pouring a bucket of taxpayers money on a social problem. The people who see strong community in front of them will be inclined to hear our argument, those who don’t see it, won’t. In other words, social experience and the creation of a social constituency goes hand in hand with ideology.

It was ever thus.

The way forward

1. People Power will undertake an 18 month public process to establish a third political force in Australia. This will include a combination of forums, a major conference, online policy discussion forums, and participation in civic and business elections.

2. The process will open with a New Politics conference in November 2001 on the eve of the approaching federal election. The conference could take up a range of our themes including cynicism and disengagement, defining a third way, new forms of participation in politics, e-democracy, third sector politics, and an awards section for the best and worst in rorts, accountability, whistleblowing, vote-buying, good policy, etc.

3. The process will conclude with an event in March 2003 on the eve of the NSW state election.

4. Throughout this process, People Power will contest corporate board elections, mutual and association board elections, and even footy club elections.

5. In the interim, People Power will revamp its Manifesto and relaunch its membership drive, and invite Australians to participate in the process. It will, at the same time, proceed towards federal registration.

The following grids are discussion starters for a journey that will run over this 18 month process. Get on board if you want to create something.

Click here to check out the tables on where People Power fits on the left and right scale.

Vern Hughes

[email protected]