This is part four in a series. For the full series, go here.
A first step toward identifying ways to salvage a damaged Australian democracy is to think about the kinds of problems we have and categorise them to give us a better understanding of what we’re up against. Let’s try to create a taxonomy of problems in our democracy.
For example, it’s clear that some of the problems we face are common across the western world. Growing electoral polarisation, extremism and tribalism have characterised the politics of a number of democracies for some years — for over a decade, in the case of the United States. If anything, Australia has seen less of that phenomenon than elsewhere, given the lack of polarising issues like Brexit, Trump or illegal immigration in Europe.
One of the causes of greater polarisation and tribalism — growing inequality and economic precarity — is also something Australia shares with other economies, with a decade of wage stagnation for Australian workers, and a reliance on temporary migration of low-skilled workers keeping wages growth down (something, for example, that Boris Johnson has specifically campaigned against in the UK in the aftermath of Brexit).
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And of course Australia, like the rest of the world, is suffering the effects of a toxic social media environment and online disinformation. Australia’s media has also suffered a similar fate to media in other western countries, where advertising revenue that once funded public interest journalism is shifting to the tech giants, creating a smaller and more concentrated media.
So we have one category of problems with our democracy: international problems that other, similar democracies are also facing.
There are also problems that reflect deeply embedded features of Australia society. For example, the malapportionment of votes between Tasmania, whose small population is guaranteed five lower house seats, and the ACT and Northern Territory, which have three and two respectively, is a feature of section 24 of the constitution; the malapportionment of Senate spots reflects Commonwealth legislation in regard to territorial Senate representation, which is more easily changed but unlikely without intense controversy.
The lack of protection for human rights is another embedded problem: there is no bill of rights in the Australian constitution protecting citizens from their government, nor an equivalent piece of fundamental legislation to the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, which is enforced by EU courts. The Australian constitution also doesn’t allow the kind of separation of executive and parliament that is a feature of the US federal system, which provides for a check on executive power.
The hollowed-out nature of our major political parties is a different kind of embedded problem — and one that we also share to a degree with other democracies. What were once mass membership parties with members numbering in the hundreds of thousands now have a few tens of thousands of members at best, reflecting a mass disengagement with civic life that has also seen a massive fall in levels of trade unionisation.
The Australian economy’s heavy dependence on extractive industries also creates a challenge: the mining and fossil fuel sector is comparatively far stronger than in, for example, European economies, and wields significantly more influence over politicians. A key reason for why consistently high levels of support for climate action has never translated into genuine policies to reduce emissions has been the immense power of mining and energy companies and associated trade unions, and their powerful role in the political process.
If these are structural problems — ones that aren’t easily remedied for constitutional, social or economic reasons — in addition to international ones, there are also problems that are part of our political system but which are more easily addressed — if there was sufficient political will, or voters made clear they expected a change from business as usual.
These include our political donations system, which creates “pay for play” politics in which the wealthy and corporations can buy access to and influence over politicians, and our political funding system, in which major parties force people to vote and then reward themselves money for each vote they receive from taxpayers, and combine it with donations to spend on political advertising.
There’s also the related problem of the revolving door between a role within government, and a role within corporations that rely on governments for regulatory or financial favours — particularly the energy industry, which dominates the current federal government.
There’s the lack of appropriate transparency and integrity institutions, such as a federal ICAC, and appropriate transparency laws around donations and contact between politicians and corporations, and the stacking of administrative bodies and statutory corporations with political appointees, along with the politicisation of the public service and the replacement of independent advice from an apolitical public service with advice made-to-order by consultant/political donors.
We could call these systemic problems — complex challenges which are nonetheless resolvable through tools such as legislation, regulation, funding or even voluntary mechanisms such as industry codes of conduct.
Finally, there are what we could call people problems: problems caused by particular individuals, even if they’re enabled by systemic or structural problems. Scott Morrison is atypically deceitful for a politician, and has proved not merely reluctant to enforce basic standards of conduct, but actually attacked integrity bodies. Rupert Murdoch has severely damaged the standard of policymaking and public debate in Australia with a persistent denialism toward science and intense partisanship in favour of the Coalition. And the continuing lack of diversity within Parliament, and particularly within the Coalition parties, has contributed to making politics a toxic environment.
Thus we’ve got a taxonomy now of our democratic problems: we have international, structural, systemic and individual problems. But before we start exploring possible solutions, we should examine areas where our democracy is performing well, and see what lessons we can learn about tackling the problems.