Yet the majority, including many of those turned off, think that our democracy can self-correct to accommodate an ever-evolving electorate. That’s the general mindset, and it’s understandable, but I don’t subscribe to that view. I think our political system is sclerotic and unresponsive to the need for real change. It’s captive to a mindset that free and fair elections are inviolate, even when political campaigns do little but promote puerile bickering.
The handmaiden of truth is trust. There is a lack of respect for the politician as a vocation, with our honourable members ranking down with car salesmen.
Whether at the local, state or federal level, we’re voting for the least disliked candidates. Hardly any politician attracts a primary vote above 35 per cent.
We now have only a quarter of the population who trust politicians to do the right thing. Trust in government peaked in 1969 at 51 per cent. It now stands at 26 per cent. This scenario is being played out worldwide: it’s not exclusive to Australia.
Our representatives are forced into unpalatable alliances, with no leader or party able to reign for long, and with campaigns just exercises in cheap point-scoring, is it any wonder that politicians â and politics â are held in such low regard?
Moreover, if we would be thinking that the antagonistic politics were producing stronger policies, we would be mistaken. Of the 20 high-profile federal and state programs investigated last year, less than half were assessed to have undergone a robust process. One might think that the bigger the project, the better the process; but … no.
The National Energy Guarantee and the submarine program were deemed substandard. Notwithstanding the seemingly irrefutable value of Evidence Based Policy (EBP) process, ministers and mandarins privately admit that realpolitik triumphs. They say EBP process is a “luxury”: either there isn’t time or money or â more often â there is limited political will. A prime minister, premier, minister or a cabinet usually opts for a particular policy approach (given certain mindsets) and no amount of persuading can change that course.
There’s also the predicament of the Opposition, minor parties and independents: they don’t have the necessary resources to do EBP. Once in government, they then need to confront the complexity of the various policies, but are constrained by their campaign promises.
When democracy was originally conceived, elections didn’t feature. The debate was focused on issues â not personalities and/or parties. The Athenian Council was selected by lot, among rich and poor men. There was no contest for candidature. It was the jury process. We’ve mostly forgotten that. Democracies in the modern era chose elections, thinking that the transparent tournament would produce a meritocratic assembly. Politicians may start off well-intentioned, but they quickly accede to realpolitik, focusing on electoral success rather than good government. Modern parliaments are dogged by mean-spirited power plays trapped in an endless wrangling for dominance. It’s not surprising that most people are turned off.
There are promising alternatives to the groundhog day of current politics. Deliberative polls, citizen assemblies and citizen juries are showing how to constitute a more collaborative and productive legislature. Some countries are starting to experiment with a Citizens’ Council, sitting alongside the elected legislature, to take the politics out of policy development. These initiatives point to a better parliament: one that promotes deliberation â and not this endless wrangling for dominance.
For as long as we continue to elect representatives the way we do, we’ll keep throwing up salesmen rather than statesmen. That’s my truth filter.
Luca Belgiorno-Nettis is founder of the New Democracy Foundation.