I remembered I needed to read the book at about the time Tony Abbott told radio talk host Ray Hadley the best kind of energy policy was one that manufactured a partisan point of difference with Labor—and when a bunch of conservative politicians were out telling the voters not to trust politicians during the postal survey on same sex marriage.
The book had come to me a few weeks earlier. A political friend had wandered past my desk and presented me with a paperback called The End of Politicians: Time for a Real Democracy. ‘I thought you might be interested in this,’ he said, with a chuckle. I was, of course, interested. But at that moment I was in the grip of another parliamentary sitting fortnight and the 24/7 intensity we now manage in shrinking newsrooms up and down the parliamentary press gallery—the daily ‘much ado about not very much’.
So my new paperback sat undisturbed, and challenging me, as it got sprinkled with paper and post-it notes, like autumnal compost, then uncovered and discovered once again. It sat as my frustration mounted, mired in Canberra’s deep stupid. Malcolm Turnbull, under pressure to differentiate his public offering from Labor, was retreating into slogans: ‘Blackout Bill’, ‘Brownout Butler’, as if the prime minister of Australia had suddenly developed a sideline in training the household cockatoo.
We were also at the midpoint of the postal survey on legalising same sex marriage, a government-by-opinion-poll experiment inflicted on the country because the Liberal Party couldn’t resolve its internal differences. The process was creating a shrill cacophony of acrimony, professional victimhood and weaponised cynicism. A frustrated Tasmanian DJ was sufficiently moved by ‘half a skinful’ and his self-confessed profound dislike of Tony Abbott to headbutt the former prime minister on the street. Compounding the horror from my vantage point, people took to social media in droves to cheer the assailant on.
We know things are grim. That’s no longer news, a shock or even much of an insight. The suboptimal state of our politics prompted me to consider in the winter issue of Meanjin whether balanced people can continue to sustain themselves in public life, or whether the vocation of politics has now become hostile territory for humans. That’s not a question you explore lightly, to satisfy a passing intellectual whim. It’s a question you explore only when the public interest demands that you explore it.
But while I am deeply concerned about the state of our politics, and worried by the deep anger and disaffection that bubbles around it, I also need to acknowledge that there are plenty of people in politics who are attempting to go to work and do their jobs. This year I’ve watched ministers such as Simon Birmingham avoid the intrigues and the naysayers and attack his portfolio challenges. I’ve watched Josh Frydenberg try, diligently, to thread a needle on energy policy with the forces of rent seeking and the great unreason arrayed implacably against him.
In addition to the daily acts of persistence at senior levels, I’ve also observed people further down the political food chain trying to break the cycle of cheap conflict and hyper-partisanship, and create opportunities to do some good. A couple of up-and-coming politicians, Nationals MP Andrew Broad and Labor’s Pat Conroy, both from the class of 2013, with parliamentary offices adjoining one another, decided to see what common ground could be found on energy policy. They decided to use a House of Representatives committee to gather facts and develop some ideas about modernising the energy grid.
A similarly constructive impulse could be found on electoral reform. A Liberal senator, Linda Reynolds, and a Labor man from the lower house, Andrew Giles, with the support of Lee Rhiannon from the Greens, decided to try again to reach agreement on the regulation of political donations after they had tried as a group, and failed, earlier in the year, to do so in the joint standing committee on electoral matters.
Reynolds told me candidly that the cross-party group had an obligation to try to push through the points of disagreement because people were tired of failure. Many Australians were now of the view that their political system ‘stinks’. She says:
People tell me all the time that they are dissatisfied with what we are doing and how we are doing it. Up to 50 per cent of young Australians are now ambivalent at best about democracy, which is a very unhealthy place for this nation to be in. You’ve literally got half the population who could take or leave democracy, and we’ve got to look at how you re-engage that generation.
Reynolds is a voice of experience when it comes to the practicalities of political campaigns. Before her current representative role she was deputy director of the federal Liberal Party. She knows the political environment is in the midst of a significant transition. Voters are stepping back from their historical partisan allegiances. The modern networked environment is making a different kind of civic participation possible, and one that potentially renders ideologically motivated power blocs such as major parties artefacts of another era.
Reynolds can quantify the gap between her own motivations as a centre-right political activist and the community she serves. ‘A lot of younger voters today don’t really identify with left or right,’ she says. ‘In many cases when I talk to people, it’s almost a meaningless concept now, the philosophical underpinning of the major parties.’
The partisan clashes that animate the conflict in Canberra aren’t as interesting or meaningful to many people as a new kind of political consumerism—single-issue campaigns, where you choose your change off the shelf. Now younger Australians don’t aspire to join political movements, they look for change issue by issue. Legalising same sex marriage (or not), stopping the Adani coal mine (or not).
Reynolds thinks demography is nudging the country away from partisanship and into civic activism. This shift can create a genuine crisis of purpose for traditional politics. ‘We’ve got to find new ways to engage with voters on things that actually matter to them.’ When I asked Andrew Giles whether or not he agreed we were entering post-partisan or post-tribal territory, he said: ‘I’d like to think we can be ideological and post tribal, which goes to the core of our challenge.’
So while we might be inclined to see our politicians as uniformly self-indulgent, narcissistic, destructive and unfulfilling, there are still people in the system thinking about contemporary challenges—people who haven’t forgotten the voters are out there. But the question is, can people who owe their allegiance and their careers to institutions find the imagination to think beyond their scope? If the ground is shifting, and radically, beneath their feet, can our political class think boldly enough to manage their way out of their self-inflicted crisis?
• • •
The book made its way off my desk and into my bag in the early spring, when work commitments had me flying to the north coast of New South Wales to contribute to a panel about political dysfunction at the regular consilium organised by the Centre for Independent Studies.
In between chatting intensively to venture capitalists and company directors about what was going wrong in Canberra in one of those conference environments that is stimulating but also hermetically sealed, a mini Davos on Belongil Beach, I retreated and threw open up the louvres in my room, delighting in the sudden rush of coastal, salty air after a long, cold Canberra winter.
As the sea breeze whipped up the kites on the beach, rattled the outdoor fixtures and sent the curtains billowing gracefully across the room, I spent some thinking time with Brett Hennig. Hennig, who has kicked around left-libertarian politics as an activist, is an Australian mathematician now resident in Budapest. He’s the director and co-founder of the Sortition Foundation. For people unfamiliar with the concept, sortition is the use of random selection to populate assemblies or fill political positions.
If you take a few minutes to watch Hennig’s TED talk (and you can track that down easily online), you will hear the short version of his prognosis: ‘Our politics is broken, our politicians aren’t trusted, and the political system is distorted by powerful vested interests.’ In The End of Politicians, Hennig proposes that the system of representative democracy—where MPs are chosen by their political parties and then endorsed by voters to represent lower house electorates or Senate positions—be replaced entirely.
Hennig wants what he characterises as a ‘real democracy of the people’, and by that he means the elimination of professional politicians and political parties, replacing them with a representative network of randomly selected ordinary citizens. He notes voters around the world are now deeply ambivalent about representative democracy because they perceive the process as corrupted by the influence of money, the mainstream media and the desire of politicians to remain in power.
Large corporations and their armies of lobbyists often assert undue influence on policy; politicians must necessarily develop close ties to the media to manage their brand and spin their side of the story; successful elections need enormous war chests of money, requiring the cultivation of extensive networks of wealthy donors, who are often rewarded with government appointments and, presumably, favourable laws; and the eruption of scandal and the uncovering of overt corruption are depressingly regular.
Hennig contends the system as it stands is not representative at all. Women still don’t have equal representation. Minorities and young people are significantly under-represented in parliaments. In countries such as the United States, the Congress has become a club of millionaires. He says what is presented to the public as representative democracy is something else entirely—it is ‘very broadly constrained bargaining between elites’.
Hennig says ‘democracy 2.0’, where representation is determined by sortition, recalls the democratic style of ancient Athens, updates it for a world where slavery has been outlawed and where gender equality is paramount, and harnesses ‘the deliberative skills, capacities, and networked technologies of the modern era’. Governing bodies would be constituted from a large, randomly selected and representative sample of citizens ‘engaged in facilitated and networked small table deliberation in an assembly informed by experts’.
The citizens assembly would create, deliberate on and amend laws. A lottery would replace the electoral process, representatives could have fixed five-year terms, with one-fifth of the assembly turning over each year, and paid five times the median wage. The new representatives would have staff, they would still interact with their constituents; lawyers would draft laws. The representatives would still be duchessed by lobbyists and doubtless hounded by journalists, but they would not have to chase donations ‘or satisfy the partisan demands of party activists, or go through an expensive, time-consuming election, or worry overly much about their media profile’. Hennig argues that:
The most dramatic changes would be the end of politicians as we now know them, the elimination of all political parties and the replacement of elections with an annual, highly anticipated, citizen lottery. Political parties would become just another civil society group, like existing lobbying and interest groups.
Hennig flatly rejects the notion that politics is a domain of experts. He rejects the maxim that the rigours of democratic elections ‘eliminate fools’:
It is far from evident that elections select competent individuals. Even if lawyers do predominate in politics, the skills required to win electoral competitions—an image that appeals to swinging voters, being charismatic and photogenic, or a great orator, or a ruthless strategist able to construct coalitions by currying favours or having access to networks of wealth—are not the same as those that one would wish legislators to have.
The proposal that surviving the vicissitudes of internal party intrigue is somehow like an apprenticeship for the real thing is a sorry reflection on the current state of politics.
Deliberative or participatory democracy is of course not a new concept—and there are many modest examples of it operating both in Australia and around the world—but I confess I laughed out loud at the audacity of Hennig’s intellectual provocation and revolutionary ambition. It was quite wonderful as a notion. The idea of remaking the entire governing apparatus struck me, in my state of cumulative #auspol fatigue, like a mental detox or a deep cleanse.
The deep subversion of sweeping out the political class entirely was grimly satisfying. Just imagine if you never had to hear the words ‘Blackout Bill’ ever again. Just imagine if the only thing on the table for debate was a specific idea or a policy, and whether or not that idea or policy was in the public interest, as opposed to whether or not it would get you elected or skewer your opponent, or would contribute to your personal advancement through the radioactive power sludge.
Just imagine if the self-styled media puppet masters who preen like overseers suddenly lacked the influence conferred by institutional co-dependency to be able to cultivate their protégés and meddle in the affairs of political parties, but instead had to report in a straightforward way on the affairs of a diffuse group without hierarchy or obvious factional markings. Who would be friend and fellow traveller? Who would be enemy? How would anything make sense if the insider code were broken?
Just imagine a world in which politicians weren’t preoccupied with presenting themselves as great men (and the odd woman) of history, and their intrigues weren’t the subject of endless race-call ruminations—if they didn’t have to navigate the power structures, raise the money, flatter Alan Jones, parrot lines approved by the prime minister’s office at press conferences, count numbers to mount or stop palace coups, or be constrained from acts of common sense by party discipline.
While the appeal of that refashioned eco-system comes to you all in a rush, what would that kind of politics look like? Would it be a people-centred politics worth countenancing? Hennig adroitly puts his finger on the specific characteristics of the current system that most irritate voters: the sense that the system is rigged against the interests of ordinary people, that perverse incentives mean that participants care more about partisan intrigues and factional power plays than the practical interests of their constituents.
He also invites the reader of his treatise to believe there is nothing unique or special about the skill set of a politician, and that a representative sample of ordinary people, if given the opportunity, can join together virtuously and altruistically and competently to change the world. Kind of fabulous, really—that kind of humanism, that kind of optimism. But is he right?
• • •
British political scientist Gerry Stoker is also an advocate of constructing ‘a politics for amateurs’, and is positive about expanding forms of civic engagement. Stoker points out that in today’s world ‘the complexity of what governments are trying to do, the connectedness of different parts of society, the nature of the social and economic issues we face and the cultural fabric of society make engagement not an optional extra, but an essential’.
Every major communications revolution has changed politics, and brought it closer to the voters. Radio brought intimacy. Television, as the veteran political reporter Laurie Oakes noted in his final newspaper column, has created a different style of public figure: it’s made it hard for politicians to dissemble and get away with it, and it has also magnified the conflict, aggression and ‘bad behaviour’.
The internet has ushered in a politics of hyper-connectivity and a culture of instantaneous referendums. Hennig notes in his book that technological shifts change the topography of politics. Modern representative democracy and the industrial revolution emerged simultaneously, and ‘the emergence of today’s highly networked economic, cultural and social structures and processes are having a profound effect on politics … As new forms and technologies of inclusion open up, and rapidly become commonplace, democracy is being revolutionised’.
There is a lot of discussion around the world about more participatory models. In Australia the research organisation NewDemocracy proposes an idea similar to Hennig’s proposition, although it’s more incremental. On its website, NewDemocracy suggests a trial of a third house of the parliament in Australia—a citizens senate—where all adults would be eligible for selection. The group would be stratified for age and income, based on census data, and paid a salary twice the average wage.
The chamber would function as a house of review. An elected legislature would produce legislation and the citizens senate would approve or veto it, or elect to subject it to detailed review, rather like the current senate committee of inquiry process but with no ‘party line’ to adhere to. A simple majority would be required to pass or reject the legislation.
People who favour more participatory models point to the success of the Irish Constitutional Convention as an example. That body was appointed in 2012 to consider amendments to the constitution. It comprised 100 representatives, including 66 randomly selected citizens, and political representatives, and was advised by an expert group of academics, political scientists and constitutional lawyers. The Irish government was not obliged to implement all the recommendations, but it was obliged to consider them and provide a response. The successful push to legalise same sex marriage in Ireland emerged from this process, and was a transformational act for the country.
Closer to home, South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill established a citizens jury of more than 300 randomly selected people to consider whether the state should set up a high-level nuclear waste dump. At the opening of the jury proceedings, Weatherill acknowledged that some people would make their judgement based on ‘sentiment’ and not look at the proposition with an open mind.
But the premier said he hoped that bringing people in for a significant discussion and decision would prompt what he termed ‘engaged citizenship’. He hoped participants could step ‘outside yourself and ask what’s good for your community’. The jury in South Australia delivered a no verdict on the waste dump, and presumably that result is now a significant constraint on future government action.
These potential constraints on their agency as decision-makers doubtless make politicians reluctant to move participatory models past trials and one-off experiments into more structural features of the political landscape, but I’m firmly of the view that more participatory models should be explored and trialled in Australia as a mechanism to bridge the divide between politicians and their deeply disaffected communities.
I’ve already apologised publicly, more than once, for my own quite stupid reflexive opposition to the citizens assembly on climate change proposed by Julia Gillard in 2010—it was a forward-looking idea and might have helped to build a community consensus for action on a controversial issue, and my derision was entirely superficial. It stemmed from my own failure to stop for five minutes and consider the basic merits of the proposal.
Much as it’s tempting to sign up to Hennig’s idea in its entirety, to get out that fire hose and turn it in the direction of our parliaments, to be inspired by that radical optimism into an act of pure revolution, I’m not convinced by his assertion that politics and public service require no particular specialist expertise or, by extension, residual memory. While amateurs make fine transitions to public life, and quickly learn its rituals, procedural norms and obscure codes of conduct, contending there’s no fixed skill set sounds more like the fashionable and ubiquitous refutations of specialist expertise than reality.
I’m also perturbed by the idea of a group of randomly selected citizens being guided by a bunch of experts, which is the basis for many participatory models. Which experts? Who determines who is expert in any particular subject, particularly in highly contested areas of public policy, and who are these experts accountable to? And while I understand the impulse to bulldoze institutional power and party discipline when, increasingly, partisanship manifests in our system as an end in itself rather than as a productive mechanism to prosecute then resolve conflict, I suspect there are times when major-party discipline is a virtue and a public good.
I remember watching the debilitating slowness in the political system as the United States battled to get an economic stimulus package through a legislature where representatives are effectively laws unto themselves, and able to be picked off by rent seekers and lobbyists—compared with decisive action in Australia, which helped stave off deep recession.
Institutional power can be nimble when we need it to be. Sometimes decisive action by parliaments, facilitated by acts of institutional power, is little better than lemmings plunging off the cliff in tight formation, but there are many other times when that process delivers the correct result, in part because political movements bring to the table not only common values but also collective residual memory.
While being an enthusiastic supporter of greater civic participation, Gerry Stoker sounds another note of caution in his book Why Politics Matters: Making Democracy Work. He notes that most citizens ‘want only to engage in politics occasionally and not as specialists: they want to be political amateurs, not professionals … Arguments for more participation too often reek of a sort of moral conviction about how citizens should conduct themselves and engage in the world’.
Research carried out for NewDemocracy, available on its website, suggests that people do want to have a greater role in government decisions. That idea was supported by 71 per cent of a poll sample undertaken in March 2017 by a firm called Pollinate. But a bit more caution emerges when the specific proposition is participation through a citizens jury. Definite support for that concept was 23 per cent, 31 per cent indicated they’d need more convincing, and 12 per cent said they were against the idea. According to the presentation from Pollinate, the people on the fence or opposed to the idea of citizens juries indicated they needed more information or evidence that it works, and reassurance that the jurors would be well equipped to make important decisions.
Stoker draws on research in Europe and Britain to conclude that citizens are engaged with their political systems, but ‘in a relatively thin and sporadic way’. Collectivist forms of participation are in decline, but more individualist forms of political action are on the rise. There is also a link between socioeconomic status and political participation. Organic engagement in Britain is dominated by people who have resources and who are well educated.
He says there are practical arguments against increasing participation by citizens, ‘given the cognitive limitations and difficulties faced by citizens and complexity and dilemmas of the modern political process … More participation is not always the right or even the viable option’. Stoker says the argument for citizens to become more intensely engaged ‘in a deeper politics of the public realm comes up against one telling point: citizens (and the evidence is overwhelming) do not want it’:
Engagement needs to be targeted and built on realistic premises. Most people don’t want to spend all their time on politics, they cannot and would not wish to claim the depth of knowledge and understanding available to experts, they are comfortable with a division of labour.
They want to engage directly over the issues that are most salient to them, but would prefer to rely on the judgements of representatives and activists over most issues, most of the time. The challenge of the twenty-first century is to design a political system that can more readily meet those expectations.
It certainly is a challenge: designing a political system that meets the expectations of participants in the twenty-first century. But as the observation implies, it’s a challenge that goes beyond the imaginations and competencies of the political class; it speaks to the desires and expectations of us as citizens.
How do we want to organise our society? What level of responsibility do we want to take for civic participation? Do we want to part ways with the old major-party tribalism in favour of civic activism, or create a new politics for amateurs? The question, at its heart, is a very simple one. Do we, the citizenry, want to be part of the solution? •