The curious end of representative democracy
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master—that’s all.’
For the past seven years Australian politics has been going through a crisis in slow motion. Leadership instability and a series of unpopular governments have understandably led to questions about the state of Australian democracy.
After the Rudd–Gillard–Rudd and Turnbull–Abbott–Turnbull argy-bargy, the Liberals and the Labor Party have been left in something of a stalemate. Labor is now led by an unpopular leader protected by the rules that were meant to prevent precisely such a factional heavyweight from getting rid of him, while Turnbull, having retaken the leadership from Abbott, appears unable to change much of his agenda. It seems that while Rudd and Turnbull recognised the need for a new direction in their respective parties, neither they nor those who opposed them have a replacement for the role for which both parties were created.
For most of the twentieth century, Australian politics was based on what is described as representative democracy. Groups with social weight formed political parties to see that weight represented in parliament. At Federation the political framework was set by the differing business interests north and south of the Murray, but in a few years was to change with the early gains of a political party formed by the leadership of the fast-growing union movement. The new federal Labor Party would soon force the other two business parties to recognise they had more in common than in difference, and unite in opposition. Add the arrival of a new political grouping representing rural interests in the 1920s, and this pretty well formed the framework of Australian politics for the rest of the twentieth century.
The problem now for parties is that the role for which they were formed has gone. The unions’ social weight has declined along with their membership to a minor force in the industrial relations landscape—so the social importance of Labor’s role in representing them has withered. And with the end of the unions as a force, so has the need by business to oppose them, and the role of non-Labor parties has also lost much of its meaning. With the internationalisation of the economy, there is now also less need for a separate rural political organisation.
All this in itself should not be that unusual. Society changes, groups lose their influence. Political parties come and go. So it would seem there is no reason why the Labor–non-Labor politics of the twentieth century would not be simply replaced as the Protectionists–Free Traders politics was in the years after Federation. But something odd is happening. The social basis and conflicts that led to the formation of Australia’s twentieth-century politics may have largely gone, yet much of the political framework that was supposed to represent it seems intact. Instead of political representation changing with society, the same major parties are hanging on but adapting by rewriting some of the basic principles of Australian politics and even of democracy.
The inversion of representation
Take, for example, the changed way the word ‘representation’ is now discussed, such as in the recent controversy over the represen-tation of women in the federal ministry. One criticism of Abbott that Turnbull could address was the low number of women in the Coalition ministry. Turnbull made a point of promoting more women to create a ministry that could claim to be more representative of Australia.
On the Labor side of politics, ‘more women MPs’ has been a rallying cry for modernisers looking for a more representative party, often as a counterpoint to the traditional role of (mostly male) Labor MPs as representatives of their sponsoring unions. This link between Labor MPs and the unions became an issue during the Rudd–Gillard leadership tussle, with the Rudd team needing to break the link between MPs and their sponsoring unions, which strongly supported Gillard. Their most notable success in preparing his return was to win Shorten’s support despite the stance of the AWU and its then leader Paul Howes.
Others, of course, held out. Wayne Swan, also sponsored by the AWU, stayed with Gillard and walked out when she left. His backing of Gillard meant breaking a long-standing friendship with Rudd, who was godfather to his son. Understandably, the Rudd camp called Swan’s actions a betrayal. But to be fair, Swan was just doing his job to represent the position of the union that helped put him there.
But who do women MPs represent? Women? To say so surely means changing the traditional meaning of ‘represent’. The Liberal women in Turnbull’s ministry are not there by any largesse of a women’s organisation to which they must be answerable, like Swan must answer to the AWU. Nor are they even required to pursue what may be described as a ‘pro women’s agenda’, just as a female Labor premier and attorney-general are under little obligation to fix Queensland’s atrocious abortion laws.
With no women’s organisation to answer to, and no pressure to pursue a pro-women political agenda, in what way then can women MPs be said to represent women? The only other way in the traditional sense is that women MPs represent women in general because they see the world the same way, which strays into the uncomfortable biological determinism of ‘how women think’.
Women in Turnbull’s Cabinet represent women by the personal biological attribute of being a woman. What we have here is the inversion of representation in the way it is traditionally understood. Not a representative of a group in society that put her/him in place and so answerable to it, but as a political representative already in place and then claiming to represent a group in society by virtue of who they are. This is not only an inversion of what representation is supposed to be about, but arguably pretty unsatisfactory for women, and men, who would want to see something done about issues such as, say, restrictions on abortion.
This ‘top down’ representation has for decades been a feature of ethnic and Indigenous policy. What is new is it being brought into the very heart of the way Australian democracy is discussed. The most obvious example are debates around ‘party democracy’.
Party democracy versus democracy
Party democracy is the antithesis of representative democracy. Representative democracy is about social groups forming political parties to represent their interests. They are not open or ‘democratic’ to those that oppose those interests. The Labor Party was not open to those who wanted to smash the unions and it was hard to make headway on the Liberal Party social circuit advocating worker seizure and control of the means of production.
Any political organisation would have aims and goals that its members would agree to. However, the important democratic distinction of the major parties of the twentieth century was that they were set up explicitly to represent groups in society, not as an end in themselves or their program. While any party organisation would not exist without its members, Labor members are a sideline compared to the unions that finance the party and in whose interest Labor ultimately is supposed to serve.
It is this shift in the major parties to try to become entities for themselves and their members, not the groups they represent, that lies at the heart of party modernisation. While party democratisation is somewhat phoney, as seen by the strict control of the NSW branch over its ‘democratisation’, it is really about inverting traditional representation. It involves not only inflating the importance of the party and its membership but also a diminishing of social interests it was founded to represent. It signifies the burying of the representative democracy of the twentieth century, and is especially clear in the Labor Party because the dilemma posed by an organisational reliance on unions that have declining social relevance is most acute.
The grim world of Labor’s New Thinkers
Labor’s modernisation program can be roughly divided into three stages since the start of the decline of the unions in the early 1990s. The first stage, during the final years of the Keating government, was Keating’s attempt to establish a new political agenda for Labor around the republic, regionalism and reconciliation. That this came from Labor’s need to find a new program rather than anything else left it vulnerable to Howard’s charge that it was an agenda of the ‘elites’. It was buried in the Coalition landslide of 1996 and cremated in the republic referendum fiasco of 1999.
The second stage of Labor’s modernisation was forged through its defeats during the Howard years. It was partly a reaction to the failure of Keating’s agenda, but on the terms set by Howard as being a program of the elites. It was also strongly shaped by Labor’s insecurities about the end of its historical role with the unions.
These insecurities were evident in an obsession with reforging a connection to the ‘base’ and in overestimating the inroads the conservative agenda had made into it. This was ruthlessly exploited by the Liberals with their talk of ‘Howard’s battlers’, a common conservative fantasy that had little basis in electoral reality.1
The most potent issue around which these insecurities coalesced was asylum seekers. This was especially the case after the 2001 election, widely seen as the ‘Tampa election’, despite it coming a few weeks after arguably the defining political event of the decade, the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington in September.
Two leading proponents of the ‘New Thinking’ that emerged from this were Mark Latham and Julia Gillard. Soon after the 2001 defeat, Gillard, then shadow minister for immigration, drafted a tougher policy on asylum seekers that was later justified on electoral grounds. Along with a tougher line on asylum seekers, Latham added a heavy focus on Western Sydney voters and ‘values’, which again gave significant credit to Howard’s influence.
It is unsurprising that despite this New Thinking being supposedly driven by hardnosed electoral pragmatism, it was strikingly unsuccessful in winning votes. Even if Howard’s agenda did have a grip on the voters, simply trailing an opposing party is hardly the way to defeat them. It was a strategy driven less by an objective view of electoral reality than a flattering identity exercise for a party unsure of its future role.
While this reconnection was presented as Labor going back to its roots, here again it represented its inversion: not of working-class voters looking for political representation, but a political party in search of an identity looking for working-class voters to represent. It was to reach the level of parody during the Gillard government in such exercises as her highly publicised camp out in a western Sydney hotel in March 2013, a region that had only a handful of seats at a time when the government was facing a wipe-out across the country. The search for party identity had an introspective circularity, which Gillard neatly summed up to ACTU conference with ‘we are us’.
Yet behind the banality of this search for political identity, Latham and Gillard articulated more far-reaching insights into the changing nature of government and society, and of democracy in general. This changing relationship was especially clear in welfare policy. In a speech given to the Sydney Institute in July 2007, a few months before Labor came to power, Gillard, focusing on her shadow portfolio of social inclusion, picked up the Blairite theme that despite an improving economy, ‘discrete communities’ were being persistently excluded from the economy and that welfare policy should be adapted to focus on these communities.
What was significant was that it represented a shift in the basis of welfare policy from addressing the failings of the market economy to now addressing the failings of communities and, inevitably, individuals in a supposedly successful economy. A welfare policy that had been a key part of integration of organised labour and Labor’s original platform was now changing, since that traditional role was no longer seen as relevant.
This policy shift towards the failings of communities was given a boost by the Howard government’s intervention in Northern Territory Indigenous communities a month before Gillard’s speech. Unproven allegations of widespread sexual abuse of children portrayed these communities as sufficiently degraded to require not only emergency military intervention, but also a new type of welfare based on the behavioural failings of the communities and the individuals (especially Indigenous men) in them.
A focus on individual behaviour failings of Indigenous people, rather than the social barriers they faced, was not a new feature of Indigenous policy. What was new about the intervention and the welfare measures that followed was that they dovetailed into the New Thinking arising from Labor trying to find a new role.
This link was made explicit in an essay by Latham in 2013.2 In it he calls for a program to address a new fragmented post-left electorate that, with declining union membership, no longer relies on ‘mass scale and common membership’. According to Latham, it is now a society of feral welfare scroungers, ‘ethnic street gangs’ where social norms have broken down and obligations to each other are optional. Latham argues Labor should counter it with a program of ‘liberal solidarity’ where welfare is dispensed to those who exhibit ethical behaviour to deserve it.
Latham’s dystopian vision of society may not have much basis in reality. However, it provides a rationale for a political party that can act as a unified entity to make policy on behalf of a fragmented society. This idea of a party standing above an atomised society is an adjunct to a parliament standing above society as set out by Gillard in her widely criticised Michael Kirby lecture in August 2015.
Much of the attention over this speech was focused on Gillard’s U-turn on same-sex marriage and the recasting of her previous opposition as part of a radical feminist critique on marriage rather than the consequence of being on the ‘conservative side of the debate’ as she stated at the time. However, perhaps more interesting were her reasons for opposing a plebiscite on the issue:
With no logic to support it, the only foundation stone for the idea of a plebiscite or referendum is an appeal to the all too popular sentiment that politicians are inadequate, that their decision making is somehow deficient. The derisory references to the ‘politicians’ choice’ makes the blunt nature of the populist appeal clear. There is truly something absurd about politicians themselves inviting the public to conclude that politicians are not up to making a decision. Particularly so when it is actually in our nation’s interests to be bolstering belief in the capacity of our parliamentary system.
Yet the decision-makers in a democracy are ultimately not politicians but the voters who elect them. The failure here is that the politicians could not reach a decision on same-sex marriage that reflected the support for it in the electorate, a failure in which Gillard played an instrumental part. It is unlikely that Gillard is concerned about bypassing parliament—she did propose a citizens’ assembly on climate change to do precisely that. Rather it appears the problem is that a plebiscite would open a democratic way of doing so that would undermine parliament. The democratic issue here is surely why parliament is failing to reflect the wishes of the electorate on a whole range of issues, rather than dismiss any democratic way around it as populist and harmful to ‘bolstering belief’ in the parliamentary system.
Democracy through the looking glass
Despite their lack of finesse, Latham and Gillard spelt out some of the underlying themes that were to be picked up by the third wave of modernisation that was to follow in the wake of Rudd. When Rudd took over the party leadership in December 2006, his approach was not only to increase the distance from the union leadership and the factional power bases that stemmed from it, but also from the party. While this gave Labor its only outright victory in 30 years, it was a contradiction eventually resolved in his dumping in June 2010. Gillard then brought back the insecurities of the New Thinking of Latham’s leadership, with equally unimpressive electoral results.
Although the Gillard–Rudd leadership tussle proved inconclusive, the thinking of the modernisers continued to develop, partly as a reaction to the Gillard–Latham perspective but also against what was seen as the weaknesses of the Rudd government. The thinking was also informed by the perception of a broader malaise in the political system. Writings such as Lindsay Tanner’s Sideshow and more recently Two Futures by new Labor MPs Clare O’Neil and Tim Watts3 were supplemented by contributions from journalists such as George Megalogenis, Paul Kelly and Laura Tingle focusing on the broader malaise.
Much of the analysis that runs through these publications appears contradictory. For example, a common theme is that the political process has been undermined by the increasing power of the media and the ‘24-hour news cycle’. Yet as O’Neil and Watts point out, people pay less interest to media reporting of political news than ever before. Quite why politicians feel the need to fit their agendas to media that fewer people are watching is not explained.
A more important contradiction is one set out in Two Futures on democratic engagement. On one hand, the authors rightly point out that society is becoming less engaged with the political process, both in enrolment and voting. Yet on the other hand the solutions the authors propose are based on simply adapting to the form political engagement is now taking, such as through the internet, and a focus on single issues. The fact that this type of political activity may just be another expression of this disengagement, and so not worth bothering with, is not considered.
Indeed it could be argued that a preference for online activity and a fixation on single issues is related to the way disengagement is occurring—not so much political disengagement as social disengagement. Looking at the history of civil rights struggles of the last century, for example, it is easy to see the distinction between clicking a button or writing a comment on social media on even the most contentious issue, compared to engaging in the physical public space with social forces resistant to change on a basic demand such as equal votes. Furthermore, such social interaction often opens up broader questions about how society operates. As is often observed, activity in the ether of social media usually reinforces fragmentation.
Yet none of this appears to be especially an issue for the authors. Because the contradictions of a political class increasingly reliant on media no-one watches, or addressing political disengagement by pretending it is engagement, just of a different form, are irrelevant to the real problem the book is aiming to address. Not the problem that the political party of O’Neil and Watts was established to deal with, and which twentieth-century representative democracy was built on, namely how a section of society sees its goals furthered in the political arena. Rather, the authors’ concern is how to maintain the political organisation given that the social role the political framework was founded on is no longer relevant.
Politics versus society
It would be tempting at this stage for ageing political activists to argue that the political activity O’Neil and Watts want to tap into is not ‘real’ political activity compared to the ‘struggles’ (usually exaggerated) of the past. However, perhaps it would be more useful to see this new ‘disengaged activism’ as political activity in its purest form, separated from social activity, suitable for a political party that is also separated from its former social role.
It at least highlights the difference between the two. A recurring theme for the ALP, at least in the first half of the twentieth century, was precisely this separation, and conflict, between the social goals of the unions that set up the Labor Party and the political organisation. The distinction between the two would often be confused in the close synergy between Labor and the institutions of organised labour that formed it. With this new activity in the ether of the internet the separation is now clearer.
As is still the conflict. While this third wave of new thinking does not share the openly dystopic view of the electorate of Latham and Gillard, there is nevertheless a view of society that assumes the pre-eminence and superiority of the political sphere—as to be expected from thinkers looking to sustain it. One example of this way of thinking about society is its frequent substitution with the word ‘community’. For the New Thinkers, to paraphrase Thatcher, there is no such thing as society, just communities.
The term ‘community’ seems harmless enough. That is precisely the point. We are not talking of the community of business leaders or of trade union bosses that set up the major parties, but of mums, dads, small shopkeepers—those who are not especially of social influence. We are also not talking here of a ‘community’ of drug pushers or rapacious hedge fund managers. This is the type of community that politicians will be pleased to be associated with, just as their Twitter streams are full of promotional selfies standing with dull local groups, brought to life by the MPs’ electricity of political universality. Here again we have the inversion of representative democracy, not groups in society looking for politicians to represent them, but politicians looking for groups to be seen to represent and justify their political activity.
According to this view, in contrast to a passive, fragmented society of ‘communities’, whether dysfunctional or not, the only cohesive society that really counts is that of the party members. A common feature of these New Thinkers is an obsession with party membership numbers that often involves a rewriting of history. Tanner and O’Neil and Watts fret about the decline in party membership from the days of a ‘mass membership’ of the major Australian parties. But even at their height the combined membership of the major parties constituted a minority of the electorate—and a sideline to the functioning of the parties. For Labor, its influence came not from its members, reaching around 370,000 in the 1940s, but from the millions of the Australian workforce in unions, who gave its leadership their social weight and whom Labor was meant to represent. Even more starkly, the 156,000 members at the Liberals’ peak were irrelevant compared to the business interests that financed the political organisation.
Yet despite the decline of the membership to a fraction of those levels, their role as envisaged by O’Neil and Watts is more important than ever before. Like Latham, the authors see the role of the party and its members as that of a filter for disparate community interests and to provide a cohesion that society, in its separate communities and interests, lacks. They propose the establishment of single-issue bodies in the party that fellow travellers outside the party can join, with policies to be decided at national conference.
The obvious response to this is to ask why the public need to go through another forum to debate what they want on particular issues when they already have a parliament to do precisely that. Indeed as the authors note, this is already happening to some degree, but for them it is a problem. The increase in independent MPs in recent years is cause for concern. The result is ‘kaleidoscope politics’, a parliamentary configuration that is fragmented, frequently changing and much more difficult for political leaders to manage. A large and diverse crossbench poses problems for governments seeking to negotiate the passage of their policy agenda.
Worse still, some of these newer entities such as the Greens and Palmer United Party are engaging in ‘anti-politics’ and opposed to politics as usual, and they ‘both encourage and benefit from the alienation of the electorate from our democratic institutions’. For the authors this only highlights the importance of the major political parties because ‘like them or loathe them, [they] are the brokers of Australian democracy’.
Yet although the public may not loathe the major parties, they do not appear to like them very much either. So we might ask why this should not be reflected in the political sphere, rather than being overridden. As with Gillard, the basic democratic principle that society’s wishes should be reflected appears to be secondary to the need of major parties and parliamentarians to protect and insulate themselves from society’s fragmentation and the ‘anti-politics’ perception that they are failing to deliver.
The difficulty experienced by the major parties is their concern. What arguably is everyone else’s is the electorate’s response to these difficulties, especially if it is against ‘politics as usual’, and is something to be countered. In protecting the democratic institutions, these New Thinkers appear to find democracy itself a bit of a problem.
Government versus democracy
This increasing concern over the functioning of the democratic institutions is an underlying theme in the growing complaints about the loss of political will to reform. It is a theme picked up by several of the more serious journalists such as Laura Tingle in her preface to O’Neil and Watts’ book and expanded in her contribution to December’s Quarterly Essay.4
In complaining about the lack of commitment to reform, it appears to have been necessary to change the meaning of the term. A curious feature of the use of the term today is its usual application to what is arguably the one government of the last 40 years that did not want the label, at least when it began. When Bob Hawke took office in 1983, Labor had been in power for only three of the previous 33 years. It was the general view that the short life of the Whitlam government of 1972–75 was due to it having reformed too much and too quickly for Australian voters, in addition to the scandals and the perception of economic incompetence.
Hawke intended to show that Labor could provide steady, stable government in contrast to the busy chaos of the Whitlam years. Many of its measures were more a result of pressure than intention, such as the 1983 float of the dollar forced by massive capital inflows a few months after Labor took office.5 One of the complaints made about the government, at least inside the Labor Party for much of the Hawke era, was that it lacked the reforming zeal of the Whitlam government.
But then they were using ‘reform’ to mean something different. In the Whitlam years reform was seen as an agenda of change that was meeting the needs not only of the party but also of the electorate that voted the government in. When commentators today talk about reform, they are almost talking about the opposite—changes that are made in spite of what the electorate, or even the party, may want. It is the lack of courage to make the tough decisions in the national interest and to override populism that is at the core of a chorus of complaint across the quality media in Australia today.
Tingle joins others in attributing a deterioration in confidence in the political system to factors such as the news cycle and the decline of electoral participation, but also identifies a lack of ‘historical memory’ in institutions and policy. For Tingle, the golden years of public policy and an authoritative government bureaucracy in the years after the war came to an end when Whitlam came to power and, as she puts it, began politicising the public service.
Whitlam would probably be surprised to hear that the bureaucracy he encountered on coming to power in 1972 was ‘depoliticised’. The impression at the time was that it was a creation of 23 years of Coalition rule and was a barrier to Labor implementing its program of reform. He might be even more surprised to hear that the period that preceded him was a golden age of policy, since the general perception at the time was that it was one of stagnation and
This view of the past appears less an exercise in historical memory than an argument in favour of an unelected bureaucracy overriding an elected party. Perhaps it comes from trying to address the current political malaise but missing the essential relationship that drives it—not between the party and the bureaucracy, but between the party and bureaucracy on one side and society on the other.
In Australian democracy of the last century the source of policy came not from the bureaucracy or think tanks or the political party, but from the social interests of the business or union groups that formed those parties. When it is remarked that political parties have lost their social base it is not just that they have lost votes, but that the whole institutional mechanism by which those social interests worked their way through to party policy and eventually to the Cabinet table has fallen away.
The result is an excessive reliance on media and ‘kitchen cabinets’ that was such a criticism of the Rudd government, but has been an increasingly inevitable feature of all governments. In responding to it, these authors appear to want social interests to be overridden even further. Perhaps instead the response involves starting not with the questions these writers began with, of how to fix parliament, the bureaucracy or the Labor Party, but with the only question that really counts: how does society now get what it wants?
- See Peter Brent, ‘The fairytale of Howard’s battlers’, Australian (blog), 10 August 2010.
- Mark Latham ‘Not Dead Yet’, Quarterly Essay no. 49 (2013).
- Lindsay Tanner, Sideshow: Dumbing down Democracy, Scribe, Melbourne, 2011; Clare O’Neil and Tim Watts, Two Futures: Australia at a Critical Moment, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2015.
- Laura Tingle, ‘Political Amnesia: How We Forgot to Govern’, Quarterly Essay no. 60 (2015).
- Frank Bongiorno, The Eighties: The Decade that Transformed Australia, Black Inc., Melbourne, 2015.
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