While Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten close ranks in assuring us that the dealings of federal politicians are all above board and squeaky clean, the reality is glaringly different and their refusal to realise that reform is needed taints them both with the suspicion that they rather like the current situation of factional groups being installed by industry lobbyists to control our treasury.
In 1992 the former secretary to the Office of Governor-General, Sir David Smith, wrote: There is much that is wrong with the way this nation is governed and administered: never before have we had so many Royal Commissions and other inquiries; never before have we had so many office-holders and other figures in, or facing the prospect of prison; never before have the electors registered their dissatisfaction with the political process by returning so many independent and minor party candidates to Parliament.
This quote from 22 years ago could have been written today.
In the Mackay Report of July 2001, social researcher Hugh Mackay stated: Australia’s contempt for federal politics and its leaders has plumbed new depths. If it (the Mackay Report) was a family newspaper, we would scarcely be able to print the things Australian’s are saying about their politicians … In the 22 year history of the Mackay Report political attitudes have never been quite as negative as this.
Thirteen years on and, if anything, the situation is worse.
On 16 June 2013 in The Australian newspaper Tony Fitzgerald QC (who chaired the 1987 Queensland Royal Commission) wrote an article The Body Politic is Rotten. He stated: “There are about 800 politicians in Australia’s parliaments. According to their assessments of each other, that quite small group includes role models for lying, cheating, deceiving, “rorting”, bullying, rumour-mongering, back-stabbing, slander, “leaking”, “dog-whistling”, nepotism and corruption.”
He states in effect, that the dominance of the major parties by little known and unimpressive faction leaders who have effective control of Australia’s democracy and destiny… might be tolerable if the major parties acted with integrity but they do not. Their constant battles for power are venal, vicious and vulgar.
The 2010-13 Federal Parliament saw the major parties virtually eliminate any real form of democratic debate substituting little but character assassination of opponents. It was a three-year election campaign of personal abuse and fear mongering. It was debased even further with aggressive bullying by the media and special interests at unprecedented levels.
The same period saw both state and federal governments pandering to special interests allowing massive increases in the promotion of gambling and alcohol. Pandering to the development and mining industries and the seemingly endless privatisation of public assets often creating private monopolies, continued irrespective of public opinion.
Over the last 30 years politicians’ staff has increased dramatically. At federal level there are now some 17 hundred personal staff to ministers and members. The states probably account for over two thousand more. Add to this the direct political infiltration of federal-state public services and quangos with hundreds more jobs for the boys and girls, there is now a well-established political class.
This has provided the political parties with a career path for members. In many cases it often produces skilled, partisan, “whatever it takes” warriors with a richly rewarded life through local state and federal governments to a well-funded retirement. Unfortunately while this career path, as Tony Fitzgerald states, does include principled well-motivated people … it also attracts professional politicians with little or no general life experience and unscrupulous opportunists, unburdened by ethics, who obsessively pursue power, money or both.
The taxpayer cost of federal elections has increased from $38 million in 1984 to $161 million in 2010. Of the latter $53 million was public funding to parties and candidates. Currently, in spite of massive increases, public funding is less than 20 per cent of about $350 million total election spending. We are now effectively the second best democracy money can buy.
In an article in the Saturday Paper, Rob Oakeshott writes:
“Australia needs a royal commission into political donations.
It is not people in different clothing, of different cultures, with different languages, or of different religions that anyone need fear. If you look back on our political history, we have been divided by silly suspicions before. The “fear and smear” of others has been tried on South Sea Islanders, Chinese, Aboriginal Australians, and now women of Islam. History shows the current debate is not new. It merely picks away at that same old xenophobic scab our culture carries.
No, the greatest threat to Australia’s future is not among its people. The people, when allowed to know each other, seem to get on fine.
The real threat is within government itself. It is the increasing corruption of our public decision-making by influence gained through record levels of private donations. The only colour Australia needs to fear is the colour of money in its democracy. Chequebook decision-making is the silent killer of necessary reform.”
After the revelations from the NSW ICAC, Mike Baird had an opportunity to lead reform. Instead, with his proposed new legislation, as has been pointed out by Anne Twomey, professor of law at the University of Sydney, in effect the government wants taxpayers to give political parties millions more to campaign at election time without curtailing their ability to raise money from private interests.
Rather than action that places the public interest first, we have a poorly thought-out proposal arguably designed more with politics and self-interest in mind than good policy.
Political parties as they have developed over the last century seem like two mafia families seeking control of the public purse for distribution to themselves, supporters, the special interests who fund them and for buying votes at the next election. Political parties are not mentioned in the Constitution. They are effectively unregulated private organisations but they now control government treasuries.
By centralising power as Tony Fitzgerald puts it: The public interest is subordinated to the pursuit of power, party objectives and personal ambitions, sometimes including the corrupt acquisition of financial benefit. Branch stacking has become endemic and as Fitzgerald says “The parties gift electorates to family connections, malleable party hacks and mediocre apparatchiks”.
The former Howard government minister Jackie Kelly, who has resigned from the party in protest, cited “the corrosive control that self-interested lobbyists have over the NSW Liberal Party and how yet again reform will stall after the next election” in a letter to the state director.
Kelly told Guardian Australia disenchantment with the factional control of the NSW state executive and the stalled reform process had caused many party members in western Sydney to “down tools”. In one Sydney north shore branch, 80 out of 200 members have not renewed their party membership in the past 12 months.
Critics such as Kelly and long time campaigner John Ruddick say the Icac revelations were a natural outcome of concentrating power in the hands of a few factional powerbrokers and lobbyists.
The two-party system stifles ideas, debate and decision-making within the parties. The faction system often ensures minority views triumph within both party rooms. In the case of the government, the minority view will then be taken into parliament and become an even greater minority law. Voting within parties is often based on what faction members belong to, who wants to become or stay a minister or who wants to be party leader. What the electors think is at best a secondary consideration. Party members almost always follow the party line and are often voting against what they really believe or what their electorates would want.
As things stand Australian democracy consists of voting in a rigged system every few years to elect others to make decisions for us. The voters mostly know little or nothing about most candidates after the “faceless men” and “branch stackers” have had their way. We are rarely permitted to have any say on policies. Cabinet ministers, premiers and prime ministers come and go without reference to us. We go to war and sign treaties without even our parliament having a say let alone the public. When the major parties agree, as they do when funding themselves, and their mutual friends, we have no say whatsoever. It is a pretty minimalist democracy and a long way from Abraham Lincoln’s Government of the people, BY the people, for the people.
As Ted Mack says, we seem to have achieved “Government of the people, by the powerbrokers, for the mates”.