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Australia needs to lead again on democratic innovation

The imperative for major reform of Australia’s political and policy processes is more real and urgent than ever. AAP/Lukas Coch

Australia needs to lead again on democratic innovation

A week has always been a long time in politics, but now it is longer than ever. In a world of increasingly truncated media cycles, short-term politics and fragmented parliaments, the political world is being splintered into more and more singular events.

This means more news, events and antics are crammed into a political week and analysed in blow-by-blow detail. Combine that with an increasingly volatile electorate and the question is: what’s the use of predicting the political week ahead in this age of democratic disruption, let alone an entire electoral cycle?

But sometimes when micro-events seem chaotic and disconnected, the overall patterns are more obvious.

What will prevail?

The outcome of the 2016 federal election – with its unprecedented voter support of independents and minor parties – highlighted that the dam wall of public dissatisfaction with the major parties and their disconnected way of “doing” democracy is near-to-bursting.

This makes both the longer-term trends and dynamics of federal politics and parliament predictable. It also makes the imperative for major reform of Australia’s political and policy processes more real and urgent than ever.

Here’s a snapshot of the dynamics that will prevail in the 45th federal parliament if the reform agenda continues to exclude major change to Australia’s system of democratic governance.

  1. The major parties will triple-down on their combative tactics, fearmongering and negative short-termism for no other reason than these were their key take-outs on what “worked” in the election.

  2. There’ll be no lasting attempt to reach across parliament’s aisles to tackle a great and growing list of national challenges. Parliament will achieve little of real policy substance.

  3. Standards as well as public perceptions of political leadership will continue to deteriorate.

  4. The combination of the above will leave voters feeling even more disconnected and disillusioned with the state of politics.

  5. Independents and minor parties will secure more seats in the next election, accelerating the process of fragmenting the House of Representatives into the same unworkable political kaleidoscope as the Senate.

This will set up a dynamic of negativity and dysfunction for the 46th parliament more pervasive than the one now starting. Parliament will become just about unworkable. And Australia’s economy and polity will begin a painful and potentially irreversible submergence.

What can be done?

It’s all depressing stuff. This is even more the case given several innovations going in other levels of government around Australia that would help solve these federal ills.

The South Australian and Victorian governments have been trialling new systems of decision-making at both state and local government level to bring citizens directly into the policymaking process.

Innovations like citizens’ juries and participatory budgeting are being piloted. These two states understand growing citizen anger with being shut out from real policymaking. They realise this is not politically sustainable.

These innovations are based on the very logical view that ordinary Australians – in this age of unprecedented information access and connectivity – have as much knowledge and expertise on key policy issues as traditional decision-makers like ministers and departmental experts.

And, by giving citizens a direct, collaborative say in the decisions that most affect them, they assume “ownership” of policy decisions, even if they do not agree with the final outcome.

This in turn leads to greater political consensus, citizen engagement and policy depth. These are the commodities most in short supply in our increasingly combative, fragmented federal political system.

While governance reforms such as these are gathering pace outside Canberra, those inside the federal bubble are effectively ignoring them. The “high” politics of federal policy and parliament, according to this view, is far too complex and important for ordinary citizens to have direct and continuous involvement.

Therefore, citizens should continue to delegate policymaking entirely to their elected representatives on the assumption that the latter, being at the top of the political or policy tree, continue to see and know more, and faster.

This was definitely true in the 19th century, when the current system of representative democracy emerged. It might have been the case until two or three decades ago. But as information continues to become dispersed more widely and more quickly to everyone, those who continue to have a monopoly on national policymaking – our federal politicians, bureaucrats and peak group lobbyists – are now not in the right place to know consistently what is going on.

As a result, just like in the US, the UK and other major Western democracies organised around 19th-century representative democracy, ordinary citizens are increasingly judging so-called high politics as out of touch and contemptibly “low”.

Australia in the 19th century set new global benchmarks for democratic innovation, such as secret ballots and extending voting rights. These changes were all ground-breaking because they reconstituted politics and policymaking to respond better to new and fast-changing times.

Today we are at the same inflexion point in history. Australia’s national politicians again need to step up and lead the way on the inevitable process of national and global democratic innovation.