If the current leadership tussle in the labor party has demonstrated anything, it’s that politics in Australia is not the most impressive affair.
And if we needed any further confirmation, we need only look as far as last year’s ALP conference, or the political machinations around refugee policy, or simply the results of the latest – or any – news poll.
I would argue politics is not that impressive anywhere else, either. But for now, let’s look at Australian politics and what we may do to make things a bit “better”.
First, let’s ask some challenging questions. At Deakin University’s Democratising Governance symposium in November, the University of Sydney’s Professor Simon Tormey, asked whether representative governance was an “exhausted paradigm”.
I would also like to play the agent provocateur. Given that we are confronted on a continual basis with politics, the requirement to vote, and the need to advance somehow collectively, we would expect that this process would be more sophisticated. But our electoral systems significantly fail to please us, the voting public.
German academic Bernhard Wessels argues that although representation is marginally working, it is still not popular and still not seen by voters as a good vehicle for democratic politics.
So what can be done about this?
First, I think politicians (that is, any eligible individual wishing to run for office) should be required to go through a robust, difficult and internationally-recognised educational program. Doctors, dentists, teachers, lawyers, veterinarians, and a number of other vocations are required to do so. Why not politicians?
As a concerned citizen of this world and democracy theorist, I reason this would pose a unique chance for the potential improvement of politics and political representation. This program could have its own form of oath taking (let us call it the Socratic Oath because of Socrates’ interest in his society) like doctors have with Hippocrates.
Recent graduates could become residents with different non-self-selected political parties (that is, they should rotate through different parties and bureaucratic offices like certain doctors or teachers do with different institutions). And we could add another body for the review of personal ethics and accountability of politicians, which is again similar to practices in other vocations. We can argue that this is a Weberian approach to literally viewing politics as a vocation.
Second, I think voters should undergo some form of standardised training and testing, on top of mandatory voting. I recognise the main opposing argument to this is that individuals should not be forced to do something – and fair enough. Individuals should be able to cast a protest vote or not vote at all by registering their preference to abstain. But that registration should be made and voting or not voting should not be avoided because that weakens the formal representational system.
Those eligible to vote should participate in community or possibly even online training about how the political system works, what different systems there are, how to vote strategically, and how to participate politically outside of the institution of voting. To ensure maximal retention, we should be testing our electors. We have to prove ourselves worthy drivers to operate a vehicle so why not prove ourselves worthy voters to “operate” a political system?
My defence of this argument is that I think it will force the ALP, the Liberal Party and other political parties (like the Greens) to change from above (with us as citizens and our new critical edge in decision-making) and below (or political parties and their possible requirement to accept only better-trained and well-educated new members).
It may also lead to the positive growth of quality in Australia’s democracy. We could even argue for higher minimum standards when elections are being conducted. If a government wins a majority on, in this example, 51% of the vote – in performance standards that is tantamount to a failure. Should we then not keep on trying, through discussion and subsequent votes to achieve an 80% mark for a government to hold a majority?
In some systems that can be rated as an “A” (success!).
We need to focus on building both citizens and politicians in such a way as to lead to the improvement of politics in Australia and beyond.