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Ruling, not governing: what to do about our lost confidence in the body politic

Tony Abbott sought to rule rather than govern, in much the same way that Kevin Rudd did. Both unravelled. AAP/Lukas Coch

After five prime ministers in five years, many fear that Australia’s political system is irrevocably broken. The Conversation, in partnership with Griffith Review, is publishing a series of essays exploring the problems surrounding, and solutions to, Australia’s current political malaise.

Ruling is a consequence of professional politicking. Yet it has also created unmatched instability in modern Australian politics. Professionalisation of political operations has come to dominate the way major Australian political parties function, and diminishes government and opposition alike.

Tony Abbott sought to rule rather than govern, in much the same way that Kevin Rudd did after Labor was returned to power in 2007 – and both unravelled.

The blame for the state of modern politics lies not just with the politicians, but with journalists, commentators and voters as well. The political culture in Australia is sick and in need of treatment. The throwaway culture of consumerism has transferred into attitudes towards politicians. The selfishness of voters is only matched by politicians’ selfish grab for power. And journalists, while not entirely to blame for the way they cover politics, share the blame for the lack of focus on policy.

In our view, there are three relatively simple solutions to help improve the situation, and return politics to the art of governing rather than ruling:

  • tighter regulation of political parties;

  • recognition that Australia has outgrown the two-party system and must reform institutions to remake it; and

  • the need to institutionalise consultation within the law-making process.

Small targets

Australians are not happy with the state of politics and they largely blame politicians. And why not? We have record numbers of politicians who have been trained in the arts of politics through employment in central party, ministerial and MP offices.

The present generation of leaders has expert knowledge about communicating, campaigning and focus groups but little time or respect for the best traditions of government: the patient development of policy formulated with the assistance of a professional public service. So determined are they to present small targets to the electorate that concepts like platforms and mandates have almost dropped out of the vocabulary of politics.

Where the notion of a mandate does surface, it’s as a simplistic demand by government that the Senate pass its proposed bills, ignoring the check-and-balance role the second chamber was designed to provide. Too often, governments don’t even have the popular mandate for the legislation they demand gets passed, given the scant details on offer during election campaigns.

As South Australian senator Nick Xenophon told us for our book Battleground: Why the Liberal Party Shirtfronted Tony Abbott, the former prime minister had “a reverse mandate” for much of what was contained in his first budget, having explicitly ruled out during the campaign many of the cuts Treasurer Joe Hockey announced on budget night.

Malcolm Turnbull’s elevation to the prime ministership brought with it hopes of a raised tone of debate. AAP/Dan Himbrechts

The small-target strategy the Coalition adopted in 2013 while in opposition was a symptom of the professionalisation of politics, where the drive for government for the sake of power outweighs the purpose for achieving it. The result has been the opposite of what the professionals must have expected – a period of instability unparalleled since the first decade after Federation.

Politicians who understand how to count but who barely contribute a single idea to the public square are damaging voter perceptions of political leadership, increasing the degree of difficulty to break out of this situation and present substantive debates and policy ideas.

Malcolm Turnbull’s election to the prime ministership by his colleagues promises to rebalance this situation, but it is early days and such promises have been made before. We wait to see if the rhetoric will be matched by genuine changes.

Given that Turnbull’s elevation came as a result of the erosion of confidence in the system and the willingness to remove a leader when unpopularity pervades, even just over halfway into a first term, it is far from certain he won’t fall victim to the same panic and cutthroat assessment.

A lack of diversity

The permanent campaign is a concept American political scientists Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann first wrote about 15 years ago. It involves the professionalisation of politics to a point where the political participants become involved in a permanent election campaign: using the media and the routines of politics to the direct goal of re-election, throughout an entire electoral term.

As a direct result of this professionalisation there is a loss of diversity in representatives, which narrows the intellectual outlook of the body politic, and in turn has removed the ideological drive of modern politics. This leaves voters with limited choices.

In Australia, the major parties are dominated by careerists, for whom election is the goal rather than the means of achieving goals. Retaining power has become more important than using incumbency to achieve goals. This has many impacts – on leadership theory, public policy and political stability, as we’ve seen recently with the removal of multiple prime ministers by their partyrooms.

Where once Liberals would accuse Labor of ideological and professional narrowness because of the large number of former union officials in their ranks, now both sides are heavily laden with ex-staffers. The Liberal Party rarely pre-selects small business owners – partly because of more rigid factional groupings and partly because those small business owners have stepped back from political engagement.

The recent pre-selection process for Joe Hockey’s seat of North Sydney saw a controversial move to truncate the selection process, which helped deliver the seat to Trent Zimmerman, a factional player for the moderates with only limited “real-world” experience.

Labor’s parliamentary ranks are dominated by ex-union officials such as Bill Shorten. AAP/Andrew Taylor

To the extent that we read about diversity in the backgrounds of MPs in their parliamentary biographies, such career markers have been strategically embarked on for the purpose of a future tilt at politics; for appearance rather than life experience. Too many MPs with backgrounds in larger organisations have worked within the media or government affairs divisions, rather than at the heart of the business.

On the Labor side, while ex-union officials continue to dominate parliamentary ranks, alongside ex-staffers, they are career union officials rather than those who have moved from the factory floor into official roles and then into parliament.

The working-class diversity that once made up for the narrowness of union domination with Labor‘s ranks is no more. Isolated exceptions prove the rule.

Dominance of polling

The most concerning aspect of the professionalisation of politics is the disconnect it has facilitated between politicians and those who vote for them. Our leaders know too much about politics and not enough about life. Just because you can tear down a first-term prime minister doesn’t mean it is a good idea.

Did the Labor functionaries who removed Rudd stop to think about why a first-term prime minister had never been treated that way? Now Abbott has suffered the same fate.

For all the faults of the Abbott government – many of which were accentuated by the professionalisation of politics – we can’t be sure that Abbott’s faults in his two years in office wouldn’t have been corrected over time, as was the case with other prime ministers. Like Rudd before him, Abbott wasn’t afforded the opportunity to grow in the job.

Bob Hawke had a messy beginning; John Howard even moreso. Had either of these highly regarded former prime ministers been voted out of office by their colleagues so soon after becoming prime minister, their legacies would have been as unimpressive as Abbott’s will certainly be.

If you doubt this historical reality, consider Howard’s polling numbers just over three months out from the 1998 election. His Coalition‘s primary vote was at just 34%; Abbott’s government’s primary vote never fell below 35%. Howard’s net satisfaction rating had dipped to minus 31 – territory Abbott traversed only once, and had recovered from by the time he was deposed.

John Howard made an art of trailing in the polls until the time that it mattered. AAP/Dean Lewins

While Abbott was wrong to blame the proliferation of polls, the media and white-anting as the causes of his demise, they did play a role. The need to stay competitive in the polls is stronger now than it has ever been, and there are more polls than ever before.

During his 11 years in power, Howard made an art of trailing in the polls until the eve of elections, before narrowing the gap and – with the notable exception of the 2007 election – overtaking his rivals when it mattered.

The erosion of stability caused by professionalisation isn’t only the fault of politicians. The media culture in response to it and the cultural realities of modern society are also contributing factors. Journalism is more poll-driven than in the past, more informed by backgrounding and commentary because of the expense involved in chasing down genuine news.

On the supply side of political news, public comments from political leaders are so scripted and predictable that journalists compete to seek out their real thinking. They celebrate the “gaffes”, which American journalist Michael Kinsley defined as an accidental utterance of the truth, produced by politicians because they puncture the images that leaders and their advisers seek to project.

Even politicians resent this charade. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop provided an insight into this thinking when government talking points were leaked – she commented that this would save her the trouble of having to parrot them.

A throwaway media culture

Voters today are part of a consumer throwaway culture, which we argue has harmed the way we see our politicians. If leaders err, just replace them. This attitude is shared by their colleagues.

There must be more to the problem than what Abbott called a “febrile media culture”. When New Zealander John Key welcomed Turnbull in October 2015, he was meeting his fifth Australian prime minister. Other parliamentary systems – the UK and Germany – are enjoying periods of relative stability. So too was Canada, until conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper was defeated while trying to secure a fourth term in power.

These countries are not without their problems. But Australia’s problems seem to be rooted in systemic and cultural issues that we can do something about.

Governments know everything about what voters want, but seem unable to satisfy them. While the published polls have impacted on the political contest we see in the media, internal party research has decided what comes first. Where previously such research was used to inform how to sell policy scripts, or occasionally ward off policy moves that are patently out of touch with the electorate, today the research determines policy choices.

This shift is supposed to endear the political class to voters, but we see through many of the attempts to reflect our wishes rather than lead. It is a twist on the delegate and trustee representational theories.

Not long ago, political scientists wondered whether this “PR state” gave undue advantages to incumbent governments. The overflow of media advisers and access to resources seemed to offer incumbents powerful advantages against their political opponents.

Some sort of threshold was passed in the late 1990s, when the number of trained journalists working for governments surpassed the number working for newspapers. We realise now that journalists, even as their numbers declined, were tiring of being managed by their former colleagues turned media advisers and found ways to fight back – revelling in getting behind the spin and highlighting the re-announcements, backflips and backdowns. This leaves readers and viewers more cynical than they were to start with.

At the same time, as veteran political journalist Laurie Oakes has pointed out, journalists are remarkably reticent in defending the traditions of their own profession. Governments collect data and restrict access to immigration detention centres with ease. For a profession that loves to talk about itself, this is a remarkable omission.

Yet the Gillard government’s failed attempt to regulate newspapers shows the limits of politicians in using their institutional power. This in turn brings us back to the lack of trust, and therefore authority, that we place in our elected representatives.

The public needs to take its share of the blame. We’ve all watched the leadership speculation stories climb to the top of the most clicked-on stories of even the quality news sites. Journalists who seek to be well read – at a time when online data reveals all regarding how may readers journalists truly have – play to their readers’ preferences.

Canberra gossip (as Abbott was fond of calling it) serves as clickbait. During Abbott’s two years in office, stories with his chief-of-staff’s name in the title invariably sat at the top of the most-read articles on websites. Readers want to feel like they have been taken inside the political contest, and stories that achieve this but nonetheless focus on policy over politics lose reader interest.

It is the politicians who need to disarm in the contest with journalists and voters: get out from behind the consultants, spin doctors and minders and tell us what they think. It will be interesting to see how long Turnbull refuses to play the game of ruling measures in or out before they have been properly debated.

One of the reasons that parties felt obliged to take the seemingly radical step of removing two first-term prime ministers was that their own campaigns have convinced voters that prime ministers are no longer primus inter pares (first among equals). Instead, we expect this single figure to have solutions to the most minute of problems, and an opinion on everything from tax reform to football results.

This prime ministerial government can be successful, as it was under Howard, when co-ordination is smooth, but it also risks going awry when the prime minister cannot replicate that success. The same political actors who encouraged us to respect the power of the prime minister refused to do so when they had the opportunity to increase their own influence.

The most effective period of governing since Howard was during the hung parliament (2010–13), but voters didn’t reward the incumbent party. The capacity of oppositions to paint chaos as the way we see government operations is made easier in the news age we live in, and helped along by social media and the 24-hour news cycle. Abbott in opposition was a successful proponent of this approach, before himself falling victim to it.

Journalists are remarkably reticent in defending the traditions of their own profession. AAP/Lukas Coch

The way forward?

Enough complaining, though. We are not revolutionaries, but if leaders are unwilling to release themselves from the straitjacket that professionalisation has imposed on them then some parts of the system could be improved if the public really lost patience.

Other Westminster systems have been much more innovative than Australia in reform and adaptation. Australia is almost unique in lacking a bill of rights; New Zealand and the UK have remade their respective systems in quite different ways.

Constituitonal change is notoriously difficult in Australia. None of our suggestions necessarily require constitutional change, although such entrenchment could be useful. We offer three principles that would make the system more democratic and fair, and focus political parties on their underlying purpose of improving the lives of their constituents instead of occupying office.

Australian political parties have promoted increasingly complex governance standards for public and private organisations without applying these standards to their own organisations. There is only one passing mention of parties in the Australian Constitution, giving courts few opportunities to limit their activities.

Historically, Australian political parties have avoided court action to resolve internal disputes or to disadvantage the other party, to retain their unique status as neither entirely public nor private organisations. They justify some elements of their privileged legal status (such as their exemption from the Privacy Act) because of their public role.

Political parties are indeed unique actors, which join ordinary citizens with organisations whose power reaches into the highest decision-making organs of the state. On the other hand, exemption from the Commonwealth Freedom of Information Act is justified on the non-government status of parties. The Australian Law Reform Commission has long argued for removal of the parties’ exemption from the Privacy Act on the basis that “public confidence in the political process” requires all actors to be on the same legal footing.

To the extent that parties have been regulated, it has tended to be in their own interest – for example, registering party names to prevent competition. Not all regulation is desirable and there are always unintended consequences. Candidate selection varies a lot in Australia, but the system of primaries in the US enforced by state law is by no means a better system. Not that this truth has prevented Labor and the Nationals discussing moves towards just such a system.

Political parties are too important to the way we are governed to be excluded from oversight. This is arguably more urgent now that party membership has fallen. Parties with deep roots in civil society could at least claim to be representative of the community. The shells of those organisations that exist today retain legal privileges that accrue mainly to the handful of self-interested actors who control them.

In the past, Turnbull has indicated an interest in banning both corporate and union donations. In NSW, the attempts to ban union donations were struck down by the High Court, but other regulations have been upheld. Many politicians resent the arms race that fundraising has become.

Ministerial staff must be directly accountable to the parliament. The concept of ministerial responsibility has fallen away in modern politics, and the use of staffers to shield them from accountability is rampant. These unelected staffers have close proximity to politicians, but without the oversight of the public service.

Scholars have for some time understood power within the executive branch as more complex than the traditional division between the permanent bureaucracy and the shifting fortunes of the government of the day, or between leaders and factions within the cabinet. Instead, “court politics” is understood as alliances of various actors within government, including party political advisers who try to achieve or block proposals.

Tony Abbott’s chief-of-staff Peta Credlin copped criticism for her command-and-control approach. AAP/Lukas Coch

If, as is often argued, the chief-of-staff to the prime minister is more powerful than some cabinet ministers, that status should be recognised in methods of public accountability, starting with a few appearances before parliamentary committees. While this has been Labor policy since 2004, it hasn’t been tested.

Political fundraising is also something that has very little oversight, and has numerous loopholes for parties to hide donors from the register. The conflation of party political roles and their duty to the state see ministers using their power to raise funds for private organisations – the political parties they represent.

Money buys access to these decision-makers. While it might not buy outcomes, the perception that it does – or the potential that it might – should see major reform to party fundraising enacted.

Buying time with a minister at dinners or roundtable discussions at state and federal party conferences is akin to the prostitution of our democracy, and the players themselves don’t like it. Ministers are already under intense time-pressure to attend party events, engage with the media, position themselves with colleagues and perhaps even get across policy details. The last thing they want is be rolled out as the bait at expensive fundraisers.

But party officials who run election campaigns, and have no accountability in political institutional frameworks, demand that ministers attend such events and have the authority to insist on it.

Change is possible

The major parties that benefit from the electoral system aren’t likely to change it, but change does happen.

New Zealanders were deeply unhappy with their much more centralised system, and they were offered a choice of electoral systems. The complexities of the multi-member electorate, which better balances local representation with proportional representation, didn’t frighten voters away from electoral reform.

The principal advantage of Australia’s system is supposed to be stability, but we have seen that stability reduced because of the two-party model it sustains in the lower house. Now that the Senate has seen a widening of the representatives who might secure election, the major parties, in conjunction with the Greens, have come together to support reform that will knock out microparties.

But such a change would only trade one problem for another. It risks entrenching the Greens in the Senate alongside the majors, reducing the width of representation.

Since the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters recommended changes to Senate voting, some Liberals have become more circumspect as to what they were contemplating supporting. They are concerned that changes establishing the Greens as the third force might make doing business for conservative governments harder than it already is.

This surely goes to the heart of the problem: change is suggested to solve a practical problem in the moment, rather than being grounded in a structural and strategic assessment of what might enrich the representative nature of parliament.

While the dominance of the two-party system itself restricts input into the policymaking processes of government to select parties, the decision-making processes are even narrower. Partyrooms jealously guard their power to select leaders because it is one of the last powers they retain.

Policymaking hasn’t just been restricted to the executive arm of government, it has been narrowly cast within the office of the prime minister. Again, we see the role of unelected political staffers with limited accountability at the heart of modern governments. Where ministers are able to exert influence beyond their role in cabinet, informal groupings such as Rudd’s gang of four widen the rule of government a little beyond the Prime Minister’s Office, but not enough.

Voters feel they are ruled and not governed by their politicians. Backbenchers feel similarly about the executive, and the executive is increasingly ruled by one office – that of the prime minister. It is an irony that so much power rests in one place, yet its stability in maintaining long-term continuity has diminished.

Another advantage of proportional representation – either introduced into the lower house or once again respected in the Senate – is that it would necessitate consultation and bargaining between powerful actors in the political system. This bargaining is already a feature of the current system, but it is opaque: the Liberal–National coalition itself and the factions within parties make deals without regard for the public interest.

One consequence of the hung parliament was a package of reforms to parliament, including independence of the speaker and a Question Time less dominated by the executive. The hung parliament itself was relatively productive, but not popular with the public because some of the policies that arose, such as the carbon tax, were not foreshadowed.

Institutionalising this bargaining, though, will change public expectations of elections, and in turn change the political culture away from adversarialism.

Senate reform to limit the number of microparty senators remains on the agenda of both major parties. AAP/Alan Porritt

It’s on us to create change

There are aspects of Australian political culture that we take for granted, such as the theatre of budget night. Why should the contents of the government’s budget, its most important document, be dripped to the media over weeks and months, only for the treasurer to pull a rabbit out of the hat with a flourish.

British governments release a budget “green paper” prepared by the Treasury with a number of taxation and expenditure options. This is a much more mature approach to policymaking.

One of the reasons for the failure of the two-party system is that society is simply too complex. Recent history is littered with occasions where narrow consultation produced poorly thought-out policy that was reversed after a public or interest group-led revolt.

Governments tend to have a static view of consultation. Parliament has set up useful organs for investigating legislation and abuse of power, which are subject to the demands of the major political parties.

Another limitation is the contrast between the methods of mass-media control described above and the more egalitarian sprit of the internet. The role of social media in reducing politicians to actors in an ongoing political satire is a more recent phenomenon in this arms race. It has caused a lot of cynicism among older politicians in particular, such as Abbott’s dismissal of Twitter as “electronic graffiti”.

Because political life is so tightly managed, few politicians are prepared to take the risks that genuine engagement with social media entails: spontaneity, openness and dialogue. While we should be wary of which socioeconomic groups are dominating these new forms of interaction, that is no reason to avoid exploring ways for government bodies – not just parties and the parliament – to seek public input into their activities.

For the most part, though, we get social media as public relations rather than engagement.

Some of these measures can be institutionalised, but only citizens can change the political culture. We should demand a higher quality standard of debate from media, interest groups, leaders and parties alike.

Despite more ways to directly engage with politicians, those who represent us have never been more out of touch. Despite more opportunities for voters to access their politicians – if only fleetingly via social media – few want to, and fewer still pay attention to the political contest.

When we do pay attention, we are voyeurs into the theatre of politics, rather than the policy debates that matter. The professionalisation of the political system has counterintuitively led to a less stable environment. Prime ministers are all-powerful when it comes to setting the policy agenda and running government, but they are weak when colleagues lose confidence in their capacity to win elections.

The notion of backlash has become a dominant theme in Australian politics: partyrooms exerting what limited power they do have over prime ministers; a backlash in the electorate; and among journalists against the spin of politics and the lack of consultation that we see. Institutions designed to provide checks, such as the Senate, are now seen as roadblocks by governments that want to rule rather than negotiate.

Only when systems change and cultural adjustments occur will the political class return to governing rather than ruling.

You can read a longer version of this article and others from the Griffith Review’s latest edition here.

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