The debate over the Coalition government's proposed senate voting reforms has highlighted the inter-party brokering that brings candidates into office. It is a wonder that preferential flows and group voting had not previously elicited such high levels of inquiry, and indeed the motivation for doing so now is open to inspection.
Yet if representative democracy were predicated on transparency, then another area deserves scrutiny: preselection.
Preselection is the area in which the distinction between politics and governance gets frayed. We only need look at the US primaries to work out how important that line actually is. There we see the spectacle of too many people convinced that ideological sentiment can pass for administration of the things that make civilised life possible: healthcare, education, work, housing, security.
Politics can't feed the hungry, or provide shelter. It doesn't put competent teachers in schools, reliable doctors in hospitals, decent police officers on the streets. It takes governance to do that, and good governance involves the best decisions that can be made honestly, within context and in the interests of ordinary people.
To some degree, this commends the US presidential system, where in theory the president is able to appoint the best possible person for Cabinet portfolios. Sometimes that person is someone on the other side of politics. Specialists, or candidates with relevant qualifications, are more likely to become departmental chiefs (secretaries) than a political careerist.
In Australia, it is much harder to be confident that the people who get handed a portfolio have relevant qualifications. In some cases, there is nothing to commend them other than that they were elected or have been around for a while — elevated to office via a preselection process that bears no resemblance to recruitment processes in other lines of work.
For example, if one were to believe that merit is genuinely the baseline in preselection, wouldn't one then have to conclude from the composition of our parliaments that competence must be rare among women and people of colour (POC)? Who benefits from drawing such conclusions? How have low levels of diversity shaped the policy excesses that directly affect non-whites?
It is not just that preselection processes have not delivered the representational mix that we should expect from national demographics. Some of the political scandals of recent years also raise questions around how candidates are vetted and/or retained.
Craig Thomson was eventually convicted of 13 charges of theft. Mal Brough is currently under police investigation over a conspiracy that delivered him the seat of Fisher. Jamie Briggs dropped his ministerial portfolio last December over inappropriate conduct in Hong Kong.
Stuart Robert did the same in February when he was found, according to an internal investigation, to have 'acted inconsistently with the Statement of Ministerial Standards' in relation to a trip to China for a mining company deal involving a Liberal Party donor.
Bronwyn Bishop is recontesting Mackellar amid internal ructions over merit. Joe Bullock, who recently vacated his WA Labor senate seat over his party's same-sex marriage stance, took the top ticket spot in the 2013 election from Louise Pratt via factional deals.
These are just at federal level.
The mechanism for choosing party representatives clearly relies on powerful backers — politics — rather than merit. That is an obvious thing to say. But it carries repercussions for governance with which we have yet to grapple.
The appointment of ministerial portfolios to elected officials is beyond public input, and relies heavily on whatever talent pool the governing party can cough up. When that talent pool essentially relies on knowing enough of the right people, then what does that mean for governance?
The conflation of politics and governance has meant that in areas of high sensitivity such as immigration, national security and industrial relations, policies become vulnerable to political whims — rather than drawing from field expertise, jurisprudence and international best practice.
The AU$17B procurement of Joint Strike Fighters (F-35s) is a case in point.
Under the Abbott government, Australia purchased 58 more fighter jets from Lockheed Martin for a total of 72, despite known problems about both its software and hardware. A recent ABC Background Briefing investigation revealed extraordinary vulnerabilities involved in acquiring this plane — what US Air Force top guns call 'the little turd'.
How did we get locked into this? Politics rather than governance.
We have a system with paper-thin delineation between the executive and legislative, which means that the quality of the people we elect to parliament is far more consequential than we let ourselves absorb.
Perhaps it would be much more important and beneficial to force our political parties to justify the credentials of their individual candidates, than to engage with their preference flows.
Fatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She tweets @foomeister and blogs at This is Complicated.
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14 March 2016
The headline, "Politics over merit", leads to careful scrutiny of the selection process for many positions of responsibility. Are qualifications and "many bits of paper" necessarily an only indicator of a person's ability to institute good governance. ?Does wide work experience ,both here and overseas,(maybe one year here , one year there ) show a person's ability to lead a group over a longer period of time?. How does a person's world view sit in relation to the task in hand? Tough questions.
Then we get to the awful possibility that society maybe has not enough suitable candidates to fill the position. Maybe, a better education system could help here. Maybe one that encourages the development of positive values, gives training in leadership skills and creative thinking , can help set the foundation for enlightened citizens........... But then we would have to have a combined effort in the selection of the "right "people to select the "right "people to be teachers , principals , directors, ministers of education and academics to achieve this end. In the play "The Good Person of Szechuan", Brecht wrote in 1938, and later, about naive goodness in the face of all- encompassing badness. Underneath all the corruption sits the fable of a person whose goodness leaves her open to exploitation. By listening to writers, film makers , journalists we can at least ask important questions. Thanks Fatima for a frank assessment of what goes on in our current political sphere .
14 March 2016
Excellent commentary on our flawed preselection process! The fact that party members can think that some of our recent politicians were a good choice to help lead the nation shows its inadequacy.
But what is the solution? How can we persuade more of our high-minded, clear thinking citizens to join political parties?
14 March 2016
Fatima your analysis is spot on. I do not know the answer. Over the years I have experienced the erosion of communal decision-making in this country, the enforced commercialisation of mutual associations, the way in which governments have taken control of charities (witness our local op-shops now staffed by Centrelink conscripts), the closure of local offices (like our local Motor Registry Office) so that people are forced to travel for hours to reach some distant “centralised” office, the attacks on union movements. I could go on. It has been deliberate and relentless. I am convinced the aim is to disempower the people and empower the elites. How do we choose leaders from among ourselves when we do not know ourselves as communities?
14 March 2016
Well said. Needless to say, I believe party politics to have been the ruination of good governance.
14 March 2016
If the Members of the Meritocracy don't wish to contaminate their lives, and possibly their reputations, by not putting themselves forward as candidates for political office....., then we'll have to embrace those who will. Oh, if only we had listened to Plato rather than Aristotle!
Michael D. Breen
14 March 2016
Spot on Fatima. And a great book end piece to Justin Glyn.s article. The sad part is that there are few options for the punters including the readers of ES to have an effective response. Are we not suffering from a disconnect from the world of politics as reported? Tut tutting to like minded friends is not going to change much. Even the number of responses to these two articles is few beside more emotive matters. Keep plugging away at the core.
18 March 2016
You write: "To some degree, this commends the US presidential system, where in theory the president is able to appoint the best possible person for Cabinet portfolios". In our case, rather, I lament the loss of tenure of senior public servants, replaced by appointment on contract, and so becoming subject to the political master - no longer frank and fearless advice, nor contingency planning nor foresight. (Disclaimer: I was not a public servant).
18 March 2016
Yes, politics leads to poor governance, and underlying that sad state of affairs I believe are 2 pillars. One is the failure/corruption of the party system especially in the recent damaging decades of neoliberalism during which corporate interests have colonised the major parties (donations in return for favourable "policies"). The second is the People's retreat from responsible citizenship which is necessary for a well functioning democracy. The parties have got so awful they mainly comprise self-interested rather than public-interested members, and the only avenue then to better governance is community supported independent candidates getting elected. The number of MPs is small (only 150 MHRs in Canberra). Imagine what a difference many decent independent MPs would make. The more decent MPs, the greater the chance of good government - rebuild the Westminster system of a strong and independent public service, repeal egregious legislation which is damaging our future, reputation and vulnerable lives (think climate, environment, human rights, refugees, first people, public education etc.). We have left it to the parties for too long, neatly avoiding the responsibility we ourselves hold for our own society. This is possible!
23 March 2016
Over the years we have seen qualifications for positions of responsibility within areas of responsibility for social justice provision such as education, health, housing move from expertise provided from experience and accompanying study of theory, to appointments ever more heavily dependent upon political notoriety. The system changed through distrust of the 'public service' and 'public servants'. Certainly the name is more appropriate. I wonder if perhaps there wasn't something going for the system?
25 March 2016
Do you realise that our electoral provisions allow the Prime Minister to appoint a non-elected expert to lead a ministry provided that person is able to win a by-election within ninety days.