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Can the Class of '22 fix Australian Democracy?



In an article written before the last federal election, George Megalogenis made one of his characteristically wise asides saying, ‘There is an unfortunate reflex in our politics – from those who practice it to those who analyse it for a living – to seek American or British analogies for our polarisation.’ In praising his insight, however, I am about to ignore his advice.

Scott Morrison never produced anything so dramatic as a Watergate break in, but there is no doubt that his approach to governance left in its wake a number of problematic legacies.

We know all about the ‘stroll out’ of the Covid-19 vaccine, and the equally slow response to the need for home rapid-antigen tests once the Omicron variant appeared. We know about his government’s failure to distribute funds in the wake of fire and floods, let alone do anything tangible about the climate change that caused them in the first place.

We also know that on his watch, Centrelink, in the form of the so-called robodebt debacle, raised, as a Senate report noted, ‘$1.73 billion in illegitimate debts…against approximately 433 000 Australians,’ and the report notes that ‘approximately 381 000 [of these] individuals were pursued, often through private debt collection agencies, to repay almost $752 million to the Commonwealth.’

This persecution of welfare recipients continued until ‘the Federal Court of Australia confirmed that the Government had no legal basis for pursuing these debts.’

We know about the Royal Commission into aged-care facilities, the 148 recommendations it made for improvements, and that even before their report was the released, Commissioners Tony Pagone and Lynelle Briggs had criticised the Morrison government for failing to properly monitor Covid outbreaks in aged care facilities, saying that had ‘the Australian government acted upon previous reviews of aged care, the persistent problems in aged care would have been known much earlier and the suffering of many people could have been avoided.’


'The astounding thing is that we managed to leverage the change of 21 May 2022 within the confines of a system that inherently favours the status quo, the preferential voting system tending to channel votes back to the major parties.' 


We know the 2020 report by the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) into $100 million dollars’ worth of funds provided as grants to various sporting organisations around the country found that the ‘award of grant funding was not informed by an appropriate assessment process and sound advice.’

We know that the banking Royal Commission turned up instances of deep malfeasance and, more disturbingly, showed that, according to journalist Adele Fergusson, ‘The banks’ powers rested not just in the profound wealth they were probably producing, but also in the deep connection between the banks and the political establishment.’

This sort of state capture, as it is called—an ongoing, unhealthy relationship between government and business—pervades Australian governance, something spelled out in two recent reports, Selling Out: How powerful industries corrupt our democracy, produced by the Human Rights Law Centre; and Confronting State Capture, written by the Australian Democracy Network.

This is quite a list, and all this before an Integrity Commission even exists.

The parallel I am drawing, against George Megalogenis's advice, is not with the Watergate break in, but with what happened in the United States Congress in the wake of Nixon’s resignation.

According to John Lawrence, at the time of his retirement in 2013, the longest serving staffer on Capitol Hill, Nixon’s criminality led to an influx of new Congressmen (mainly men) who instigated a series of reforms that changed the way Congress worked.

In a recent article, Lawrence writes that ‘only 12 weeks after Nixon had resigned the presidency and ruined the Republican brand, the nation went to the polls and chose a very different type of political leadership. The Class of 1974 — particularly in the House of Representatives — was younger, less deferential to seniority, more liberal on policy matters and more activist in demeanor than the sclerotic Congress they joined. “We were a conquering army,” recalled freshman George Miller of California, who at 29, was closer in age to anti-war demonstrators in the streets than the average age of House members.’

Similarly, concern about political malfeasance in Australian politics was one of the issues that drove the influx of new members (mainly women) into the Australian Parliament on 21 May, and they, too, are promising a raft of reforms.

The parallel is not perfect, not least because the transformation we saw in Australia is, if anything, a more far-reaching one than what happened in the US in 1974, but I think it might be useful to remind our Class of ‘22 that there is, not just a precedent for bold action, but a warning from the US, that unless you bed down serious reform, worse is wating, as the current January 6 hearings in the US Congress attest.

What is clear, I think, is that an Integrity Commission will not be reform enough. 

The astounding thing is that we managed to leverage the change of 21 May 2022 within the confines of a system that inherently favours the status quo, the preferential voting system tending to channel votes back to the major parties. We would do well, then, to consider what might be possible with a proportional system of voting that better aligns the number of votes cast with the number of seats allocated on the floor of the House. And we might also consider the idea of institutionalising the methodology of community engagement used by the Voices Of model and allow citizens chosen by sortition to involve themselves in policy negotiations at the highest level.

As the new parliament prepares for its first sitting, we citizens and our newly elected, unprecedently diverse representatives need to seize the moment.





Tim Dunlop is Melbourne-based writer and his new book, Voices of Us will be out in November through NewSouth Books. He writes regularly about such issues at his Future of Everything website & newsletter.

Main image credit: Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Tim Dunlop, Democracy, Australia



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Existing comments

We do indeed need to seize the moment and insist that our elected representatives don't forget that they are just that : our representatives.
The work towards a more just and healthy Australia for all citizens and our place as a global citizen needs constant effort and positive review.

Jan Wright | 23 June 2022  

Australia's democracy and our electoral system seem to have worked well enough to give a majority of seats in the Lower House to Labor and to ensure a Senate where they can pass essential legislation. Climate 200, by providing much needed funding for 'teal candidates' ensured some stunning defeats of senior Coalition candidates, including Dave Sharma and Josh Frydenberg, both formerly touted as future Prime Ministers. The seats won by the Teals were classic Liberal heartland seats and show the disenchantment of the educated classes with the Coalition, which is particularly ominous for the decimated Liberal Party. Labor is now in the honeymoon phase and needs to deliver, which I think it will. There is always a steep learning curve for a new government, particularly one which has been out of office for a long time. Labor needs to stick with substance, such as establishing a National Independent Crime Commission, with all the necessary checks and balances, rather than making empty, meaningless gestures. I think it has the leadership and personnel to do so.

Edward Fido | 23 June 2022  

how do we fix the problem in Queensland where the current Government is breaking all of the rules, doing favours for its mates, and failing to disclose all of the deals it is making to hide glaring mistakes

BERNIE TRESTON | 24 June 2022  

Had an interesting afternoon standing at a street stall in Leura trying to get people to sign a petition to the new Immigration minister asking him to honour Labor's election pledges about refugees and their plight. I was amazed by the vitriol directed at the pervious PM, and his lack of integrity and compassion (despite claiming to be a Christian). But many also acknowledged the need to basically "keep the bastards honest" and were very happy to sign. We need to keep the pressure up.

Erik Hoekstra | 24 June 2022  
Show Responses

I'm not surprised, Erik, at the vitriol that you observed directed toward the previous PM. But you're right, the return of the Labor government, no matter how welcome in the wake of the sneeze and dishonesty of the previous administration, is not the coming of the Kingdom of God on Earth and we need to hold the new government to the same standards by which we judged the last.

Ginger Meggs | 26 June 2022  

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