How can we fix our broken political system?

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How do you feel about politics? Do you see politicians as accessible, trustworthy and competent, or just the opposite? Do you feel that they are acting in our best interests, or that they are serving a select few?

Lower house federal parliament (Sam Mooy/Getty Images)

If you are feeling disengaged and cynical about our political system, it turns out that you are in the majority. And that is concerning.

The Australian Election Study (AES) has been running out of the Australian National University, surveying voters and political candidates on a range of issues relating to elections and politics in Australia since 1987. They ask people questions about policy priorities, party affiliation, leadership popularity, voting choices, and their trust in politics.

In their most recent survey, conducted after the 2019 Australian federal election, the AES found that trust in the political system was stuck in a pattern of serious decline, with just 59 per cent of respondents being satisfied with democracy, just 25 per cent believing people in government can be trusted, and just 12 per cent believing the government is run for ‘all the people’ (with 56 per cent asserting instead ‘that the government is run for ‘a few big interests’). As the AES comment in their report, ‘[t]hat so few people believe the government is run for the Australian people, presents a serious challenge for a representative democracy.’

It really does, doesn’t it?

Out of curiosity, I recently asked people on Twitter if they’d ever considered running for parliament, and if they had but hadn’t actually run, what had stopped them. The responses were enlightening, and depressing.

 

'So, how do we improve our political system? How do we recover public trust and perceptions of accessibility? Better yet, how do we actually increase integrity, responsiveness and inclusivity in politics?'

 

Quite a few people commented that section 44 was a key barrier, in light of their dual-citizenship, which is kind of interesting in light of how many politicians were recently caught out by this very provision. A significant number cited personal scrutiny and attacks, including by the Murdoch media, as a huge deterrent, especially due to the potential impact of this on their families. This was exacerbated for many by a widespread belief that these attacks display a persistent and ugly seam of misogyny, racism and other discriminatory attitudes.

Many people cited their alienation from the two-party system and belief that the need to ‘toe the party line’ required politicians to compromise their core values and behave dishonestly. Related to this was the common perception that the barriers to entry were too high and that they lacked the money, time and networks to be able to participate, especially if they wanted to run as Independents.

Reflecting the broader trend documented by the AES, some people expressed a deep cynicism in our political system and its capacity to create real change. As one person commented, ‘The system is so bogged down in corruption that I know for fact that there is literally nothing I could do internally to change it.’

Others emphasised what they believed to be a toxic culture in parliament, with one commenting wryly, ‘I’m in a house with two tantrum throwing preschoolers. Why would I want to be in a House with 150 of them?’ Related to this was concern around the impact on their families from the working hours and time away in Canberra. One person commented, ‘I attended the same ballet school as a Federal MP’s daughter and he only made it to one end of year concert in 6 or 7 years (and was so delighted to) — it's just too hard on family life.’

It’s tempting to shrug our shoulders in response to all this, but widespread distrust and dissatisfaction in politics and democracy has very real consequences. When governments lose public trust, it can often affect the legitimacy that people accord to our public and social institutions. Against this backdrop, the rise in popularism, claims to ‘sovereign citizenship’, and other such reactions make a lot more sense. There’s nothing quite like a public health crisis to highlight the importance of a well-functioning government or of public trust. Similarly, it is clear that individual action will not be enough to tackle the climate crisis. We desperately need a government who will put our future and the future of our planet ahead of the vested interests that donate so much to their campaigns.

So, how do we improve our political system? How do we recover public trust and perceptions of accessibility? Better yet, how do we actually increase integrity, responsiveness and inclusivity in politics?

Some people have suggested that a lottery system — also known as ‘sortition’ or ‘stochocracy’ — might do a better job than elections (see eg). It is thought to reduce corruption and create greater space for politicians to follow their conscience rather than a party line. The Athenians relied on sortition to select people (well, citizens who were men over 30) to serve as magistrates for one year, believing that it helped to ensure that government was run by ordinary people rather than a select few. This is a system that is still used today for both common law jury selection and citizens’ assemblies.

Critics have argued that sortition is likely to result in the selection of people who are not sufficiently competent to do their job, not representative of the population, unaccountable to the public, and lacking in both enthusiasm and legitimacy. There may be some truth to these criticisms, but I wonder if the same could not be said of our current system?

Democracy 2025 have proposed a number of other ideas for reform, and report that the following have proved popular:

'limiting money donated to parties and spent in elections; the right for voters to recall ineffective local MPs; giving all MPs a free vote in parliament; co-designing policies with ordinary Australians; and citizen juries to solve complex problems that parliament can’t fix.'

All of these ideas seem to offer something of a solution to the problems people have identified with our current system. Limiting donations and political advertising should help to reduce both real and perceived corruption. On a related note, there also seems to be strong public support for the introduction of a federal ICAC.

 

'It really does seem past time that ordinary Australian were given a stronger role in policy making, and one of the benefits of the suggested citizen juries is that it would be one way of experimenting with sortition without the need for fundamental reform.'

 

Being able to recall ineffective local MPs and to ensure that all MPs have a free vote in parliament, seems to address the belief that there is currently a lack of accountability and that the two-party system is limiting the capacity of politicians to both follow their conscience and serve their electorates. We could also address these issues by reducing the power of the two-party system itself.

One option here would be to introduce multi-member electorates for the Lower House. This would mean that candidates with strong local support would not need to secure a full majority of (preferential) votes to serve in parliament and would likely increase the diversity amongst our representatives. Alongside this, we would need to do something to reduce the personal attacks on politicians — especially of anyone who isn’t an able-bodied, wealthy, white man.

Finally, it really does seem past time that ordinary Australian were given a stronger role in policy making, and one of the benefits of the suggested citizen juries is that it would be one way of experimenting with sortition without the need for fundamental reform.

Of course, it may be that our current parliament is not particularly committed to supporting these reforms. They would certainly disrupt the status quo and all those who currently benefit from it. But that shouldn’t stop us from demanding them.

 

 

Cristy ClarkDr Cristy Clark is a senior lecturer with the Faculty of Business, Government and Law at the University of Canberra. Her work focuses on the intersection of human rights, neoliberalism, activism and the environment, and particularly on the human right to water.

Main image: (Sam Mooy/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Cristy Clark, auspol, democracy, politics, Australian Election Study

 

 

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Existing comments

Good thinking, why not look at systems that work? After all, any system has its critics! Have a look at the Swiss system with their options of Initiatives and Referendums
Peter | 27 August 2020


It seems to me that our current parliamentarians couldn't possibly be representative of the whole of Australia's population as most, if not all, seem to me to belong to the financial elite. I tend to agree with the 'modified sortition' idea, although with a couple of caveats - all donations to political parties over $2,000 to be publically registered, and a body to keep a check that member's votes are actually free and that there is no internal coercion from the party to 'toe the party line'. And an ICAC is essential.
Richard | 27 August 2020


The system merely reflects what we, the electorate, think matters enough to get involved with. Only Jesus Christ can fix our hearts: fix them, we fix the system.
Steven Etherington | 27 August 2020


"Alongside this, we would need to do something to reduce the personal attacks on politicians — especially of anyone who isn’t an able-bodied, wealthy, white man." ... do you realise how sexist this comment is ? do you realise that this would also threaten free speech ? ... after the disgraceful Victorian legal system jailed an Archbishop on hearsay and Daniel Andrews corrupt and incompetent public servants held all Victorians down with a knee on their throats ... we would certainly not expect any sort of clear thinking on this matter from a leftist foot soldier employed by the University of Canberra.
Patrick McCauley | 27 August 2020


Every system has its flaws and possibility of corruption. What is needed is for a sense of decency to be considered an important trait for all of us. For people to want to represent from an ethical standpoint rather than a self interested one. I look at the mess AMP has become. AMP was formed by business leaders and religious ministers to provide for widows. For over 100 years it had strong core values which were slowly whittled away. We need to become vigilant and vocal for all our institutions. Jorie
Jorie Ryan | 27 August 2020


Cristy, voters have chronically poor information on which to base a vote, even if they read a number of newspapers. Voters cast a vote on how the economy 'seems' to be going, rather than getting strong simple graphical information. The decline in our economy on almost all measures has been as spectacular as that of Trump's America over the time of this government. As a result we vote blind on gut instinct or habit and thereby encourage mediocrities and duds to rule us.
Robert | 27 August 2020


There are several cancers on the Australian democracy. The greatest relates to political party donations. There should be an absolute cap of maybe $1000-$2000 from any person to a political party, and an absolute ban on donations from companies or organisations. A federal ICAC of the NSW type should be created. A truly independent arbitrator should act to stop taxpayer funded government advertising in the run-up to elections when it constitutes party political advertisement.
Llew Davies | 27 August 2020


It is the lack of diversity of experience and a predominance of Arts-Law majors who have only ever worked in politics and demonstrate time after time a complete lack of understanding of the poor man's problems and even less concern about the health of the environment we all depend on, which frustrates me. All of the parties have alienated me. There is no one I feel I can vote for with a clear conscience. How to fix it? Cut party donations to limit outside influence. No minister can hold a portfolio that they are not competent to hold such as the science minister must be a science graduate etcetera. There needs to be greater inclusion of people with lived experience of disability and manual labour and poverty on parliamentary advisory boards, with direct access to those who decide on issues affecting their future, if not such persons should be sitting in parliament itself.
Anna | 28 August 2020


Patrick McCauley, when I said "especially of anyone who isn’t an able-bodied, wealthy, white man" I was referring to the fact that these people are on the receiving end of more personal attacks and would therefore need more targeted protections, not that attacks on able-bodied wealthy white men should be personally attacked.
Cristy | 28 August 2020


The comments generally seem to indicate that a return to Christian principles is what is needed, while accepting that such principles are found in many not of formal Christian adherence and absent in many of nominal Christian adherence.
john frawley | 28 August 2020


First we need to start with educating the populace about politics, then improve TV programs which are dumbing down the population and we must insist that politicians stop mud slinging and provide proper manifestos. If they base their campaign on character assassination, then we do not elect them. We the people must take back our power and demand the politicians do the right thing or we simply do not reelect them
Alice Phua | 29 August 2020


“common law jury selection.” One’s faith in sortitioning depends on one’s faith in the jury system, not in criminal law but in civil law, where the issues are as dense and tedious as the mechanics of government administration. The fact that civil law juries are rarely seen suggests that sortitioning, too, should rarely be seen. Sortitioning only looks democratic. As can be seen from two practical applications of it, criminal law jury and national service, the end result is compulsion. If sortitioning for state leaders worked in Athens, it was because the top guys didn't mind a year's vacation from business and because Athens was a night watchman state, not the sort of state that a progressive would think suitable for today. What this article is really complaining about is that the present political system isn’t implementing ideas that are dear to the author. The answer is to seat third parties in the chamber with the power to set the budget or increase diversity inside the default governing parties. Otherwise, sortitioning is equivalent to defunding the police and replacing them with people’s guardians.
roy chen yee | 31 August 2020


Alice Phua's comment is pertinent. I think it was the late Winston Churchill who said something to the effect that our type of Westminster democracy was not perfect but was probably the best sort of system of governance, given human imperfection and corruptibility. It is indeed not the system but the way it is sometimes gamed by cynical players that is the fault.
Edward Fido | 31 August 2020


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