Friday, 23 January 2015

Is Our Federal Government Democracy's Weakest Link?

by Dino Cesta, Online Opinion:

Public institutions help build and protect the fabric of a democracy. But they can also contribute to democracy's downfall.

Democracy's strength is dependent on the health of public institutions forming the foundational pillars of our society.

And human nature is the essential ingredient within society's institutions, which sweeten or sour the experience of democracy, influencing its trajectory to prosperity or unravel to its fatal demise!

How does the heart of Australia's public institutions - the Federal Government - fare in building and protecting democracy's fabric?

Poll results published by the Australian National University's Social Research Centre (ANU-SRC) in "Changing Views of Governance" in August 2014, offers an insight into this question.

The ANU-SRC Poll reveals that when it comes to 'Confidence in Institutions', Australians have a reasonably healthy confidence in its Defence Forces (40%), Police Force (31%), and University System (26%). Australians' confidence in its Legal System, Public Service, and Banking System is much less resounding with each institution receiving 14% respectively.

Of much greater concern are citizens' anaemic level of confidence in the institutions of Churches, Unions, and Federal Parliament, receiving an abysmal 11%, 6%, and 6% respectively.

And on 'Attitudes to Democracy', the ANU-SRU Poll also measured the public's level of satisfaction and trust with Australia's democratic system. The Poll shows satisfaction with democracy peaking in 2007 at 86% with the election of the Rudd Labor Government.

However, since 2007, the Poll reveals satisfaction declining to 72%. This decline is attributable to the turbulent Rudd-Gillard leadership battles destabilising the governing of the nation, and the perception of the Gillard-led Labor minority Government being ineffectual for governing and resulting in poor policy outcomes.

Following the 2013 Abbott Coalition victory, satisfaction levels remained stagnant. And I suspect post the Poll, this satisfaction level has likely declined further due to Australians' dissatisfaction with the Abbott Government's policy backflips and broken promises, particularly in regards to education, health, our national public broadcaster, and the unpopular and inequitable measures announced in its first federal budget. And the Government is not even half way through its first term!

When it comes to the questions of citizens influencing political outcomes through voting, and that whoever is in Government can make a difference in people's and community's lives, the ANU-SRU results again reflect eroding confidence in our political system.

Compared to 70% in 1996, in 2014 only 56% believe their vote made a difference. And a dismal 43% believe it made a difference on who is in power compared to 2007 where the figure stood at 68%.

Describing the low standing of Australia's politicians, corruption crusader Tony Fitzgerald QC wrote a piece titled 'The Body Politic is Rotten' in The Australian in 2012, noting that politicians have a low opinion of each other, which "... includes … lying, cheating, deceiving, rorting, bullying, rumour-mongering, back-stabbing, slander, leaking, dog whistling, nepotism and corruption." Is it any wonder Australians continue to have a low regard of their political masters!

John Adams, the second President of the United States noted, "Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There is never a democracy that did not commit suicide."

Is it premature to surmise that based on these Poll results, Australia's politicians, the central builders and protectors of the pillars of a democracy, are subtly and unwittingly undermining its foundation and risk in time that self-inflicted fatal wound which Adams proclaims?

Recently, Australia's parliamentary leaders have escalated the threat of homegrown terrorism. But are politicians found guilty of corruption, who do not behave with accountability, integrity, and transparency, or break election campaign policy promises, in the same class as home-grown terrorists jeopardising Australia's democratic way of life?

What initiatives can rebuild and strengthen the confidence and attitudes of citizens specifically toward the public institution of the Australian Parliament, and thereby democracy?

1. Parliamentarian Code of Conduct

All Members elected to Australia's Parliament must adhere to a strict and legally binding Code of Conduct, establishing non-negotiable public standards of openness, accountability, ethics, and integrity.

An independent body should develop the Code, which include members of the community and chaired, for example, by an Independent Commissioner of Parliamentary Integrity or by the head of a Federal Anti-Corruption Watchdog. Having Members of Parliament draft their own Code is akin to giving prisoners the keys to their jail cell, and will be met with suspicion and cynicism by citizens.

An Independent Commissioner of Parliamentary Integrity or a Federal Anti-Corruption Watchdog could oversee the Code, investigate breaches, and initiate prosecution where a Member of Parliament breaches the Code.

2. Federal Anti-Corruption Watchdog

To ensure the protection of public trust and strengthen confidence in our democracy, a Federal level Independent Commission Against Corruption must be established. This must be seen as a public interest, not a political based interest, and aimed at restoring faith in the public institution of Federal Parliament.

The Federal 'watchdog' should handle corrupt conduct across all aspects of Government and parliamentary administration, including Federal parliamentarians, the Federal public sector, including government agencies, and the judiciary.

To deny, as Prime Minister Abbott has, that issues of corruption raised at the NSW ICAC does not apply at the Federal level, shows his apathy toward the community's views and you could be forgiven for thinking there is something to hide.

3. Election Commitments

At election time, politicians announce policy commitments. Politicians have a tendency to make statements, promises, or commitments for the sole purpose of being elected and do not always intend fulfilling them. Trust in our elected representatives is thereby severely compromised.

An option for consideration is that all political parties must have all election policy commitments scrutinised and verified by an independent body a minimum three months out from an election.

This provides sufficient time to assess whether individual policies and the package of policies are fully costed and funded, and voters are better-informed and better abled to make a decision on polling day. Further, policy positions should be categorised as either core or non-core.

Policies in the core category are non-negotiable and the elected Government has the right to automatically legislate and pass such policies. For example, a maximum of five core policies are permitted in each term of office.

Citizens will clearly know where parties stand on core policies and will vote accordingly. This ensures the incoming Government has a stronger mandate in fulfilling their core election policy commitments instead of the political posturing as to whether a Government has a mandate on particular policy issues.

This approach will raise the engagement of citizens, be better informed of candidates and political parties positions in and leading up to an election, and a Government can more effectively implement their key policies.

4. Election Funding

Australia's political system is becoming increasingly Americanised, in which the wealthy few can dictate and swing an election result or even specific and sensitive policy issues, such as the mining or carbon tax.

Consideration must be given to an equitable publicly funded model for election campaigns. However, non-tax deductible individual private donations are permitted up to an accumulative maximum, for example $10,000 annually, with full public disclosure of donations required.

Every donation must be accounted for and crosschecked against election campaign activities, which will improve the transparency of donations made to parties or individual candidates.

Having some form of public funded model reduces the influence of money within the political system and creates a greater level playing field at election time. This also allows political parties to focus more time on substantive development of public policies.

This will also hope to minimise the risk of political parties being 'bought' on certain policy matters and policies being developed more on merit and in the public interest than private interests.

5. Fixed Terms

To provide greater stability and certainty during the political cycle, terms of Government should be fixed. For instance, a four-year term should be the 'norm' with the election date set in concrete.

This offers Government more time to implement longer-term focused policy commitments and reduce the likelihood of economic decisions developed in accordance with the current ad-hoc political cycle. This should also improve business confidence and greater stability in their investment decisions.

There will be fewer elections, cost savings by staging fewer elections, greater certainty for voting citizens, and greater stability within the public service in serving the Government.

6. Representation

There should be a time limit as to the period an individual remains in Parliament. The maximum term for a Prime Minister should be capped at, for example, two terms, or eight years. The maximum term for a Member of Parliament should also be capped at, say, three terms or twelve years, unless elected Prime Minister in which case the two terms start afresh.

This helps in constantly refreshing our democracy with new people, new visions, and ideas for the betterment of our society.

For Australia to thrive as a shining light of democracy, we must strengthen our public institution of Federal Government. The proposals may be considered politically unpalatable, but it is the long-term health of Australia's democracy, which is at stake.

Do we prefer to re-nourish and nurture a system, though not perfect, has outlasted other systems of Government over the centuries, and given its people economic, social and cultural prosperity? Or do we prefer to behave drunkenly toward the timeless values, which are at the heart of democracy?

The interconnected chain of our public institutions is only as strong as its weakest link! With Federal Government as potentially our weakest link, only time will tell whether we have chosen the former, or fulfilled the latter and Adam's death wish!

About the Author

Dino Cesta is a freelance communicator of thoughts, opinions and ideas on politics, economic and social issues and public policy. Cofounder of the non-profit organisation Hand in Hand Arthouse, and the Newcastle Italian Film Festival, Dino graduated with a Bachelor of Economics and Master of Politics and Public Policy. You can follow Dino on View from the Obelisk or Twitter on @dinoc888

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