As Australians, we have become used to isolation from currents of change around the globe. In the case of the world’s recent populist tsunamis, we shouldn’t be so confident.
Since federation, the major parties’ voter share has fallen below 75% on only two occasions, both major realignments — in 1934, following the labour party split, and in 1944, preceding the creation of the liberal party. The two-party share at the last general election was 76.77%. Current polling data has it at 72%.
Should such a realignment occur, attempts to analyse it by the intelligentsia will inevitably miss the point. One can see this overseas. For example, British Philosopher AC Grayling has proposed a solution in ‘compulsory civic education’ and tougher broadcasting rules — appearing to blame the idiocy of the mere masses for exercising their democratic rights.
Not only is Grayling’s attitude ahistorical, it also exhibits a type of elitism that can cause reactionary politics. Such attitudes remind one of the admiration the British progressive intelligentsia had for the planned economy. Similarly, such views contradict two centuries of democracy enduring alongside ill-educated populations and vulgar demagogues — India and Brazil come to mind.
Democracy — like the ecosystem of the market, allows the greedy, the irrational, and the selfish to function towards the greater good. However, this depends on underlying institutional structures — which currently are in a process of decay. As such, responsible government requires a return to fundamentals: participation, accountability, and the rule of law.
Thus, our politics needs a great rebalancing. Party procedures such as preselection should be opened up not just to members but to the general public. The size of cabinet should be reduced and conscience votes should be increased. Staffer positions — sinecures for party loyalists — must be dramatically reduced in number and their functions taken on by parliament and the public service. Ensuring the rule of law involves an effective constitutional scrutineer and executor. As such, the public service, senate, and judiciary need secure and impartial tenure, while largely deferring to the democratic will.
Institutional reform is often ignored because it requires politicians to sacrifice their powers. But the price of ignorance may well be the end of our idyllic isolation.
Terence Duggan is an intern at the Centre for Independent Studies.
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