Ideas@TheCentre brings you ammunition for conversations around the table. 3 short articles from CIS researchers emailed every Friday on the issues of the week.
One contentious issue that has many motivated activists, but received relatively little attention from politicians in the election campaign, is the adequacy of Newstart as a welfare payment.
It has been presented as a moral challenge: that a wealthy society should do more for those in poverty. The rate of Newstart has also been negatively contrasted with the rate of the age pension, as the Newstart payment is far lower.
So why has this campaign received relatively little support — even from Labor, which has merely promised a review post-election?
First, voters aren’t highly motivated by it. The fact there is so little support politically for the campaign itself is evidence that raising Newstart is a relatively low priority for voters.
Moreover, in many ways, the question of whether one could ‘live’ on the base rate of new start misses the point.
Though much attention is focused on the long-term unemployed who ‘live’ on Newstart, most people still transition on and off the payment within 12 months.
Which means for the average Newstart recipient it functions largely as it was intended to: as a short term transition payment, supplemented by savings and credit — not a payment designed to be lived off for several years.
In some ways, the design of Newstart as a transition payment reflects the historical perspective that long-term unemployment was primarily a moral failing.
Particularly for men, the expectation was that you would be employed for the overwhelming majority of your working life; and if you become unemployed, you would diligently and rapidly secure new employment.
This attitude persists today and — though not as correct as once it was due to the emergence of involuntary unemployment as a more significant issue — it persists because there are elements of truth in it. These elements are never addressed, other than disparagingly, by those bent on increasing the welfare state.
Of course, it may be that ACOSS and others campaigning on Newstart convince the next government to raise the base rate. However, given how long the current campaign has lasted — without success — it may be that a new approach is needed.
This means, even though there are good reasons not to view welfare in moral terms, as long as the campaign to increase Newstart is itself couched in moral terms, those promoting it must address the moral conflicts.
They need to acknowledge the genuine moral concerns at the heart of the adequacy of welfare, rather than pretending the only moral approach is to spend more and tax more.
The Queensland government has announced it will ban junk food advertising at government-owned sites such as train stations and bus stops.
The Brisbane Times reported, “Foods will be ruled in or out based on their salt, sugar and fat content”. This is a perfectly common sense definition of junk food. Or is it?
Recently, Transport for London banned the advertising of junk food across their network. They defined junk food as drinks or food “…high in fat, sugar and salt…” Sound familiar?
This definition has the London censors in a bit of an (advertising approved) pickle.
An organic home-delivery service, Farmdrop, had to remove butter, jam, eggs and bacon from their advertisements because it did not comply with the new rules.
Even more absurdly, an ad for Wimbledon showing the event’s iconic strawberries and cream was also deemed a violation.
However, an advertisement for a high-fat, high-salt curry was allowed because it contained words, not images.
Foods generally regarded as healthy could easily fall foul of the new UK standards. Olive oil is high in fat but is an integral part of the popular Mediterranean diet — a diet whose health benefits have been spruiked by The British Heart Foundation, and Diabetes UK.
Moreover, nutrition advice is constantly changing. The day of the week seems to determine whether eggs are good or bad for you, likewise for the health benefits of red wine.
Banning advertisements based on a vague definition of ‘junk food’ is nuts. Oh, wait… nuts are high in salt, so probably not allowed.
Perhaps Queensland will not succumb to the same problems as London. But considering their remarkably similar definitions of ‘junk food’, we should be concerned about parallel arbitrary and nonsensical outcomes.
To adapt Churchill’s phrase, a state trying to ban itself to good health is like a man standing in a McDonalds ordering a salad.
Public policy is a field where you soon learn that no matter the soundness of your evidence, the perceptiveness of your analysis, and the insightfulness of your ideas concerning furthering the public good, your policy recommendations can struggle to gain traction.
This is a field in which it is easy to lose one’s faith in democracy.
So it is with some sympathy that I note the publication of a new report by a collection of concerned organisations and citizens, which proposes 15 ideas for Reforming Our Democracy.
The proposed reforms are intended to help restore trust in a political system that is perceived to be failing badly and which is unfit for meeting the national challenges the nation faces.
The view that our democracy has reached something of a crisis point (necessitating substantive changes to established practices) may be somewhat understandable — inspired as it is by the sclerotic and reform-shy political events in Canberra over the last decade.
However, it is important to keep any talk about a contemporary ‘crisis in democracy’ in perspective by remembering that it has ever been thus — and that such complaints are as old and as perennial as democracy itself.
It is also important to ensure the kind of reforms that might be contemplated target the right problems concerning the factors contributing to a loss of trust in our public life — a loss of trust I would argue stems from the social and cultural polarisation evident in many western countries, including Australia.
My perspective on the subject of democracy and its complaints has been shaped by the fact that before I became a public policy researcher, my formal qualifications were in history. For my PhD, I studied the history of Australian liberalism from Federation until after the Great War.
What my thesis traced were the hopes that liberals like Alfred Deakin, and other federal fathers, held for a higher spirit of citizenship in Federated Australia.
What they hoped would develop was a greater democracy in which the people would transcend the selfish vices of factionalism, sectionalism and parochialism, and instead pursue the national interest through the free and representative institutions of the new Commonwealth.
Unfortunately, what the story ultimately became was about how political events cruelled the idealism that had animated high hopes for Australian democracy — which to liberal minds, appeared to manifest all the vices and few of the virtues of good citizenship and the wise pursuit of the public good.
But I only really understood the bitterness of the liberal’s disappointment when I started working in public policy.
It is very tempting to self-pityingly attribute this to the inherent vices of our democratic system and to question democracy’s merits by doubting the wisdom of the crowd of voters that refuses to heed your excellent advice.
But at least my occasional indulgence in such unworthy sentiments is always tempered by the knowledge that such is democracy; because, as the saying goes, all political careers — especially of humble think tankers — end in failure, for that is the nature of politics.
But in recent times — as the Reforming Our Democracy report tends to bear out — there has been a more concerted questioning of democracy. This was particularly — and quite alarmingly — highlighted by something that recently passed my desk from another think tank, which in the name of updating our political system, talked seriously about handing over important policy decisions to independent — that is, unelected — bodies.
I think the questioning of democracy arises from a particular contemporary social, cultural and political context, and is a response to the shock results that democracy has recently produced in western nations.
This includes not only the election of President Donald Trump in the US and the victory of Leave in the UK Brexit referendum but also the rise of populist parties across many European nations that have displaced the hitherto establishment or natural governing parties.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that the lack of faith in democracy, and much of the talk about democratic ‘crisis’, has come from the left; disaffected by democratic results that are not viewed as sufficiently progressive.
I don’t subscribe to the conventional view that Australian democracy is in crisis. But that this view exists raises some important questions about politics and government in a democratic society.
What the existence of this view reflects is the polarisation between elites and so-called ordinary voters along social, educational, and geographical lines.
This polarisation occurs along a progressive vs conservative axis on contentious issues, and not only regarding policy subjects such as energy and immigration.
It also extends to divisions over fundamental freedoms of speech and religion, and foundational liberal-democratic principles such as equality under the law and equality of opportunity.
If this analysis is right, then the question it raises is whether democracy is broken because western societies have become too polarised on a range of divisive questions to generate the consensus and consent that democracies rely on to function freely and effectively.
The ramifications are important with respect to the capacity of our democratic institutions to create the level of trust — between political class elites and the broader electorate — that is required to deliver the leadership needed to address the national challenges we face.
If we face a democratic crisis, I believe this is its true nature.
These are pertinent issues for Australians to contemplate, given a general sense of despair about the inability of successive federal governments to deliver effective national leadership.
A 2018 national survey conducted by the Museum of Australian Democracy and the University of Canberra found satisfaction with Australia’s democracy has more than halved between 2007 and 2018.
This is undoubtedly a reflection of the leadership turmoil that has engulfed both Labor and the Coalition since the defeat of the Howard Government in 2007.
The current federal government is highly likely to lose in May for the same reason as the previous Labor government: politicians who have made it all about themselves, and not the people they are meant to serve, will again be punished by the voters with whom they have broken trust.
So I don’t want to suggest that polarisation here is on US or European scale. There are several reasons why not: one is the 28 years of unbroken economic growth Australia has experienced; another is that immigration is not the disruptive issue it is elsewhere due to the Australian government maintaining control of the borders.
Australian democracy also has unique features that minimise the potential for disruption: compulsory voting and compulsory preferential voting means that many swinging voters do their civic duty by first preferencing one of the major parties and that all voters end up having to preference one or other of the majors.
But we shouldn’t ignore the rise of minor parties. Nor the fact that at the 2016 federal election, nearly 40% of voters didn’t vote for the majors: 24% voted for minor parties and independents, 5% voted informally, and 9% didn’t even turn up to vote.
But these signs of apparent disenchantment with politics being ‘business as usual’ are not grounds to undertake structural renovations of our democratic framework.
Rather than a new democratic crisis, we are facing an old political problem of politicians being on the nose and out of touch with significant parts of the electorate.
The good news, therefore, is that in a democracy this problem — and the lack of trust in politics — might be ultimately self-correcting when political reality dawns.
Depending on how political elites respond, this correction need not result in disruption, if it is realised that the salvation of democracy — and the saving of the political establishment — lies in applying the simplest rules of retail politics and seeking to represent the views and values of the electorate better.
We don’t need structural changes that give us less democracy; what we need is more genuinely representative democracy.
So the one structural change I would be inclined to support is the democratisation of the major political parties to make the political class more representative of the electorate.
If there were, say, democratic plebiscites of party members for pre-selection, several improvements might follow.
Firstly, it would be worth joining political parties once members had real power and authority over their direction.
It would also open up the political class to preselected and then elected candidates who do not tread the now standard career treadmill of student politics to MP advisor to a spell in a government relations job and then to entering parliament.
It would also ensure that MPs have to ensure their views and values are more aligned with a broader mass of voters inside their parties — and that the successful candidates are likely to have the retail political skills that are most needed in our parliaments.
Party democracy would also be a check on the leadership ‘game of thrones’ — especially if membership-wide ballots also elected party leaders.
Most of those who talk about the crisis of democracy believe the problem is that ordinary voters don’t think like elites.
But the real problem is that political elites don’t think enough like ordinary voters — and that party democratisation would reduce polarisation, and also the trust and leadership gap in Australian democracy.
Jeremy Sammut is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies. This is an edited version of a speech originally delivered at the RSA ANZ forum on ‘Ideas for a More Productive Politics’ in Sydney.