Confidence in our political system has collapsed, as the internationally respected 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer records. Politicians usually justify our system of representative democracy by quoting Edmund Burke’s speech explaining that politicians are chosen by us for their judgement. They invariably omit his denunciation, in the very same speech, of what is now normal in Australia’s parliaments – ‘authoritative instructions; mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgment and conscience’.
Our founders designed a constitution for the peace, order and good government of the Commonwealth. They could hardly have anticipated that the emergence of the two party system would be followed by the introduction of Labor’s draconian caucus rule which ensures blind obedience, something which even Labor leader Joseph Cook slammed as the destruction of representative democracy. These days, more subtle controls effectively gag Liberal politicians with the laughable exception of so-called ‘conscience’ issues, headed by that ultimate treachery – breaking the oath of allegiance.
The next stage in this decline was the capture of the parties by cabals of powerbrokers, factional bosses and even lobbyists.
Politicians now increasingly come from a narrow class of political staffers and party or union officials chosen not for merit but for their allegiance to some powerbroker. Believing themselves to be masterminds, they are too often extraordinarily bereft of common sense.
This explains why it is impossible to name a problem today which, if it were not created by the politicians, has not been made worse by them. The range of policy failures is truly extraordinary – energy, education, immigration, water, criminal justice, superannuation, debt, the persecution of our farmers etc.
There is a solution to restore good government. This arises from a little known but crucially significant event in the history of our nation. This was the realisation in the nineteenth century that rather than being the ones who would achieve the formation of our country, it was the politicians who were blocking it. They did that when the British first proposed Federation. Even when it was too strong to resist, it became obvious that with their squabbling, Federation would never be achieved. We should therefore be eternally grateful that at a rank-and-file conference at Corowa in 1893, John Quick successfully argued that Federation should be taken out of the hands of the politicians and given to a directly elected convention.
His plan was radical – when the convention agreed on a constitution, this should be put to the people in a series of referendums. When the Corowa Plan was finally put into operation, including the time it took to put it through the British Parliament, the whole process to make us the one nation in the world to straddle a whole continent took less than four years. Today, we wouldn’t be able to build a dam in that time.
Australians must now insist on taking this current terrible mess out of the hands of politicians who created it. We must insist on the election of an unpaid constitutional convention – a convention not of the usual insiders but of outsiders. Their function would be to work out the fundamental reforms which would make the politicians truly accountable.
The solution surely is to empower the people, to give them a decent dose of direct democracy, just as the Swiss enjoy. The convention should consider the following reforms to restore our democracy – the 4R’s – to give us back our country; Return, Reform, Recall and Referendums.
The first R is a return to the strict federalist principles originally set out in the Constitution. The Twomey-Withers report commissioned by the premiers, but quickly filed away, strongly recommended a return to world best-practice federalism, just as our founders intended and the people approved. This, they calculated, would today save about $160 billion a year. Enough to pay off the debt in four years.
In addition, while it was expected at Federation that as the population grew, new states would emerge under the constitution, this has always been blocked. Why do we have such an excessive, expensive and unnecessary concentration of politicians in some of our state capitals? Why shouldn’t, for example, the people of North Queensland form the separate state that they seem to want?
The second R is the reform of the political parties by requiring that in return for the vast amount of financial and legal privileges they have awarded themselves, they be required to become open, transparent and democratic – just as they are in most comparable countries. One of the first steps would be to take away the election of the leader from the self-interested caucus and give it to all the members or even supporters of the party at large.
The third R refers to recall elections. Most of us are accountable in our work, as they say, 24/7. So why shouldn’t the politicians also be accountable 24/7? Several jurisdictions require a recall election if a prescribed percentage of voters sign a petition for that purpose. Such recall elections are not common; the fact that one is always possible does obviously encourage good performance.
The fourth R stands for referendums initiated by the people. Where a prescribed percentage of the people sign a petition supporting this, a mandatory referendum would be put to the people proposing a new law, the repeal of an existing law, the denunciation of a treaty or reviewing a court ruling. This is a regular feature of Swiss life and has significantly improved the governance of that country.
Australia is in a serious, even desperate position. The solution is to do what our predecessors did to achieve Federation – empower rank-and-file Australians, endowed with commonsense, to restore the good government of this Commonwealth.
A petition for a Convention of Outsiders can be seen at http://chn.ge/2yhuHqL