Who would you trust? – By Kaye Lee

 

Every time I hear party mouthpieces like Dutton and Morrison tell me what Australian people want, what we “know”, I have to fight an overwhelming urge to scream.

What the Australian people know is that the body politic is rotten.

In December 2012, retired judge and anti-corruption campaigner, Tony Fitzgerald, wrote a scathing article in the Australian where he warned that “politicians’ mutual contempt and aggressive, ‘end justifies the means’ amorality erodes respect for authority and public institutions and compromises social cohesion.”

He went on to say that political parties often “attract professional politicians with little or no general life experience and unscrupulous opportunists, unburdened by ethics, who obsessively pursue power, money or both.”

Little-known and often unimpressive factional leaders exert disproportionate influence. Under their guidance, the major parties have consolidated their grip on political finance, the political process and political power. As a result of their own parliamentary decisions, parties are publicly funded without a binding reciprocal obligation to act in the public interest. The power of these few, surprisingly small, unregulated groups is for now impregnable. For the foreseeable future, they will dominate public discussion and debate, effectively control Australia’s democracy and determine its destiny.

That might be tolerable if the major parties acted with integrity but they do not. Their constant battles for power are venal, vicious and vulgar. The mantra “whatever it takes” is part of political folklore. Parties equate their interest to the national interest, which they assume is best served by their ideology and its benefits for the like-minded.

Populism, paranoia and unrealistic expectations are encouraged and the naive and gullible are made envious, resentful and disdainful of fellow Australians.

This view is shared by many others.

Ted Mack, in his Henry Parkes Oration on The State of the Federation, expressed similar disillusionment.

As things stand Australian democracy consists of voting in a rigged system every few years to elect others to make decisions for us. The voters mostly know little or nothing about most candidates after the “faceless men” and “branch stackers” have had their way. We are rarely permitted to have any say on policies. Cabinet ministers, premiers and prime ministers come and go without reference to us. We go to war and sign treaties without even our parliament having a say let alone the public. When the major parties agree, as they do when funding themselves, and their mutual friends, we have no say whatsoever. It is a pretty minimalist democracy and a long way from Abraham Lincoln’s Government of the people, BY the people, for the people.

We seem to have achieved “Government of the people, by the powerbrokers, for the mates”

Writing for the SMH, Phil Cleary questioned the neutrality of political appointees and discussed how we can restore confidence in our democracy.

Regrettably, so rife is partisanship and cronyism in public life that the system’s capacity to produce independent, objective thought on inquiries into corruption or malpractice is terminally compromised. How can the community have confidence in the findings of bodies such as royal commissions when those heading such inquiries are political appointees? This truth is brought into stark relief every time a new government is elected and the public service is cleansed of those considered political adversaries, and heads of statutory bodies who were appointed by the previous government are hounded into submission. What kind of democracy is it that calls for the resignation of the Human Rights Commissioner because she expresses dismay at the treatment of asylum seekers?

Many of us have called for a federal ICAC or integrity branch but there have been so many inquiries in the past that have made very little difference that it is hard to trust that politically appointed reviewers will actually achieve anything.

The usual, and sometimes intended, outcome is a flurry of superficial activity, appointment of a suitable group of other insiders to report, lengthy discussion of their report, considerable navel-gazing, a feel-good pronouncement and then business as usual.

Realistically, since politicians are unlikely to support any significant change which might reduce their power, genuine reform will be extremely difficult. However, it is not impossible if it is owned and driven by the community.

So what can we do?

We obviously need significant reform of political donations and electoral spending with real time disclosure.

Bans on political advertising should be considered.

Media ownership laws should be strengthened rather than watered down to give diversity in reporting.  Regulations should be strengthened to make sure reporting is factual.

Politicians should be banned for a period from taking up positions with companies with whom they dealt in their role in office.

The electorate should be better informed of the qualifications of candidates and vote accordingly rather than voting purely due to party allegiance.  This might force the parties to be more rigorous in their preselections.

But perhaps most importantly of all, we must liberate political appointments – from the public service to the heads of bodies designated with the task of protecting democratic rights – from the political parties.  We should have a panel that appoints royal commissioners, human rights commissioners, heads of the public service and ombudsmen.

Ted Mack points out the dangers of leaving these appointments in the hands of the two major parties.

Over the last 30 years politicians’ staff has increased dramatically. At federal level there are now some 17 hundred personal staff to ministers and members. The states probably account for over two thousand more. Add to this the direct political infiltration of federal-state public services and quangos with hundreds more jobs for the boys and girls, there is now a well-established political class.

This has provided the political parties with a career path for members. In many cases it often produces skilled, partisan, “whatever it takes” warriors with a richly rewarded life through local state and federal governments to a well-funded retirement.

If we were to have a panel to appoint people to the public service and statutory bodies based on merit rather than leaving it to the government of the day to make political appointments, who might be suitable candidates with the appropriate integrity, expertise, experience and altruism to be entrusted with the job?

Who would you trust?

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