A failure in democratic processes seems to be affecting Western countries, causing some concern about the integrity of democracy and its ongoing capacity to produce outcomes to the satisfaction of a majority of citizens.
I have written in previous essays that I had a concern that our elected representatives have lost touch with ordinary voters. There has for some time been undue emphasis on identity politics and political correctness to the exclusion of the day to day concerns of ordinary people. Last year, for example, our politicians spent an inordinate amount of time arguing about same-sex marriage, which polls have shown is not a dominant issue with voters.
Overseas, political commentators were surprised when British voters decided that they would prefer to exit the European Union, despite recommendations from their elected representatives to do otherwise. This surprise was quickly overwhelmed by the dismay of the American presidential election where an arrogant, bombastic political newcomer, Donald Trump defeated a high-profile career politician, Hillary Clinton, who commentators had previously thought would win in a canter.
Both of these events seemed to have different causes.
The so-called Brexit seemed to be motivated by a widespread feeling of a loss of sovereignty as significant decisions impacting Britain were being made by unelected EU officials. This seemed to be exacerbated by a loss of control of immigration and border control as Europe was deluged with refugees (most legitimate, but some, importantly, not) fleeing the Middle East.
Trump, on the other hand seemed to be able to tap into the disenchantment of low and middle class voters, who were struggling to find or protect their jobs and maintain their standard of living in the face of declining manufacturing industry in the USA and where real wages’ growth has effectively stagnated. Trump played on these fears to rail against free trade and immigration.
Although the two sets of circumstances were significantly different, what was common is that the disenchantment of voters was seemingly not apparent to most politicians nor political commentators.
We have known for some time that Australian voters were becoming increasingly disenchanted with the mainstream political parties. Both Labor and the Liberal/National Party Coalition have been facing declining first preference votes. In the vacuum that this has created, we find the rise of minor parties and independents. Under these circumstances it is becoming more and more difficult for parties to win an absolute majority in the parliament, but particularly the senate. Consequently it is nigh impossible for a government to legislate the promises made in any election campaign. Legislation is either stalled or extensively modified to suit the political interests of the minorities holding the balance of power.
Now it is easy to blame these dramatic political changes on the fact that mainstream politicians are too removed from their constituencies. Politicians, as I have written previously, might represent their electorates but they are not representative of their electorates. Increasingly those that represent us are career politicians. They rise through the ranks of their particular parties due to their ability to play the game of politics. Hence our parliamentarians gain preselection because of their political allegiances, their ability to gain the backing of those wielding political influence and their propensity to master the various political power games their parties indulge in. In the Labor party this largely requires support from the dominant unions. Hence those that make their way through the ranks to represent their electorates are not necessarily good representatives –they have merely mastered the political game.
The other factor contributing to this disconnect from the population at large, is the declining membership of our major political parties. As a result the parties have become “echo chambers” of the politically indoctrinated without real connections to ordinary citizens.
It is as a result of this disconnect that governments run off and do things that astound the citizenry at large, like introducing the Safe Schools program, promoting educational material that champions the idea that gender assignment is a discretionary activity, or perhaps just as obscenely, reinstating conventions enabling Prince Philip to be granted a knighthood.
So, yes a political class cut off from its constituency, is inclined to do dumb things. But surely this is not all the fault of the politicians, and we, the citizens, must also shoulder some of the responsibility.
If reasonable people, believing they are somehow disenfranchised, just turn their backs on politics, then things can only get worse. If we are to get better outcomes from politics then it is incumbent on us to engage more in the political processes. No doubt it would be helpful for more of us to belong to political parties. For that to happen the major parties need to be more democratic so that party members can feel they can make a difference. The major parties come across as a “closed shop” where the decisions that matter are made by an unrepresentative inner elite.
Now, if you are disinclined to belong to a political organisation (as indeed I am) it is important that at least you articulate your beliefs as strongly as possible. In the defence of politicians, how can you expect them to properly represent you unless they know how you think about important issues? And that is a two way street; just as they should be seeking out the opinions of the electors the electors should be upfront in communicating their desires and aspirations to the politicians.
It is often said that in polite conversation we should steer away from religion and politics. If we do that we relegate our discourse to the banal.
So, if our political processes are to be improved, it is essential that we all participate in one form or another.
But we as voters have to acquiesce to a higher ideal if we are to get the best outcomes out of politics. To do this we need to eschew instant gratification. We decry politicians for taking a populist stance, but many of us expect regular handouts. Much of what would benefit our country requires us to make an occasional sacrifice and often with results only emerging in the long term. (Three year parliamentary terms don’t help in that regard either.)
One of the reasons that voters are abandoning the major parties is that they don’t have a long term vision which they can clearly articulate to voters. Most of their platforms are built on a hodge-podge of disparate issues that are designed to secure short term votes by playing to the interests of minorities that they deem politically significant. It is not clear what they stand for and what their long-term visions for Australia are.
Above all, my belief is that the Government, in particular, needs to outline a plan for economic recovery. If we can regain an economy with reasonable rates of economic development, delivering real wages growth and improving standards of living, they will regain the favour of voters. The Government needs to convince us they have such a plan, explaining the benefits and not avoiding the short term pain that might need to be borne in achieving these outcomes.
If this is unachievable then we need to resign ourselves to Governments spending beyond our means in order to buy votes every election cycle. What’s more if the major parties can’t regain the confidence of the voters, then future governments will need to rely on difficult coalitions with minor parties and others who will want their pound of flesh leading to even more exorbitant demands on the public purse.
Unless the major parties can regain the confidence of voters, then it seems likely that we are facing a bleak political future indeed. If average citizens withdraw from the political process and if the major political parties don’t democratise and reform and attract broader membership, then that future seems inevitable.