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Public governance, parliament and politics – the last frontier for innovation and reform?

By Vern Hughes - posted Tuesday, 9 April 2013

For more than a century, Australian political parties of both Right and Left have presided over a steady shift in power from individual citizens towards large corporate and state institutions.

In government, Labor and Liberal parties have administered legislative and regulatory regimes that favour large corporations over small business; providers over consumers; professionalised and incorporated entities over informal associations; government-funded agencies and commissions over self-help and mutual aid; and impersonal litigation-prone rules and regulations over personal and communal responsibilities.

As the administrators of these regimes, the two major political machines (Labor and Liberal) have become instruments through which powerful corporate, institutional and provider interests uphold and preserve their dominance over society.

As power has shifted from individual citizens to large institutions, the two major parties have ceased to be mass participation civic organisations. The membership of both Labor and Liberal parties is in sharp decline. In place of mass civic participation, both parties have developed a managerial culture in which an ever diminishing number of professional operatives use a combination of spin, media advertising, and corporate donations (largely property developers, gaming, and alcohol companies) to sway electoral opinion as required every three years in what the operatives now call the 'electoral cycle'.

A professional political class, comprising operatives in both machines, now acts like every other specialist professional group, erecting barriers to entry by non-specialists and non-professionals, and widening the gap between itself and the general citizenry. Membership of parliament is now largely restricted to union officials, political staffers and labour lawyers on the ALP side, and political staffers and commercial lawyers on the Liberal side. Both machines collaborated in 1923 to make voting compulsory to ensure that even the most disillusioned voters are still required to turn out and vote against the machine they dislike the most.

The result is that political power in Australia has become concentrated in the two major political machines in ways that would be unimaginable to the writers of the Commonwealth Constitution and the architects of the Westminster system of government. Parliament is no longer a forum for public decision-making - it has become simply a venue for the ruling political machine to announce its activities, and a venue for the opposing political machine to declare its opposition until the next election comes around.

None of this is unique to Australia. A comparable process has taken place in most western democracies over the past century. Political movements, governments and public policy have focussed almost exclusively on states and markets over this period, and ignored civil society (the sphere of life that is most important for most of us, most of the time).


Civil society comprises the relationships and activities that constitute our social lives, the things we do as civilians, freely and voluntarily, in association with others, outside the state and the market.

Civil society relationships are horizontal, relational and voluntary. State-citizen interactions are vertical and coercive. Business-customer interactions are monetary exchanges. When political movements, governments and public policy focussed exclusively on states and markets for a century, they focussed only on state-citizen and business-customer interactions and ignored the things that are most important to us.

Why was civil society marginalised for a century around the world?

  • Historically, the 20th century was the century of concentrated power (Communism, Fascism, World Wars, Big Business). Civil society is dispersed, localised, small in scale.
  • Ideologically, the philosophies of the 20th century were individualist-collectivist (Fordism, Marxism, Nazism, Existentialism, Scientific Management, Neo-Liberalism)
  • Organisationally, labour unions and corporations were easy to organize. Before the Internet it was difficult and costly to organise the disparate components of civil society.

In 20th century politics, notions of Left and Right formed a stable linear structure for politics without civil society.

  • Both Left and Right regard the public sector/private sector as the solution to every problem. They regard the imposition of state or market solutions on society as the proper business of government.
  • Both Left and Right see only individuals and governments as social actors. They cannot see associations of citizens and their interactions. They cannot see individualism-collectivism as flip sides of the same coin.
  • Both Left and Right serve core public/private sector constituencies (public sector employees for the Left; corporates and some professional groups for the Right). Both ignore the third sector (households, associations, social enterprises, cooperatives). Both ignore family and small-businesses and the self-employed.
  • Both Left and Right regard politics as ‘management’, the execution of top-down, corporate-style administration. Both use political parties as their instruments of management, based on command-and-control cultures. These parties no longer need citizens, and now comprise professional operatives, ‘career politicians’.

This is the politics that we have inherited from the 20th century in common with other western democracies. It is a politics that cannot solve 21st century problems because:

  • The active participation of citizens is required to solve the pressing social, economic and environmental problems of our time. The imposition of state or market prescriptions on society does not work.
  • Associations of citizens, big and small, are key social actors.
  • Self-employed people, micro and family businesses are a vast and growing sector that does not fit the traditional public or private sector, and does not fit the management goals of Left or Right.
  • Top-down ‘management’ of society and organisations runs counter to the emergence of distributed networks as the dynamic economic and social organizing principle in the 21st century.

Innovation and reform in public governance is now an imperative around the western world. It’s principal dynamic is one of undoing the processes and patterns of power that characterised 20th century politics, and enabling a dispersal of power as widely as possible to individuals, families and associations in civil society.

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About the Author

Vern Hughes is Secretary of the National Federation of Parents Families and Carers and Director of the Centre for Civil Society and has been Australia's leading advocate for civil society over a 20-year period. He has been a writer, practitioner and networker in social enterprise, church, community, disability and co-operative movements. He is a former Executive Officer of South Kingsville Health Services Co-operative (Australia's only community-owned primary health care centre), a former Director of Hotham Mission in the Uniting Church, the founder of the Social Entrepreneurs Network, and a former Director of the Co-operative Federation of Victoria. He is also a writer and columnist on civil society, social policy and political reform issues.

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