In her resignation press conference,
spoke against the timidity of the Labor
leadership. She wants Labor to lead public
opinion and she wants an alternative to
policy convergence between the major parties.
She wants vision in Australian public
life. "I believe we need to be telling
Australians a story about the sort of
country we want this to be, what we hope
for them, how their lives can be improved."
The swelling vote for independents and
Greens suggests her sentiments are shared
by increasing numbers of Australians.
In a new
study, I argue that public debate
of a national vision is inhibited by the
present structure of politics. There is
a critical gap in its attention to emerging
or 'strategic' issues. There is no capacity
for routinely engaging interest groups.
There is only very limited capacity for
building public and media opinion before
final decisions are taken by the executive.
Think of the present array of strategic
issues: for example, population, water,
the environment, our aging society, relations
with Asia, biotechnology. There is no
single best technical solution to any
of them. Each involves a variety of stakeholders.
The task of the political system is to
weigh competing values and perspectives
and to distil a majority public opinion
from protagonists whose power, values
and interests differ widely.
In all cases, public opinion will ultimately
determine the scope for political action.
Its quality will determine whether political
choice is based on informed opinion or
rather on populist sentiment. In this
latter case, the contest between the major
parties will turn on cruder campaigning
based on bribing key groups of electors
or on pandering to the lowest common denominator
of electoral sentiment.
The present political incentive structure
now favours this latter outcome. On any
issue on which public opinion is divided
or uncertain, what the government declares
to be white the opposition will mostly
assert to be black. Electoral incentives
determine this approach, which constrains
the tactical choices of both major parties.
Conversely, if majority opinion is suddenly
galvanised by a chance event (e.g. Tampa),
and one party endorses popular sentiment,
electoral incentives place overwhelming
pressure on its rival to do likewise.
The absence of prior attention to the
underlying issue means immediate public
reactions govern the positions taken by
So the key need is to consider how public
opinion might be better formed. Opinion
formation takes time. Stakeholders need
to be progressively mobilised. The media
needs to be progressively engaged. Sufficient
time needs to be allowed for the significance
of an issue to become clear to winning,
losing and undecided interests. Ways of
converting losers or undecided groups
need to be explored. Sufficient time needs
to be allowed for an expert consensus
to emerge. Maverick opinion needs to be
accommodated. Coalition building needs
to be facilitated. By such means the snowball
of public opinion gains volume and momentum.
The present political system lacks routine
capabilities to do these things. It inhibits
consideration of longer-term issues. It
inhibits consideration of alternatives
beyond those recognised by Treasury. The
present structure of politics is now a
major impediment to the construction of
an informed public opinion.
When Australian society was more clearly
divided between Coalition and Labor supporters,
the system worked well. Strategic policy
development was mostly handled internally
within the major party organisations and
by bureaucratic elites. But party conferences
have long since become stage-managed affairs.
Major party membership has collapsed.
Political activists have shifted their
engagement away from the major parties
towards social movements and minor parties.
Because of the diversity of contemporary
Australia, it is inconceivable that the
major parties could ever again recover
their old encompassing representational
roles. Meantime, bureaucratic expertise
is now rightly more contested.
What is to be done? My most radical proposal
concerns the phasing of opinion formation.
Attention to strategic issues needs to
be partially decoupled from the struggle
for office between the major parties.
The contest between the major parties
is sited in the House of Representatives.
So the Senate is ideally placed to provide
an institutional setting for routine attention
to the strategic end of the policy development
The Senate is a very powerful Chamber.
There is no constitutional barrier to
the development of its role. The only
obstacles lies in the conventions of the
two-party system. Indeed, the Senate acted
as agenda gatekeeper in the first years
after Federation and before the two-party
system emerged. David Hamer, a former
Liberal Senator, has suggested that Ministers
cease to be drawn from the Senate and
that it becomes a Committee House. That
is exactly the right approach.
Senate committees have the power to summon
evidence in public from bureaucrats, ministers,
experts and interest groups. The Senate
has the power to propose legislation to
the House. But the present Senate committee
system lacks resources. The structure
of committees does not provide effective
policy coverage. Committee chairs lack
status. The conduct of inquiries could
be much more imaginative - for example
through the use of Blue Ribbon panels,
joint federal-state groups etc as occurs
in its prototype, the US Senate.
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