In his recent Mackay Report, July 2001, social researcher Hugh Mackay states: "Australia’s contempt for Federal politics and its leaders has plumbed new depths … If it (the Mackay Report) was a family newspaper, we would scarcely be able to print the things Australian’s are saying about their politicians … In the 22-year
history of the Mackay Report, political attitudes have never been quite as negative as this."
In the 1999 Republic referendum, probably the most devastating criticism of the republican model on offer was that this was "a politician’s republic". Even the "Yes" proponents used the public’s disdain for politicians by arguing that a president should not be elected because that would produce a politician. Both
sides, in effect, associated politicians with self-serving sleaziness and corruption.
A dispassionate observer of the Australian political system today could hardly be blamed for seeing it as essentially a struggle by two mafia-like groups to control the national treasury to distribute funds for themselves, their supporters, the special interest groups who fund them and to buy votes for the next election.
In 1992 former secretary to the office of Governor-General, Sir David Smith, wrote:
"… there is much that is wrong with the way this nation is governed and administered: never before have we had so many Royal Commissions and other enquiries into our process of government and public administration; never before have we had so many public office-holders and other figures in, or facing the prospect of, prison; never
before have the electors registered their dissatisfaction with the political process by returning so many independent and minor party candidates to Parliament; never before has Australia had so many of its citizens who are hurting because of what has been done to them by governments and by their fellow Australians."
Reinforcing all this is the fact that while some 29 years ago about five per cent of voters did not vote for the political establishment, today that figure is around 35 per cent where the choice is available.
There appears to be three groups of reasons why we have reached this level of alienation and dissatisfaction with politicians and the political system.
- The seemingly endless parade of political scandals involving both individuals and political parties.
- The imposition of policies by both major parties, without majority support, and the consequent frustration and anger of the community.
- The underlying structural faults of the political system that exacerbates and facilitates 1. and 2. above.
Political scandals and resignations of MPs seem to occur at increasing frequencies at both Federal and State levels of government.
Party infighting, electoral rorts, ever-increasing junketing, pre-selection wars, branch stacking, jobs for the boys and girls, parliamentary abuse and bad behaviour, endless pork-barrelling, blatant partisan behaviour and disregard for the truth, all destroy public confidence.
The spectacle of party leaders attempting to project images of integrity while twisting and diving for years on such issues as parliamentary pensions or campaign donations continually reinforces the self-serving and hypocritical nature of the system – as does the continuing trend towards funding political parties out of the public purse.
Add to this the increasing nepotism and development of a political class restricting entry to parliament. In the case of the Labor Party the union movement from its shrinking base seems often to be largely a vehicle to achieve parliamentary sinecures and pensions.
Federal-State infighting and endlessly attempting to shift blame adds to disillusionment and the public perception that virtually no issue can be considered except in terms of partisan or parochial interests.
All of these controversies when exposed are rarely faced honestly. Instead they are obfuscated, referred to committees or inquiries or buried in any possible way. In fact, the more inquiries, Royal Commissions, Codes of Ethics, appointment of commissioners of all types to oversee the system that are initiated, the worse the system seems to
become, not to mention the haemorrhaging of public funds to pay for all this mostly ineffectual superstructure.
The second group of reasons for the collapse of public faith in government is the "future shock" of rapid globalisation and the apparent reversion to laissez-faire 19th century capitalism. National governments, let alone the public, seem relatively powerless faced with the trends to asset selling and privatisation,
whatever the merits. Not only do governments seem unable to solve public problems but increasingly they are painted as ‘the enemy’. Tax avoidance has almost become a badge of honour; the rich appear to be getting richer; egalitarianism is dead; the quality of health and education now depends on personal wealth; co-operative and mutual
public services are disbanded at an increasing rate. There seems to be few common values and the law-of-the-jungle attitude seems prevalent.
Whatever the truth of these public perceptions, none of these problems is unique to Australia and public despair seems common in governments around the world.
While human failings and the corruption of special interests will always be present, nevertheless many failings are systemic. Democracy is a relatively new system in the world’s history. In a recent international study into the level of democracy of the 21 industrialised countries, Australia ranks almost at the bottom based on our
defective voting systems and continual minority governments. Single-member electorates and preferential voting eliminate minority representation but entrench minority government and distort the will of the people.
Winner-take-all electoral systems and adversary politics result in truth being irrelevant. Oppositions have little role in government except to disrupt and negatively oppose. Failure to confront the corrosive effects of huge private political donations combined with lack of openness and accountability encourages corruption, both direct and
moral. The failure to have proper separation of powers and the domination of legislatures by executive government are major causes of scandals and breakdowns in democracy.
The winner-take-all, two-party system that has caused a political convergence of policies (the Tweedledum and Tweedledee syndrome) and a mutual interest in preserving a self-serving duopoly often leave the public powerless and frustrated.
While ever ‘representative government’ restricts public political participation to a manipulated vote every three of four years and remains largely self-regulating, public disillusionment and frustration with government will continue.