The proportion of Australians satisfied with our political system has, according to one study, fallen from 86% in 2007 to 41% in 2018. This research, by the Museum of Australian Democracy and the University of Canberra, identified various aspects of this dissatisfaction. Only 11% of respondents assessed the honesty or integrity of politicians as high or very high, while 55% believed that MPs “don’t care about people like me”. When asked what would improve the system, three of the measures supported by a majority of respondents were as follows:
- Citizen involvement in the co-design of public services (71%)
- Commissioning citizens juries to recommend solutions to complex policy problems (61%)
- The right of citizens to E-petition Parliament for public interest legislation to be debated (55%).
Our current political choices
It is not surprising that the voters want more say in politics. We are a much more educated society than in decades past, and we are used to having more choices now – choices in our forms of communication, our entertainment and information sources, our energy supply, where we invest our earnings, the places we holiday (COVID aside), and a whole range of other goods and services.
And yet we make our political choices in the same way that we did at the time of Federation. We vote for our MP, and in doing so we choose between the packages of policies offered by contending parties, or, in reality for most of our history since Federation, we have chosen between packages offered by the Coalition and Labor. We choose one package, or the other. End of story.
But it’s worse than that. Not only are we restricted in our choices; decisions about what these packages contain are made by far fewer people than they once were. Party decision making has become more centralised, with fewer party members involved. And party membership numbers have dropped dramatically, as have union memberships (which is relevant given union involvement in Labor Party decision-making). Fewer Australians are party members, and fewer party members are involved in policy making.
Political scientist Ian Marsh described how radically party decision-making on policy changed from about 1980 on, with policy decisions being determined less through broad party debate and more on the advice of pollsters, marketers and advertising professionals. Marsh also noted the decline in voters giving their first preferences to the major parties, from 90% in the 1970s to 80% in 1998 (when he was writing), and it has since declined to under 75% in 2019. In other words, a quarter of voters would rather not have either package, but no other party’s package is more appealing to a sufficient number.
What can be done to change this?
We can go along to each of our MPs and argue the case for a particular policy change. This may have an effect if lots of constituents in lots of electorates are doing it. It is definitely worth doing, but it’s potential to bring about change is limited. With rare exceptions, individual party MPs won’t publicly deviate from party policy in their votes or public pronouncements, even if they are privately persuaded that a change is warranted, because party discipline is so strong in Australia. MPs may speak up in the party room, but the individual MP has limited power there too.
And even broad expressions of public opinion on a particular issue – in the form of opinion polls or high levels of constituent concern – are far from certain to influence party policy. The major parties’ policies may be greatly at odds with public opinion. Parties may do a calculation, asking questions like: Will voter concern about a particular issue be outweighed by voter support on other issues? Would voters who have this concern vote for us even if we changed our policy? And can we make some kind of statement or policy gesture that reduces voter concern about the issue?
Why would parties have policies that are clearly at odds with voter opinion? They may simply believe the public is wrong. The public’s view may be at odds with entrenched party ideology. Or party policy may reflect the power that lobbyists, big donors and media organisations have over the party. Another of the responses in the study mentioned in the first paragraph above was that 77% of respondents wanted limits on the amount of campaign spending and the size of political donations. But such policy changes can’t occur until MPs supporting them control both houses of parliament. So, in the first instance, it comes back to how voters can influence parties, especially major parties, on particular policy issues.
The most likely way to persuade parties to systematically consider the policy views of voters is to create an electoral advantage for them from doing so.
But simply having policies that aIign with voters’ views as expressed in opinion polls will not necessarily do the trick. According to the website The Perfect Candidate, coming up to the 2019 Election, the Labor Party’s major policies aligned with the concerns of voters – according to polling – much more closely than did the Coalition’s major policies. And yet Labor lost the election. This may have been because most voters knew little about Labor’s policies. The ones they heard about most were those criticised by the Coalition, by anti-Labor media, and in Clive Palmer’s advertisements.
For voters to support a party or MP because their policies are more aligned with those voters’ policy views than the opponents’ policies are, voters need to know about the policies. How can this happen? Policies are complicated, people are busy and they’re not necessarily interested in politics. You can’t make voters pay more attention to policies, but you can excite and inspire them to do so – not necessarily all voters, but a sufficient number to make a difference to election results.
Exciting and inspiring voters
This is what happened in the seat of Indi from 2012. Constituents there, who had been resigned to being represented by an MP they saw as uninterested in their needs and views, began to see an alternative, with the help of the group Voices for Indi. As a result, those active in Voices for Indi, and many other Indi voters, became inspired and excited. Over 400 people participated in kitchen table conversations to say what sort of future they wanted, 600 volunteers pledged to do politics differently and campaigned for the independent candidate Voices for Indi had endorsed. As a result, this candidate was victorious, and politics there has been done differently in Indi over the three election cycles since. Active Democracy Australia has been inspired by this, and we think other electorates can learn much from it, for example, about kitchen table conversations, better communications between voters and MPs or candidates, and having codes of political conduct that candidates and electorate group participants can sigh up to. In fact, many of the kinds of actions suggested on this website have been practised in Indi.
But there’s a big difference between voters in one seat, Indi, advancing a set of values and policy concerns and campaigning for one independent candidate who has already signed up to the Voices for Indi model, and electorate groups in multiple electorates across the country trying to agree on values and concerns, let alone specific policies, and then seeking to win over MPs from the established parties to these values, concerns and policies. A government can only implement one policy in each specific policy area – though it may have multiple elements – so, if it is going to heed voter input in specific policy areas, their needs to be some way of synthesising voters’ policy views into one fairly coherent position for each of these areas. How can this happen?
A possible way forward
This is something that people in electorate groups in different electorates will need to come together to discuss. One possibility is the following four-stage process, once there are electorate groups in sufficient electorate groups for them to constitute a significant political force:
- Stage One: Voters in multiple electorates engage in kitchen table conversation conversations, and a report on this is produced in each electorate (as has been described already). A national report is then written that summarises the policy concerns and preferences of participants in these conversations across the country, and from this, a set of key policy concerns (perhaps ten) is identified.
- Stage Two: These ten key policy concerns each become the subject of a deliberative forum, with each of these forums run in a different location across the country, and participants in them randomly selected. They are briefed about the policy area by experts and from written information, before deliberating and coming up with a draft set of policy recommendations, as described in the page on deliberative forums. Funding is obtained for these forums, and they are run by an organisation experienced in doing this. They are videoed – in whole or in part – so that a wider audience, including electorate group participants, can view them.
- Stage Three: The draft policy recommendations from these forums are then open for public comment, and electorate action groups encourage, deliberate on and synthesise responses in each electorate (while individuals are still be free to submit their own responses if they wish to).
- Stage Four: The participants in each of the ten deliberations then consider these responses (perhaps after they have been categorised and summarised to make them more manageable to consider) to decide if and how they amend the original recommendations to come up with a final set. These are then presented to parties and candidates and publicised generally.
If such voter input became a regular component of each party’s policy making process, it would need to occur early in the process in each election cycle, so this input could then be considered within the party’s internal policy making processes.
There would be a clear advantage for the first party to come on board, especially the first major party. They would be seen as more democratic and responsive, listening to voters’ views and concerns and considering these in their policy making process. And the policies they ultimately adopted would probably align more closely with voters’ views, and be publicly seen to align. If this was broadly considered to help their vote at election time, then other parties would be more likely to come on board, including the other major party. And once a party was on board, there would be an electoral disadvantage if it then withdrew from the process.
Parties would need to appreciate that, even if electorate groups only actively engage about one per cent of voters in their activities, the effect of this can ripple out to others. Voices for Indi only attracted about that level of active involvement in its campaigning, but with that level they managed to win a seat that had been safely held by one side of politics since 1931, and to hold it over three elections so far. Each participant has family, friends, neighbours, work colleagues and fellow organisation members. They communicate with yet others through doorknocking, letterboxing, street stalls and community events. Added to this is the fact that seats may change with a swing of just a few per cent of voters, and governments can change with a swing of just a few seats.
It should also be noted that deliberative processes can be used not only for policy areas directly affecting voters, such as health, education, transport and energy policy, but also for policies related to how politics is conducted, for example, how political donations and lobbying are regulated, how political integrity is ensured, and how parliamentary debate is conducted.
The process just described could, in summary, have multiple benefits, as follows:
- It could generate a high level of public engagement and excitement – a level that evidence shows can change election outcomes – and voters would discover a new sense of political agency.
- The public and parties would be more informed about policy evidence, and familiar with deliberative forums and their democratic benefits, and the public would be more informed about party policies.
- Parties would be adopting policies favoured by voters (and informed by evidence) so we would begin to have more fine-grained democratic decision-making.
- The process would also include policies about how politics is conducted.
- There would be advantages for the first major party to come on board – as its policies would be better known by the public, and seen to be in line with the public’s views, and it would get credit for being democratic and responsive. The other major party would then come on board to avoid being disadvantaged, and from that point any party dropping out would be disadvantaged.
The whole process would help shift the centre of gravity of political decision-making from a more ‘corridors-of-power’ level to a more grassroots community level. This would see more power being exercised by ordinary voters, including those whose voices are not normally heard, and this power would be more informed by evidence and subject experts. Less power would be exercised by entrenched political players, powerful corporations, big media, large donors, marketers and advertisers.