I recall when working as a staffer for the Hawke/Keating government, how Labor staffers wore their disdain – bordering on contempt – for the Democrats with the same kind of pride that economic rationalists had for their own disdain for businesses leaders arguing for special handouts. It went beyond reasoned disagreement and was driven by tribal affiliation – something which sadly dominates so much that passes for intellectual activity today. (Surely this is a growing problem in our post ideological age?).
Why did they hate the Democrats so much? Well partly for the same kind of reasons that hatred of the Greens runs so strongly in the ALP today – they’re competitors. (As they say, in politics you’re opponents are on the other side, but your enemies are on your side!). But they also harboured a kind of Olympian disdain for the politics the Democrats pursued. They were a left of centre party that couldn’t admit its closer affiliation to the ALP than the CLP. (Rather like the ALP now can’t do the same with the Greens!). Of course they couldn’t do that – as their independence was part of their electoral schtick – just as any political operator tries to ‘position’ themselves to advantage as we say these days.
And their method of campaigning was often to nit-pick at the end of the policy process to deliver something for ‘the people’. It was the usual media management kind of malarky. Each party does it in different ways suited to their circumstances. But the ALP staffers luxuriated in the thought that they were making the big decisions. Controlling the big levers. They were the Cool Kids.
Now the cool kids are ganging up on the others again. That crazy system whereby we end up with micro-parties – the Broccoli is the Best Vegetable Party, the Imaginary Vehicle Enthusiasts Party and the Just Because you’re Extremely Fat doesn’t Mean you have to be Extremely Silly Party. Of course the way these people manage to acquire their seats in the Senate is extremely silly. But the question of whether that’s better than the alternative (where pretty much everyone but an established independent like Nick Xenophon would be from one of the three Extremely Sensible Parties) is certainly no lay down misère.
The strange but compelling Harold Mitchell has weighed in against running these independents out of town. I agree with him. The randomistas – and not just the ones who are congenial to me – have been a force for good. After all, apart from what are usually some very parsimonious platform issues (which didn’t seem to bother the EFNES party) the randomistas can make up their own mind. That’s not true of the Cool Kids in the established parties whose platforms used to be governed by broad ideologies, but are now largely governed by the principles of brand management.
It’s worth pondering the fact that one of the most central political achievements of the current Parliament has been to dismantle carbon pricing and resource rent taxation in circumstances in which the overwhelming majority of parliamentarians knew they were better policy than their abolition. Indeed even the majority of those parliamentarians voting for them knew that! That’s an extraordinary position to be in. But that’s where we are. (Meanwhile in the US one half of the Cool Kids are heading off into variously oligarchic and/or Peronist madnesses all papered over with the bread and circuses of media management.)
It’s a reflection on how unhealthy our political system has become that the task of deliberating and then making up one’s mind falls to such an odd collection of people and interests. Could we do better than this? Of course we could. I’d love to see some real randos in our Parliament – that is people chosen, as the Athenians were chosen for the Council of 500 – randomly. By lot. Imagine how much Question Time might improve if the cool kids had to keep in mind what the randos thought of their performance.
Indeed some academics recently modelled just such a circumstance. Looking at a model of a Parliament with two major Parties or coalitions they explored the outcome of introducing “a variable percentage of randomly selected independent legislators” finding that it could increase the efficiency of the legislature not just in term of getting laws passed but in terms of having those laws promote the public interest. They concluded citing some similar work regarding organisations that “These results are in line with both the ancient Greek democratic system and the recent discovery that the adoption of random strategies can improve the efficiency of hierarchical organizations”.
To have parliament populated by some people who don’t owe their allegiance to the heavy hand of party brand managers wouldn’t just play a useful role in representing our own desire for decisions on public policy to reflect careful deliberation, they’d increase the incentives on all the players to likewise give greater weight to decision making ‘on the merits’ rather than on their bearings on the alarums and excursions the Cool Kids parties were running in the media at any given time.