Sam Roggeveen on the hollowing out of our democracy

Amazing what Google Images serves up

Last week Sam Roggeveen e-mailed me asking if I’d accept a post for Troppo from him on the above subject. I said I would – any time. When he sent it to me I thought it was sufficiently good that it needed a wider audience. In the upshot it was published in The Mandarin earlier this week. And now you can read it here.

For a certain class of political observer, it is always Germany in the early 1930s, with a gullible public ready to drop our most cherished political traditions at a moment’s notice and fall into the arms of a charismatic populist.

In 2019 I wrote a short book in which I quoted Tim Soutphommasane, who said that the rise of hate politics in Australia could take us “into the realms of fascism”. Novelist Richard Flanagan warned after witnessing Brexit and Trump’s nationalism that “if we here in Australia do not reimagine ourselves we will be undone too.” The 6 January raid on the Washington Capitol precipitated more worry about incipient right-wing authoritarianism, even though the alleged fascist leader had just been peacefully and democratically removed from office. See NY Times columnist Ross Douthat’s recent Substack piece putting these fears into perspective (while not succumbing to complacency or dismissiveness).

There’s a whiff of this same moral panic in a recent Senate committee report on Nationhood, National Identity and Democracy. I made a submission to the enquiry, appeared twice before the committee and am quoted several times in the report. I think the report’s recommendations show that our politicians have misunderstood what is going wrong with our democracy, and their role in it. Or maybe it is worse than that. There are elements of the report suggesting they do understand what is going wrong, yet the recommendations suggest they feel powerless to change it.

The give-away is that none of the recommendations would require politicians or political parties to give up any power, at least to the public. This in a 243-page report which claims, in the Chair’s introduction, that its central concern is public trust. Doesn’t that strain credulity? Public trust in politics is at historic lows, yet it occurs to none of the senators on this committee to give the public more of a say in political decisions?

In fact, far from surrendering power, the recommendations would strengthen the grip of the political class by increasing public funding of election campaigns (thus removing any incentive for politicians and would-be politicians to build an actual social base in order to get elected) and establishing a federal ICAC.

Instead, the recommendations are an implicit critique of the public’s ignorance and gullibility. Of the 18 recommendations, nine call for new forms of public and school education about civics, citizenship, Australian history and our ‘shared values’. Recommendation 9 calls for a national strategy to tackle fake news, to be facilitated by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Committee Chair Senator Kim Carr sums up the mood in his introduction when he claims that public cynicism has been exploited by right-wing populists. Again, the subtext is that the public are gullible fools who need to be protected from would-be tyrants for their own good. It’s not surprising, therefore, that actually empowering the public is furthest from the Senators’ minds.

And yet, there are sections of the report which hint at something different. This passage is particularly striking:

5.162 The logical conclusion is that politics is broken, not democracy. Or, more specifically, something is broken in the way we are conducting politics. The way politics functions is alienating to citizens; causing them to turn away from established political parties and mainstream political processes.

 5.163 Citizens are not lazy, nor are they apathetic. Australians volunteer in high numbers, and lend their support to their fellow Australians in tough times, such as during fires, floods and emergencies. We get involved in civic organisations; Rotary, the Red Cross, GetUp, or the Australian Christian Lobby. We lend our support to online petitions, make donations to charities and campaigns, community donation drives, and volunteer for our local schools, religious organisations and clubs.

5.164 Elected representatives cannot afford to disregard the many ways Australians are engaging. Governments must find new channels and new ways of communicating that really speak to citizens. We must find a way to reach out and meet citizens where they are, or risk being stuck in an echo chamber, which is where citizens are telling us we are now.

 5.165 Critically, we must listen and respond. Whether through deliberative exercises, or other forms of consultation, governments must seek input from citizens, and meaningfully engage with that input.

Bang on. Voters are not lazy or stupid, and they are no less interested in political issues than they have ever been. The fragile state of our democracy hasn’t come about because the public is poorly educated or has been seduced by online conspiracy theories. It happened because of the void between the political class and the public. Other than at election time, voters are basically spectators, not participants.

The only punch pulled in that long quote is at the beginning, where it says “something is broken in the way we are conducting politics”. We actually know what that “something” is – it has been called “hollowing out”, and it is common to every Western democracy, where major parties have ceased to be mass-membership organisations and politics has become professionalised, breaking the connection to voters. The phenomenon has been well documented by Peter Mair in Ruling the Void (focused on Europe and the UK), and in Theda Skocpol’s Diminished Democracy (focused on the US).

Why “hollowing out”? Because in the mid-to-late 20th century, the public began a long retreat away from major political parties, which all lost members and voters. In response, the parties staged a retreat of their own – they re-engineered politics so that they wouldn’t really need members. When you can rely on funding from large donors and the taxpayer, and when you transform yourself into a catch-all centrist party instead of one that serves a specific constituency (such as unionised labour or the private sector), then a large and vocal membership becomes an encumbrance, not an asset. The public is then so far removed from politics that it ceases to pay attention, except briefly when they vote.

In any case, there is less for the public to scrutinise, since the business of government is increasingly devolved to regulators and experts. As Henry Ergas told the committee, Australia has a tendency for…

…‘delegating contentious decisions about value to quasi-judicial bodies’ outside of the legislature that are not ‘directly accountable to the legislature’, such as the Productivity Commission, Reserve Bank, and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). While these independent bodies reduce the decision-making burden on politicians, and diffuse political contention, Mr Ergas suggested they may also ‘impoverish’ and ‘infantilise’ politics by removing the responsibility for making important and complex decisions from politicians, and giving it to ‘experts’.

What we are left with is a political system that looks democratic but in which two major parties and a technocratic political elite governs without very much public input. It works fine if the elite is performing well, and for the most part, Australia’s political class has performed well. But what happens when the public decides its political elite is failing?

Brexit, Trump and the rise of populist parties in Europe give us a sense of what the answer might be. But the political class has chosen to interpret these electoral convulsions in the most convenient way – it is not they who are at fault, but a gullible public which has been seduced by populist ideas. That’s why, as the Senate report recommends, they need to be better educated. The Senators who wrote this report fear that Australians place too little value on democracy. What they have failed to consider is that the public might not value them.

Correction: This piece was first published on The Mandarin, and in that version, I noted parenthetically that Senate Committee Chairman Senator Kim Carr claimed, in his introduction to the report, that public cynicism about politics “originated with America’s war on terrorism”. Carr wrote a response correcting me on this point. He in fact said this cynicism preceded the war on terrorism. That was my error. Carr did say in his introduction that the war on terrorism “fuelled a cynicism that is perhaps the deepest reason for the decline in trust”, and I summarised him incorrectly.

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7 Responses to Sam Roggeveen on the hollowing out of our democracy

  1. Moz of Yarramulla says:

    The Guardian published a piece today from Catherine Cusack that indirectly touches on this – lamenting the Liberal Party decision that explicit factions of professional political operatives was the appropriate way to organise.

    Someone also pointed out the other day that SNP in Scotland has more paid-up members than the entire Conservative Party, UK-wide: they’ve got 125,000 members, or about 3% of the electorate.

    I suspect that The Greens would be the counter-example in Australia, and also worldwide because of their active membership (the NSW rape controversy in some ways exemplifying that). It’s not hard to imagine them having more members than parties with many more MPs in the future.

  2. Moz of Yarramulla says:

    It also occurs to me that the response to the Uluru Declaration was a savage reminder that not only do the opinions of the citizenry not matter, but particular citizens matter even less.

    I think Nick’s hobbyhorse would be one way to counter the problem, as long as the wretched hive of scum and villainy could resist the urge to treat them as they treated the above group … who were also asked for their opinion and put a lot of work into a considered response. In actual jury trials the presiding judge has to have a Very Good Reason to override a jury verdict… parliament should be similarly constrained (by their own choice or if necessary by constitutional amendment, make them first pass a bill “this jury, we do not like them”)

    But I suffer from the same problem as many here: I’m engaged with the political process. And by (dis)virtue of a postgraduate qualification etc I’m the wrong person to ask “why are people like you not engaged”… mate, we are, we run the joint.

    On that note, I can’t be sure that it wasn’t a satirical comment, but I have read the suggestion that quotas are an excellent idea and we should have a rule: no MP can be elected unless their demographic characteristics contribute to making the balance of parliament more representative over its history. (to be clear, yes, the intention seemed to be that no white man will be electable for a very long time)

  3. paul frijters says:

    and what is Sam going to do about it?

  4. I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

    Sam is a regular at the Lowy Institute and is always interesting to read.
    I cannot help but think delegating fiscal policy to technocrats would exacerbate the problems.
    I think Sam is describing what some call the french disease. Implement good policies but never ever describe why they are being implemented.
    Populists rarely get the majority of votes . It matters not whether you go to Germany in the 30s ( where few people realise but most Germans voted for parties that wanted to get rid of democracy) or to Trump or even to France or Germany.

  5. Anthony Harris says:

    I thought it strange that Henry Ergas apparently nominated the Productivity Commission and the ACCC as bodies that had appropriated powers from politicians. TheProductivity Commission, and its predecessors (for which I once worked) don’t make decisions but they do provide a forum where interested voters can have their say. The ACCC does make decisions in the place of politicians and governments, but it is also so closely attuned to consumers as to empower not weaken them. I can’t defend the RBA in the same way.
    Another matter lightly mentioned in the piece, political donations, offered no solutions. Yes the current arrangements are woeful (and the High Court decision overturning NSW legislation limiting the making of donations to enrolled voters was most unfortunate). This suggests enlarged public funding, which diminishes the power of rent seekers, has attractions.
    Finally, because political parties now dominate parliament in ways the Westminster system did not anticipate, we need laws that ensure transparency and that require responsibility. Scandinavian countries have much to teach us about this.

  6. Peter Dempster says:

    What to do about it
    The ideal parliamentary reform is one that appeals directly to ordinary voters, such that the reformer must do little more than have the idea. Pollsters pick it up and quickly report there is popular support, an idea that MPs cannot safely ignore. It’s the reformer’s foot in the door or thin edge of the wedge; something of that kind.

    For example: at election time, many voters may welcome the opportunity to vote for their party but against their party’s candidate. They may object to the candidate’s policy positions and beliefs, abusive and divisive behaviour, suspect associations and doggy donations, ignorance and laziness, ethical standards and character. Such voters would punch an override button if there was such a thing.

    We can install an override button in the electoral system by providing for both a default vote and a conditional vote. The default vote would be for the preferred party, ABC Party or XYZ Party as the case may be, including its unattractive candidate. The conditional vote would be for the non-preferred party, reversed to XYZ Party or ABC Party as the case may be. Only one vote takes effect, usually the default vote. The conditional vote takes effect only where voters from opposite sides can, in effect, cut a deal to swap their seats out, one for one. As follows: decide all seats on the basis of the default vote, as usual; count the conditional votes and identify the seats where the tally is sufficient to unseat the default winner; rank the at-risk candidates in descending order of unpopularity, separately for each party; working from the top of each list, swap the seats out on a one-for-one basis; stop when one or other list is exhausted.

    Only the default vote is compulsory; the conditional vote is optional. Importantly, the default vote determines the party that forms government. The conditional vote simply unseats the most unpopular candidates on both sides, one for one, overriding party pre-selections that voters find objectionable. The conditional vote is anonymous, preserves the secrecy of the ballot, is immune from bribery and intimidation. It’s easy; instant run-off voting where the worst are instantly run off.

    Vote swapping works somewhat like a kidney exchange. Imagine: you need a new kidney and have a donor (fortunately, preferred party) but the donor has an incompatible kidney (unfortunately, unattractive candidate). Don’t despair: register with the kidney exchange and hope they find a kidney patient with the mirror image of your problem, someone who needs your donor’s kidney and whose donor has the kidney you need. Make the swap.

    Vote swapping could be partly disabled if voters gave the override button such a thrashing that they threatened political instability. Maybe cap the swaps at any one election to five or ten pairs of seats. Or declare MPs safe if they secure at least forty per cent of the vote, net of adverse conditional votes. Just having the override button, even partly disabled, would prompt voters to think harder about individual MPs; encourage MPs to reconnect; moderate the safe seats problem; encourage journalists to cover preselection contests and the representative qualities of nominees; prompt preselection committees to put the ‘local’ back into local member, the ‘representative’ back into representative government; give Anthony Green more interesting stats to report on election night.

  7. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks Peter,

    I’m afraid my heart isn’t in a proposal to get parliamentarians to change voting procedure in such a way that gives the public more power and them less and which takes a long time for me to understand. I can’t see this being explained on the radio, let alone the 7.00 pm news. So I’m not too sure how you bring it about, or even start campaigning for it.

    As for votes being ‘compulsory’ and ‘optional’, you may just be using the words to signify a hierarchy like senior and junior debt, but no country of which I’m aware has compulsory voting. Australia has compulsory attendance at the voting booth. Or as I like to think of it, it’s an inverted poll tax.

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