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Fixing Australia’s democratic deficit

Australians buying a used car benefit from clear consumer safeguards, writes Geoff Heriot. Why not accord voters similar protection from the excesses of campaigning politicians?

Geoff Heriot 17 October 2014 2336 words

Trust deficit: March in May protester in Melbourne on 18 May. Tom Grifiths/NewZulu/AAP Image

Acts of grand political corruption like the ones revealed this year by the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption can have shocking consequences in law and public perception. But there are many less spectacular ways of corroding the social contract between governors and the governed. Corrosion is a process that occurs over time.

Professional politicians engage in misleading and deceptive conduct when they knowingly make promises that are abandoned once an election has been won. Although not the first victorious leader to do so, prime minister Tony Abbott has made this a defining characteristic of his first year in office. Even if the short-term public reaction is lost amid the ongoing political din or with the onset of new crises, such conduct is corrosive of long-term trust in the system. The news and electoral cycles move on, but many citizens are left angry and resentful.

Evidence of discontent is plentiful. In the 2014 Trust in Institutions survey, for example, only 25 per cent of respondents expressed faith in the federal parliament and 13 per cent in political parties. For the past few years, the annual Lowy Institute Poll has revealed ambivalence among Australians as to whether democracy is the most preferred form of government, with only 42 per cent of respondents aged between eighteen and twenty-nine believing it to be so. The most emphatic reasons given for this ambivalence were that there seems to be no real difference between the policies of the major parties and that democracy only serves the interests of a few and not the majority.

Perhaps the most remarkable observation to make about these findings is that so many Australians find them unremarkable. In contemporary Australia, writes Simon Longstaff of the St James Ethics Centre, the state of politics “has reached a point where it is only the blatant corruption of an Eddie Obeid that seems worthy of condemnation.”

There is no one cause. Like many business models, political governance globally is under challenge from disruptive economic, technological and social forces. The sense of dysfunction in Europe and the United States is such that some prominent scholarly thinkers question whether the twentieth-century model of liberal democracy can survive the challenges. Not that Australians should mourn a lost golden age. The electorate has long been suspicious of politicians. As the eminent twentieth-century philosopher John Passmore said in 1981, in Australia, “even governments mistrust governments; if they do not mistrust themselves, they mistrust their possible successors.”

If we focus on the deceptive conduct of some politicians as a contributor to the problem, the striking fact is that we Australians are treated better as consumers than as citizens. The nation’s laws dealing with misleading and deceptive conduct in trade or commerce obviously do not apply to the business of winning and retaining political office. But they provide a useful point of reference. The underlying principles go beyond black-letter law to the essence of the social contract.

Consumer legislation permits the use of “puffery” in advertising and public representation. It is lawful for companies to make certain claims about goods and services in language so over-cooked that no reasonable person could take the claims seriously. The prime minister’s recent claim to party faithful that the Coalition has “saved the nation” can readily be ignored on these grounds.

In law, however, companies need to exercise much more care when making specific offers or claims about a product or service. Advertising and public representations should not knowingly “guess” facts, omit relevant information, make ambiguous or contradictory statements or promises that cannot be kept, or utter predictions that lack a reasonable basis. They must not offer goods and services for sale without a reasonable basis for believing the vendor can deliver them.

Let’s apply those principles to national governance. Unless the utterances of a politician are generally to be dismissed as implausible puffery, this prime minister and this government have misled or deceived the electorate on multiple counts. Their claim to legitimacy rests on a few signature campaign policies – stopping the traffic of asylum-seeker boats, abolishing the carbon tax and bringing the budget back to surplus – but they offered so much more during the 2013 election campaign.

These weren’t peripheral issues – they were high-profile policy undertakings in areas such as education, health, defence procurement (submarines) and national broadcasting. Various unqualified promises were made to allocate and/or preserve levels of program funding despite commonly held knowledge of events and trends that would constrain the Australian economy in the medium term. Standard operating procedure seemed to be simple: promise anything to soothe sectional interests in the lead-up to an election, then cherry-pick the promises to be fulfilled and use incumbency to buy forgiveness before the next election.

Set aside, for a moment, partisan arguments about the relative merits or acceptability of declared policies. That is not the issue here. Rather it is one about dishonest representation and a consequential loss of moral authority that infects voter perceptions of the whole system.

One consequence of adopting the Dodgy Brothers model of electioneering is that it becomes more difficult for a government to hold a necessary conversation with the Australian people about the big issues: the need for ongoing structural adjustment of the economy; the consequences for employment of accelerating technological change and globalisation; the once-in-half-a-millennium change in the world order of geopolitics; reconciling popular short-term policies, on asylum seekers for example, with international and Australian constitutional law; dealing with the practical implications of the scientific certainty of human-induced climate change. The overriding challenge is to formulate policy responses that address the objective challenges while remaining compatible with Australia’s prevailing social values and mores.

This is not easy. And there is no shortage of commentators ready to point out the difficulties Western democratic governments in general have in dealing with these issues. The oft-quoted advocate of the so-called Chinese model of state-directed capitalism, Professor Zhang Weiwei, observes how difficult it is for democracies to launch fundamental social and economic reforms. He argues that it is hard for them to build social consensus, and that the politics of “simple-minded populism” mean they give too little consideration to the long-term interest of the nation and society. Even Plato fretted that democratic citizens, left to themselves, would live from day to day indulging themselves in the pleasures of the moment.

Similarly, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge of the Economist argue that democracy is being “disfigured by unrealistic expectations and contradictory demands.” Electorates want low taxation rates, for example, alongside ever more (unaffordable) government services.

The challenge of effective governance becomes even more difficult when leaders persist in squandering their moral authority and authenticity. And, indeed, the issue is one of moral authority rather than “political capital.” While the latter term is appropriate to discussion about the wearing down, over time, of a government’s ability to pursue a political and public policy agenda, moral authority is a higher principle that influences the perceived legitimacy of leaders and public institutions. Put simply, moral authority involves an expectation that people will do the right thing and act in good faith according to the purpose for which they hold a given position in society. An abrogation of that authority speaks of something more fundamental than the running down of capital.

Media commentators from time to time say the electorate has stopped listening. You betcha. But that is not to say we have stopped caring. There remains much more to our society than Nietzsche’s nihilistic concept of the “last man.” In a society of relative affluence where the big geopolitical and nation-state issues have been subordinated to economics (the so-called hip-pocket nerve), the “last man” is often portrayed as a narcissistic consumer “unwilling to make sacrifices, focused on the short term, easily distracted, and lacking in courage.” Proof to the contrary can be found in communities and occupational sectors throughout the country.

So how can we begin to change or mitigate the tendency of political leaders to engage systematically in misleading and deceptive conduct? How can they be convinced to behave more ethically?

It is not sufficient to rely on elections or the sovereignty of parliament. Universal suffrage in Australia produces an alternation between the Coalition parties and Labor rather than any fundamental transformation of ideology or values. Election campaigns highlight certain policy choices and philosophical leanings. Victory does not confer an unfettered mandate or represent a solution to all perceived failings. As Micklethwait and Wooldridgewrite, “Western politicians… argue that one person, one vote holds the cure to everything from poverty to terrorism. But the practice of democracy in the west is diverging ever more from the ideal.”

Ethicist Simon Longstaff has urged parliamentarians to adopt a voluntary Politicians Pledge. A preamble to Longstaff’s pledge notes that, as originally conceived, the practice of politics is intended to be a noble calling. Without ethical restraint, the pursuit and exercise of power could be “personal, brutal and self-serving.” I have little doubt that many individual parliamentarians would think themselves eligible to sign the pledge.

But the pressures mount when fighting general elections through micro-campaigns in marginal electorates, having to neutralise threatening issues and win over sectional interest groups, while striving to erode the legitimacy of one’s opponents. As Crikey’spolitical correspondent, Bernard Keane, recently reminded readers, the lessons of game theory are relevant here. In opposition, Tony Abbott was “masterful” in rejecting the legitimacy of Labor in power and being prepared to do or say anything if it would assist in changing the government.

In game theory, Keane wrote, the “prisoner’s dilemma” indicates that both players in a two-player situation would benefit objectively from cooperating, but one player would benefit more from not cooperating (or “defecting”). It would therefore make sense for both players to defect to try to reap the extra gain. (In this context, the defection could be at the expense of evidence-based public policy and a commitment to the overall public interest.) Both sides in the game would continue trying to punish one another until one of them blinked and indicated a preparedness to cooperate once more. Whichever one blinked, of course, was likely to cede ground in the short-term contest for power.

Arguably this mutation of the system not only results in low-harm campaign puffery but also perpetuates the temptation to mislead and deceive. Although news media clearly have an essential role to play in relation to political conduct, they have not had sufficient influence – or the will – to rise above the daily drama and make a sustained challenge to political conduct on the basis of principle rather than adversarial score-keeping.

Because there is more to achieving integrity and trust in government than adhering to black-letter law, the longer-term interest of the governors and the governed demands a relationship capable of dealing with very significant challenges of national and social transformation. To get there, we need a circuit-breaker.

A starting point would be to develop a Ministerial and Parliamentary Code of Conduct. In my view, this code should be a little more explicit than Simon Longstaff’s articulation of ethical principles in the Politicians Pledge. This code would adapt certain principles of consumer and competition law relating to misleading and deceptive conduct.

The people’s proxy, parliament, would establish an independent Commissioner for Ethics and Parliamentary Standards as an oversight entity with statutory authority (potentially alongside an anti-corruption commissioner). Although it would be no panacea, the ethics commissioner would provide an external point of reference to encourage greater restraint by national leaders, more considered public representations and greater demonstrable respect for the electorate.

Given recent experience, it may seem fanciful to expect the major parties to take the pledge. Federal parliament has failed even to match the states by establishing an anti-corruption body to which its members and public officers would be accountable. (The deputy leader of the Greens, Adam Bandt, became the latest MP to propose such a body in 2012.) But an independent ethics watchdog would leverage off one of the known strengths of the architecture of Australian governance.

It is no accident that the three most trusted public institutions continue to be the Australian High Court (trusted by 57 per cent of survey respondents), the ABC (54 per cent) and the Reserve Bank of Australia (52 per cent). These three institutions share certain exemplary structural characteristics: their roles are laid out through clearly defined constitutional or legislative charters; they are functionally independent and required to transcend partisan politics to act in the public interest; and they are required to comply with values derived through either long-established professional standards of accreditation and precedent (as in the case of legal practitioners) or codes of conduct and public accountability processes required by legislation (the ABC). All these characteristics establish the foundation on which their organisational cultures – and reputations – are created and preserved.

We can see this kind of mechanism at work elsewhere. In Canada, for example, the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner recently drew together the boundaries of unlawful “corruption” and “ethics” in a ruling of improper conduct against a minister in the national government. The commissioner found that the minister had failed to act properly not only in relation to statutory law but also in relation to the standards laid out in prime minister Stephen Harper’s guide on accountable government. Among other things, the guide requires ministers to uphold the highest ethical standards in order to enhance public confidence in the integrity of government.

As citizens, we should expect from government no less than our entitlement in trade and commerce: that public officials should not knowingly “guess” facts, omit relevant information, make promises that cannot be kept, or utter predictions that lack a reasonable basis. •

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One of our own: Julia Gillard on Sydney’s Triple M during the 2007 election campaign. Tracey Nearmy/AAP Image

One of our own: Julia Gillard on Sydney’s Triple M during the 2007 election campaign. Tracey Nearmy/AAP Image