I read an article during the nominally historic period just after the 2010 federal election, shortly after the independent actors in the federal lower house had their glowing regigenetic moment in the sun, carrying the hopes of a nation like no-one since Phar-Lap, in the process making deals to, among other things, bring about a better tone in the houses of parliament. Everybody was full of high hopes for a new era. The cynics sneered.
The article contained reference to a political observer from the UK observing our lower house during Question Time. He commented that he couldn’t believe the atrocious conduct. One of the local journos responded that if he thought this was bad, he should have seen it prior to the “new era”.
This should be a national embarrassment, nay, outrage. Over the past week it seems to have deteriorated even further.
The behaviour we see from our politicians would not be tolerated in any other sphere of life. We expect higher standards of behaviour from our kids at school, in dealing with people in public from day to day, and in the workplace. Especially in the workplace. In that context, it would not be unreasonable to expect someone to be disciplined for such an abandonment of acceptable standards.
One of the gaps between theory & implementation, and hence central flaws, in Democracy, is the basic assumption that ultimate accountability awaits at the ballot box. This is supposed to be the grand remedy, the ultimate balancing factor. Get rid of those that do not perform or who fail to implement the public’s will. Sadly, it’s not that simple.
We have what is largely a binary democratic system in this country – we either pick Option A or Option B. There is of late some fuzziness around the edges with the independents and Greens gaining the balance of power in the lower house – a novelty which, while refreshing at the time, may not capture the imagination of the electorate in a sustained fashion. Time will tell. But this, despite the best of intentions, didn’t appear to change the basic reality.
The result of this binary system is that if in any respect both sides are as bad as each other, there is basically no hope for improvement in that context, and the accountability-at-the-ballot-box theory goes out the window. This strikes at the heart of the touted benefits of democracy. Candidate parties don’t need to be particularly principled, they just need to be the least worst, and often not by much of a margin.
This situation is not helped by a political media which tacitly accepts this situation in a fatalistic kind of way. They get to know the players and their general levels of performance, and allow them to maintain a kind of minimum status quo instead of enforcing on our behalf higher standards, the role they claim to occupy in the political process, and they way they justify their existence. In any case, there’s no point in them pursuing the offenders because they’re all as bad as each other. So the system is fundamentally broken in this respect.
If the fundamental assumption of accountability-at-the-ballot-box is broken in this way – in that there are aspects of political behaviour that cannot be enforced by the electorate in this way – then we mustn’t capitulate to this. We need to force the issue. The only way to do this is to co-opt the media into making parliamentary behaviour an election issue. Not in a fleeting, politically expedient sense, either. We need to yell at our pollies to legislate to enforce a minimum standard of behaviour.
The idea is in a way laughable, but is it so different to any other election issue? If the media’s attention can be gotten – probably unlikely given their generally self-interested ethos (after all, what have they got to gain from less entertaining politics?) – not all that different from those that they claim to police, unfortunately (quis custodiet ipsos custard indeed) – then just maybe it could become one of these national discussions the pollies are so in favour of us having when it distracts from their peccadilloes.
Never has the federal electoral situation been so conducive to getting community priorities addressed. An election could well be triggered early, because our mainstream political parties *really* don’t like being dictated to by the independents & the Greens, and as soon as one side decides they have enough electoral petrol in the tank they will attempt to force an election. Ergo, any issue in which they can grab the initiative will be like gold to them.
It will probably never happen. But with the new power of social media, it’s nice to play What If. What if the net commentariat took this up to the powers that be? What if the media was pressured into getting this issue onto the national agenda? What if we forced our politicians to behave like the decorous, professional adults we deserve?
It’s a nice thought. That’s what I would call Democracy.