Imagining Australia – Strengthening Democracy

A few ideas on strengthening Australian democracy, from Imagining Australia.

We believe that Australia needs to rekindle its spirit of democratic innovation and experimentation. We present proposals to reform our democratic institutions and processes to encourage greater public participation, improve the quality of decision-making, and reinvigorate our democracy.

First, we suggest three major policy reforms for modernising the Constitution.
– We propose a republic, in which the Australian people directly elect a president from a list of six bipartisan candidates, a model that elsewhere has produced individuals able to transcend party politics and to speak to the spiritual concerns of the nation.
– We support a bill of rights to protect certain fundamental freedoms against government abrogation, and to give the High Court a greater role in the deliberations of the nation.
– We believe Australia should institute regular constitutional conventions to heighten constitutional awareness, and to ensure that the Constitution accords with the values of all of us who live under it.

We also advocate a series of measures to reform Australia’s democratic institutions, to improve the quality of public policymaking.
– We suggest transforming the Senate into a house of national policy formation. To achieve this reform, we advocate reducing the number of senators-in order to increase the effectiveness and prestige of the Senate-and we propose that no senator be eligible to serve in the Cabinet-an idea aimed at heightening the independence of the Senate.
– We propose reforming Cabinet government by enabling the prime minister to appoint ministers from outside the parliament, to expand and diversify the pool of candidates for those positions.
– We also advocate reinvigorating the public service by fostering greater public-private job mobility, to make the public service a font of new and exciting ideas.

At the electoral level, we seek to invigorate the democratic process, to encourage greater public participation, and to stimulate a deeper awareness and understanding of policy.
– We propose fixed four-year election terms, with the elections for the House of Representatives and for the Senate staggered two years apart. This will help to insulate the Senate elections from the influence of prime ministerial electoral races.
– We also hope to institutionalise a national ‘Deliberation Day’ in which citizens come together-in small groups with their political representatives-one week before major national elections to deliberate and discuss pressing issues in the campaign.
– We suggest that the system of preselecting political party candidates should be opened to all party supporters, not merely to the 1 per cent who belong to a political party. Open primaries will boost citizen involvement and the quality of our politicians.
– Finally, we propose campaign finance reform to encourage the donation of more money to political parties, but through ‘blind trusts’ so as to avoid the potential for corruption.

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12 Responses to Imagining Australia – Strengthening Democracy

  1. Kevin Rennie says:

    Agree with many of your suggestions but oppose the idea of Cabinet ministers from outside parliament. Accountability, especially through scrutiny in parliament, not just by parliament needs to be beefed up not watered down.

    Participation at the electorate level is a joke in seats like Kalgoorlie where the candidates didn’t even have public meetings during the election. It wasn’t just because of the size of our electorate. the local member often visits but like most other politicians doesn’t tell the plebs beforehand.

    I am looking forward to the WA State cabinet community meeting in Broome next week to see if any real, open exchange happens. The local paper says that “a selection of Broome locals will be granted an audience.” All the usual suspects no doubt.

  2. Kevin Cox says:

    It is interesting that most of the proposals are top down initiatives – not bottom up. Here are a couple more that you could add that might actually get people involved.

    Giving users of government services more choice in how services and goods are delivered starting with health services and people with special needs.

    Giving all stakeholders a voice in electing governing boards of all our institutions starting with giving consumers a voice on the boards of our top 100 public companies like the BHP, the Banks, RIO etc. Giving listeners of the ABC a voice on the ABC board and letting the legal profession elect judges particularly to the High Court.

  3. Joel Parsons says:

    Not sure I agree with most of that, but I would endorse a move to a primary system for the preselection of candidates.

    The funds that political parties currently receive for participating in elections should be made conditional upon the operation of free and fair primary elections.

    This would open up the political process and both transform the nature of factional politics in both of the major political parties. It is interesting to note that in SA, the Liberal Party has already adopted a plebiscite mechanism which is open to all members for determining contested preselections.

  4. Anon says:

    I am not sure why people think that they are entitled to participate in party preselections…political parties, amongst other things, are a ‘brand’; one that has been privately developed and cultivated for many years. On what grounds should ordinary members of the public have any involvement in the management of that brand, without the responsibilities that stem from party membership?

  5. Anon says:

    Giving all stakeholders a voice in electing governing boards of all our institutions starting with giving consumers a voice on the boards of our top 100 public companies like the BHP, the Banks, RIO etc. Giving listeners of the ABC a voice on the ABC board and letting the legal profession elect judges particularly to the High Court.

    Kevin, shareholder boards are elected by the shareholders (owners) of the company, to work in their best interests. How would the public being involved in the election of board members accord with the private ownership of shares?

  6. Mike Pepperday says:

    I think “bipartisan” presidential candidates is naïve. There are three points in sections 2 and 4 of the constitution where it says the Queen appoints and dismisses the GG. There is no further mention of the matter. Strike out “Queen” and write in “People” and the allegedly difficult job of patriating sovereignty from the monarch to the people is done. Later, we could become a republic. Well, I have said it all before.

    A mini bill of rights in 1988 was resoundingly rejected at referendum. How is it strengthening democracy to keep pushing what the people have said they don’t want?

    A constitutional convention is a talk fest for the glitterati and the literati. Will it raise awareness or will people continue to watch the commercial channels? Anyway it is not democratic. Democratic is when the people rule, not when they talk (let alone when their betters talk down to them).

    The politicians would love to reduce the Senate size. Twice (or is it thrice?) the people have told them at referendum that they don’t want it. It is not confirming of democratic credentials to keep trying to ram this down their neck.

    Yes, let there a rule that no upper house member can have portfolio responsibility. Let it be done in all states. It would build effective committees as they became career legislators. It has often been suggested but doesn’t seem to get anywhere.

    It cannot possibly be more democratic for the PM to have more patronage powers to appoint ministers.

    A public service probably needs, periodically, an organisational bomb under it to keep it from getting stiff and stifling. But new and exciting ideas require entrepreneurship and that is contrary to an ethos of service and self-effacement, an ethos that values propriety, dignity and measured judgement.

    You suggest more public participation for more awareness and understanding. This is the pat-on-the-head idea that democracy is a nice discussion. Democracy is a form of rule. One does not suggest a ruler “participate”.

    As Keven Cox says, your suggestions are top-down. If you want democratic let the people decide policy and law.

  7. Molesworth says:

    I don’t like the idea of reducing the size of the Senate. The Senate will always be a party house, just like the Reps. That’s democracy and there’s no realistic way (consistent with the Constitution’s implied right of free political communication) to prevent it. Reducing the Senate’s size and electing it at a different time would just increase the quota for election (assuming it remained a PR system) and make it more likely that the Senate will be controlled by the major party that is in opposition in the Reps. That won’t result in independent review.

    I’m also not sure that primaries would produce the results you hope for. In the US they (arguably) produce candidates who are less centrist than they might be if swinging voter-focused party machines made the choice, and who are therefore further from the views of the average voter. I think the same would happen here. They would also give a huge advantage to people with money or a pre-existing profile and would help break down party discipline by removing the threat of being dumped. People may disagree, but I think party discipline actually makes Parliaments more responsive to the average voter who does not take the time to work out what every individual candidate thinks.

    As for a Bill of Rights, I’m much more inclined to support one on the Canadian model, which can be overridden as long as it is done expressly. Take the decision of the High Court (by majority) to prevent restrictions on political advertising on constitutional grounds. Effectively, this decision means that efforts to prevent the private financing of political campaigns are doomed forever. Is the High Court really best placed to make these sort of decisions? A Bill of Rights would inevitably lead to the politicisation of the High Court too. Instead of party line votes in the Parliament on key rights questions, you would get party line votes in the High Court where they’re much harder to overturn.

  8. Molesworth says:

    Sorry, I didn’t mean for the above to sound so negative. My position is not final on any of these things and it’s great they’re being discussed. I too see much to like in the US system where people who earn squillions in the private sector are much more likely to move in and out of public service. Does anyone know if the idea of non-MP Ministers has been implemented in a system where the executive is responsible to the legisltaure?

  9. Kevin Cox says:

    Anon,

    If you have ever been involved in shareholder elections you will soon discover how undemocratic the whole process is even for shareholders. How does Rupert Murdoch continue to control News Corp when his ownership is less than 20%? Have you ever tried to get elected to a board without the approval of the existing board? Why don’t we have multi seat electorates for boards instead of first past the post for all positions? Why does the board automatically get all proxies. I can go on and on about company board composition and elections. They are one of the least democratic institutions we have in the country even for shareholders.

    The other myth is that other stakeholders and in particular the users of the service should not have a say in the governance of the organisation. Organisations are always talking about their stakeholders and they all say their customers are critical to their success.

    I would go even further and require organisations that use customers money to increase their asset base – as opposed to paying for the service – to give some shares to the customers to reflect the fact that they are investing some of the customers money in capital expansion.

    Companies do not exist without customers and it makes sense to give customers a say in how the organisations are run because life is about cooperation as well as competition.

  10. mat.h says:

    I love the idea of a deliberation day. Though if we are going to think big, why not make it a yearly affair at the very least. Give people a public holiday so they have time to participate. Organise small groups according to issues; public can deliberate with each other. Also involve community groups, academics, other experts, business, policy makers and MPs. A submission written by groups at the conclusion of the deliberations could be fed into the policy process and considered properly.

  11. Patrick says:

    – We believe Australia should institute regular constitutional conventions to heighten constitutional awareness, and to ensure that the Constitution accords with the values of all of us who live under it.

    The point of our Constitution is that the government is supposed to accord with the values of all of us who live under it. The Constitution regulates what that Government can do in furtherance of those values in order to ensure the ongoing viability of a national and democratic polity. Is it really desirable that it do more?

    We support a bill of rights to protect certain fundamental freedoms against government abrogation, and to give the High Court a greater role in the deliberations of the nation

    The latter aim is highly questionable. We have been blesssed by High Courts with an admirable approach to political issues but who is to say that this will continue, even absent the additional incentive to ‘stack’ the court that an enforceable bill of rights would create?

    – We propose fixed four-year election terms, with the elections for the House of Representatives and for the Senate staggered two years apart. This will help to insulate the Senate elections from the influence of prime ministerial electoral races.

    I assume this retains the existing half-Senate elections. In which case there is merit to this but I wonder if it is outweighed by the fuss of elections.

    – We also advocate reinvigorating the public service by fostering greater public-private job mobility, to make the public service a font of new and exciting ideas.

    I would think there is clearly merit in this. I am not entirely sure how one would implement your ‘fostering’, however.

    – We suggest transforming the Senate into a house of national policy formation. To achieve this reform, we advocate reducing the number of senators-in order to increase the effectiveness and prestige of the Senate-and we propose that no senator be eligible to serve in the Cabinet-an idea aimed at heightening the independence of the Senate.

    Although I am sure it is not your aim this can hardly but increase major party representation in the Senate.

    – Finally, we propose campaign finance reform to encourage the donation of more money to political parties, but through ‘blind trusts’ so as to avoid the potential for corruption.

    I find it hard to conceive of how this would really work.

    – We also hope to institutionalise a national ‘Deliberation Day’ in which citizens come together-in small groups with their political representatives-one week before major national elections to deliberate and discuss pressing issues in the campaign.

    I thought this already happened for those who cared. I can’t see their numbers increasing because there is a national day for it. Also the example of the 2020 farce is poisoning by association any idea such as this!

    Finally:

    Giving all stakeholders a voice in electing governing boards of all our institutions starting with giving consumers a voice on the boards of our top 100 public companies like the BHP, the Banks, RIO etc. Giving listeners of the ABC a voice on the ABC board and letting the legal profession elect judges particularly to the High Court.

    There may be some merit in the final two recommendations. There is none whatsoever in the first which completely misses the point. Australian consumers are already heavily represented in the shareholding of these companies. The problem you have with board elections is largely one of organisation – the pension funds, however, represent something rather similar to agglomerations on consumers.

    Consumers are extremely well represented

  12. Patrick says:

    oops. Consumers are extremely well represented in management and board decision-making. I believe that companies who fail to consider their consumers usually go bankrupt. I note that the consumers of BHP and Rio’s products are overwhelmingly foreign – should they have a greater say as well?

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