Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Paul Kelly, political stability, special interest groups and the need for change

It is a while since I have written a companion post addressed to one of my fellow bloggers. In this case, the inspiration is Winton Bates’ Is Australia's political system broken?. But first some other matters.

Sunday night was the grand final of the Australian National Rugby League competition. I rarely watch league now. I stopped watching a few years back when the rules were changed in a way I didn’t like. Still, and like my friend and fellow blogger Neil Whitfield, I followed on Sunday night to see if South Sydney could complete its fairy tale journey by winning. They did, and it bought tears to my eyes. The story is well known in Australia. Perhaps I should write a short post at some point for the benefit of my non-Australian readers. It really is a good news story.

On a less positive note, it appears that the changes that have been made to the Australian VET (Vocational Education and Training) system may be emerging as the latest administrative mess associated with current Australian approaches to public policy and administration. My attention was drawn rather forcibly to these changes when a VET college recruiter (they have recently proliferated in Westfield Parramatta) tried to enrol me in a VET course in return for a free lap top! I don’t understand the detail of the changes; as always with our modern “simplified” systems they are complex, but they do appear to be having perverse results.

Turning now to my main theme,Winton’s post begins with a quote from Paul Kelly’s new book, Triumph and Demise, The broken promise of a Labor Generation:       

“The process of debate, competition and elections leading to national progress has broken down. The business of politics is too de-coupled from the interests of Australia and its citizens. This de-coupling constitutes the Australian crisis”.

I am not going report or comment on Winton’s arguments in full. You should read the post for that. Rather, I want to comment on just three things that interest me.

Political Stability

According to Winton, Paul Kelly writes of “volatility and fragmentation” as being “the new driving forces” of Australian politics. Mmm. How does that fit with the historical record?

Take the Liberal Party. In 1909 we had the Commonwealth Liberal Party formed by a merger of the Protectionist and Anti-Socialist Parties. In 1917, this morphed into the Nationalist Party of Australia. This lasted until 1931 when it became the United Australia Party. In turn, this lasted until 1945 when it became the Liberal Party. These weren’t just brand changes, but political changes. 

One of constant features of Australian politics is the way that the changes in the major political parties create disenfranchised groups on the edge of the party that combine with others to form new political groupings that merge and coalesce over time in the kaleidoscope of Australian politics.

Leave aside the Country now National Party, since the Liberal Party was formed in 1945, the political spin-offs that drew from the Liberal Party support base include the Australia Party,  the Liberal Movement,, the Australian Democrats and, most recently, the Liberal Democrats and Palmer United Party.

Volatility and fragmentation are hardly new.

The Power of Special Interest Groups

Paul Kelly apparently argues that the political system has evolved in ways that have given sectional interests more power than ever before. He mentions technology and campaign techniques in this context, and brings fragmentation of the traditional media and the rise of social media into the discussion. He also makes the point that it has become more difficult for leaders to talk honestly to the community as they have become subjected to greater media pressure to rule out any action that might disadvantage any powerful interest group.

Have special interest groups become more powerful, distorting political activity? Well, yes, but not (I think)in quite the same way that Mr Kelly argues.

Special interest groups have always been important. The biggest change, and its happened over the last forty years, is the proliferation to the point that there is a special interest group or groups covering every aspect of human life or experience. A second related change is that they have become far more professional.

Government itself has played a major role in their emergence because of its varying policy approaches and need to consult the “stakeholders”.

To illustrate, take technical, further and higher education. So long as this sector was Government owned, there was no role for special interest groups beyond the then conventional bodies such as the institutions themselves, unions who expressed the interests of their members or local bodies arguing particular causes. Now there are dozens of bodies that need to be consulted and who argue a special case.

The rise of the NGO sector in general is another example and one that deserves a post in its own right. Promoted and supported by Government, the NGOs argue for a variety of controls and measures that will advance their particular causes and then, success achieved, oppose anything that affects their particular interests.

Winton focuses on economic issues. But how do you reduce Government controls, free parts of the system up, reduce spend, when you have created an entire system whose very existence depends upon the maintenance and extension of Government controls and programs that meet their particular needs across the spectrum of human activity?  

Convergence and the emergence of Lib-Lab

The idea of party convergence, the disappearance of real difference between the main political parties, actually first emerged back in the seventies. Then, and this is just from my perspective, it became an issue in finding the best way for the Country Party to re-establish and maintain its separate identity based on its traditional roots.

When parties converge, the challenge is to find a point of differentiation that will achieve success in a competitive environment. If there is no real difference in basic product, then you have to try to sell the sizzle in combination with price and features that appeal to particular voting groups. I have called this the supermarket approach to politics.

In reality, life is not as simple as this. Politics is about values and ideas as well as staying in power. When the contest becomes one between well oiled machines fighting over what is in fact a standardised product, people drop off. This, I think, is where Mr Kelly misses the point.

The New England independents or, for that matter, PUP are not weaknesses in the political system, but recurring symbols of change and the need for change. Parliament and especially the Senate temper the desire of those in control to do what they will, they articulate new needs, reinstate old needs and views. To my mind, that’s not bad, although the results in particular cases may be. It’s part of the process of reinvention that is critical to the health of our democratic system.  


Winton Bates said...

Hi Jim
Political stability: The fact that a lot of the volatility that you refer to occurred before we were born seems to me to reinforce the view that there has been a long period of political stability. New parties are often formed, but until recently the major parties could rely on strong tribal loyalty.

The power of special interest groups: I think your discussion of this point is consistent with Paul Kelly's, but I might be missing something.

Convergence and values: The problem is not that people who become disaffected with the major parties tend to set up new parties, it is that with proportional representation in the Senate it is normal for minor parties to hold the balance of power and to exercise it irresponsibly (i.e. without having to accept responsibility for overall economic outcomes).

My suggestion that the power exercised by minor parties in the Senate is encouraging the fragmentation of the major parties is an extension of Paul Kelly's argument.

I don't have a problem with Independents being elected to the House of Representatives because it is unusual for them to hold the balance of power. For the same reasons I don't have a problem with minor parties such as DLP (historically) and the Greens being able to exercise influence through preferential voting for the House of Reps.
The important point is to have a system that ensures that one of the major parties (or a stable coalition) is able to form government and to be held accountable for policy outcomes.

Rod said...

I probably should comment in detail but for the time being I'll present my opinion only.

The political process is a mess (in my opinion). It is no longer representative democracy except where local members of parliament ignore interest groups. When they ignore these groups they can be representative of the electorate more generally. But they do so at their own peril. Interest groups/NGOs are becoming the electorate now. They have unfettered power through the media leading to political authority.

For example, who in their "right" political mind take on NGOs such as WWF? They have a Panda for their logo! They cant be anything but nice! Even if their actions in Kenya have in one case led to forced evictions from land and several deaths amongst those recently made homeless... in the interests of creating a National Park. National Parks are always good... So no opposition is allowed especially not from the ignorant voter.

Unions (I'm a member of one)... their power is such that even corrupt ones must be listened to (e.g. CFMEU). Eco groups, medical groups, road users groups, industry groups... they are the electorate. If they approve of something then the media will say so and all is fine and dandy.

Jim Belshaw said...

Good evening Winton. A number of interesting points in your comment.

I think that the tribal loyalty point is an important one. My impression is that the start of the decline dates back to the professionalization of politics. This was also the time at which the discussion of convergence between the main parties first became an issue.

Interestingly, if my FB feeds are any guide, the more ideological nature of current politics has led to a resurgence of ALP branch activity because there is an identified enemy, an apparent set of asserted values that people do not accept.

The question of stability remains an interesting one. Fairly obviously, I don't accept your strictures on minority parties nor your opposition to proportional representation. But then, you see, I don't accept your particular formulation of economic responsibility!

Work Choices is instructive. Because Mr Howard did not have to compromise, to temper, he over-reached, setting work place reform back in the longer term. In the case of the current Government, the best thing that Mr Abbott has going for his administration is the Senate. Here I am not talking about obstructionism, just about tempering.

My feeling is that if the Government had actually got through all the things proposed, their chances of winning the next election would have been quite low.

On special interest groups, I haven't read Paul's book, but am responding to your interpretation as a thought entry point. I may well be in agreement. I have been banging on about the topic often enough!

Jim Belshaw said...

You put that a little more strongly than I might have, Rod, but you are right.

Evan said...

I hope the reinvention leads to a healthier system.

When a government caves to a business advertising campaign by the mining lobby or appoints a climate sceptic businessman to a body supervising adaption to global warming; well, I think we definitely need a healthier system

Winton Bates said...

You might be right about Senate obstruction improving the Abbott government's chances of re-election. But that is beside the point, I think.

A way really does need to be found to address the problem of government accountability.

John Stitch said...

Jim on the question of political stability is it possible we are seeing a coup by the Intelligence Agencies. Could these same so called anti-terrorist laws be used against a political party. For instance if a leader of a political party espouses views that are considered supportive of terrorism (regardless of whether they are taken out of context or not) and that leader is supported by his or her party could they not be arrested en masse. There would be no reporting of this, although I imagine there would little incentive for reporters to risk 5 years jail for the architects of these laws.
I know its sounds far fetched but I would be interested in hearing what if any safeguards are in place to prevent this. And if there are any then why should they (the politicians) be treated differently to anyone else?

Evan said...

I think we need ways for citizens to have input into policy.

Some mechanisms for this already exist - not popular with the parties though.

Winton Bates said...

Sorry about double posting above. Some gremlin in blogger told me that my first attempt to post the comment had failed.
I agree about the need for citizen's input, but wonder whether you have anything specific in mind. It is hard for the voices of ordinary citizens to be heard because forums seem to get taken over by interest groups.

Evan said...

Very true Winton.

There are models for citizen juries getting representative samples and such. I think 'deliberative democracy' covers some of them.

I haven't looked at the options closely, just enough to know that they are out there.

I have a memory of attending a lecture a few years ago that said Perth or WA had made some experiments (backed by one government member) but now can't remember the details I'm sorry to say.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi JS. These types of laws can and have been used to muzzle political opposition in other countries. I don't think Australia is in that position, but not sure that I can give you a proper legal answer.

Jim Belshaw said...

Good evening, Evan and Winton. Winton, I deleted that duplicate comment.

I find accountability a difficult concept. What is accountable, to whom and for what purpose?

The Government is formally accountable to Parliament as the supreme legislative body. Technically, its not accountable to the people, although the electorate can throw it out at the next election.

A member of Parliament is accountable to his electorate since that electorate has elected him or her to represent them. However, views in the electorate vary.

Most country MPs at least (city MPs can ignore their electorates to some degree) are out and about all the time. The New England independents did this but also used formal surveys and discussion groups to test views.

When Tony and Rob supported Labor, the accountability issue came up. They represented conservative electorates. They should do what the majority wanted. Tony and Rob took the view that their role as Parliamentarians, their broader accountabilities, required them to take a broader view. In doing so, they acted within the New England political tradition.

So to Winton and also Evan, what do you mean by accountability? How should it be measured?

Evan said...

Did I mention 'accountability'? Must have been a rush of blood to the head.

I'm in favour of transparency. (Files being trucked through cabinet so they become in confidence isn't a way to strengthen democracy in my view.)

With accountability, I'm a bit like you Jim; not sure what it means in terms of sanctions and so on. Ministers no longer take responsibility for mistakes in their portfolio so that kind of accountability seems to have gone.

I would like a way for representatives to be held to good faith about commitments made. I confess to not having many ideas on how to do this. It seems to me that we do now have a media-political class - 'the professionalisation of politics' and so on.

This class will rule in their own interests I think. E.g. I think there is small chance of getting landlord subsidies removed when so many pollies own investment properties.

Hope this is a sensible response to your concerns Jim.

Winton Bates said...

Good morning Jim.
I'm not sure how consistent I am in my views on this, but one of the hazards of voting for Independents is that they do not have a party to pull them into line when they act contrary to expectations of the people who elected them. Independents tend to believe that they are entitled to be independent.

The particular aspect of accountability that is of concern to me is the ability of the electorate to hold the government accountable for the policies it adopts. One of the big promises of the Liberal-National Coalition before the last election was to bring the budget back under control. There is not much evidence of that happening at the moment. But the government can say, with some justification, that they have been trying to bring the budget under control, but have been obstructed. Various counter arguments can be raised. The Opposition ad minor parties can claim, again with some justification, that they are not to blame for overall budget outcomes. The problem is that accountability is not clear.
I haven't thought a great deal about the measurement question, but my initial thought is that it might be useful to try to measure the degree of confusion in the minds of voters, particularly swinging voters, about which parties should be held responsible for policy outcomes such as budget deficits. The extent to which voters hold the Opposition and minor parties responsible would be an indicator of the extent of the problem.

Winton Bates said...

I had a look at citizen's juries etc a few years ago on my blog. They can be useful but there are problems. In fact, you provided some comments. See:


Evan said...

Yes. lots of problems but one avenue worth exploring I think.

Jim Belshaw said...

I suspect that each of us holds inconsistent views! Independents are just that, independent. If you think about the argument that they don't have a party to pull them into line, you only have to look at the way that party discipline over-rides the wishes of the electorates who actually elected the members.

Voters hold parliamentarians and governments accountable at the ballot box. I have long been opposed to the idea that elections are just about individual promises, shopping lists, that then create some form of mandate. That has quite pernicious effects.

Both the Coalition and Labor went to the elections with bringing the budget back into surplus as a platform item. The troubles the Government is experiencing are not about that promise as such, but the means adopted. To my mind, that's a very different issue