2019 showed the structural weak points in our political system
There are several tempting topics for this week’s column. There’s ‘Smoko’s’ ill-judged disappearing trick. Our Clayton’s PM declaration of Wagga as the capital of Australia. Or his about-face when he finally admitted that “in the context of the fires raging throughout the country, further action must be taken on climate change” as the DA noted.
Not to mention, of course, Mr Morrison quickly dashing our hopes as he firmly announced that there would be no change to the government’s climate change policy.
The best he could manage was to say that Commonwealth public servants who volunteer would get four weeks of paid leave to help fight the fires. But ever the advertising con man that he is, ScoMo didn’t mention that it this leave is already in the public servants’ Enterprise Bargaining Agreement, so he gave us nothing.
Then at long last came a much overdue announcement from Mr. Morrison that NSW volunteers would be paid a paltry $6,000.00 compensation for all the work they have been doing over the past many months. Too little, too late, and limited to only your state, ScoMo.
But instead I will use this final column of the year to review the year just passed. Not a review in the sense of listing what happened, but rather the underlying structural issues of our so-called democracy that the year demonstrated.
As Crikey.com pointed out, systems that rely on the presence of good people to function effectively will always fail, and ours is such a system. Eventually some duds will come along.
In 2019 the failures of the duds demonstrated two big structural weak points in our political system.
The first is the lack of transparency. That is, the lack of transparency that enables powerful interests to purchase access and influence over policymakers, out of sight of voters.
The second is the lack of any protection for citizens against their own government.
The lack of transparency allows political donors to buy their way into private contact with key decision-makers where they can influence policy, without any scrutiny or accountability. The major donors to the Liberals and Nationals are corporations that serve the interests of shareholders, foreign investors and corporate executives.
If you have good political leaders, who are motivated by the national interest as much as by their desire for power, this lack of transparency is less of a problem.
That’s why, until the groundswell of public opinion meant it had to establish a Royal Commission, the Liberal Party ran a protection racket for the big banks which had donated so much, allowing them to operate virtually unchecked.
That’s why it continues to refuse to take action on climate change, which would harm the mining and energy companies that provide a steady flow of money.
The lack of any protection for citizens against their government is the other main structural weakness 2019 demonstrated. Unlike in the USA, where the idea of a bill of rights to protect people from government is the subject of universal consensus, here a bill of rights is regarded as left-wing extremism.
Here in fact we have a government that isn’t merely mediocre in its view of basic freedoms, but is actively hostile. It uses the powers of the state to harass, intimidate and jail citizens who might embarrass it, as was amply demonstrated this year by the AFP raids on Annika Smethurst and the ABC.
Usually analysis of all this revolves around people and personalities. Our media is very good in Australia at focusing on people and appallingly bad at focusing on systems and structures. Ninety-five per cent of political coverage is about people; only 5% is about the system that enables or fails to check them.
But focusing on personalities is just the way the powerful like it, since it reduces the chances of anyone noticing the system is the real problem and leaves them free to deal with decision-makers unfettered by accountability or transparency.
There’s no point sitting back and waiting for the media, or the Coalition, or Labor, to fix things. Things won’t improve until the system is changed, to reduce the influence of powerful interests and shed much more light on them, and to put in place basic protections for Australians against the actions of their government.
Political donations and funding reform, published meeting diaries, and a proper federal ICAC, as urged by the Greens, would be a good start. As would radically wider freedom of information laws and a US-style bill of rights, all of which are crucial fixes for a broken political system that 2019 has shown us that we need if we are to survive dud politicians.