Some is done with the public good at heart, to fix system and policy flaws, some is done based on ideological belief and some is done out of pure selfish motives – profit and power.
Whether it be politicians voting themselves pay rises and greater powers, advisors playing influence games on policy while pocketing lobbying fees, bureaucrats over-classifying material and splitting legislative hairs to protect their agencies and Ministers at public cost, corporations and their representative groups influencing policies and laws to their own advantage or foreign nations seeking to press their own national interests, there’s many groups with many reasons to subvert any political system.
The traditional approach to checking this subversion has been through institutional checks and balances and the existence of a constitution or similar foundation document which defines the spirit and the actual limits of governance. These controls work to some degree, allowing nations to thrive for decades without renewing their political systems.
However in certain cases this ends up with nations surviving on momentum alone – as institutions continue to serve their functions for years after their funding is cut below sustainable levels and politicians hold to the words, if not the spirit, of the governance intent of a nation’s ‘founding fathers’.
We see this today where governments allow important institutions and infrastructure to run down, continually being asked to do more for less; in the redefinition of human rights and freedoms, such as limiting them to citizens or even to just citizens with the financial capacity to afford them; the compromises politicians tell us are for our own good; and in failures by the corporations that run traditional media to hold a mirror to the conduct of other corporations and politicians in order to maintain their revenues and influence.
Of course under democracy we have the right to throw out our government and replace them with another – a cycle that has sped up globally over the last fifty years as people are more rapidly dissatisfied with how the stated goals of their elected representatives are translated into action.
However this electoral process increasingly resembles a simple rearrangement of the deckchairs, with politicians using science, psychology and marketing to identify where they should differentiate themselves or mirror the policies of other parties.
It has become increasingly hard to differentiate the different political brands as they have professionalised, replacing leaders with managers and true believers with corporatised career officials, whose goal is simply to take and hold power rather than to benefit and improve the lot of citizens.
This leads to even more gaming of the system – ‘preference whisperers’ advising minor parties how to structure preferences to maximise their chance of a seat, politicians who have realised that electoral promises are non-binding and can be discarded as soon as power is gained, an army of unelected partisan advisors who feed from the public purse but whose actions are not scrutinised as are career bureaucrats, and the casualisation of the public service, where cutting headcount is mandatory and agency heads and managers rename units or sack and reemploy bureaucrats as contractors and consultants to move them between funding and headcount buckets, regardless of the lost expertise or increased costs.
So perhaps we need to think outside the box of electoral democracy and think about the system itself.
What’s the best way to prevent people from gaming a system over time? Changing the rules.
We have mechanisms for doing this now – through courts and the constitution. However these mechanisms are under the oversight of elected politicians and are very difficult to change – particularly when the incumbents are happy with how things work, even if they don’t deliver the outcomes the public expects.
How about instead if we put our entire governance system up for election on a regular basis, perhaps every 12 or 20 years, allowing the public to vote on whether they felt the existing system still satisfied the needs of the nation, or whether it needed to be changed?
Perhaps Australians could vote to affirm or change the preferential system of electing representatives to a proportional or first past the post approach, change the period between elections from a variable three years to a fixed five year term, or limit the time that politicians can remain in office or as a Minister to a few terms.
Perhaps Australians could choose whether we ban all political parties, have an elected head of state, change the size or number of state governments or reallocate policy and service responsibilities between governance tiers.
Perhaps we could choose to have appointed, not elected, Ministers, or to have citizen panels, selected in similar ways to juries, provide formal and ongoing oversight to Ministers, or make decisions on key policy areas.
We could choose whether to have the entire electoral population vote on key decisions and programs – the budget, major national infrastructure, on whether to commit Australia to wars.
Of course there needs to be some structure behind this to allow it to work successfully – and there’s also the potential for this system of voting for our governance system to be itself gamed.
However given the increasing calls for change in our electoral system and governance model, not simply in the politicians who we may elect within it, it’s definitely worth considering more than electoral reform, but governance reform – with the public, the citizens and shareholders in the nation of Australia, being the people who choose how they are governed, not simply who governs them.