12. The problem identified


As we discussed before on the chapter about problem solving, the most important aspect of that process is to properly understand the problem.  It is widely recognised that in many western democracies electors are increasingly disillusioned with politics, yet despite this, our governments and most politicians say they are concerned, but not enough to actually do anything about it.   So how about the leaders of our corporations and businesses? Well, as long as the party in charge is doing their bidding, why should they complain?  (Although unfortunately short-term interests can backfire spectacularly as declining economies may result in the lower wages they desire, but when this transforms into lower expenditure and hence lower profits, those benefits may be outweighed by the costs).  The unions?  Sure, if it benefits their members.  Well, surely the media would push the case for change? But no, whether the owner, or indeed those in the press gallery, their livelihood is built around the status quo and all the newsworthy opportunities it provides – tittle tattle and scuttlebutt is much more interesting to report on compared to policy.  So who will shout out for the rights of the electorate?  Well, nobody.  Which is why we need to do it for ourselves.

So what is the fundamental nature of the problem?  Is it that government is too big?  Is government doing the things that really should be done by private enterprise?  Should government be providing education?  Health?  Those who believe that the competitive nature of the free market is intrinsically more efficient than the public sector believe that private enterprise is best placed to deliver those services.  But what about roads and transport networks?   Have private energy companies and telecoms companies provided lower priced goods and services since they have moved from the public to the private sector?    Should we dismantle our public broadcast networks, the ABC and SBS, so that the private sector can get a level playing field?  Certainly those on the rightwing side of the political spectrum believe that less government is better than more, but is this the fundamental issue?  Would smaller government resolve voter disenfranchisement?  I don’t think so.  Arguably the US has smaller government than Australia, with a much more limited social security and health safety net, but arguably has a larger proportion of its population in poverty.   Voting rates in the US presidential elections have dropped to as low as 54% of those eligible, and at their best have rates of less that 65%.  One might argue that American voters are so pleased with both parties that they really don’t mind who is in charge, but given that the turnout is lowest amongst those with the most at stake, the numbers suggest the system has effectively disenfranchised them, and they feel their votes are worthless.

The other big (but often forgotten) responsibility of government is regulation.  Whilst businesses complain all too often about red tape and green tape, who do they turn to when things aren’t going their way?  Twiggy Forrest has used all sorts of “machinations” in his mining operations to get around regulations to get what he wanted, but when the free market resulted in a drop in the iron ore price to a level that his large competitors could afford to produce at, but he could not, he was pushing for the government to run an enquiry (having first suggested what was effectively a highly illegal cartel might be the way to go!).  But would getting rid of regulation help the consumer?  How happy would you be living in a house which had been built without building regulations? Or buying powdered milk imported from China?  The global financial crisis was in significant part caused by a lack of regulation, both internal to the banks, but also within the industry and by the government.  The impact of this is still being felt.

So if not the size and reach of government, what else?  Is it the voting system that is at fault? Well, whilst based on the Westminster model, the Australian parliamentary system has been adapted over the years, so those differences allow for some comparison.  However unlike the UK where voting is voluntary, voting in Australia is mandatory, so voting levels cannot be used to give an indication of relative satisfaction.  Unlike the UK with the first-past-the-post system, where in each election the candidate with the highest votes wins, in Australia the preference based system requires voters to rank all lower house candidates in order of preference, the result of which often provides the least unpopular candidate to winning the seat.  In Australia, the electorate vote for the Upper House, in the UK the House of Lords is determined in part by tradition and in part through political largesse, but certainly not directly by the electorate!   Have these “improvements” made a difference?  It is argued that any system that fails to produce a clear winner results in a less effective government, however both the UKs first past-the-post, and Australia’s preferential voting systems have produced majority as well as minority governments, and whilst the evidence from the current government implies that the lack of senate majority has impeded their ability to pass legislation, the previous government who lacked both a lower house and senate majority were highly effective in passing legislation.  So the voting system doesn’t appear to be the problem either.

What about the quality of the candidates?  The argument often put forward in the private sector that if you want the best candidates for those top board positions, you have to pay top dollar for them.  Compared to the UK, Australian politicians are far better paid (whilst attending parliament significantly less!).  Do we really believe that our politicians are significantly better than those overseas?  If you’ve never watched the following satirical clip featuring our current prime-minister, then I’d recommend it.  As apparently this is the best we can do.  Now in case I’m accused of being overly politically biased (and it would not be the first time), let me state that I’m not significantly impressed by the leader of the opposition either, whose leadership was only achieved through the support of the caucus (the sitting MPs and senators), as the membership had shown a clear preference for his opponent, Anthony Albanese.  Indeed in current opinion polls, neither leader of the two major parties is the public’s preference.

Of course there are without doubt, many fine people in politics, in all major parties.  Unfortunately they are often restricted in what they can do, or say, as loyalty is more important in party politics than anything else, particularly the truth.  Every party politician has made at least one compromise in their values to get to where they are.  Indeed it wouldn’t surprise me that each party keeps a “dirt file” on every one of its MPs, waiting to be used if that member shows any sign of dissent or disloyalty, and indeed encourages situations to put them into compromising positions for this very purpose.  That might sound more than a little bit “out there”, but nothing surprises me in politics anymore.

The source of the problem was identified long ago, and stated by John Adams, the first vice President and the 2nd President of the USA, and a founding father of that nation.  Those early political pioneers were able to build their new system from scratch, however it wasn’t long before it, too, was swayed toward the two party based system we now know.

John Adams quote

Adams recognised that a polarising approach would be detrimental to an effective system of governance.  Indeed this type of governance system is not observed in any other institution or business. Imagine a business with a board and an opposition board?  The concept is laughable!  But we fully accept it in perhaps the most important institution in our country because of history? Tradition? Because to have survived so long it must be perfect, or at least can’t be bettered?  Or is it simply that its not in the interests of those directly involved to encourage change.

Political parties, and those who have power to influence them, whether businesses or unions or wealthy individuals, are not democratic institutions, however they portray themselves. They are tyrannical, despotic.  The leaders demand complete loyalty, even if individually a party member disagrees with those at the top.  But if they aren’t democratic in how they function, how can they engage in a democratic process in government?  How do they switch from one form to another?  Evidence reveals they simply cannot. Political parties are self-interested, divisive, and are often more interested in power itself, than what you might do with it.  Ambition, power bases, factions, leadership challenges, faceless behind-the-scenes operators – it has all the intrigue of the Court of Versaille!  And don’t the media love it. Indeed, they are very much part of that game.  It is all, of course, simply gossip, but because it is taking place in our most important institution, it is important gossip which helps them justify the intellect that they so often waste on it.  There are few media commentators who are capable of standing above it and state that this futile dance is leading nowhere.

One government is replaced by another.  One governments legislation that they worked so tirelessly to implement is simply torn out by their replacement. One step forward, one step back.  Ultimately achieving nothing.  But ultimately it will be seen as the electors fault because they had the audacity for voting in the wrong party.

Consider the transformation of the business world in a similar timeframe.  These businesses aren’t democratic either, but they are accountable to their stakeholders on a far more regular basis.  They know that to succeed, they need to be effective.  Their decision making and their problem solving must be high quality, they need to have agreed strategies, vision and values.  They are smart, and they are quick.  They are always working out how to outwit their competitors, but they now are doing the same to governments, using tax havens to launder their profits and avoid paying company tax, using trade agreements to allow themselves to sue governments that change legislation that might impact their profits.  Indeed, they have to in order to compete, because this is exactly what their competitors are doing.

So how can we make government more effective?  In actual fact, the processes are actually rather good.  There are a decent number of checks and balances, if they were used correctly, to ensure that legislation is properly scrutinised before it is passed.  The problem appears before this, with the quality of the legislation being produced, which as we have discussed before, is largely focussed on maintaining that parties power rather than necessarily solving the underlying problem.

So if we recognise that of all the issues that we have with system, it is without doubt the political party based approach that is the underlying problem with our democratic system, how can we adapt the system to operate efficiently without them?  And before you think the system NEEDS political parties, you are very much mistaken.  You may not believe it, but there is no mention of political parties in the constitution.  The system does not require them to operate at all.  They were constructed AFTER the system was developed, but, like a cancer, have slowly taken over the political mechanism so insidious that we haven’t realised the damage they were really doing.  But finally, we’ve reached a nexus.  Technology has allowed so many members of the population the ability to share their views via the internet and social media, putting the system under scrutiny like never before.  Politics is increasingly a difficult place to hide from your past, or from ineptitude.

But we need an alternative.  One that works.  Ideally one that ensures our elected representatives recognise that they work for us, and only us.  And we need a means to get from where we are now, to that new place without everything falling apart.  Evolution, not revolution.

And in the following section, I’ll outline the ideas that I hope reveal that this is entirely possible.


About Steve Laing

Political observer, free thinker and problem solver, Steve contends that the current democratic processes have neither kept up to date with globalisation nor modern business practices, resulting in increasing dissatisfaction with modern politics. However, new technology could be used to not only reconfigure our system, but give the electorate even greater representation than was previously the case. For more background information on Steve, please check his LinkedIn profile.

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