3 February 2021
As we observe a seemingly endless litany of government decisions that are not just bad, but are totally against the public interest and wants, we might wonder why. Are politicians less principled than formerly? Are they of lower calibre? Is it just all about marketing?
Some long-term trends have to be looked at. At Bretton Woods in 1944 world leaders considered how to lessen the chance of future wars. The two world war had been because emerging powers needed markets that were closed to them. So ‘Free Trade’ was the cry that would allow the world to benefit from the free movement of goods from the places that produced them most efficiently to where they were wanted. Governments would not be able to get in the way. This trend has increased, helped by technologies in transport that have lowered freight costs. Countries that have done well have risen, countries that cannot get a premium on their products have gone down. But multinational companies have been able to evade taxes and develop oligopolies that allow super-normal prof its. Multinational companies are now richer than many countries, so governments’ power has hugely lessened in relation to these companies. So the companies often tell the governments what to do rather than vice-versa. Really good people used to go into government with a vision for their country’s future. Now these people often go into business, raising the question whether our politicians are second tier. Marketing is also much more sophisticated, and targeting is very important. Once it is recognised that what determines an election is a few percent in a few seats, the question is how to change those few minds. So research and election donations become critical. I have spoken to Ministers who seriously believe that they cannot oppose the industries that are the key players in their portfolio area. And if they believe that, that will certainly be the outcome.
Decisions like the inability of Australia to oppose the coal industry in the Climate ‘debate’, to avoid fracking when the gas industry sold gas on the assumption that it could frack for more, cal mining under dams, property development that sells iconic museums or demands higher dam walls are examples of governments doing what monied donors want. But the pork-barrelling to ‘look after our own’ is a new low in political behaviour. It has been coming for a while.
When I was in Parliament I followed up the award of a contract for disability services in the Hunter region, which had not gone to the incumbents who had been considered to be doing quite a good job. Investigations showed that there had been an exemplary selection process done in the public service, with the incumbent narrowly winning from another provider in the area, both with scores in the high nineties . The contract went to another tenderer with a score in the 50s. Scrawled across the file was a minder’s note, ‘This one more innovative- support them’. The Minister did. The minder went off to be CEO of the winning tenderer. The unsuccessful tenderers withdrew in disgust. Sadly, this did not come out for some time, so the successful tenderer was then established and the unsuccessful downsized so the decision could not be reversed. Someone in the office was temporarily stood down. It was an example of Ministers over-riding neutral selection processes, which is now so commonplace that Gladys Berejeklian assures us it is normal and the Federal government also acts as if this is so. Perhaps soon there will no public service process at all; why bother making potential trouble?
So with government believing that they cannot act against vested interests and also able to buy power with marketing money, it is hardly surprising that industries donate, especially when there is nothing stopping them. Ministers who are not particularly clever, but have good party connections can also leave politics for lobbying positions in the industries that they formerly were responsible for, having contacts in both the government and the responsible Departments.
As the power and the image of politicians fall, so do party numbers allowing more branch-stacking and nepotism. Some years ago, Christians, noting their numbers falling in the census made a huge effort to get into the political system to maintain their privileged tax deductible status and school system, so now they are represented in Cabinet way more than in society in general. So there is yet another strong lobby within the system- the religion industry.
These problems are part of long-term trends with technological and economic drivers. My own view is history is driven by these forces more than by anything governments want to do. Politicians now have a career structure where their interests are different from the public interest and this will never be reconciled. So we need a new conceptual framework. The power must be taken from the politicians and given back to the people. The government of Switzerland acts similarly to ours except that there are more political parties sharing power, so there is never an absolute majority with governments able to do whatever they like. More importantly, the people have plebiscites quarterly at Federal, Canton (State equivalent) and local levels. If there is enough signatures, an issue is put to plebiscite and the result is binding on governments. Legislation can be overturned if the petitions get enough signatures within a statutory time. So governments govern, but remain aware that they cannot do what they like. Politicians are all part-time and keep their jobs, which are also their post-parliament continuing careers. They are also limited to 2 terms, so that they do not have a political career structure that they can put ahead of the public interest.
It is time to change the constitution to lessen the power of the governments. Restricting political donations should be tried, but I watched as people tried to stop the tobacco industry buying influence. When TV ads were banned, they had ‘sponsorships’ around the grounds and it took 26 years to get rid of these as sponsored sport sang for its supper. Ethnic clubs, Sports Foundations, Rescue boats, Charities, disabled groups; all manner of potential lobbyists were gifted and sang for their supper or donated in kind. If someone has money and wants to help you, and you want to be helped there are a million ways to get around impediments. Those who think a donation limit will stop the problem are frankly naïve, though I am not saying it should not be done. It establishes a principle at least, so that we can chase the avoidances. But more substantial change is needed, a new constitution to lessen the power of Parliaments on the Swiss model.