Blue Sky Democracy, Part 2: Understanding the red lines and black lines
In part 1, I outlined why I’m doing this projects and what the ten ideas I wanna explore are.
Before we dig into some of those ideas, I want to give a quick overview of the research into what Australians think about politics and democracy to help you understand how I came to these ideas.
And most importantly, I want to explore the two big limiting factors to reform: the Constitution and Parliament.
The Australian Constitution has a few hard rules in it — mostly sections 7 and 24 — that stop real wide-ranging electoral reform.
Less of a roadblock and more of a brick wall, changing the Constitution faces the impossible task of winning a referendum. Getting the majority of people in a majority of states to agree to even a technical change every major party agrees with is hard enough, let alone potentially controversial structural changes that at minimum reactionaries would campaign against. That political capital should be reserved for addressing the much more pressing racist aspects of the Constitution — its treatment of First Nations people and the eligibility for MPs.
The nexus rule requires that the number of MPs in the House of Representatives be “as near as practicable” twice the number of Senators. This rule has been applied by the High Court to remove seats from the House of Representatives to reconcile with the size of the Senate, and attempts to remove the rule by referendum failed. This means we can’t increase the number of MPs without also increasing the Senate.
The apportionment rule requires that each “original state” has equal representation in the Senate, that the total MPs allocated to each state is done on the basis of population, that each “original state” has no fewer than five MPs in the House of Representatives regardless of population and that MPs are chosen “in each state” and cannot be shared across state boundaries.
The direct election rule — which requires that MPs and Senators are “directly chosen by the people” — generally applies to enfranchisement. But it may also prevent replacing the single transferable vote with a more European party-list proportional system or New Zealand’s multi-member proportional overhang system, although this is untested. The reason being, these models create “party seats” where the voter doesn’t directly put their mark against an individual’s name. The argument goes that, especially in a relatively stable party system like Australia, that means that party selectors choose MPs rather than voters. I think it’s a weak argument, given party selectors already effectively pick the winners in most seats, but it’s worth avoiding if you can. It has also been floated that the direct election rule might prevent more widely-canvassed ideas like designated seats for First Nations peoples.
The implied freedom of political communication, which I don’t understand and refuse to acknowledge is real, and in short means a law needs to pass three legal tests: (1) does the law effectively burden the freedom in its terms, operation or its practical effect; (2) are the purpose of the law and the means adopted to achieve that purpose legitimate, in the sense that they are compatible with the maintenance of the constitutionally prescribed system of representative government; and, (3) is the law reasonably appropriate and adapted to advance that legitimate object.
Thankfully, this still leaves a lot of wriggle room. The Constitution is pretty silent on how big Parliament can get (provided the nexus is maintained and tiny Tasmania still has five MPs and a full complement of Senators) and is mostly silent on how MPs are elected.
That brings me to the biggest roadblock to expanding democratic rights: politicians.
Fundamentally, most politicians’ commitment to democracy only goes as far as getting them reelected.
Expanding democratic rights was once upon a time the rallying cry of liberals and socialists. But today’s political parties are so scared of their own (rapidly shrinking) memberships, let alone the electorate at large, that they do everything in their power to lock them and their Press Gallery buddies off from the horror of real peoples’ opinions.
The idea that politicians were delegates of social movements and Parliament a field to peacefully fight the great social battles between classes and causes has been replaced by politicians seeing elections and campaigns as formalities or distractions from their comfortable, well-paid jobs middle-managing the state.
In the short term, that’s unavoidable.
In May, the Government benches will be filled exclusively by Labor or Liberal MPs whose minds will turn immediately to “okay but how do we win next time”. And realistically, given the track record of the nearly decade-old Coalition Government, only a Labor Government getting elected opens the narrow window where reform is possible.
Centrist and progressive crossbench parties are generally in favour of democratic reforms provided they don’t torpedo their own chance to win and right-wing parties generally oppose them, so neither are particularly relevant considerations in getting reform across the line.
What that means is, any change needs to either not impact the power and privileges of whoever wins enough to scare them off — or it needs to be sold at least in part by the idea that the change will either help Labor win the election after next, or at least hurt the Liberals more.
It also means a roughly six month window to get any change through. Any longer, the inertia of governing and the looming threat of another election blunts the briefly-bold reforming spirit of a newly elected government.
Labor is going to be pretty open to campaign finance reform (with the usual bugbear of how unions are treated). They’re worried about the influence Clive Palmer’s had on the last few elections. The question is whether they’ll just do the bare minimum necessary to nip the Palmer bud or go far enough to make real material changes to our politics.
And if they’re prepared to go that far, can they be convinced to go further and rebuild our electoral system to be fairer and more democratic?
There’s not a huge amount of data on what Australian voters actually want out of a political system — at least very little embedded in how politics works.
Or maybe more accurately, the language and values shared by a lot of political academics and NGO or think-tank types who do this research doesn’t neatly line up with the language and values of regular people or with those of political elites (talking mostly of MPs, parties and their staffers and campaigners) or even with those of the Press Gallery.
The words we might share, but we don’t necessarily have a shared sense of those words’ meanings.
I’m going to focus on three aspects I think are most relevant to reforming our democracy: engagement — how individuals interact with political institutions -, representation — how political institutions reflect back those individuals’ values through elections -, and servicing — how those elected representatives fulfil peoples’ civic-constituent rather than necessarily political needs.
The best and most consistent political research we have in Australia comes down to one regular survey: the Australian Electoral Study. Most of the rest of what we know come from three semi-regular studies:, the 2019 Cooperative Australian Election Survey (available in part in Morrison’s Miracle) and the 2013 and 2016 Australian Surveys of Political Engagement, and the 2007, 2010 and 2021 Australian Constitutional Values Surveys..
We have pretty strong data on what the Australian Greens and their voters want thanks to Anika Gauja and Stewart Jackson’s 2013 and 2020 party activist surveys — but every other party keeps pretty tight lipped about this stuff.
We have good research on young peoples’ changing relationship with politics and civic engagement due to “online activism”, especially thanks to the work of Ariadne Vromen.
Other than that, we don’t have a huge amount of research on how Australians think of capital P politics or even just on what they want out of their political systems — especially how Australians feel about more radical ideas.
Most research tends to focus on the more nebulous idea of “trust” and the very in-vogue “democratic deficit” (notably the Edelman Trust Barometer and Scanlon Mapping Social Cohesion Report — as well as the less rigorous Essential Report and Australia Talks). My problem with focusing on “trust” is it prefigures an inactive politics, one where people aren’t interested necessarily in big ideas about society or justice, and as a result suggests reforms or refinements that retain the technocratic-bureaucratic political culture Australia’s stifled by. It’s understandable given the international context — but these studies even acknowledge that Australians feel a tension between feeling like a mere observer to politics and not knowing how or why they should do more.
Interestingly, a 2016 study found that, contrary to many democracy campaigners’ claim, Australians don’t necessarily want more compromise, more consensus, more technocracy, more business-thinking and more “getting on with the job” in their politics. They think extensive debate and inquiry in Parliament is important, want their politicians to stand by their promises and principles, and want to be more engaged in formal politics. Curiously though, those 2007 and 2010 studies still found that the majority of Australians wanted “in the future, say 20 years from now” should be structurally different to the current systems — indicating a broad level of support for experimentation and development in governance (although the most popular option was to abolish states altogether).
But similar surveys over the last decade also found that “citizens view themselves to be observers of, rather than participants in, formal politics”. In fact, 70% felt they had no influence on local and state politics and that goes up to nearly 90% for federal politics. The same surveys identified a pretty significant disconnect between what the average voter thinks is important and the priorities of political elites — especially what MPs and the Press Gallery feel comfortable with. This paper touches on three of those priorities the average voter came up with: a “none of the above” option, smaller electorates and greater internal democracy for parties. Politicians on the other hand are more than happy with (limited) donations reforms, more “deliberative democracy”, more e-petitions, four year fixed terms or regional sittings of Parliament (perhaps uncharitably because none actually threaten their power).
Putting engagement aside for a moment, people still have a strong understanding and appreciation of the “constituent” work politicians do (in formal surveys at least, maybe less so on social media). That still creates a problem. They value constituent work, and certainly punish to some extent politicians who fail to provide adequate constituent servicing. But that workload has been increasing over decades, exacerbated by the tendency to reduce the number of elected representatives — despite Australia’s population growing at a very high rate. A 2016 study found 1 in 4 Australians had contacted an elected representative about a matter in the last 3 years.
This work, which covers everything from going to church services and school fetes to helping people navigate Centrelink or visa applications to running local issues campaigns like saving a tree or fixing a pothole, is part of what I call civic-constituent work, the somewhat-obscured work that takes up the vast majority of the time and resources of an MP and their office.
Generally, the public — even the highly engaged bits on Twitter — have a poor understanding of what a politician’s job actually entails, sharing a very reductive view of a politician’s job as performing in Parliament (a view they share with the parts of the Press Gallery that exploit those performances for clicks and relevance).
Civic-constituent work differs from what I call Parliamentary-political (voting on legislation, debating motions, being a prick at Question Time, etc that commands most of the Press Gallery’s attention), Parliamentary-administrative (committee inquiries, questions on notice, estimates, etc), party-political, policy, media, campaign or educative. These eight functions are most of what an MP and their office does. All of these functions have political dimensions, but have very different ways of doing and people have very different perceptions about their relative importance or utility.
In our system, other work functions like facilitative (using discretionary powers to bypass bureaucratic processes) or administrative (directing and authorising the work of the bureaucracy) fall mostly within the jurisdictions of Ministers, a much smaller subset of MPs (which is why some integrity and anti-corruption campaigning can miss the mark if they’re drawing from a more American-centric idea of what an MP does or can do).
Each state and territory has wildly different levels of representation per person, across the three levels of elected government. While obviously each level of government deals with hugely different issues, with big differences in pay, prestige, power and influence and different political dynamics at play, there’s still a baseline workload of constituent servicing, community appearances and civic affairs that voters expect from elected representatives — a workload more easily shared the more active representatives there are.
Here’s a very rough metric, with all those caveats about availability, location, pay, and prestige. A simple quotient of population divided by the total number of elected representatives makes for an easy shorthand for determining if a population is well-serviced in constituent and civic matters. That quotient comes out with one representative for every 1500 residents for Western Australia, Tasmania or Northern Territory — but only one for every 8000 residents for Victoria and Queensland, and as few as one for every 14,000 in the ACT.
That’s a brief overview of what Australian voters want out of their political system, what they want MPs to do, and what MPs actually do (or have the capacity to do). The challenge is translating those views into real changes.
Time to dive into the ideas. None of these are original ideas.
Most have been floated by academics for years, sometimes they’ve been implemented overseas or in parts of Australia from time to time, and some I’ve even drawn from submissions or dissenting reports to post-election inquiries that Parliament holds every few years.
My main goal here was to pull a few of these ideas together and look at them through a professional rather than academic lens — having been a public servant, an MP’s staffer, an election campaigner and a party administrator over my career. This perspective means I tend to focus on the practicalities of how we’d implement something and what that would mean for the power dynamics of Australian politics. I’ve tried my best to include references to reports, studies, surveys and books that go into the idea in more detail and give them the academic scrutiny they deserve.
In part three, we’re going to explore our first big idea: even more politicians.