James Button on the Problems with Australian Democracy

As the federal election looms on Saturday, we thought it was a good time to look back on our political events earlier in the year, for reflections on the state of our politics.

In our Australian Democracy 2013 event, James Button was one of several prominent Australians who spoke about the challenges and opportunities of democracy right now.

He spoke candidly about the problems he sees with our democracy – which he located with the growing divide between the ‘inside world’ of Canberra and the ‘outside world’ of the general public.

Others spoke from the perspectives of journalism (Margaret Simons), asylum seekers (Kon Karapanagiotidis), the position of women (Anne Summers) and more.

‘That inside world has stopped talking to the outside world,’ Button said. ‘The consequences of that are very serious.’

The decline of ‘quality MPs’

He talked about the decline of the quality of Australia’s MPs, over time – and the corresponding shrinking of the pool of Australian society that MPs are drawn from. Farmers, teachers, doctors and the like are now uncommon.

‘You work in an electoral office, become an advisor, and if you play your cards right, you eventually get preselection for a seat.’

Button said that the problem with that system is its internal focus. People are focused on getting preselection, so things are settled inside the party, rather than taking policy debates into the open.

‘The ALP no longer conducts its debates in public as it used to do. One consequence of that is that issues are dropped on the public without debate – like the mining tax and media law reforms.’

The increase in political staffers

The number of political staffers has hugely increased. ‘You don’t hear much about them, but they’re very important. They’re the people who advise ministers.’

Button estimates that they’ve ‘probably doubled’ in numbers.

Valuing the public service

We hear even less about the role of the public service in the political process, but Button emphasised the importance of their role – and of institutional experience within the public service.

‘Australia’s excellent response to the GFC was the public servants who remembered the lessons of the 1991 recession and gave advice to the government to do particular things.’

‘They had the corporate memory.’

The decline of the media

Button believes that the decline in the quality of our politics is reflected in our media, where the pool of experience is also shrinking.

The cuts to mainstream media organisations mean that they don’t have the funds for serious policy work – or the interest either.

‘Weirdly, both the media and politicians are obsessed with opinion polls – and that’s part of the dance.’

Button cited the examples of business’s fierce opposition to the ALP’s carbon price in 2009, and the fact their public campaign resulted in many of the changes they wanted made. The hostile campaign against the mining tax resulted in a backdown, too.

The detachment of academics

‘Our academics, with some notable exceptions have switched off from being involved and engaged with complex, difficult areas of public policy,’ said Button. ‘It’s a longstanding problem.’

Being brave enough to be unpopular

Button concluded with the reflection that even when politicians have had the bravery to back unpopular policies, they haven’t backed them.

‘Julia Gillard did a very fine job on the carbon tax, but they’ve walked away from it. They never speak about it now, because it’s unpopular.’

‘You have to do unpopular things sometimes in politics.’

Above: Watch the full video of Australian Democracy in 2013.