The level of trust in political processes and politicians is falling and this eases the way for those who want to 'roll back government'. At the same time, initiatives to extend democracy have slowed if not gone into reverse.
Progressives need to combat this by renewing their thinking about and advocacy of democracy. We need to be speaking up for more representative and accountable political institutions including executive government, parliament and local councils, the law and judiciary and the swathe of boards and councils that the Irish and British call quangos.
We need to revisit the debates of the 1970s and 80s about industrial democracy; engage with consumer rights especially in areas such as health, child and aged care, finance, mortgages and superannuation. More democracy is needed in planning and development whether the house next door, the big urban renewal scheme or the gas, mine or port proposal. Then there is giving students, teachers and the community involvement in the design, content and conduct of education.
The processes and the institutions of representative and direct democracy need review. The central principle for the process of democracy is to ensure people can participate in making decisions. One action is to replace consultation with dialogue. For example there should be express requirements for shared decision-making in local and regional land-use planning schemes. Similarly, Fair Work Australia should have the power to ensure that decisions about organisational and technological change and redundancies at work are made jointly between employers and unions.
Three main issues for representative democracy are improving accountability, broadening the range of what is governed and breaking the dominance of white-bread, middle-class males. Dealing with corruption and influence pedalling is an imperative to improve accountability. The revelations from the NSW ICAC about both Liberals and ALP and the regressive changes to public funding laws in Queensland just the most recent examples. It is simple; money politics and democracy are incompatible.
The second area is to broaden what is governed. There has been considerable slippage. For example, executive management has replaced scholarly leadership in universities and student and staff representation on the governing councils eliminated or minimised. The Howard Government removed the elected staff representative from the ABC Board. The shift to corporatisation, let alone privatisation, of public enterprises has meant fewer union representatives on their boards.
The third area is to tackle the under-representation of women, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and those from non-English speaking backgrounds. As an example, only 26.0 per cent of the members of the Australian House of Representatives are women and, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, ranks Australia 49 out of 188 countries on this measure. In comparison, Sweden has 45.0 per cent women and ranks fourth while Finland with 42.5 per cent is seventh.
The solution lies in reform of how political parties select candidates. The same applies to corporations who have an even worse record on woman on boards. Unions, even though late in acting, have shown that affirmative action rules can increase the proportion of women in officer positions. Even so they need to look at whether actually getting people on committees is giving them power. It is a big agenda; and getting the processes right still leaves the even bigger task of creating a democratic economy.
Howard Guille is a retired Queensland secretary of the NTEU and member of the Australian Options Editorial Committee