We don’t need better politicians, we need a better system

| February 4, 2015

How many of you have an interest in politics and have become disillusioned by the current political narrative? Manuela Epstein is part of the newDemocracy Foundation and says transparency is the key to a successful reform process.

There are no facts in a post-modernist world, just competing narratives, suffused with anger and a sense that the place in which people live is no longer recognisable. … Economic stagnation cannot […] explain the pessimism about the future amongst Australians, the rancorousness of the political debate, the sense that everything is contested, nothing is true, no facts are established, that there are just competing realities from which we chose the one that most fits our anxieties. …
Michael Gawenda Business Spectator 22/8/12

We’re in an era of perpetual opposition, where everything from policies to celebrity sound bites no sooner appear than they are savaged in the most unreflective way. The anger is incoherent and fragmented. It comes from all directions and therefore follows no consistent vision or reason.
Waleed Aly SMH 30/1/15

It is revealing that these quotes are a few years apart and yet express the same drone that passes for politics. Nothing has changed; no one has learnt how to do politics better. How many people, like me, have an interest in politics and have become disturbed/ disillusioned/ appalled by the current political narrative? Even worse, how many are no longer angry but numbed into apathy?

To an outsider, it appears that the function of politics is to attack or to score points against the other side rather than to co-operate. Politicians appear to have lost the ability to listen and thus to discuss, compromise and resolve issues. In fact the dynamics of the current system actually frustrates co-operation. Too often governments appear unable or too frightened to make long term commitments for fear of the repercussion. This is not a criticism of one side of politics or another. It doesn’t really matter whom we blame; the result is voter apathy, disillusionment and cynicism.

In 2012, I felt that there was no point just raging against the system; my political frustration led me to become involved in the newDemocracy Foundation.

The Foundation is apolitical. It was established in 2007 by Luca Belgiorno-Nettis and its patrons and supporters are from all positions on the political spectrum as well as non-politicians. Its aim is to change the procedures of politics. The ideal of such a change is a better informed and engaged population that has high expectations of its Governments. Its basis is one of consultation through citizens’ assemblies – not just random focus groups. Citizens are chosen equitably to represent the whole community, and informed independently, by experts (not radio personalities).

The guiding philosophy of the Foundation is “we don’t need better politicians. We need a better system”

To quote Luca: In civic life, democracy is a significant reference point for our sense of well-being. When our faith in the political system is undermined by the realities of the current system, we become exasperated and disillusioned – with our politicians and with ourselves.

As a society, we give voters the responsibility to freely elect their representatives. We allow a jury to choose between freedom and incarceration of another individual. We trust that a judicial system can inform ordinary citizens to decide on a wide range of complex issues. We may not agree with a particular decision but we generally accept the outcome and respect the procedure.

Many of us tend to view cynically the decision of elected officials. This is not to suggest elected officials are making bad decisions: it is purely a comment on the level of public trust and, unfortunately, in existing government structures. Transparency is the key to a successful reform process. The newDemocracy Foundation’s citizen’s panel process enables a representative section of the community to deliberate and find a consensus response. By combining the three elements of random selection, the provision of time and access to all information, and independently facilitated forums for dialogue, a much more robust and publicly trusted outcome can be obtained which can assist Government in achieving public acceptance of hard trade-offs.

Last year the Foundation undertook projects as diverse as

  • Long term financial planning for City of Melbourne
  • Renewal of capital assets for Marrickville Council
  • Moorebank Intermodal Freight terminal community project
  • How to provide a safe yet vibrant night life for the City of Sydney
  • Community views on cycling In Adelaide.

That citizens should be active partners with Government and at the core of decision making processes is a very radical idea in our society. Elected representatives from all sides of politics are now showing interest in possible changes to our democracy. This should help restore trust in our political system. Real changes are possible – especially if these are innovations voters want.