This report is based on the responses of 98 members of Parliament (out of 226) to a survey co-designed with the Joint Standing Committee of Electoral Matters (JSCEM). These responses are not representative of the 45th Federal Parliament as a whole, but they nevertheless provide a – sometimes surprising and indicative – set of perspectives from a substantial set of representatives. The survey responses establish that while many of Australia’s federal politicians are more satisfied with the way democracy works than samples of their fellow citizens, they are sufficiently concerned about evidence of a trust divide between citizens and politicians to favour substantial actions to improve confidence in our institutions. How they believe this might be done is one of most interesting aspects of this report, and provides important information to inform future debate.
The report is framed by an understanding of the critical role of political parties in Australian democracy. Citizens’ ability to choose between political parties with distinctive policies, leaders and performance, has long been seen as fundamental to holding governments to account. Parties make it possible for voters to determine responsibility for government actions and to award office to a broad yet coherent entity.
Parties, and the politicians who represent them, have three overlapping roles: providing representation and ongoing linkages to the community, organizing to deliver effective government, and supporting the principles of good governance within our parliamentary institutions. Evidence of disaffection with major parties, and the rise of minor parties, from Australia and other democracies, suggests it is the first role that is most in decline, but problems are also observed regarding the other roles. The survey evidence in this report shows that elected politicians recognize these concerns and are prepared to do something about them. On balance their preference is not to rush to forms of participatory citizen-centred democracy but instead to adjust and strengthen the way that representative democracy works; to make parties better at performing their three roles in providing community linkages, effective governance and democratic integrity.
There remains room for debate whether the reforms favoured by politicians will work but it’s encouraging to see such appetite to address the problem. It may also be that there are major issues that are not yet as high up the change agenda of our politicians as they could be such as, perhaps, the impact of the digital transformation of society and politics; how to give citizens a stronger sense of empowerment over their lives, or re-examining relationships with, and the effectiveness of, the Australian Public Service. Most reforms suggested are not particularly new in the context of contemporary processes of democratic modernisation (Smith 2009 & Alonso et al., 2011). Indeed, this very observation brings into sharp focus Amartya Sen’s (1999) argument that “formal rules are not enough without good democratic practice”. In other words, reform is as much about improving existing democratic practices than designing new ways of doing democracy.