Lindsay Tanner's book Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy provides a timely evaluation of political culture, practices and discourse in Australia. It offers insights on how to stop the decline in political thinking, debates, practices and performance of our federal parliament, the media and the disengaged community. The book should be read and debated with interest not only by politicians, literature reviewers and political science students but also by citizens and leaders of communities and community organisations in Australia's multicultural society.
The dumbing down of democracy is a significant problem with wide-ranging short, medium and long term implications for Australian society, economy and positioning in the world.
The current political culture and performance is unsustainable for a number of reasons.
First, it is incompatible with Australia's proud traditions of using democracy for creative destruction, social innovation, nation building and reinvigoration. Lowering the quality of debate and analysis of pressing national and international issues has a detrimental impact on the ability of our democratic system to find innovative, timely and cost effective solutions to environmental, social, cultural, economic and political challenges and opportunities. The elected representatives and the media may find it easier to operate in a dumbed down democracy but the status quo is unsustainable as the democratic system needs smarter ways to constantly deliver better economic, social and environmental outcomes.
Second, in order to have the capacity to add value to the democratic system and its performance, our major and minor political parties need to attract and retain the best talent in the country. Membership of the ALP and the Liberals is on the decline. Fewer talented young people are joining and staying as members. The major political parties are increasingly attracting professional apparatchiks who seem less committed to serving a public cause and more inclined to live off politics. The leadership in political parties increasingly recognise that the nation demands less slogans and more innovation, good policy and better results that improve the lives of citizens. The Greens have expanded their reach and influence by attracting young talent that the major political parties could not harness.
Third, Australia's image and influence in the world depends on the quality of its international strategic thinking, foreign policy making and actions. The dumbing down of democracy is having a detrimental impact on the quality of Australia's foreign policies. For example, Australia's foreign policy on Macedonia's right to self-identification under its constitutional name has been paralysed since 1994 as a result of scare campaigns and no scrutiny in parliament. Australian foreign policy makers are still ignoring the fact that 131 nations at the UN have supported Macedonia's legitimate rights. Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd's vision of Australia as a 'creative middle power' needs a constant injection of fresh ideas, talented people and adequate resources. Australians expect the foreign minister to blend vision with execution and accountability. The Lowy Institute has reported that DFAT has a diplomatic deficit which is impacting on Australia's ability to project soft power and bring innovative ideas to the negotiation tables of the G20 and other forums. Despite this DFAT continues to be underfunded and is losing talent to other departments and the private sector.
This situation is detrimental to Australian's image, reputation and place in today's interdependent world where governments are competing aggressively for influence, investment, creative talent and reputation for quality of life. Australia's ability to attract and retain the best investments and the best people from across the world depends on having innovative migration policies supported by investments in high impact programs and projects.
Australians are increasingly becoming dissatisfied with the dumbing of democracy. The nation is ready for a transformation of civic and political culture. Australians are poised to embrace a smarter democracy that is fit for purpose.
Australia needs a new, vibrant, well informed and vigorous political culture, practices and performance to upgrade the dynamism of society and economy and increase our image, relevance and ability to attract and persuade others on a world stage. The dumbing down of politics can be curtailed though social innovation and collective impact involving all relevant stakeholders including parliamentarians, the media, research and education institutes, communities, civil society and progressive diasporas.
Unlike Lindsay Tanner, I am optimistic about the future of Australian politics. Australian democracy has the ability to change and improve for the better as new voices, new practices and talent enters the Australian Parliament, the media, research institutes and universities and contribute to national, parliamentary and policy debates and actions.
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