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It's not only your leader, Carmen, it's also the whole system!

By Ian Marsh - posted Friday, 20 December 2002

In her resignation press conference, Carmen Lawrence spoke against the timidity of the Labor leadership. She wants Labor to lead public opinion and she wants an alternative to policy convergence between the major parties. She wants vision in Australian public life. "I believe we need to be telling Australians a story about the sort of country we want this to be, what we hope for them, how their lives can be improved." The swelling vote for independents and Greens suggests her sentiments are shared by increasing numbers of Australians.

In a new study, I argue that public debate of a national vision is inhibited by the present structure of politics. There is a critical gap in its attention to emerging or 'strategic' issues. There is no capacity for routinely engaging interest groups. There is only very limited capacity for building public and media opinion before final decisions are taken by the executive.

Think of the present array of strategic issues: for example, population, water, the environment, our aging society, relations with Asia, biotechnology. There is no single best technical solution to any of them. Each involves a variety of stakeholders. The task of the political system is to weigh competing values and perspectives and to distil a majority public opinion from protagonists whose power, values and interests differ widely.


In all cases, public opinion will ultimately determine the scope for political action. Its quality will determine whether political choice is based on informed opinion or rather on populist sentiment. In this latter case, the contest between the major parties will turn on cruder campaigning based on bribing key groups of electors or on pandering to the lowest common denominator of electoral sentiment.

The present political incentive structure now favours this latter outcome. On any issue on which public opinion is divided or uncertain, what the government declares to be white the opposition will mostly assert to be black. Electoral incentives determine this approach, which constrains the tactical choices of both major parties.

Conversely, if majority opinion is suddenly galvanised by a chance event (e.g. Tampa), and one party endorses popular sentiment, electoral incentives place overwhelming pressure on its rival to do likewise. The absence of prior attention to the underlying issue means immediate public reactions govern the positions taken by poltical leaders.

So the key need is to consider how public opinion might be better formed. Opinion formation takes time. Stakeholders need to be progressively mobilised. The media needs to be progressively engaged. Sufficient time needs to be allowed for the significance of an issue to become clear to winning, losing and undecided interests. Ways of converting losers or undecided groups need to be explored. Sufficient time needs to be allowed for an expert consensus to emerge. Maverick opinion needs to be accommodated. Coalition building needs to be facilitated. By such means the snowball of public opinion gains volume and momentum.

The present political system lacks routine capabilities to do these things. It inhibits consideration of longer-term issues. It inhibits consideration of alternatives beyond those recognised by Treasury. The present structure of politics is now a major impediment to the construction of an informed public opinion.

When Australian society was more clearly divided between Coalition and Labor supporters, the system worked well. Strategic policy development was mostly handled internally within the major party organisations and by bureaucratic elites. But party conferences have long since become stage-managed affairs. Major party membership has collapsed. Political activists have shifted their engagement away from the major parties towards social movements and minor parties. Because of the diversity of contemporary Australia, it is inconceivable that the major parties could ever again recover their old encompassing representational roles. Meantime, bureaucratic expertise is now rightly more contested.


What is to be done? My most radical proposal concerns the phasing of opinion formation. Attention to strategic issues needs to be partially decoupled from the struggle for office between the major parties. The contest between the major parties is sited in the House of Representatives. So the Senate is ideally placed to provide an institutional setting for routine attention to the strategic end of the policy development cycle.

The Senate is a very powerful Chamber. There is no constitutional barrier to the development of its role. The only obstacles lies in the conventions of the two-party system. Indeed, the Senate acted as agenda gatekeeper in the first years after Federation and before the two-party system emerged. David Hamer, a former Liberal Senator, has suggested that Ministers cease to be drawn from the Senate and that it becomes a Committee House. That is exactly the right approach.

Senate committees have the power to summon evidence in public from bureaucrats, ministers, experts and interest groups. The Senate has the power to propose legislation to the House. But the present Senate committee system lacks resources. The structure of committees does not provide effective policy coverage. Committee chairs lack status. The conduct of inquiries could be much more imaginative - for example through the use of Blue Ribbon panels, joint federal-state groups etc as occurs in its prototype, the US Senate.

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About the Author

Ian Marsh is Adjunct Professor, UTS Business School. He is the author, with Raymond Miller of Democratic Decline and Democratic Renewal: Political Change in Britain, Australia and New Zealand (Cambridge, 2012).

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