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Putting the people back into politics

By Luca Belgiorno-Nettis - posted Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Charles de Gaulle is reputed to have said: "Politics is far too important to be left to politicians".

In this country, our electoral climate seems characterised by high levels of dissatisfaction and cynicism. Our political system no longer appears to engage its people, rather it has become more of a debating society for politicians and their party politics.

Over the last few decades, the merging of political ideologies – left to right and right to left - has diminished any real policy differentiation among the two major parties. From across both sides of the divide, this current election campaign has culminated in puerile point scoring and fatuous hype. It has become a campaign of spin rather than substance.


In such an environment, it is of little surprise that Australian politicians are met with scepticism and distrust from their constituents, resulting in a sense of disassociation and disempowerment. Party politics has weakened people's trust in those they have elected to represent them, and as such, lessened the desire for people to become involved in their political system. The problem however, is not the politicians, but one which runs much deeper within the system in which they operate.

Since inception, our political system has operated only by adversarial positioning. Is this the best framework for the complex challenges of the 21st century? Not surprisingly, in the last few years, people in a number of countries have started to pose the same question.

In Britain, the Independent Power Commission of Inquiry was established to determine why people have become disengaged from formal politics. The Inquiry studied what measures were needed to increase the public’s role, based on the notion that a healthy democracy requires the active participation of its citizens.

The Commission's February 2006 report, Power to the People, called for a rebalancing of power between the executive and parliament, between central and local government and between citizen and the state.

The report found that contrary to popular belief, disengagement was not a result of an apathetic public with a weak sense of civic duty, widespread economic and political contentment, the supposedly low calibre and probity of politicians, an overly negative news media or a lack of time.

Rather, it found that people didn’t feel formal democracy allowed them enough influence over political decisions (and that included party members). It also found that people felt there was too much similarity between the political parties, that the electoral system led to unequal and wasted votes and that they lacked information about formal politics.


Similarly in Australia, the political apathy which has pervaded contemporary society has come about largely as a result of an outdated system that has for too long been allowed to be manipulated by politicians, with little or no objection from the electorate. There are a number of us who feel that the time has come for a dialogue to be initiated - in which everyday citizens become more active in the system which shapes their lives.

The question remains: How do we initiate this call for action?

In the Netherlands last year, at the request of the government, 140 Dutch citizens spent nine months reviewing their Lower House of Parliament. It was the first time citizens were provided the opportunity to submit recommendations to the cabinet.

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About the Author

Luca Belgiorno-Nettis is Joint Managing director of Transfield Holdings, a philanthropist and founder of the newDemocracy Foundation.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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