Disgust and distrust – a survey of our political landscape

The Truth and Integrity Project has published a report Disgust and distrust, and what communities are doing about it.

It covers familiar grounds about trust in institutions and the declining support for our established political parties. Of all levels of government, the federal government is least trusted. And out of Labor, the Greens, and the Liberal Party, the Liberals are the most mistrusted. (The report doesn’t cover the National Party: perhaps they would have been off the scale.)

The authors have a go at estimating political party membership in Australia, coming up with a generous figure of 100000 – a figure bloated by large numbers of inactive members. In fact there may be no more than 30000 active members. Even that higher figure of 100000 is only 0.38 percent of the population. (I checked Statista for membership of the Chinese Communist Party – 6.73 percent. This means that the Chinese Communist Party is much more representative of the population than all our parties combined.)

While the report provides a useful consolidation of political data, its main contribution is an analysis of the causes of our distrust and cynicism, and a description of the movements working to re-invigorate our enfeebled democracy. Among causes the reduction of political campaigns to three-word slogans (the Coalition’s substitute for policy), cronyism, and the unchecked proliferation of fake news all get a mention. Among those working to improve our political system the report provides a survey of watchdog institutions and emerging political movements, particularly “well-organised, well – funded Independents with deep community support “.

It concludes with a section “Who they are and what are they doing?”, providing short descriptions of 25 movements.

Discretionary grants

On paper Australia has a strong federal system. Powers of the Commonwealth are specified and limited (Sections 51 and 52 of the Constitution); the Commonwealth is prohibited from giving preference to any state or region (Section 99); and we have an established principle of fiscal equalization to bring some balance to states’ capacity to provide public services. Yet the Commonwealth has used other constitutional powers to stick its nose into all manner of activities that should rightly be the sole domain of state or local governments. Funding of local roads, local sporting facilities, commuter car parks all come to mind – often as a result of an Auditor-General’s report finding that there has been more attention given to colour-coded spreadsheets than to any process of needs-based allocation of grants.

It may appear naïve to question governments’ motives: discretionary funding is surely about electoral politics. But there are many ways such political targeting can be used. Do grants go to government-held seats on small margins that they want to protect? Do they go to opposition-held seats on small margins that they want to win? Do they go to seats with large government margins that they want to reward? And are they politically effective?

The Australia Institute has produced a major research report Grants with ministerial discretion: distribution analysis answering at least the first three of these questions. Analysing $3.9 billion in Commonwealth grants awarded with at least some ministerial discretion since 2013, they find that the lion’s share has gone to safe Coalition seats, but when the researchers focus on marginal seats, they find that funds have been disproportionately allocated to seats held by small parties or independents, and to marginal Coalition seats.

Even if one believes that the researchers have done no more than confirm that the Coalition unashamedly engages in pork-barrelling, the report makes a major contribution in exposing the detail and specificity in the Commonwealth’s meddling. For example why is a national government spending $150 million on “supporting the development of female change room facilities at sporting grounds and community swimming facilities”?

On the other question – whether they are politically effective – the authors suggest that “favouring marginal seats is potentially a short-sighted political strategy. Independents and minor parties running in blue-ribbon Coalition seats could attract voters by arguing that independent-held and marginal seats receive significantly more grants funding than safe seats”. They diplomatically avoid mentioning that through the Auditor-General’s exposures of corruption the Coalition’s use of discretionary grants may also be serving the public interest by hastening the demise of the Morrison government.

Also on the same question, another study by Andrew Leigh and Ian McAlister – Political gold: the Australian sports grants scandal – confirms that sports grants, at least, had virtually no electoral benefit for the Coalition. This aligns with studies made over many years, mainly in the USA, that although small-scale pork barrelling, in itself, is ineffective in shifting votes, it has a role in the internal politics of political parties. A member who can swing a few projects for his or her electorate can build support in party branches.

The Coalition’s ongoing war on renewable energy

The entry above is about the Commonwealth’s practice of meddling in programs and policies that should be left to state governments.

Writing in The Guardian Peter Hannan describes another instance where the Commonwealth is interfering with the states’ sovereignty by bullying them for entering agreements with international agencies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.: “Vandals”: Victoria, Queensland fume over federal climate intervention to state and local politics. Five states and territories have joined with 255 other sub-national governments around the world under the umbrella of a group known as The Under2 Coalition who are pledging to keep warming under 2.0 degrees and are endeavouring to keep it under 1.5 degrees. Officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade have curtly told state governments that their participation in the coalition is “no longer in action”.

Democracy and language

Andrew Hamilton has a short article in Eureka Street Is democracy going down the drain? He joins the debate from the perspective of the shifting meanings of the language of public discourse, including those associated with Christianity. How, for example, did the word “charity”, once referring to unconditional and self-sacrificing love, come to have the negative meaning implicit in the aphorism “cold as charity”?

In Hamilton’s view “it is inevitable that inspiring ideas and words are hollowed out by the human failure to embody them in practice”. The values contained in words such as “freedom”, “democracy”, “patriotism” and “honour” are important, but merely repeating them, dropping them into a speech or sprinkling them in an op-ed is meaningless. Those who use such fine words should support their rhetoric with actions “that represent the coherence between claimed values and consequent behaviour”.

The far right in America and Australia

David Brooks, writing in The Atlantic, describes what he observed at November’s National Conservatism Conference held in Orlando, Florida.

We might imagine such a conference to be attended by men and women who feel a little peeved that the world has passed them by, or perhaps by Burkean conservatives distressed by the lowering standards of conduct in public life.

But what Brooks describes in his article, titled The terrifying future of the American right, is a gathering of people convinced that the left has taken over life in America. “The idea that the left controls absolutely everything—from your smartphone to the money supply to your third grader’s curriculum—explains the apocalyptic tone that was the dominating emotional register of this conference”. They believe that “the country is under assault from a Marxist oligarchy that wants to impose its own pseudo-religious doctrine” and that “there is a wokeist Anschluss taking over all the institutions of American life”.

Although their beliefs are muddled, contradictory and easily dismissed by evidence, they are firmly held. Brooks notes that individually the participants at the conference could be polite and charming (one he mentions, Glenn Loury, I remember with affection from Harvard’s Kennedy School). But when they mobilise collectively, their public posture is one of hatred and an invocation to engage in combat.

Brooks stresses that this hard right and paranoid movement is not confined to the US: it has a worldwide presence under various guises. One such group, present in Australia, is The Base, described by Jason Wilson writing in The Guardian: Far-right groups like The Base will radicalise Australians until we confront their beliefs. Belatedly the Commonwealth has banned The Base, but there are other movements ready to emerge. Counter-terrorism measures alone cannot solve the problem of white supremacist terror. Wilson stresses that there must be much stronger and assertive action to embed racial equality as a core value of Australian society.

Parliamentarians behaving badly

March 15, 2021

On Tuesday the Australian Human Rights Commission launched its report Set the Standard: Report on the Independent Review into Commonwealth Parliamentary Workplaces. The media has focussed on the findings about bullying, sexual harassment and sexual assaults in Commonwealth parliamentary workplaces (“CPWs”) i.e. Parliament House and other places where parliamentary work occurs, such as members’ electorate offices. Those figures, which make for easy reporting, are on pages 16 and 17 of the report.

It’s a large work, and because it covers so much ground it is not clearly summarised, but in essence it draws attention to the circumstances that have resulted in poor and dysfunctional working conditions in CPWs. The most vulnerable are staff employed by and reporting to Commonwealth parliamentarians. Those staff, unlike other people working in CPWs (for example staff of the Parliamentary Library), have almost no protection against bullying, harassment and unfair dismissal. Although the investigation and report were precipitated by the Brittany Higgins rape allegations against a staff member, the report finds that the worst offenders in CPWs are elected parliamentarians.

Although the report has gathered a great deal of data, including 935 survey responses, it has no breakdown of complaints by political party. Maybe this is because the research, while extensive, was not structured in a way to allow for disaggregation. Or maybe there was a degree of caution to prevent the issues becoming the subject of partisan conflict. In this context it is notable that among our 226 Commonwealth parliamentariansthe Greens have 60 percent female representation, Labor 49 percent, Nationals 29 percent, and Liberals 27 percent. Also the House of Representatives is considerably more blokey than the Senate.

The report’s recommendations are mainly about reforming working conditions for all staff working in CPWs, particularly staff working for parliamentarians, to bring them in line with conditions applying elsewhere in Australia. Some recommendations are about technical changes – formal employment conditions, codes of conduct, training – while others are about the more difficult and more important task of cultural change.

These cultural factors are neatly summarised on pages 80 to 82, which describes a culture closer to that which might prevail in a Rugby League club than in an institution where the duties of government in the public interest are carried out.