Why the future depends on restoring democracy
Senator Milne’s essay was first published in Island magazine, Issue 139, November 2014
There is a crisis of confidence in democracy in Australia. It is a crisis for people and the environment. It is a situation I have been mulling over for quite some time, but has been front and centre since the Abbott government tore down a price on pollution and mounted its all-out assault on renewable energy, the environment and social justice.
It is now clear to me that we can’t prevail on the gravest issues of survival in this century, in an age of rapidly accelerating climate change and growing inequality of wealth and opportunity, until we restore democracy in Australia.
We can march, write letters, make calls, post tweets, and vote, but as long as the rich few can buy the political process, there is little hope of saving the global commons or caring for people. We have to step back from fighting each of these battles as they arise, from being placated by painkilling sops like more inquiries or minor amendments, and instead turn our minds to aggressively treating the disease.
To get our country back, to give ourselves a chance, we need to restore health to our democracy. We need to educate everyone: put it up in lights, just how big business and wealthy individuals use their money and connections to take and retain power.
As a child in the 1960s I used to walk around our dairy farm with my dad and sometimes he would lean on the fence, smoking his pipe, stare across towards Bass Strait and say, ‘things are crook in Tallarook’. As kids we got the gist of it. The world was in a pretty bad way. If he were alive today, he would be saying the same thing about the state of politics in Australia.
The paper bags of cash from property developers to political candidates; the fast tracking of coal mines, gas wells and ports; a coal magnate forming a political party and voting to abolish the mining tax and carbon pollution price; the abandonment of environmental laws and protected areas; banks making mega profits and ripping off customers; mandatory prison sentences for protesters; governments keeping track of everyone’s phone calls; more debt for university students; reduced support for the unemployed; no vision for future employment; higher charges to go to the doctor; delay in getting the pension; and all the while a revolving door between mainstream politicians and the boardrooms of their big business mates.
Dad would have been right, things are crook in Tallarook.
Together with millions of others, I’m over it. The majority of young people in Australia who don’t think democracy is preferable to other forms of government are over it. The tens of thousands of Australians who have marched against injustice perpetrated on the young, sick, and unemployed at Bust the Budget rallies are over it. The farmers, environmentalists and scientists who have spoken up for a safe climate, water quality, life on the land and who have put their bodies between bulldozers, chainsaws and drilling rigs are over it. We want our country back. We want it back from the wealthy individuals and corporations who now not only own it, but govern it as well. We need to face the shocking fact that Australia is no longer a democracy but has morphed into a plutocracy: government by the wealthy, in the interests of the wealthy.
We want it back from the wealthy individuals and corporations who now not only own it, but govern it as well. We need to face the shocking fact that Australia is no longer a democracy but has morphed into a plutocracy: government by the wealthy, in the interests of the wealthy.
The total wealth for the 50 families on the BRW Rich Families list this year was $40.1billion, with an average wealth of $803million, compared with the lowest 20% of households whose average wealth is just $31,000. Follow the money and that is where the power resides. Whatever the wealthy want, they get. The rest of society makes do with the leftovers and consequences. The transformation is complete; it is obvious from every perspective: Australia has become the wholly-owned subsidiary of the Big End of Town. Liberal and Labor parties and their candidates have been embedded in corruption and deliver for their donors as ICAC and the Eddie Obeid, Hartcher and Gallacher scandals in NSW have spectacularly demonstrated. Former politicians become highly paid lobbyists or directors for the very same companies because of the access and influence they can offer. As a result, people have lost control over the places they live and quality of life of their communities.
Mining millionaire Twiggy Forrest tells us how people on welfare should live; climate sceptic Dick Warburton and fossil fuel barons tell us what’s wrong with renewable energy; the corporate-funded Institute of Public Affairs dictates government policy and provides political candidates. Mining billionaire Gina Rinehart condemns the minimum wage while calling on federal MPs to help clinch her business deals in India and provide visas for foreign workers; the big four banks insist on weaker consumer protection laws for investment advice; mining company Santos walks over farmers as it drills for coal-seam gas; Note Printing Australia, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Reserve Bank, is found to be involved in corrupt dealings in several countries; and Rupert Murdoch presides over the messaging through his loss making daily personal newsletter, The Australian.
No wonder people have become disengaged. They legitimately ask, ‘what is the point of voting in democratic elections when a change of government changes nothing?’ The Big End of Town still gets what it wants, and they are right. BHP, Rio Tinto and Xstrata got what they wanted from Labor from a bruising, prime minister-changing advertising campaign followed by an ineffectual mining tax. Then they got what they wanted from the Liberal and National parties with the abolition of that tax, the abolition of carbon pricing and the maintenance of fossil fuel subsidies. Vote 1 Miners, cut out the Middle Man. It doesn’t matter which party is in government, Labor, Liberal or the National Party will all tick off on new coal mines, ports, CSG wells, fossil fuel subsidies and native forest logging.
While parliaments pass legislation and ministers sign off on documents, no one really believes anymore that in the contest between the public interest and corporate interest, between the rich and the poor, between the future and the past, that the public interest, social justice and the future will win. As a senator and Leader of the Australian Greens, I struggle to believe it anymore.
Having been in politics for 25 years, and in the Senate for the past decade, I have joined thousands of others in campaigns, rallies, meetings and parliamentary action to address climate change, protect Tasmania’s magnificent old-growth forests, the Great Barrier Reef, Murray River, James Price Point, animal welfare, and places and species we love; to pursue justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex people, refugees, people with disabilities, people struggling financially, and the homeless; for investment in renewable energy, education, research and development and healthcare; and for peace over war.
But for all the wins we have had, it has been one step forward and, more often than not, two steps backwards.
The question that needs to be answered is: Why? Why, in one of the richest countries, in the information age, when we know more than we have ever known, have we, the people, gone backwards?
It is not that government by corporation in Australia is new. It’s why I stood for election in Tasmania in 1989. I led the campaign against North Broken Hill’s environmentally and socially destructive pulp mill proposal in
my home town of Wesley Vale, and stood for Parliament when then Premier Robin Gray called a snap election to get the mill up again.
At the time, North Broken Hill was running Robin Gray’s Liberal government. This corporation had recalled the Tasmanian Parliament, on its own letterhead, to deliver its ‘doubts removal’ legislation. It left no doubt as to who was running the state and how weak the environmental conditions imposed on its billion dollar, native-forest based, Kraft, elemental chlorine pulp mill really were.
The Tasmanian Government and Labor Opposition were as one in support of the mill. Then, as now, people felt disempowered. We turned our attention to the Hawke Labor government. Labor wanted the pulp mill to be built but knew the environmental conditions imposed by the Tasmanian Government were shonky. It also knew the power of the environment vote. Minister Graham Richardson announced that the Commonwealth would impose new, stricter environmental conditions on the project before it could be approved. Canadian joint-venture partner Noranda withdrew rather than meet the new standards.
I have told this story because, looking back, it has within it the signs of what was to come. We thought in 1989 we had nipped it in the bud. We had exposed the tactics and power of corporate interests in Tasmania, nationally and overseas. That, with the election of five independents to the balance of power, the Liberal and Labor parties would learn it was not a good idea to become the puppets of corporate interests. We thought the imprisonment of media boss Edmund Rouse for trying to bribe a member of parliament to cross the floor and the resulting Royal Commission into bribery and corruption in Tasmania would be a wake-up call for democracy and open government. But we were wrong, as the Gunns pulp mill scandals and John Gay’s subsequent insider trading guilty verdict demonstrated.
The Wesley Vale campaign was seminal. It helped focus the mind of the big corporates, here and overseas, on what they had to do to defeat the will of the people in democracies around the world. hey knew they needed both political parties in their pocket as a first and necessary step but it wouldn’t be enough. They had to do more to win. They had to change the system, make the rules, buy community favour through sponsorship, control the media, and they have.
They knew they needed both political parties in their pocket as a first and necessary step but it wouldn’t be enough. They had to do more to win. They had to change the system, make the rules, buy community favour through sponsorship, control the media, and they have.
Naomi Klein in This Changes Everything argues that to arrest climate change not only we will need to change our capitalist economic system but that we can do so in a way that will “dramatically improve lives, close the gap between rich and poor, create huge numbers of good jobs, and reinvigorate democracy from the ground up”.1 She focuses on the potential of a movement of movements, the mobilisation of people fighting for a better world, to see the end of the corrosive capitalism of the past 30 years that has been poisoning our climate. We need to realign economic thinking to a sustainable worldview but we also need to decouple capitalism’s influence from our political system.
The cancer in Australian democracy is the power of money. The Big End of Town have endorsed and donated to political parties and candidates of ‘like’ mind and been rewarded with licences and project approvals achieved through back-room deals. As US Harvard academic Lawrence Lessig says, it is ‘bipartisan equal opportunity corruption’. They have insisted on the wind-back and abolition of freedom of information, environment, consumer protection and industrial relations laws and political parties have delivered for them, wanting to attract more donations for the next election campaign. They have pushed for the hand-back of environmental approval powers to state governments knowing full well, that as with native forest logging, forest furnaces or pulp mills in Tasmania, CSG, gas hubs or mines in NSW and Western Australia, and coal mines and ports in Queensland, that state governments have neither the capacity nor the political will to do anything other than approve.
Big businesses have become so emboldened they now insist on laws like mandatory sentencing for protesters or funding cuts for organisations advocating in the public interest, such as the Environmental Defenders Offices. They buy instant access to ministers and shadow ministers; pay large sums for private meals with prime ministers and treasurers and their shadows. They form, join or donate to North Sydney Forum, EightbyFive, and Free Enterprise Foundation, and demand what will or won’t go into budgets, how a tax or a media ownership or financial services law might be written to their advantage, or how new visa rules could undercut Australian wages. It has reached a point where Tony Fitzgerald, who exposed corruption in Queensland so many years ago, has said:
Access can now be purchased, patronage is dispensed, mates and supporters are appointed and retired politicians exploit their connections to obtain success fees for deals between business and government.
They overrun Parliament House with lobbyists and are appointed to every government advisory committee. They have their own think tanks, like the Institute of Public Affairs, and umbrella groups that dominate the media with opinion pieces.
They thrive in an environment where there is no transparency and little accountability so resist any strengthening of anti-corruption agencies, freedom of information laws, or increase to penalties for white collar crime or scrutiny of the ‘facilitation fees’ they pay as bribes around the world. It is hardly surprising that they do everything they can to resist fast data transfer between investigating agencies around the world or the shut-down of tax havens.
So, while wealthy individuals and corporations wielding power and distorting democracy are not new in Australia, what is different is that it is now systemic. It has taken over. It has become entrenched and normalised.
We need to explain to people how the rigidity of the ‘party line’ in the old Liberal and Labor parties facilitates this outcome. Donors only have to get the party executive or political leadership to agree to an outcome and then members of parliament are forced to decide between their own conscience, what they think their electors want or toeing the party line. Not toeing the party line puts them at risk of losing party pre-selection. It’s why the power of the Party can suck the principle out of its MPs.
We need to break this sick model of business and politics as usual and take the power back. A strong, truly representative and participatory democracy delivering for the people is our only hope because if you are like me and take the global warming science seriously, if you love our country and are sick of its environment being destroyed and our people being demoralised, you will know the clock is ticking down.
The action required will need to go much further than identifying the problem, raising awareness, and protesting like the movements Occupy, Lock the Gate, and Bentley Blockade have so successfully done. What Naomi Klein and Occupy didn’t have is a plan to deliver for the movement of movements: “to refashion democracy from the realms of dissent.”2
It needs a plan.
It sounds sensible, so straightforward, so doable to fix our democracy, but don’t be fooled. It will mean the campaign of our lives. Vested interests in business or politics do not give up easily as Machiavelli warned in the 16th Century:
And it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.
What’s to be done and who will do it?
Introducing parliamentary proportional representation is a no brainer. If you secure 15% of the vote in a federal election for the House of Representatives, why wouldn’t you secure 15% of the seats? That would be democratic. However, our current system allowed the Nationals and Country Liberal Party to win 3.74% of the vote in 2010, and have seven members enter the House of Representatives, while the Australian Greens secured 11.76% of the vote, but only one Green MP, Adam Bandt, won a seat. That is not democratic.
The great thing about proportional representation is that it also reduces the likelihood of majority governments and corruption because it shares the power between parties and independents, taking the decision making power out of the back rooms and returning it to the parliament floor. They are more diverse and democratic, reduce the power of lobbyists and political donations and are less likely to deliver for vested interests.
When majority governments are in power, it is much easier for corporate interests to secure a deal. It is a fact that the most progressive reforms have been delivered in Tasmania in balance of power parliaments and the same can be said federally. Doubling the size of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, gun law reform, gay law reform and a successful vote for a republic, as well as the extension of the WHA to include magnificent forests, not to mention an Integrity Commission and push for a national ICAC, all happened because the Greens held balance of power.
It is no wonder big business rails against proportional representation and multi-party governments, describing them as unstable and chaotic, which is code for less likely to deliver for them. Taking back our democracy means changing the electoral system.
Taking back our democracy means changing the electoral system.
In Queensland it means reinstating an Upper House as that state slides back to the bad old Bjelke Peterson days. But the closest the old parties have come to electoral and democratic reform was John Faulkner’s valiant attempts following the 2007 election. But Faulkner is now on the way out and no longer in favour with the new generation of machine men.
One hope is that the explosive findings of the Independent Commission Against Corruption in New South Wales provides the momentum to establish a national ICAC, including an Integrity Commissioner, that can expose the web of influence we know exists federally. The Australian Greens, for example, have been calling for a federal corruption busting body for the past 25 years, but have received no support from the old parties. It’s time that changed and an ICAC became a top priority.
The need to reform the Australian political donations system is also urgent and critical. We need to end corporate donations and move to public funding of elections, with a cap on spending. Prime Minister Abbott has ruled out public funding saying that in a “budget emergency” taxpayers could not be asked to foot the bill for election public funding, conveniently ignoring the proposed cap. But without these reforms the imperative to court political donations remains.
As long as political donations are permitted, there needs to be increased transparency, timeliness and accountability regarding who is donating, how much and when. Failure to disclose donations or illegal donations should incur significant penalties. It shouldn’t take long for candidates to realise that a paper bag full of cash is not legal. With such a mish-mash of laws at the state and federal level, loopholes exist that allow funds to be channelled through party branches, state and federal party executives and third party organisations set up for this very purpose. New laws need to be tight and consistent between state and federal jurisdictions and capture third-party donors. The cancer has to be cut out.
In Tasmania in 2010 a new Integrity Commission was established, but to get it through the Parliament it was stripped of real teeth. In NSW, donations reform has been driven by Greens MLCs. Most recently the establishment of the federal Parliamentary Budget Office was part of our support for the Gillard government. And yet, tellingly, in that agreement, the articles that Labor reneged on were those concerned with political and electoral reform: legislating for truth in political advertising, a Leaders’ Debate Commission, establishing a Parliamentary Integrity Commissioner, above-the-line voting in the Senate, full three-year governments and political donation restrictions.
Also desperately needed is scrutiny of government decision-making processes. Putting the senior echelons on contracts was a nail in the coffin for the public service. If you speak up you don’t get your contract renewed but toe the line and that promotion is yours. We now have something which resembles a ministerial service in which whistle blowers remain largely unprotected. Freedom of Information laws were the great hope back in the 1980s and the Greens secured the first in Tasmania in 1991. But they have been eroded so badly that documents are refused for an ever growing number of reasons, those released are often almost fully redacted, or charges are imposed to make access prohibitively expensive. For example, it’s proved nearly impossible to discover why Whitehaven was not prosecuted for providing false information about areas of land it proposed to offset its destruction of critically endangered white box gum for its coal mine. Whereas anti-coal activist Jonathon Moylan was prepared to face the full force of the law and did so, the company concerned has not had to. Its chair, former National Party Leader Mark Vaile, recently sold shares in the company for $440,000 and his remaining holding is valued at $5 million.
The question now is who will join us in this effort to restore democracy? Are there enough of us who see that winning on the climate and social justice means taking back the power from the corporations out to do the opposite? Are there enough people who care, who have the courage, will power and patience to take this on and bring about the changes needed? Can informed, active citizens take our democracy back from the clutches of the Big End of Town, or has Australian politics become so captured by the wealthy that it is too late?
Well, it is never too late. As our own Peter Cundall always says: “We will never, ever give up”. Signs are already out there that people realise what needs to be done. Lock the Gate has drafted a People’s Bill in Queensland to restore the Upper House, bring about donations reform and repair the common rights eroded by the mining industry.
The Solar Council is running a national campaign of “old fashioned” community meetings in marginal seats held by the Abbott government, asking citizens to change their vote to stop the attack on the renewable energy target by Prime Minister Abbott in cahoots with the coal industry.
But while these are hopeful signs, there are several ways this can go. It can get worse, with further disengagement from the political process and elections with growing protest votes for anyone who twerks and appears to stick their finger up to the status quo. Alternatively, it can be a wake-up call, people channelling their anger and disappointment into action; action to implement the changes that would restore genuine participation in decision-making in our democracy.
But it will require people to commit to a deeper level of engagement than currently the case. It needs a re-energised citizenship, a rethink about the system and about whether the old political parties can change. The time has come to ditch century old tribal political loyalties because, regardless of what is promised on any issue, the current political system and underlying philosophies of the Labor and Liberal parties are designed to maintain the status quo.
People are frustrated that in spite of raising awareness and mounting political pressure, their campaigns are increasingly ending in disappointment or disengagement. Coalition and Labor governments and their corporate backers stick together and prevail, no matter how many protests or legal challenges or opinion polls show the community wants something different. They won’t change.
They won’t because it’s not in their DNA. The Labor, Liberal and National parties were formed well before environmental consciousness or intergenerational equity became considerations. They formed when there was a narrow view that the Earth had unlimited capacity to provide resources and absorb waste. The struggle was about how to distribute the wealth generated from those resources. For the Liberals it was about whether the owners of capital get rich. For Labor it was about whether the workers would get a fair share. The damage to the environment was regarded as a mere ‘externality’. After the Brundtland Commission and rising environmental awareness of the 1980s, all political parties developed environmental policies but, unlike the Greens, they were not central to their worldview. They were tacked on to the end of existing policies and were readily jettisoned if they stood in the way of resource extraction.
It was because people realised the old parties couldn’t change that the Australian Greens were founded. It’s why we have always chosen proactive citizenship. It is part of who we are and what we stand for. Our Green founders in the United Tasmania Group led the protests over the flooding of Lake Pedder in Tasmania in 1972. They knew that the only way to stand up to the political power of the Hydro Electric Commission and its puppets in the Tasmanian Parliament was to engage the people and launch a new political party with ‘participatory democracy’, protection of the environment, peace and non-violence, and social justice at its heart. They knew that neither of the old parties would ever choose the people or environment over the Hydro or the forest industry, and they were right.
I can hear the howls of protest from within the Labor, Liberal and National parties now. They really do care, they say, about the environment, and social justice and democracy. But recent experience does not lie. Yes there are exceptions, but there is no consistency or systemic change to point to.
The current Liberal–National Coalition have mounted the greatest assault on the environment in decades. Under Prime Minister Abbott they have removed the emissions trading scheme which was reducing carbon pollution, are attacking the Renewable Energy Agency, Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the renewable energy target, want to dismantle federal environmental laws designed to protect threatened species, have slashed funding to Caring for Country which is maintaining and restoring habitat, are seeking to overturn or ignore World Heritage obligations risking an “in danger” listing for the Great Barrier Reef, and have turned away from previous commitments to combat Japanese whalers in our waters. From forests to reefs, nothing will be conserved under his leadership.
But Labor has no philosophically consistent position either. Prime Minister Gillard removed support for single parents while talking social justice, and took funding away from universities and TAFE while talking education. On the environment Labor says it supports action to address global warming while supporting mega coal mines in the Galilee and Bowen basins and approving the Gloucester coal seam gas project.
As Labor’s former environment minister Tony Burke explained when he decided to oppose the heritage listing of the Tarkine in favour of mining.
I have not been able to put the natural values of the Tarkine on the national heritage list without coming up against what I would view as social and economic consequences which I believe are unacceptable.
He couldn’t protect the Tarkine, which was recognised by the Australian Heritage Council as having outstanding natural values, if it meant jeopardising the seat of Braddon in the federal and state elections. He argued, in cahoots with the now former Australian Workers Union head Paul Howes, that jobs were more important than conservation. The dishonest mantra of jobs versus environment works every time in a desperate electorate and almost always fails to deliver. A year later, Labor had lost Braddon, the Tarkine had a huge hole dug in it, and Shree Minerals had suspended operations and is being investigated for breaches of environmental conditions. The long-term jobs and “wild” brand value of a Tarkine National Park, and even giving the Tasmanian Devil a fair chance of survival, have been jettisoned.
The Nationals say they represent farmers but they oppose renewable energy investment and jobs, promote coal-seam gas, more coal mines, and are presiding over a massive cut to Landcare funding while denying global warming, which will wreak increasing havoc in Australia’s rural areas.
As to mining magnate Clive Palmer’s political party, it has no philosophy at all. To date, its track record has been to vote down the carbon price and mining tax to the benefit of the Big End of Town, including the nickel smelter which Palmer’s company owns. Far from standing up for Tasmania, Senator Jacqui Lambie has cost the Hydro $200 million, frozen the superannuation guarantee to Tasmanian workers at 9.5%, and ended support for small business while taking $700 million out of the Renewable Energy Agency.
Some people may argue that the answer does not lie in the political system as that has already failed. Rather, that it is up to individual and community action through divestment, community energy projects, and proactive choices in superannuation or banking to wrench back the power. The fact is we need it all. Individual action through consumer choices is driving change and it’s fantastic to see banks, superannuation funds and churches responding. But it is not enough on its own. The scale and urgency of the challenges of global warming and inequality require democracy to be restored and flourish.
Recently, I opened an art exhibition in Hobart called Giving Voice: The Art of Dissent. Pete Hay, academic and poet, had contributed an essay in which he argued that democracy is fleeing from us and the future of democratic institutions lies outside the system. Democracy, he said, will be refashioned from within the realms of dissent, if it is to be rescued at all. He is right. It is over to all of us. Change always comes from the periphery, not the centre, and the same is the case in politics.
This is the moment to choose. Engaged citizenship in a democracy, or disengagement in a plutocracy. A future to look forward to, or a death spiral. We have to take it on and not be cowed by the powerful forces ranged against us. As Margaret Mead said, ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.’
Featured image: Christine at an anti-pulp mill rally. Flickr/GreensMPs CC BY-NC-ND
Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything, Penguin Books, 2014, p.10. ↩
Hay, Pete. Giving Voice: The Art of Dissent catalogue. Salamanca Arts Centre, Hobart, 2014. ↩