The very democratic and grassroots process of getting bums on seats

My growth both within and without the confines of the Greens has taken me on a somewhat meandering journey. I remember previous iterations of myself believing things that now seem anathema to who I have become, and other things which have vindicated some of my long-held beliefs. Some experiences influenced my opinions at the time, and proved to me the indelible impact of influential people. They also reinforced my belief in the importance of curiosity in not only forming opinions, but in proselytizing them. But not everyone likes curiosity, in fact, many people are either frustrated, infuriated or intimidated by it. To me, this is not a sign of intelligence, but evidence of lack of compassion and discomfort with vulnerability. Two things I value more than any other human traits.

In the past I have been known to say things such as: “of course as a political party our primary imperative should be to win seats in parliament.” I now shudder at the thought of this blunt and incurious display of narrowmindedness and would tend toward steadfastly disagreeing with anyone pushing that argument. Parliamentarians and the ‘political elite’ obsessing over electoral politics is part of what has created such a lack of confidence among voters in political solutions. Let’s break that cycle and embrace our role in broader society. Having elected representatives as the arm of a big broad movement built on a culture of love and respect for people and planet, now that I can get excited about. We are part way there and some of our internal party processes are actually pretty good, especially compared with other parties in this country. But we have a long way to go in making ourselves more accessible and valuable to more people. If participation is something we are interested in facilitating (and I think we are), we can do so much more.

Last year in December I had the privilege of attending one of the biannual Australian Greens conferences, this time held in Meanjin. Alongside three well known fellow members of the Party, I was honoured to hold a workshop on a topic that is very dear to my heart. I ran the workshop with Senator Mehreen Faruqi (with whom I first became acquainted back in 2015 at an AG conference in Adelaide, we went on to work together to form the first iteration of the AG multicultural committee and have remained friends), Councillor Johnathon Srirangantham (with whom I first became acquainted back in 2016 when visiting Meanjin, just prior to moving there for personal reasons, and having heard about the incredible work Jono was doing, I had sought out a meeting and he kindly obliged), and finally, Tim Hollo (with whom I first became acquainted in 2017 when he attended a National Council meeting in Sydney to talk with the council about the work of the Green Institute, since then I have become the chair of the board, which has given me the very excellent opportunity to work alongside Tim and other incredible humans volunteering and working for the Institute on some very exciting projects). 

Earlier in 2022, Tim released a brilliant book, and if you are reading this article there is a good chance you’ve read it too. Living Democracy talks in detail about the different ways we can all engage with democracy and small “p” politics through community engagement. So upon reading the book and participating in a number of discussions with Tim and other board members, and having a discussion with Jono about some of the ideas that have been floating around in my head about the way we do politics and democracy in the Australian Greens, I decided to pitch to the National Secretary about running a workshop on it.

Together we came up with a few ideas, and asked Mehreen if she would consider being involved as well. The four of us then went on to plan the session with the intention of facilitating a discussion about three main concepts:

●      Community engagement, and how we as a Party can do a better job of this

●      Enshrining a practice of MP term limits with a view to legislating them in the future

●      Direct democracy – how we can get more people, more involved in democratic decision making

Jono came up with a striking title for the session: “Decentralising Power as the Greens Grow”. We all collaborated on a planning document online and had a planning meeting a couple of weeks before the conference.

Conference day came and we were set up in one of the workshop rooms at the Queensland TAFE. Those of you who are familiar with WA powerhouse, former MP and former national office bearer, Giz Watson, will probably be aware of her proclivity for setting up a room for a conversation (the chairs and tables should be set up in a circle so that all of the participants can see one another). I have had the great experience of working alongside Giz at the national level for a number of years and firmly agree with her. We set up the room and it quickly became obvious, that the size of the room wouldn’t work for us, for all of a sudden we had about 70 participants filing into the room wanting to join in. 

It’s not a bad problem to have, running a session on democracy and being oversubscribed with participation, and, of course, we had no interest in turning people away, so we made do by having circles inside circles and people spilling out into the corridor. It would be nice to think that it was the short paragraph I drafted for the conference programme was what drew people in, but I’m fairly sure it was the presence of my three fellow presenters and the knowledge they bring to the fore that brought in the larger crowd. I’ll take my wins where I can get them though.

Once the four of us had spoken, we allowed a few questions before breaking up into smaller groups with former Senator Andrew Bartlett and NSW MP Abigail Boyd agreeing to lead a couple of these groups as we had not anticipated having so many people in attendance. We reconvened afterwards but had run out of time to debrief, so encouraged participants to host similar discussions in their branches back home.

Term Limits

Term limits is an idea that brings with it some risks, but it is my sincere belief that the benefits of such a policy outweigh the risks associated with it. It is easy when getting into these discussions to think about the people who would most directly be impacted by a policy such as this, most obviously being the people in parliamentary positions and their staff. It is of course difficult to have such a conversation without considering the incredible talent of the people currently in those positions of power. However, I think the value in this discussion is in doing our best to focus on the roles or positions rather than people. Rather than thinking about people or personalities, I think it is helpful to recognise the electorates that they represent and the role of an MP in that setting (regardless of the house or level of government). Let us think about the impact that creating more pathways to parliamentary roles (both for staff and MPs) could do in terms of building a stronger more inclusive democracy in this country and beyond.

Given the interest in this topic expressed in the very democratic and grassroots process of getting bums on seats at the AG National Conference workshop late last year, I felt compelled to put some of my thoughts about MP term limits and what it could look like in this party into writing. I have had countless conversations with people about lengths of terms, the prospect of grandparenting existing MPs, whether there would be prospects of returning to parliament after a stint “in community” or going into a different level of government, etc.

I have toyed with trying to find the most palatable version, the version that would be most likely to pass muster at a national conference or council if put forward as a proposal. In the end though, I’ve decided to go with the most practical approach I can think of. It may not win me any more friends in parliament, but I am ok with that. The movement and the principles of social justice, participatory democracy, environmental sustainability, peace and nonviolence are simply too important to set aside because of personal insecurities. Indeed I believe being able to steadfastly disagree on things and still work together is a mark of great maturity (or maybe it’s pig-headed stubbornness, yet to be determined).

What would MP term limits look like, practically?

First, I believe rather than approaching this kind of policy with a “grandfathering” application, we would be better off trying “clean slate”. Beginning with a process of term disclosure. Now, some of our current elected representatives may not have thought that far ahead, and may for any number of reasons, not be able to do so. When such a policy came into effect, our parliamentary representatives would get a bit of “warning” that this change was coming, and could adequately plan for the next steps they might like to take. 

What would this look like? Let’s say that from 1 January 2024, all people in elected (and paid) parliamentary positions for the Australian Greens (or it’s member bodies) had until 1 January 2032 as an absolute maximum number of years left to complete their legacy. That is just under 9 years from publication of this paper. From that date forward, any new Senator, MP, MLC or BCC member would be eligible for no longer than 10 years in any position. So even those new to the role now wouldn’t be any worse off than those coming into a position in 8 years’ time. And those that have already been in the position for a few years will have had a longer opportunity to build their legacy. If those that had presented a term disclosure intention less than the allotted time would not be impacted by this policy, and those that didn’t have an intention yet would be given that expiry date (for want of a better term). 

What happens next?

One of the arguments I have made in the past, in favour of encouraging MP term limits, particularly when it comes to the seats that hold a longer term (i.e., Senators and in states and territories that have bicameral parliaments, Members of the Legislative Council) is that once a parliamentarian has had the opportunity to develop a profile in one of these positions, it could benefit the movement to have them run as a high profile candidate in a lower house seat. However, there is also an argument for having an enforced break from parliament that sees our parliamentarians return to the community and participating once again in more mundane jobs, and day to day life that the rest of us know so well. To keep them honest, so to speak. We could suggest a minimum hiatus from any parliamentary role for at least 5 years in order to serve as a reminder of what it is like  to be directly working with the community, to lead and organise for social justice and ecological sustainability (but from the ground up, rather than top down). 

Having former MPs, Senators and MLCs working in community helps raise the profile of the party and shows that we are a party from community and returning to the community. It means that our parliamentarians are far less likely to lose touch with the realities of everyday life and to get caught up in what old mate Scotty from Marketing termed the “Canberra bubble” (replace Canberra with appropriate capital cities for state parliamentarians). It also means that we would have a bigger pool of former parliamentarians (with knowledge and experience of how these systems can work for or against the goals of our movement) to draw on for other voluntary roles within the party and to assist with party building, community engagement and participatory democracy processes. 

How is this more or less democratic?

The argument can be made of course that perhaps the members of the party don’t want their current favourite senator to leave, they are used to their approach, they have done excellent work, they are so well known and are pillars in the community. Why would we want to shackle them with a rule that takes away our choice to keep them there? Isn’t any reduction of choice a stain on democracy? Shouldn’t we be allowed to choose our leaders? 

I can see how that argument might sway some. Though in the long term however, the broader impact of the work required to ensure a healthy succession of available and skilled community members and possible future parliamentarians participating in our Party’s processes could open up possibilities for a much more diverse party room than we currently have anywhere. With more diversity, comes more accurate representation, more equitable structures and healthier communities. Tim talks about this beautifully as he discusses the merits of “ecological democracy”. “Ecological systems operate at and across every scale. Each cell, each atom, is a transferable part of ‘individual’ animals, people or plants, which, interconnected, make up the meso scale of flocks of birds, cities, catchments or bioregions, which themselves combine and recombine at the continental and global scale. Seeing one scale as separate from or more important than others, is nonsense. They are interconnected, interdependent and integrated.”Seriously, read his book. 

For those of us inclined to think more cynically about parliamentary representatives (of any shade) it also gives less of an opportunity for potentially corrupting relationships developing between our parliamentary representatives and the people that seek to influence them. And whilst this hasn’t been an issue for us in the Greens (as far as I know, yet?!?), we know all too well how much of a problem it is in other parties. For decades now the Greens have sought to set a new standard for what being a democratic political party means. There are many other ways in which we could improve democratic processes in the party. We can only become stronger if we remain true to our founding principles. 

Rebecca (Becc) Galdies is the former National Secretary and Convenor for the Australian Greens.Becc is a skilled all-rounder with a particular passion for building positive workplace culture and long-term sustainable relationships. She enjoys working in inspiring teams with people who challenge her thinking, and are not afraid to take risks, explore new ideas and radical concepts in pursuit of a healthier, fairer society. Becc enjoys conversing with intelligent, creative people about ideas that can change the world. Though Becc loves all creatures, she is particularly fond of her cat Maze and her step-dog Mahli.