Electoral reform, green papers, consultation

The Rudd Government has just released a second so-called “green paper” on electoral reform, entitled Strengthening Australia’s Democracy [PDF/DOC/RTF]. Public submissions on the weighty document, which runs to a meaty 251 pages, are open until Friday 27th November 2009, and an online discussion on the document will be held from Monday 9th November 2009 until Friday 13th November 2009.

Personally I think it is very good that the federal government is taking an interest in matters concerning Australia’s democracy. I have not had a chance to take the document in as yet, but will certainly endeavour to do so and to make a submission. The book I am currently trying (failing?) to write is squarely focused on the health of Australia’s democracy in the twenty-first century, so this green paper should certainly prove topical.

It is a little disheartening that this document is so difficult to engage with. All Australians have a stake in the health of their electoral system, but it’s a fair bet that very, very, very few value their stake to such an extent that they will be willing to digest a dry, book-sized document and to make a contribution to the associated consultation process over the next couple of months. The online discussion forum scheduled for early November is a reasonable idea, but there is only so much that a week-long online discussion forum can do. Once again the participants are almost certainly going to be that fraction of a percent of the population who have a strong or vested interest in electoral reform.

What are some other ways that the federal government could engage? Let’s just kick around a few ideas here. The government could post out a succinct survey that asks questions on the gist of the green paper to 10,000 households, and invite participants to both respond to the survey and to participate in a conference on the topic. Engage programs like Insight and Q&A to host shows specifically focusing on the content of the green paper. Offer financial rewards for meaningful contributions by members of the public. Work with high schools and universities to make formulation of a response to the green paper a mandatory part of the syllabus, or a “bonus” task for bright sparks trying to go above and beyond.

More than ever, we need better, more incentivised methods of encouraging people to participate in their democracy. We don’t need to talk about rocket science here. We just need to talk to people about their democracy in a way in which they can relate, and just as importantly, respond.

Bigger carrots needed for a stagnating democracy

The question of whether or not we pay our politicians enough in Australia has been asked and re-asked so many times in recent years that it has practically become a cliche. Like all good cliches, this one made the Sunday papers yesterday, courtesy of a column from Melissa Fyfe. It would all be a bit ho-hum really, except for the fact that the point Fyfe is making is still a damn good one.

Despite all the questions asked about how much we pay our pollies, I don’t think we have seen any conclusive answers emerge about whether we pay them enough. This is no doubt partially because the issue is a divisive one indeed. Those who view politicians in a generally negative light – perhaps the majority of the population on a bad day – are for obvious reasons reluctant to consider the possibility that we should be paying our pollies more. Every news story that emerges about the admittedly quite considerable allowances our members of parliament also serves to reinforce the perception that politics is all about snouts being neck-deep in the trough, first and foremost. When one considers all the issues of the day and the possible measures that public money could be spent on, the dire financial situation that our politicians supposedly find themselves in is certainly quite a way down the priority list, if indeed it represents an issue at all.

For me, it really is quite simple. Do we value the health of our democracy? Yes. Should we be interested in increasing the size of the talent pool and competition for preselections? Yes. Would our democracy be better if more people were involved or interested in becoming involved? Yes. Do the benefits that the average politician receives really weigh up against the considerable costs they incur, such as having effectively a 365-days a year x 24-hour job, sacrificing family time, and enduring media scrutiny on a day-in day-out basis? Frankly, it is difficult to see how this could be the case.

If we want the best to run our country, perhaps its time to consider paying members of parliament a salary that is genuinely competitive in today’s global job marketplace and commensurate with the responsibility that public life entails. We don’t pay our politicians peanuts right now – certainly in comparison with the average wage – but we should be looking to pay our politicians whatever reasonable amount of money that will most effectively encourage people to engage in our democracy. The alternative does little but limit the size of the talent pool available to serve the nation, and ensures that many of our best and brightest remain ensconced in the private sector, selling off their brilliance for the sake of a decent life.