Borgen and the third party fantasy/fallacy

These days the English, believe it or not, are looking east and a bit north for their quality television; to Denmark, præcis. Fresh on the footsteps of the noir crime drama The Killing (Forbrydelsen), come The Bridge, and Borgen, a political drama that might well feel tantalisingly utopian for viewers living in staid Western democracies around the world. The first season of Borgen tells the story of a charismatic, principled female leader of the minority Moderate Party who manages to break the big party stranglehold in Denmark to lead a coalition of parties as Prime Minister. It is, simply put, The West Wing for the post-noughties generation. Who wants to watch the humdrum story of a principled Democrat and his team fighting for and gaining office when a lot of the real action, inspiration and colour in modern politics sprouts from the backblocks of community organising in much smaller parties?

With all the water that has passed under the bridge in recent decades, from the centre-left’s embrace of economic liberalism & New Labour’s “principled” invasion of Iraq, to the seeming predilection of conservative parties for high defence spending, “big government” and politicised social welfare, what normal, rational person doesn’t occasionally dream of a democracy where the major parties get a taste of their just desserts?

The “third party” or outsider fantasy that Borgen depicts is not so much of a stretch for Danish politics, where the government is regularly lead by coalitions of smaller parties; but it does remain a stretch for most of the rest of us. The Westminster breed of government and certainly a fair proportion of the adversarial electoral systems that are prominent internationally are structurally configured to encourage big, powerful parties at the expense of smaller ones. The United States remains the textbook case; an ironclad bastion of major parties, albeit with a Republican Party wracked with internal division courtesy of the evangelical Right and the Tea Party movements. Will we see a President of the United States who is not either a Democrat or a Republican in our lifetimes? Almost certainly not.

In the United Kingdom, of course, Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats are two years into their warm embrace of the Conservatives in government; they are finding that the embrace is slowly suffocating them. In local elections this week, the Lib Dems lost 329 of their 767 councillors. Since the 2010 election, support for the Liberal Democrats has fallen from 22% to 11% in a recent YouGov poll, behind even the somewhat barmy UK Independence Party (Ukip). Everyone with a bit of conscience who cared about democracy “agreed with Nick” in the lead-up to the 2010 poll, but you’d be hard-pressed to find many who do so now. It was inordinately fashionable to agree with Nick back then – even The Guardian editorialised in support of the Liberal Democrats in 2010. Now the Lib Dems have the look of a party sleepwalking towards disaster when the next national election swings around, unless some drastic changes can be made to the way they are doing business with their Tory masters.

In Australia, we’ve had our momentary dalliances with minor parties in the last couple of decades, but only impressionable students, members of the Greens, or the pharmaceutically inspired could argue that Labor and the Liberal Party are significantly waning in terms of support at elections more than they are waxing. Tony Abbott is leading the Liberals with a civilisation-crushing 51% of the primary vote, according to Newspoll; Labor may be in the doldrums at the moment on 27%, but then they have been doing a bit of foot-shooting of late and Julia Gillard is well and truly on the nose in suburbia. The Greens have showed quite an admirable level of staying power over the course of the last decade, consistently sitting at 10% or thereabouts, but arguably, Australia’s close relationship with George Bush’s Republican administration in the first half of the noughties and Bob Brown’s recent resignation may have seen their political high watermark come and go. Bob Brown was always a fairly dignified, relatively likable figure, enjoying a not inconsiderable media profile. Christine Milne, and/or whoever follows her is going to find it desperately difficult to “maintain the rage” whilst maintaining and growing their current fledgling level of support nationally. The fate of the Democrats, another worthy minor party, hangs heavily on the shoulders of would-be innovators in the Australian political scene.

For us, the Brits and the Americans, Borgen is just a twinkling of utopia; it tells the story of a place that our own countries, at least without a drastic and unlikely overhaul of our respective political systems, simply cannot be. There is more than a dash of “grass is always greener” about this, of course. Danish viewers of Borgen would – let’s not kid ourselves – probably snort derisively at any suggestion that their decidedly multilateral incarnation of parliamentary democracy is necessarily something to covet. The often brutal level of compromise and imperfection that modern democracy delivers in spades, regardless of which political party is in office, is not something that anybody yet really has the answer to. Canberra, Westminster and Washington, for many, feel so distant and so alien that they may as well orbit Alpha Centauri, for all the good they do and all the meaning they have in people’s everyday lives.

But yet, through the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and yes, the British National Party, our collective “third party” fantasy lives on. Unless this fantasy transforms itself into an organised movement for electoral reform however, it will remain a fallacious mirage: a distraction from the far more profound structural problems that so bedevil democracy in the 21st century.

Major parties and minor parties at the end of the day are playing the same game by the same rules, and sadly, it’s a damn sight easier and sexier to make a few more little, largely ignorable chips off the old block than to think about fashioning a whole new block.

Electoral Reform Green Paper – Strengthening Australia’s Democracy

As previously mentioned, the government has released a second Electoral Reform Green Paper for public comment. Chapter 15 of the document lists out a series of eighty issues in the form of questions that the government is inviting responses to in particular from the republic. The state of our democracy is a particular bugbear topic for me, so I have this evening managed to finally get my act together and complete my submission, focusing on 19 of the questions raised.

Public submissions are open for just over three more weeks until Friday 27th November 2009. An online discussion on the document will be held from next Monday 9th November 2009 until Friday 13th November 2009.

My submission in all its unadulterated prolixity is over the fold.

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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.

Improvements to political donations legislation

Around a couple of weeks ago, Special Minister of State John Faulkner announced the introduction of some much-awaited electoral law changes into the Senate in the form of a bill. These sorts of small, incremental reforms often go unmentioned when it comes to the leading news headlines of the day, but represent the bread and butter of good governance that we all would like to be able to take for granted. While the Howard Government during its final terms was seemingly willing to go to machiavellian lengths [PDF] to bend the system to its advantage, in the admittedly fresh-faced Rudd Labor Government we have an administration willing to improve the nation’s electoral system at the expense of the two major parties in this country.

The major reforms being introduced include a 90% decrease in the disclosure threshold for donations, a ban of overseas donations, and an overall tightening of the reporting regime and associated penalties under the Commonwealth Electoral Act of 1918. For the average voter this is unlikely to be particularly spellbinding stuff, but clearly the mechanisms of our democracy should not just be left to rust and diminish over time. In the modern era, when we consider the speed and volume at which money can flow across the globe and of course from corporate accounts into political party coffers over boozy lunches, we have every reason to have a good hard think about the relevant laws and how we can improve them. That John Faulkner as Special Minister of State is wasting little time in acting and has already alluded to the fact that there will likely be more reforms yet to come is something that we should be proud of as a nation.

The first part of a green paper focusing on funding, disclosure and expenditure issues is due in July 2008, with the second part focusing on other potential improvements due in October 2008. In particular, two issues I would encourage the government to tackle as part of the second part of the paper would be a rollback of the Howard Government’s draconian changes to electoral roll closing dates and somewhat more progressively, allowing young adults 16 and over to voluntarily enrol to vote should they wish to. I don’t see why young people who are well and truly old enough to make decisions about politics and want to have their say should be denied the opportunity.