Recurring Political Complaints

How often do you hear complaints about corporations exchanging a bulging teat for a compliant ear in government to smooth over their path to profit? This path that would otherwise be obstructed by the wellbeing of current and future generations of humans is instead only littered by its neglected carcass, as seen in the rear-view mirror. Consider the continued pressure by industry to allow logging in the beautiful Tasmanian old growth forests.

How often do you see Government allowing the rapacious extractive industries to destroy irreplaceable parts of our nation’s number one capital asset, the natural environment, in favor of a one-time profit for non-human entities, often foreign? Consider the powerful fossil fuel lobby groups and the very topical Adani case.

How often do you read about elected officials acting as if they are unaccountable to those who elect and pay them, spending public money on wasteful pursuits that are not beneficial to the Australian public? Consider government requesting the Finkel Review, paying for it with our money, and then ignoring the very recommendations we paid to obtain. Consider busy politician spending their days pondering catchy slogans to promote global warming to groups of irrelevant foreign science-deniers.

 

These are Complaints about Symptoms

All of the above are complaints about symptoms. Much of the well-intentioned and by no means wasted efforts in political activism focus on symptoms. It’s akin to dealing with bedsores by applying band-aids, instead of getting out of bed. The individual bedsore might see an improvement, but the underlying cause or condition will continue to produce fresh lesions.

If an underlying cause, condition or situation, or in the context of this article, political framework, is not seen to, then it stands to reason that existing symptoms will continue to appear. In the case of the type of complaints I’ve mentioned above, I see no reason to protest. These are expected symptoms of known characteristics of the current political framework. In fact, these symptoms show that the political arrangements we currently permit are working as per its design and we should not lament those symptoms. That is to say, bedsores are an indication that all the right conditions are in place to produce them. If we want different symptoms, we need to treat the condition or address the framework that is causing them.

I can take this a step further, in the case of say, the environmental movement. I could say that the whole shebang was doomed from its conception. I don’t deny that the efforts of environmental organisations are helpful and go some way to making the world a better place, but it is a movement that will always need to be a movement, and indeed a movement on a treadmill. It will never arrive at destination normality. I say this because the underlying framework of our political (and economic) system decrees that saving the environment is the exception, exploiting it, is the rule. A sustainable framework would suggest the opposite, where to destroy the environment you would need a movement, and maintaining it would be the status quo. But I digress. This article is about politics.

 

We Need to Examine Causes

So, what are the causes that lead to these symptoms about which we complain? The fundamental cause, almost always, comes down to a lack of democracy. Firstly, let me debunk the notion that we have a political democracy in Australia, and then I’ll explain why that is the cause of many of the undesirable symptoms, the surfacing of which, we seem unable to contain.

According to the Merriam-Webster definition, democracy is:

1: government by the people; especially: rule of the majority.

2: a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.

3: the absence of hereditary or arbitrary class distinctions or privileges.

 

There seems to be a recurring theme. Is it government by the people for the people? I can hear the hecklers in the back row now complaining, “But don’t we the people, democratically ELECT government?”, “Are we not determining policy through our choices in electing our representatives?” and “Aren’t our representatives subject to the same laws and regulations that they inflict upon the people?”

In short, the answer is yes, in theory. But the answer is decidedly no, based on the characteristics of our reality. We have a representative democracy in Australia because we are told we do. But the characteristics of our political system tell us something different. We do indeed all have the privilege of voting at a polling booth but that is about where any semblance of democracy ends. And even there it is dubious.

How can I make such a preposterous statement?  Let’s look at each of the definitions above. Do we have a government that is ruled by the majority? I concur we have one that is ostensibly elected by the majority. I say ostensibly because while the individual physically ticks the boxes at the booth, swimming around and possibly numbing our brains at the time is the vast amount of corporate-funded propaganda and misinformation we invite via the media around election time (I will use the term corporations throughout this article for brevity, but I include all non-human entities such as companies, unions, and associations). Not only that, the government’s own diffusion of policy is partly funded by, and therefore partly aligned with, the corporate agenda. The candidate or party on behalf of whom more money is spent by both the corporate sector and the corporate-funded government is the candidate who will have captured the majority of your attention come election time.

And then when it comes to ruling, do we really believe that an elected government installed with the help of corporate funds does not have an obligation to kowtow to those corporations when it comes to policy? Of course not. In reality, what we see in Australia is indeed a rule by the majority – the majority of dollars donated. Corporations have as much and arguably more say in policy than do individuals.

The second definition reiterates this disparity between the label and the reality. The supreme power is vested in the people. I see no mention of corporations there. Why are corporations involved in politics and government? The definition suggests a representation of people. Why is government even talking to corporate entities, let alone representing them? This does not seem to be congruent with the definition. I’ll state the bleeding obvious. They represent those who helped get them elected and who help keep them in power, the seesaw of which, is leaning ever more away from people and towards non-human entities such as corporations, trade unions, and industry lobby groups.

The final definition is a doozy, “the absence of hereditary or arbitrary class distinctions or privileges.” Please! While I don’t think this is as obvious as in other countries such as those north of Mexico and south of Canada, in Australia it is heading that way. Media and citizens, and even politicians sometimes even refer to themselves as the Political Class, partly because as a society we think too much about Rule and not enough about Represent. And in terms of privileges, I would need to entirely clear the Tasmanian old-growth forests to get enough paper to list those. Besides the exceptions to having to abide by the Australian Law that come with parliamentary privilege, government does not even hide the fact that they have one set of rules and standards for the “common people” and one for themselves. They allow themselves excessive travel benefits and allowances, company cars with chauffeurs, international trips to London to spruik the benefits of global warming, helicopter rides to work because they slept in, sporting event tickets in box seats, lavish gala dinners and elaborate offices furnished with exquisite Elizabethan era antiques. They spend millions of dollars to obtain expert reviews and advice to which they may or may not adhere to depending on the reports alignment with ideology, in effect proclaiming that they know better.

They regulate a compulsory superannuation rate of 9.5% for us, but liberally pay themselves 15.4%, which we fund of course[i]. The salaries they pay themselves are obscene, and they are not even required to turn up to work. Have you ever seen the floor of parliament when an Independent or Green Party minister is delivering a speech? The general population, as the employer of government officials, must be the most generous employer in the world, it’s a wonder their business isn’t insolvent. Oh…

Surmising then, I do not believe that our current system of government, by its characteristics, can be called a representative democracy.

I can narrow this down further to identify exactly where we could aim a potential democratic rebellion? The characteristics that suggest a lack of democracy are corporate influence in politics and political elitism and privilege. Political elitism is in itself a symptom of corporate influence. With corporate influence, we have seen the erosion of our own power to influence policy. With this depletion in power and a growing disbelief that individuals can enact any change, individuals have become disenchanted, disinterested and even apathetic when it comes to politics. In this environment, there is far less scrutiny and objection to the so-called political class feathering their own nests. In a more politically engaged society, the public eye would not be glazed over, and they would be held to account for their irrelevant extravagant and wasteful splurges.

Squeezing the offending distillate from our undemocratic concoction, it seems that the core contributor to the lack of democracy is corporate influence. I’m sure that comes as no surprise to many, and you are regretting me taking around 2000 words to say that. I lend you my apologies in the same vein our politicians lend us their ear.

 

Removing Corporate Political Influence is the Solution

Why is democracy-destroying corporate influence the cause of so many of our complaints?

Political donations are oxymoronic as donations generally do not come with a return. No entity is going to give money to a political party or candidate without the expectation of something in return. Whether it is for a favourable policy or to bolster a party’s chances of election, non-human entities should not be able to do this, for the simple reason, that they are not human and their interests are not the same as human interests. It puts a government that should be 100% representative of its human constituents at a conflict of interest as it will seek to reward the donor.

As a result of the gradual invasion of this corporatocracy, politicians seem to have forgotten for who it is they work. These days anyone or any grassroots people based organisations that speak up about an issue get labelled activists. Activist is not a bad word, but the picture painted is that of an angry Molotov cocktail-wielding societal outcast who wants nothing more than unabated anarchy. I’m not entirely against that idea mind you, but the point is, that activism should be encouraged. People should be interested and be active in the political sphere. And yet here we have a government that disparages such efforts. They seem to like pestering and defaming organisations like Get-Up and Rainforest Action Network who interestingly do not donate to politics. They are organisations of people trying to have their human voices heard.

Humans are multifaceted, and so their political framework must also be. Humans want policy that relates to prosperity, health, and happiness for example. Corporations are single faceted. By definition and legal obligation their interests are financial, to make as much profit for shareholders as possible, often at the expense of other human needs and desires. As corporate influence grows, which unregulated, it tends to, policy that favours that single facet grows, at the expense of policy that favours the other human facets. Corporations do not consider environmental impacts unless under legal duress. They do not consider the resource availability for future generations. They do not consider employee wellbeing unless it is profitable to do so.

A corporatocracy, which is the political environment for which we are heading, serves corporations. Unlike corporations, while humans might be interested in profit, they are also interested in quality of life now and in the future. A bona fide democracy delivers policy that reflects that.

The urgency of this issue becomes clear when we look at the current system of government in the United States, which by characteristics, is a runaway corporatocracy. It has gathered so much momentum that it seems that nobody can stop it. They have a situation where laws and regulations are determined by industry and association’s views on what will best serve their profits. The National Gun Association determines gun laws, the arms manufacturers determine war policy, pharmaceutical companies control the health authorities, and proponents of extractive industries devise (pronounced ‘remove’) environmental laws. No one can stop it. So, what of the humans there? Much research shows the low and falling level of happiness, health and wealth of the majority of American citizens.

Is this what we want for Australia? Are we done with democracy?

I’m going to assume the answer is No. So, we need to act now before we lose the ability to act; before the corporate lobbyists here in Australia develop the same level of power as they have in the U.S.A. This is not a new proposal in Australia, and despite politicians heckling grassroots organisations, many of them agree. Some Australian States have been talking about it, and others are going some way to resolve it.

In 2016, The NSW premier, Mike Baird, wrote to his federal colleagues asking that they work on a national system similar to the NSW laws, which include a $1,000 threshold for donations to be disclosed and caps on total allowable donations.[ii]

In 2017, In Queensland, property developers are about to be banned from donating to local and state government.[iii]

But it’s not enough. Limiting it is like administering half a lethal injection to a prisoner on death row. It needs to be completely outlawed. This too has been raised in the gilded halls of government.

A former Liberal party president and treasurer, Shane Stone, recommended in 2007 that all corporate, trade union and third-party donations be banned.[iv]

Even Malcolm Turnbull agreed with the concept when he was first elected. “No political donations should be allowed unless they are: from citizens and/or persons on the electoral roll (i.e. no companies, unions, associations etc); subject to a cap; and donors should certify that the donation is either their own or their spouse’s money and has not been given to them by a third party.”

I echo his words as precisely what I am proposing. This act alone will be the beginning of the beginning of the road back to democracy and the solution to not all, but many complaints.

 

The Time to Act is Now

This is not the only step, but it is the first step in a return to democracy. Such a roadmap might go something like this:

  1. Return to government by the people for the people
    1. Nationally outlaw all non-human non-citizen political donations
    2. Nationally limit and declare all individual donations
    3. Nationally outlaw all non-human non-citizen lobbying
    4. Cronyism will wilt as a result
  2. Emboldened citizens re-engage with politics
    1. Chip away at political class and privilege
    2. Increase transparency and accountability
    3. Replace single-faceted solution with multi-faceted ones. e.g. around wealth distribution and environmental stewardship

Simplistic I know, but my main point is to highlight that step one is to address non-human non-citizen political donations. This comes before all else. And we need to decide to restore democracy now or follow the same fate as the U.S.A.

 

How to Progress this Agenda

So, if you’re still with me, I hope you resonate with need for and speed of a return to democracy. I hope you agree with at least some of my arguments. But I accept that not everyone will. And it is for that reason that I am open and indeed hungry for your feedback and ideas. I am interested in developing this argument as it is at best simplistic, at worst uninformed. I am surely missing many important aspects of the conversation.

I am also interested in the options available to us, as human citizens, to promote into policy those very fine words above, of our esteemed leader Malcolm Turnbull. My intention is to contact the Molotov cocktail-wielding grass roots organisations for advice and collaboration, but that is just one avenue of action. If you know of others please do let me in on your secret.

 

 

[i] http://www.finance.gov.au/superannuation/arrangements-for-australian-government-employees/pssap.html

[ii] https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/jan/15/overhauling-political-donation-laws-what-a-great-new-election-years-resolution

[iii] https://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/politics/queensland/developer-donations-to-be-banned-in-state-and-local-government-20171004-p4yw9y.html

[iv] https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/jan/15/overhauling-political-donation-laws-what-a-great-new-election-years-resolution

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