On Sunday 15 October 2017, the Wheeler Centre put on a day of ideas at Melbourne Town Hall.  The first session was called Questions for the Nation.

Here’s my contribution:

“Is democracy still working?”

Donald Trump is President of the USA.

Malcolm Turnbull is Prime Minister of Australia, and the alternative PM is Bill Shorten.

This is what democracy has thrown up. Whatever happened to the idea of leadership?

Donald Trump was democratically elected. Leaving aside the complexities of the Electoral College system, it seems he was elected in accordance with the democratic principles of the United States of America.

Since his election, Trump has been an embarrassing failure.

He denies the science of climate change. As a candidate he vowed to get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency “in almost every form,”. His first budget cut the EPA’s budget by more than 30%.

Trump is famous for his use of Twitter. As long ago as 2012, he tweeted:

“The concept of global warming was invented by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive”

Meantime, in the real world the past 10 weeks have seen10 tropical storms become hurricanes: Franklin, Gert, Harvey, Irma, Jose, Katia, Lee, Maria, Nate and Ophelia.

The strength and ferocity of a hurricane is a function of the ocean temperature: as ocean temperatures rise, so hurricanes become more destructive. There is no doubt that hurricanes will be more destructive as the oceans warm.

In the past couple of months, Texas, Florida and various Caribbean islands including Puerto Rico have suffered immense damage because of hurricanes.

The people who live on Puerto Rico are American citizens. They have been without electricity and fresh water for nearly two weeks, because of Hurricane Maria. Last week, Trump got around to visiting Puerto Rico.

He spent four hours there.   He visited a wealthy suburb of San Juan called Guaymabo, which had suffered very little damage. He said he “had fun” in Puerto Rico. He might not have said that if he had visited the rest of the island, where people are still dying for want of the most basic supplies which FEMA is planning to provide once all the paperwork is done.

In Washington, Trump has not achieved any legislative success. He has not delivered on any of his electoral promises.

This is due in large measure to Trump’s shameless capacity to deny facts. So he tags as “Fake News” anything that does not sit with his world view.

Malcolm Turnbull is a very intelligent man, and likeable. When he replaced Tony Abbott as PM, most Australians breathed a sigh of relief.

If he had had the political nous to go to the polls straight away, he would probably have won a substantial majority. He would have been able to hose out the hard-right.

But instead of going to the polls straight away, he dithered until his political instincts were shown to be missing in action. And now he is hostage to the hard right, with Tony Abbott sniping at him from the back bench, and Pauline Hanson calling the shots in the Senate.

The big change in the way democracies work happened 20 or 30 years ago: the science and technology of opinion polls developed dramatically. It is now possible to get an apparently accurate, representative measure of public attitudes easily and cheaply (it does not have to cost $122 million).

As this technology developed, political parties saw a way of shaping their policies so as to suit a perceived majority of the electorate. It is an interesting irony that this technology could have been, but has not been, used to find the nation’s views on marriage equality. If it had been used, the result would be more reliable statistically and would have cost thousands rather than millions of dollars. But that’s what the government does when it does not intend to be bound by the result but rather intends to leave plenty of room for the hard right to vote against same sex marriage.

In recent years, the government has been brutalising asylum seekers in ways that would appal most Australians. It has been costing us a fortune: it costs Australian taxpayers about $560,000 per refugee per year to lock them up in hellish conditions in Nauru and Manus. And the government makes it nearly impossible for us to find out what is going on. Journalists simply can’t get to Nauru. It costs $8000 for a journalist to apply for a Nauru visa. The fee is not refunded if the application is refused. The application is refused for any journalist who does not share the government’s ideology.

The public has been persuaded to accept all this by dishonest political rhetoric:

  • the Coalition call boat people “illegal”.  It’s a lie
  • the Coalition call the exercise “border protection”, suggesting that we need to be protected from boat people.  It’s a lie.
  • the Coalition says the offshore processing regime is the responsibility of PNG and Nauru.  It’s a lie.
  • the Coalition prevent us from learning the truth about the cruelty with which innocent men, women and children are being treated.  It’s a disgrace

And the same politicians who have lied to us for years about refugees have thrown $122 million at a postal plebiscite to find our views on marriage equality: a subject on which Australian views are already very clearly known.   And they don’t intend to do what we want.

That’s where democracy has got us: Malcolm Turnbull panders to a party that has Pauline Hanson as its leader and (for the time being at least) Malcolm Roberts as a successful Senate candidate.

And what better can we hope for? Bill Shorten? He’s a very nice guy personally; he is intelligent and thoughtful. But he leads a party which reintroduced the Pacific Solution and made its operation even more vicious than John Howard and Philip Ruddock managed.

Look around and identify a genuine leader in politics these days. It’s a lonely search.

The mistreatment of asylum seekers is now, effectively, a bi-partisan issue. But that is true of many issues.

There was a time when you could predict, with fair accuracy, what the Labor policy on a particular issue would be, and what the Liberal policy on that same issue would be. Because the origins and inclinations of both major parties were well-known.

There was a time when politicians would say “This is what I believe. Here is why you should agree with me”.

There was a time when political leadership included the idea of leading. That idea seems to have faded away, some time in the past 20 or 30 years.

Western democracies now have leadership in the Jim Hacker mould. Jim Hacker, in Yes Prime Minister, famously said “I am their leader. I must follow them.”

There was a time when, despite Churchill’s comment, democracy worked quite well.

That time has passed.

It is easy to forget that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. So was Richard Nixon.

It is easy to forget that Australia once had political leaders like Deakin and Menzies; Chifley and Keating.

It is also easy to forget the real point of the American Declaration of Independence. Part of the Preamble is famous, but its broader point is often overlooked. It starts like this:

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

–We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,

–That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. …”

This is not talking about just calling another election: it is about a fundamental change to system of government.

Democracy is not working. Short of scrapping the entire system, let’s try something novel: let’s see if we can find some politicians who are also willing to be leaders.