As developed democracies face more complex policy challenges, their capacity to resolve them has been undermined. To make, and entrench, progressive reform we have to confront this wider problem of the quality of, and confidence in, our democracy.
For some time now the German organisation, BertelsmannStiftung has been tracking and reporting on what it describes as ‘Sustainable Governance Indicators’. Its latest report has just been released, and it reviews three elements of national performance: policy (economic, social and environmental); democracy (electoral, rights and rule of law) and governance (considering both capacity and accountability).
This report paints a concerning picture of the state of OECD and EU democracy. In more than half the countries surveyed, a deterioration in the quality of democracy is found since this was last looked at in 2014. This is identified as impacting, significantly, on policy and governance performance.
When it comes to Australia, it gets worse.
Australia is on the slide, democratically and we are identified as the biggest loser, when it comes to policy performance, ranked 26th in the OECD – having been 12th in 2014. This reflects a sharp decline in all three areas assessed: economic, social and environmental policy.
All this is concerning enough, before you realise it predates Malcolm Turnbull’s political demise. The survey period concluded at the end of 2017.
And let’s think about what’s happened since then: could anyone suggest we entered a golden age of Australian politics?
There’s an interesting, and important, debate to be had about the relationship between the collapse of Australian Liberalism and the decline of confidence in our liberal democracy.
The rise of a reactionary populism within as well as outside what used to be a centre right party of government is concerning. It’s pretty hard to have a meaningful public debate about climate and energy policy settings when the Minister contests fundamental facts. Like whether Australia’s emissions are going up or down.
This isn’t confined to climate and it is denying the prospect of any meaningful policy dialogue – which, of course, has to rest on some agreed understanding.
Otherwise we just shout at one another, in a series of arguments unintelligible to those they should be engaging: Australian voters.
Australia today, in our 28th consecutive year of economic growth, faces big challenges. Like tackling climate change, reconciling with our First Nations peoples, effectively engaging with our region, reducing inequality and achieving growth that’s sustainable.
Big choices, too. Leading into this year’s election Bill Shorten has set out policies which offer a clear alternative to the status quo. I’m proud to be part of a Labor team that is concerned to change the country, not just its government.
But I’m concerned that at this election, and beyond it, Australians won’t be as engaged in the policy debate those big challenges (and many others) deserve and demand.
To get to this conversation, let alone see it flourish, we need to pay more attention to the state of our democracy. It’s hard to fathom why this shouldn’t be a bipartisan concern: unless it really is the case that Australia’s conservatives lack the courage of their convictions.
Amongst the pessimism of the SGI report, there’s also a beacon of hope. It’s that there is a clear correlation between the quality of democratic institutions and policy performance.
While countries like Australia that are in decline in terms of their democratic credentials are also experiencing what’s generously described as ‘underperformance’ on policy, the reverse is also true. Those nations with the strongest democratic frameworks are generally those showing the greatest success in terms of governance.
This is something to take heart, and encouragement, from.
Across most of the countries that make up the OECD and the EU there is increasing social, economic and political polarisation. Populism and nativism are on the rise, tracking with growing inequality. Hard policy choices become harder in this context. Harder to make, harder still to carry through.
But it should be easy to focus first on getting the framework in which we make these choices fit for purpose. A stronger and more robust democracy is the foundation on which we can grow our capacity for governance and so the conditions for policy determination and implementation to secure growth that is sustainable and inclusive.
A national integrity commission isn’t a creature of the so-called ‘Canberra bubble’, it’s a precondition to restoring trust and confidence in a tattered polity. So too donations reforms, and an unyielding resolve to open up our politics so that it can be seen to meet its promises.
Let’s aspire to be world champions when it comes to the state of our democracy. Not just because we should, but because the health of our democracy underwrites the strength of our economy and society.