Shona has a suggestion for a new project for me. Regular readers of this blog will remember Shona as the person who wrote some guest posts about volunteering. Shona suggests that I should invent a new political system.
This is what Shona wrote:
I just had my meeting with our local MP. Actually, Bruce was a ‘no show’ so he asked his minion to talk to me. I wouldn’t have minded talking to the minion if that is what Bruce had asked me to do originally. I was surprised that Bruce had asked me to talk, although I did write a very long email to him a few months ago. The appointment was set up 5 or 6 weeks ago and clearly his schedule has been overrun with his new responsibilities.
Bruce’s new responsibilities involve looking at social policy. His focus is on social issues that have become institutionalized (with groups representing them) and not the broader picture. That is a big mistake in my opinion.
In my discussion with said minion, I suggested that it didn’t matter what party was in power, we have people who don’t know anything about a subject leading policy. And there is no long term strategic thinking.
It makes me wonder whether this political system we have ever satisfies anyone. Are there any good examples of political systems anywhere in the world? Our political system is based on the British system which is hundreds of years old. If we were to start from scratch, what sort of system would we establish? It also strikes me as very bizarre that a head of a government agency has to be qualified to do that job, but a politician who directs and takes responsibility for the agency doesn’t have to have any qualifications! Shouldn’t there be some sort of competency system for politicians?
I am appalled by current politics. I don’t want to be forced to choose between existing political parties or leaders. Maybe you could invent a new political system from scratch for discussion – a system to perpetuate our happiness, and then perhaps compare it with what we have now. You could write thoughts on everything from competency criteria for politicians to voting systems. We could come up for a great name for it - the Winton System rather than the Westminster?
My immediate response was to start thinking up reasons why it is not a good idea to start from scratch in thinking about what kind of political system we should have. I don’t think it is possible for anyone (not even me) to understand how some political system that they thought up from scratch would work in practice. It is difficult to predict how politicians, judges, the media, interest groups and the public might respond to the incentives we might seek to incorporate in a new system until we actually see how they respond. Many people may tend to be less self-interested in their role as citizens than in normal market behaviour, but few are angelic. It is probably much easier to predict how people would respond to changes to a system in which norms of behaviour have already been established.
The suggestion of looking around the world to borrow ideas that work is sensible. I understand that is what the Americans did when they had the opportunity to start from scratch to invent a new political system. Australians did the same thing in developing a new constitution at the time of federation.
My starting point in thinking about political reform is to acknowledge that the Westminster system has one very good feature – it usually enables governments to be held accountable for their actions and to be voted out of office if they become unpopular. I think some of the argy-bargy that many people dislike about politics is an inevitable result of the role of the opposition and media in holding governments accountable. But the system does not reward politicians who are seen to offer unfair criticism. Politicians run the risk of losing votes if they are seen to be excessively negative or unnecessarily destructive
Added to the normal argy-bargy, some of the bad odour associated with federal politics in Australia at the moment seems to me to stem from the unusual situation in which we find ourselves. It is difficult for voters to hold the government accountable for the policies it is adopting because there was no clear winner after the last election. That means that the policies that the government has been implementing are the result of negotiations with minor parties and independents, rather than policies that it took to the people at the last election, or even policies that it can honestly claim to be in the interests of the community as a whole.
My next point is that in thinking about political reform we need to recognize that politics has inherent limitations as a way of getting things done. A lot of the disappointment about outcomes in a wide range of areas seems to me to stem from attempts to achieve things through the political process that would be better left to the private sector or voluntary co-operation. Why take money from people in order to provide them with services when they could obtain better value for money by buying them privately? The only answer that makes any sense is to make the distribution of services fairer – but governments do not need to be involved in actual provision of services in order to do that. As far as I can see there is no more reason to think that governments would be good at running schools or hospitals than farms, shopping malls or chook raffles.
A major problem inherent in politics as a way of getting anything done is that it involves giving some people the power to push other people around. People don’t mind when the pushing is obviously justified. There are not many people who mind being required to obey laws to respect lives and property of others, or being required to pay taxes to defend the country against potential foreign aggression. Politics becomes particularly objectionable when people get pushed around in order to provide benefits for some group that happens to be politically powerful.
In order to enjoy politics you have to either enjoy pushing other people around or enjoy pushing back. I think our main priority should be to contain politics to those aspects of life where it is actually necessary – so the pushing and shoving doesn’t intrude into aspects of life where it is unnecessary.
So, rather than start with a blank piece of paper I think it is probably better to look at the political system we have and to consider how it could be improved. The competency of politicians might be a good question to consider first. Should politicians be required to meet competency standards?