Of all the things I could do if I had a single-use magic wand it would be to get every single one of us fully engaged with the democratic process
By Ian Chubb
It’s not because I’m just another grumpy old man that I find the present state of Australia so depressing. I am not one who looks backwards and decides it was always better once – even if it was – but I am one who doesn’t see much cause for optimism when I look ahead.
I didn’t expect to feel this way. I always thought that with effort and commitment, and a little bit of luck, I would see my generation and the one immediately after it handing on a better country with a better regarded place in the world than the one we inherited.
Instead we have let untruths, half-truths, misrepresentations, hypocrisy and hyperbole become the currency of our age. Secrecy is now standard operating procedure in politics. The public interest and the right to know is too often subordinate to some alleged higher interest, grandly and sometimes scarily defined as “security” or “on water” or “in the bubble”, so of little relevance to anybody declared to be outside it: the rest of the country.
I don’t think any of this bodes well for the future and I’m not convinced that anything will change until “we the people” take back control and demand that it does. Too many of us just turn away when we don’t like what we see and hear, especially within the polity.
Polls tell us that trust in the way our democracy works is at an all-time low; a very small percentage believes the federal government would do the right thing by the country all the time; just 16% of us rate the ethics and honesty of politicians as very high or high.
And it shows. In the last two (very close) elections roughly 2 million of us either chose not to vote, not to register to vote, or to vote informally. It’s as if they thought that ignoring it meant it would get better, or would go away. Or even worse, that the choice of our government was not important enough to bother.
So of all the things I could do if I had a single-use magic wand, it would be to get every single one of us fully engaged with the democratic process.
Rather than expecting that “she’ll be right” because we still have something to dig up, or grow, and sell, we need a community that listens carefully to the options put to it; one which can smell a marketing cliche, half-truth or lie from a long way away, and one that will act accordingly. A community with all the information it needs to be able to choose carefully, wisely and purposefully when “we the people” get our chance; a community supported by a top-rate and universal education system that hones our capacity to analyse and critique, along with developing the other skills we need to survive in a fractious and unpredictable world. Advertisement
When we wake up, we will demand leadership: one that is bold, courageous and open, with an unswerving commitment to our right to know. We will need leaders with the ability to build an appropriate vision for our country, along with the competence and capacity to persuade us why we need to do what they propose we do – all the while exposing their evidence base to us so we can see why one option was chosen over another.
We will want leaders to be strategic and compassionate; leaders who will also plan to care for Australians in difficulty and act to minimise risk of harm – something a tad more strategic than our “thoughts and prayers” after some predictable calamitous event.
We will want leaders who honestly and obviously and actively put the people and the country first, and who shape an economy to fit the vision rather than use one to limit it.
And we will hold our elected leaders to account, just as any other worker must account to his or her employer.
No, I have not forgotten about elections. The evidence is clear, however. While elections are crucial, they don’t for now result in better politics.
They just offer up a few new faces, more often than not from inside “the bubble”, and a bit more churn. I have higher expectations than that.
In a representative democracy, people from all walks of life should pass through political careers. Until we engage fully in the preselection of candidates we get what we are given, drawn invariably from a real “bubble”. Whoever that process turns out, they need basic skills and understanding.
Short courses in science and statistics should be mandated for all politicians because of their importance to so much public policy. And because so few demonstrate any knowledge of even the basic process of science, ministers should publish KPIs and be annually accountable through a public process open to “we the people”.
Parliamentary question time should be limited to opposition questions to facilitate real accountability. Questions and answers should be evaluated independently and publicly, and all ministers should answer a specified number of questions each sitting.
“We the people” have to take responsibility for the very nature of our country. It is too important to leave to a few. It requires all of us to be informed, to stand up and to take a stand. Because we have to if we care.
Ian Chubb is a neuroscientist and former chief scientist of Australia.
sFirst published at The Guardian Australia – Tuesday 18 February 2020. See; https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/feb/12/ian-chubbs-2020s-vision-we-need-people-from-all-walks-of-life-in-politic