Forget the populists, Australia is well overdue for more politicians
With a seemingly never-ending string of negative narratives about how poorly our politics is performing, we are now overdue for some more structured thinking about what needs to be done. The "anti-politics" sentiment now risks hardening into something more dramatic as the electorate turns away, not just from the current crop of politicians – but potentially from a belief and trust in democracy itself.
[This article was first published by the Australian Financial Review - here]
While technology is disrupting many business models, politics too is going through its own great disruption. However, while in commerce one business is simply replaced by a newer business, in politics we risk throwing the baby out with the bath water as too many people start to take the benefits of democracy for granted.
Worse still, many people can even come to associate politics with government itself and then trust in the great civilising force of a robust state can also be too easily undone.
A common complaint is that politicians are too disconnected from their communities, too isolated in Canberra and not part of their electorate. It seems time spent in Canberra in Parliament making laws and managing government – the very reason for being an MP – is not valued.
And there is the constant cry that we are over-governed with too many politicians. This is where the debate is particularly troubling because we actually need to increase – not decrease – the number of MPs in Canberra.
Proposals to cut the number of MPs can make for good short-term populist appeal but it is always self-defeating in the long term. Removing MPs simply reinforces the perception that politics is a bad thing and politicians can be done away with.
Parliamentarians of yesterday are remembered more fondly than the politicians of today. They are remembered as more responsive, more dedicated and more connected to their electorates. Some of that is of course nostalgia. But past parliamentarians had a strong advantage not afforded today's politicians: they represented considerably fewer people, meaning that they could be more available to individual constituents.
At Federation, there was a parliamentarian (Senator or MP) for every 35,000 Australians. Fifty years later it had grown to 47,000. Today's parliamentarians represent, on average, 106,000 people each. In other words, parliamentarians are spread twice as thinly as they were in 1951 and three times more thinly than in 1901.
This is will only get worse as Australia's population continues to grow. Doing nothing will continue to reduce levels of representation.
Aside from rounding, Australia has not increased the number of MPs in over 30 years. We are long overdue for an increase as steadily growing electorates have left parliamentarians more stretched than ever before.
As politicians are become less accessible, community cynicism about their sincerity, motivation and value grows.
A report released by The Australia Institute today shows that only 13 per cent of the population have actually spoken to their MP and only 16 per cent have written to them.
Dedication and service
Less than a third of Australians feel confident that they could speak to their local MP if they have concerns about a current political issue. Over 60 per cent of respondents did not even know their representative's name.
Tony Abbott once said to me that politics is a vocation or "a calling" that some people are drawn to. Similar to other vocations like teaching, medicine, the arts, or indeed the priesthood, there is a strong element of worthiness and dedication and service.
He is right. A career in politics should be considered something noble, something to be cherished like other vocations. Politicians of the left, the right and the centre need to find new ways to talk publicly about such sentiments. They need to stand up for themselves and their profession.
But they also need a media climate that makes such a conversation possible. It is too easy for any such "pro-politician" talk to be shot down as out of touch or as egotistical and self-serving. Discussing the need for a reasonable, proportionate increase in the number of federal parliamentarians would be a good place to start this new "pro-politics" conversation.
Ben Oquist is executive director of The Australia Institute @BenOquist