“Concealments, evasions, factious combinations, the surrender of convictions to Party objectives and the systematic pursuit of expediency, are things of daily occurrence among men of the highest character, once embarked in the contentions of political life.”
So editorialised Robert Lowe in the London Times of February 7th. 1852.
We wonder what he would say today when, according to pollsters and social analysts – those prophets of the new age – politicians are universally held in the lowest esteem by those who they are elected to represent. Such uniform disregard for those who manage our body politic is disturbing to say the least. It doesn’t bespeak a healthy democracy. A relationship of mutual trust and respect between politicians and their constituency is vital, not only for effective management of the state and its essential functions, but to the transmission of democratic principles and practices from one generation to another.
Yet it must be said that there are times when it is easy to understand the aura of cynicism that infuses itself into discussions about politics and politicians. One who understands that is Hon. Peter Lewis, Speaker of the South Australian House of Assembly.
Most readers will be unaware of the fact that a Constitutional Convention was held in Adelaide in August. The reason for the widespread about such an historical and important event is that the Convention was largely ignored, both by Party politicians and by the media, which seemed to express its corporate disapproval of the notion of citizens having some say in how their State is structured and run.
“The media was deliberately obstructive”, said Peter Lewis, the man who was responsible for the Convention being established and funded by the Government.
“The media likes things the way they are”, he said, “with politicians and journalists deciding how things should be, to the exclusion of everyone else, particularly citizens, who are too hard to control”.
Peter Lewis is a maverick M.P., a former Liberal who left his party several years ago as a result of the internecine feuds that characterise Liberal politics in South Australia. To add insult to injury, he has held his formerly safe Liberal seat of Hammond as an independent at the last two elections. But his most grievous offence, in the eyes of his former party colleagues, is that he, together with another Liberal-turned-independent MP, Bob Such, handed government to the ALP after the last election produced a hung House of Assembly.
As part of his deal with the ALP, Lewis brokered a “Compact for Good Government”, a cornerstone of which being the promise to hold a Constitutional Convention to improve the democratic operation and accountability of State and Local Government in South Australia. The process of working through Government Reform has not been easy, according to the Speaker.
“It is painful to Members of Parliament to surrender the power they have to other citizens,” he said. “It is not in the nature of politicians to do that. The operation of the two-party system means that meaningful and real political participation is limited to a very few players. And that’s how they like it!”
There is no doubt that the most damaging division in Australian society is not between the rich and the poor; between those east of the Great Dividing Range and those to the west of it; between the cities and the country; between the industrious and the parasite; between those who produce and those who consume; between those who are proud of their history and those who are ashamed of it – although these are significant divisions in themselves. But the most damaging division of all is between those who are able to exercise effective political participation – the politicians, political staffers, journalists, some academics, party flacks, senior bureaucrats and union leaders – and the rest of us, who don’t matter much to the others.
According to Peter Lewis, that this is so reflects the failure of people generally to be politically involved unless they suffer some direct personal injustice that serves as motivation for activism.
“People accept the system as it is instead of challenging it,” he said. “Until they are negatively affected they neglect to take an interest. This is dangerous because politicians are utterly indifferent to the plight of citizens unless they are put under pressure at the local level.”
Relying on the media to keep politicians accountable is a futile exercise, according to the Speaker.
“The media is not about information, but entertainment and profits,” Mr. Lewis said. “Political coverage is mainly concerned with reporting disputes between journalists and politicians on political issues. It is the private interest taking precedence over the public interest.”
Despite the calculated disinterest on the part of mainstream media and Party politicians, Mr. Lewis believes the Constitutional Convention was very successful.
“All of those who participated said that it was excellent,” he said.
The Convention, which excluded politicians other than the Speaker, was composed of 323 participants selected randomly by computer from the South Australian electoral rolls. Meeting over three days in August, their task was to consider ways in which a fairer political system, with more accountability and effectiveness of the Parliament, could be achieved. An underlying goal of the Speaker was to see less parliamentarians than at present.
In the event, a surprise outcome was that the number of Parliamentarians should be increased, with a significant shift of opinion occurring between before the Convention and after. Other proposals included optional preferential voting, four year terms for the Upper House, ministerial representation from the Lower House only with Upper House Committees reviewing legislation, direct election of the Legislative Council President, a more independent role for the Speaker and the introduction of Citizens Initiated Referenda.
This last received most support from Convention participants and has received strong support from the Speaker. A three stage process is envisaged.
The first stage entails at least 400 petitioners lodging $8000, or $20 each, estimated to cover the cost of checking electoral rolls. The petition organiser then obtains the services of the Parliamentary Draftsman in getting the petitioners’ proposal drafted in legislative form. The resulting draft is printed by the Government Printer with a petition form attached at the front.
Stage two is the gathering of signatures in support of the proposal as printed by the Government Printer. The suggested minimum level of petitioner support is 5%, or approximately 52,000 people. The Electoral Commissioner has the job of verifying the details of petitioners to see that they are South Australian citizens, properly enrolled.
The final stage is the public release of the proposal, its discussion through the media and via the internet before the ballot is held on referendum day. Should the proposal be carried by referendum, the draft legislation is sent to the Governor for Royal Assent. If it fails, the issue may not be brought forward again by petition for four years.
According to Mr. Lewis, Parliamentary reform in South Australia has a great deal of public support, while there is considerable resistance on the part of the political parties.
“The parties don’t want the Speaker to be independent,” he said, “but the people do. Also, there is overwhelming public support for the introduction of four year terms, instead of the present eight, for members of the Upper House.”
Mr. Lewis has further ideas for reforming the structure and proceedings of Parliament, but he may not be in a position to influence for much longer. The Government of “Media Mike” Rann is almost a cinch to win a majority in its own right at the next election, over two years away. In that event, Peter Lewis will undoubtedly lose his place as Speaker to a faithful party flack. While he can see that this would slow the momentum of parliamentary reform, he still believes that an independent presence in the House can achieve much.
“After all,” he said, “we wouldn’t be dealing with CIR, four year Upper House terms and optional preferential voting if it weren’t for the existence of elected independents.”
As to the Constitutional Convention outcomes, the Government has given an undertaking to introduce draft legislation incorporating the reforms into the Parliament. At the present time, Parliamentary counsel, in conjunction with Convention participants, are drafting up the proposed reforms into legislative form and it is likely that a draft will be ready for debate in the first parliamentary term next year. While Premier Rann is dependent on independents for a majority in the House of Assembly, it is likely that he will be obliged to honour his promise to introduce the legislation. Speaker Lewis thinks he will and that the proposed reforms will become law.
“How can a politician morally say that you can’t do what a representative group of citizens say the people want?” he asked.
Well, if history is any guide, politicians are very adept at doing just that. But whatever the outcome, Peter Lewis has shown that having independents in Parliament makes politics much more interesting.