The myth we can depoliticise the political

Or, why those who want to take the politics out of democracy are anti-democratic.

Not infrequently, someone comes along and says we need to depoliticise a heated issue over which there is significant debate. It is too important, so the story goes, to be political. Some who make this call are very smart, or appear to be. So it always confuses me that these apparently intelligent people can possibly think we can easily and without much trouble depoliticise inherently political issues.

A few examples in recent months have instigated me to write this. The first was a paper by Ernst and Young that Australia should set up a tax reform commission to make the big calls on taxation policy. Now, this may make sense from the point of view of the business community (businesses generally want stability and they probably believe a tax commission deciding taxation policy would provide this) but it shows complete ignorance about politics in general and the development of parliamentary democracy in particular.

One of the first and most closely guarded powers of parliament in the Westminister system democracy was and is the power to decide on taxation. And this has been the case for several centuries. This power of taxation (which is not only used to raise funds for the government, but can also be used to redistribute wealth and shape the structure of society itself) is, along with the power to pass legislation the key to parliament’s power. Without the ability to decide how much it can tax and how it will do so, the Parliament and therefore the government would be severely limited in its ability to pursue its agenda.

Now, the fact that Ernst & Young would publish such a report probably should not bother or surprise me much. They’re economists and may not spend a lot of time thinking about politics (although perhaps they should). Indeed, by pushing such a line it is effectively lobbying for it’s clients (it’s a financial and consulting firm that largely works for large businesses) and its own business interests. A healthy dose of a anti-democratic policy making which (at least in the short-term) increased tax and spend policy stability would be seen as a good outcome. However, the fact that every media report (such as this and this) that ran the story failed to mention (or quote someone saying) that to do what they suggest would actually severely hamstring democracy in Australia, and would never be pursued by either party, really got my goat.

No matter how annoyed I get at a vested interest lobbying against democracy, though, and their media patsies running their complaints without critique, what really gets me fired up is when a politician does it (even if it is a former politician).

The main perpetraitor in question is Dr John Hewson. A former member of parliament and Liberal Party leader, he is quoted in the SMH article supporting the Ernst & Young paper. However, where the Ernst & Young paper recommends a tax reform commission that would operate similar to the Productivity Commission, providing independent advice by not usurping the power of Parliament to legislate on tax, Hewson goes further. In a paper he wrote at the Crawford School at ANU he appears to favour a permanent  independent Tax Commission “beyond politics”. In his own words, this commission would “be truly independent of governments… to analyse, develop, educate and deliver the reform package(s) it
believes necessary over the next several decades”. That is, it wouldn’t listen to what those pesky Australian citizens or their elected representatives think. It will decide what’s best for them, and then educate them about the medicine they need to take, before doing what needs to be done regardless of their opinions. He finishes the paper with the rhetorical question “Is genuine tax and transfer reform too important to be left to politicians?” In case you think Hewson is open to potential answers on this question, earlier in the paper he writes:

“Even if a viable tax/transfer package could be finalized before the next
election, how much of it would have to be “compromised” as the politics
unfold? Or, to pose the question another way, how can we keep politics
essentially out of the process?

[Emphasis mine]

That is, Hewson thinks the politics ruins good policies. He believes the people of Australia ruin good policy. He’s not the only one who believe there are issues too big and important to leave with politicians, politics or the democratic process, either. There are other ex-politicians (such as Mark Latham, whom I heard say almost these exact words on the ABC a few months ago) and commentators who agree. There are also those who believe we need consensus to solve problems like inequality (this was Hillary Clinton, who should know that it’s nearly impossible to get everyone to agree on a contentious issue).

The problem is, politics can never be taken out of policy. What we believe makes good policy is ultimately defined by our politics (which, as political scientists Linda Botterill and Geoff Cockfield pointed out a conference I recently attended, are shaped by our values).

The idea that we can somehow get everyone to agree on important issues, or that some issues are too important to be decided through politics misses the whole point of democracy. Politics is not a bug, it’s a feature. It amazes me how many people who have been knee deep in the democratic process for a significant part of their lives, who then want to take away the whole point of the democratic contest. Democracy is messy. It’s meant to be. This does not mean democracy will always give us the best outcomes, but it does mean we have a feedback loop (in elections) that allows democratic systems to be self-correcting when policy mistakes are made (think workchoices). The whole point is that different groups with divergent views, interests and philosophies can fight the issues out in public and allow voters and their elected representatives to make the decision. It’s not perfect, but it is vastly superior than a system that involves removing accountability from the decision making process (which is exactly what you do if you start replacing elected representatives with appointed technocrats). There’s a name for a system where some who (apparently) knows best tells the society what the decision is. It’s called a dictatorship. Hewson, Clinton, Latham, Ernst & Young and all the others who get frustrated by democracy and publicly wish for a system that takes the whole messy politics out of the decision making process need to think harder about what they’re asking for.

3 Replies to “The myth we can depoliticise the political”

  1. The apparent difficulty of getting ‘reform’ ideas up in the last 10 years certainly makes the idea of taking away important decisions away from politicians seductive. Especially considering the success of giving the power to set interest rates to the RBA. However, as you say, politics is messy and regularly disappointing, but we are seeing that feedback loop you mentioned in action at the moment as several governments which have failed to bring people along with them and their reform agendas. Commissions do serve useful functions in that they are credible bodies with the capacity to say what is politically un-sayable or the authority to shame the political class into behaving better. Big changes need to be contested in public and support won, even if only begrudging. The ultimate answer as to be for our representatives to lift their game.

    1. Thanks. I have no problem with the use of commissions to provide advice. I just have a problem with them taking away one of government’s most important functions: setting taxation policy (which is effectively what Hewson was advocating). Having important policies set by unelected officials will eventually result in some kind of blowback if public opinion is ignored (which surely must be the point of cutting elected representatives out of the loop).

      I’d also argue there’s a major difference between setting the official interest rate (which is often moved around multiple times in a year) and taxation policy, which is often only changed very occasionally, with changes often taken to an election (I can’t ever recall a major party taking a specific interest rate policy to an election).

      Agree wholeheartedly with your comment our representatives need to lift their game though.

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