Monday, 7 November 2011


Attempting to jot down Mark Colvin’s interview with Luca Belgiorno-Nettis and Geoff Gallop last week as they launched their newDemocracy Foundation, an ABC transcriber described one of their ideas to improve democracy as “inaudible.”

Just as well. Not only is “demarchy” an ugly sounding word, it’s an ugly sounding principle, best muttered under your breath.

Transfield Joint Managing Director Luca Belgiorno-Nettis and former West Australian Premier Geoff Gallop are two of the newDemocracy Foundation’s guiding lights. Despite a lengthy interview, it requires a trip to their website to wade through the waffle and get a genuine understanding of what they have to offer.

Luca’s mumbled “demarchy” is an untried system of government where a “pool of individuals” chosen randomly from “those who nominate they are interested in a topic” get to run our lives.

This laughable proposal is one of numerous bright ideas put forward as an alternative to the “adversarial” democracy that appears to have got up the collective noses of newDemocracy’s lollybag of ex-politicians, for whom, clearly, the failure of the current political system can best be illustrated by the fact none of them are still in it.

Supporters of newDemocracy (no, it’s not a typo) include Cheryl Kernot, who has flirted with more political positions than she has… no, I won’t go there. Suffice to say the former Leader of the Australian Democrats managed to treat both her constituents and her party with a fairly cavalier attitude, which probably explains why they and she no longer wield any power. Fred Chaney, John Della Bosca, Nick Greiner and the late John Button all lend their names to the foundation, along with a collection of election-wary academics, philosophers and businessmen.

Excitedly, they offer us all sorts of “new” democratic models to choose from, such as Confucian Democracy, where “positions of leadership (are) distributed to the most virtuous and qualified members of the community.” That’s me out, then! Candidates sit an exam where “knowledge of the world, literature, language, arts, ethics and culture” determine who gets the top political jobs. Handy if you happen to be a travel agent or a curator - not so good if you’re a bogan dyslexic.

Then there’s “The Popular Branch” and the “Electronic Town Hall.” Or you might opt for “Deliberative Democracy”, which according to newDemocracy director Lyn Carson is where “150 people… randomly selected” are guided by “a range of experts to ensure that all perspectives on an issue are available” before telling the government what to do.
What all these ideas have in common, apart from their disdain for the adversarial Westminster system, is the desire to see committees – normally chosen by some kind of lottery – reach a “considered, collective judgment.” A consensus that relies on the knowledge and opinion of academics and “interested parties.” 
“Election contests should not be the only way in which representatives, or… issues are determined,” Luca tells us. Whether he got a taste for politics sitting on his famous father’s knee is something Colvin should have, but didn’t, pursue. Franco Belgiorno-Nettis, a blacksmith’s son, born in a poor Italian village, served in Mussolini’s army before being captured by the British, migrating to Oz, and making his fortune as an Industrialist and his name as a passionate patron of the arts. The Biennale, and the corporate giant Transfield, builders of the Sydney Harbor Tunnel, are his laudable legacy. After a bitter family feud, his sons now carry on his good work. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the newDemocracy musings, including Luca’s own, have a slight “corporatist” whiff about them. Before you leap out of your chair in high dudgeon, I don’t mean fascist. Corporatism is basically consensus government between powerful elites; unions, big business, culture and politics. Elections and robust debate don’t really figure.
Gallop seems to approve. Hesitantly, he informed Colvin that he favours “political parties that take up the cause of a different style of democracy which doesn't just rely upon elections.”
Geoff fantasises about a mythical era of bipartisanship, where “both sides of politics were basically onside… there was a cooperative arrangement.” He sees echoes of this glorious consensus style in today’s Independents, praising them for ‘sitting down with the Labor Government and saying 'Look, let's try and work these things through as a group, not just take the one party point of view'.” With Newspoll putting both Windsor and Oakeshott on the nose within their own electorates, this little insight of Geoff’s tells us more than he probably intended.

In essence, newDemocracy seems to be all about the big issues of the day being resolved by vested interests in cahoots with academic consensus, over-riding voter concerns and doing away with political argy bargy. If this sounds familiar, it’s because it basically describes today’s EU; a gigantic, undemocratic conglomerate ruled by elitist consensus, with scant regard for the views of the electorate. (And hasn’t it worked out well?)

Meanwhile, Gallop believes Australian politicians “have become frightened of big decisions, particularly those that relate to the future. I see the whole new democracy, deliberation, engagement movement as a means to better, stronger and more long-term policy making.” What on earth’s he talking about, I wonder?

Aha! Suddenly the smelly elephant sitting quietly in the corner of the room rears up on his hind legs. “For a brief moment in time with Turnbull leading the Liberals it looked as though there might be Labor/Liberal agreement on a long-term strategy to tackle climate change. However… adversarialism has again prevailed,” Gallop complained bitterly last July, proudly donning the Ruddbullist mantle. Sentiments he repeats to Mark Colvin as his goal for newDemocracy: “We got very close to bipartisanship on climate change of course, very close.”

So that’s Geoff’s drum. Fair enough. This is an oldDemocracy, and he’s entitled to bang it. Luca, too. Out of interest, I check up what Transfield, who made a few quid out of the BER, boast as top of the list of their current investments. Turns out it’s solar energy.

New Democracy. Who needs elections?

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