ADELAIDE - The many and obvious failings of various Western democracies have been on vivid display over the last two years.
Whilst it is fair to criticise our political elites for their incompetence, misjudgement and venality, we who vote for them might take pause to consider the extent to which we are also culpable.
After all, if we did not tolerate their folly so readily or, more often, simply ignore it, they might be less inclined to behave the way they do.
The apathy, indifference and associated lack of engagement with the political process on the part of most people has allowed various powerful interest groups to effectively control much of the process of national and sub-national governance.
Interest groups and lobbyists have been around for a very long time and will always be attached to the political process.
In 1792, when George Washington won his second term as president of the four-year old United States, Army veterans from Virginia hired a William Hull to persuade Congress to give them more compensation.
But the name given to this practice of putting the squeeze on politicians for money or other favours didn’t emerge until 1817, when a newspaper referred to a William Irving as a ‘lobby member’ (to differentiate him from an elected member) of the New York legislature.
These days, there are many more lobbyists, they often represent huge corporations, they often have plenty of money, they are mostly people of great skill and they can exercise great influence.
This power can exceed that of most politicians, let alone regular citizens, and in a democracy – if the democracy is to prevail – these professional rent seekers need to be kept at arm’s length from the policy development and decision making processes of government.
In Australia, particularly in the last 20 years, it has become abundantly clear that, in far too many cases, lobbyists have been instrumental shaping government processes.
At the same time, many years of government’s cutting costs under the false principles of neo-liberal thinking has effectively sidelined the public sector as a policy making force and drained away its vital non-political role in vital areas such as health, as we are now finding out to our cost.
As a general observation, the ordinary citizen does not understand the processes of government.
The contact points for citizens are typically restricted to 'front of house' functions, not what goes on behind closed doors, in the private dining rooms of restaurants and over the phone.
When citizens do need to get beyond the 'front of house' to press particular issues, they frequently go to their local members of parliament, who may if they want to elevate a request, plea or problem to a higher level in the bureaucracy.
This is the 'bread and butter' work of MPs, not the theatre of the absurd we are presented with each night on television and radio or read about in the next day’s newspapers.
If we citizens expect more of our elected political representatives, because that is what they are deemed to be, then we had better start demanding that something.
The best way to make our voices heard is to organise and present ourselves as a force that is stronger than one or two people.
A force that will persuade politicians that gaining their precious votes depends upon meeting their expectations, at least to some extent.
The politicians must understand that to deny these citizens what we want will deny the politicians the votes they want.
The promise of democracy is that citizens’ issues and views will be respected and considered, but this promise is not necessarily honoured.
Power can be quite deaf and it is rarely charitable. The thing that makes power listen and then flex the way you want it to, is the threat that it may be lost.
So mostly, power must feel threat before it flexes. But even in flexing, it still may not meet your demands.
It may signal that it is about to shift but this does not necessarily indicate movement towards your objectives.
Politicians learn to be cunning. They will mostly show sympathy and courtesy to you, the lonely petitioner, but they also assess your influence and, where that is limited, it is difficult to push back against entrenched, well-resourced authority.
People who are 'rusted on' supporters of a political party who never vary their vote according to policies and issues, effectively deal themselves out of the game, with one exception.
And this is where they are paid up members of the party or cronies of the powerful who can exploit their access for their own benefit.
We’ve all seen the machinations and skulduggery that occurs within political parties, as insiders, allies and powerful interest groups jockey for privilege or favours.
In this contest for benefit, the public interest typically rates no mention or consideration except perhaps rhetorically – the tired old cliché of the ‘election promise’ or ‘announceable’ whose substance will never be seen.
In this sense, even some of the crazier elements of the so-called Libertarian right are not entirely wrong when they protest about being denied their 'freedom'.
Their error is mistaking anarchy for freedom, with no real understanding of the logical consequences that would flow from the achievement of their supposed 'freedom'.
So, if people want things to change they had better act, otherwise Phil Fitzpatrick's most pessimistic prognostications stand a fair chance of coming to pass.
And the starting point for action that can deliver results is usually organisation.
Even a small group of motivated and capable people with a clear view of what needs to be done can exercise influence and initiate change.
If they organise, recruit, plan and act to acquire influence through numbers, popular ideas and good publicity they will be better able to navigate the pathway to Power and influence over political processes.
So, if you’re not prepared to join an organisation that exists to exercise influence – whether it be a political party or a football club wanting lights for its oval – or if you’re not prepared yourself to organise a group for that purpose, then you better be born a billionaire because it’s going to be darn difficult.