Political order and political decay in Australia

If there has been a single problem facing contemporary democracies, either aspiring or well established, it has been centred in their failure to provide the substance of what people want from government: personal security, shared economic growth, and quality basic public services like education, health and infrastructure that are needed to achieve individual opportunity.” Francis Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay p 524

Governments are failing in Australia, and yet there is next to no insightful commentary on the underlying reasons why. There is much noise and puff about failings of the political class, and tiresome predictable conferences on reigniting “reform.” There is an endless circle of meaningless commentary by self-regarding journalists and panellists, who perform no useful function other than their own self-promotion.

Occasionally, there is discussion of trust, of disengagement from “mainstream” politics and the media, and of a need to establish new processes and institutions to renew democracy. Much of this material comes from former political advisers, such as Nicholas Reece and Mark Triffit, at the Melbourne School of Government. Their proposals include ideas such as participatory budgeting or new forms of media engagement. Some of this discussion receives sponsorship from wealthy patrons like the Belgiorno-Nettis family and their foundation that sponsors forms of citizen deliberation.

These ideas are worthwhile innovations, but in the end are minor changes in process, and will always be of marginal concern. They can provide for entertaining workshops now and again for people with boundless enthusiasm and restricted responsibility. But they do not offer a way to reshape the ordinary, enduring duties of governing. They do not consider the deeper institutional and cultural foundations of the problems they discern. Small changes in process will not address profound failures in political order. To rectify the course of democracy it is important to understand the roots of the decay that has taken hold in the contemporary political order.

This is the task performed by Francis Fukuyama’s Political Order and Political Decay. As Fukuyama indicates in the quotation above, the loss of trust and discontent with democracy is at its foundation a failure of performance: modern democratic governments are failing as political orders because they do not provide the substance of what people want. They pursue “reforms” to pander to media and elite audiences, but do not deliver the substance of what people want from their governments: real improvements in their linked lives. As Stein Ringen comments in A Nation of Devils, the best explanation for a loss of trust in governments is that governments have not acted in trustworthy ways. It is not a newly fickle public, but a long, slow decay in governing that is at the heart of our democratic disorders. It is not a failure of “reform” vision that is the problem of Australian political culture, as argued most insistently by Paul Kelly, but a betrayal of democratic substance by political elites whose careers are grounded in a new patrimonial political order.

For Fukuyama, a successful political order stands evenly on three legs: accountability, rule of law and state capability. But in contemporary democracy, this balanced order is not achieved. Most of the discussion of democratic renewal focuses on process changes in accountability, and indeed attempts to sabotage state capability, by investing new authority and resources in non-state actors, such as citizens groups, charities, social businesses, and social entrepreneurs, or democratic monitors in the form of public or private “oversight” organisations. The appeal to philanthropists and “independent” persons is evident, but these changes have minimal impact on the prime institution bonding political elites to the ordinary citizen, parliament and other forms of democratic representative assembly. Similarly, the rule of law becomes a process driven diversion – “the worship of procedure over substance is a critical source of political decay in contemporary liberal democracies” – or a game of lawyers prosecuting political elites too little and too late. The grossest example of a deformed institution of the rule of law in Australia is the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption that despite high profile indictments for minor misdemeanours has systematically failed to prevent gross, pervasive and destructive corruption in that state.

While rule of law and accountability are common themes in discussion of the ingredients of successful democracy, state capability is a more important contribution from Fukuyama. States must be effective if they are to be authoritative. If they are not authoritative, they cannot impose the democratic order on reluctant others. Democracies must project authority and command obedience – they are not a vaudeville show for gadflies and media critics. And capable states have emerged as often from authoritarian origins, as from cultures of dissidence and citizen participation. The Westminster system was the product of a tightly organised aristocratic elite opening itself to new talent from a commercial, technological elite, and preceded a significant widening of the democratic mandate. Germany is the prime example of an effective bureaucracy that worked through various forms and deformations of the rule of law and accountability. Fukuyama shows how well-functioning bureaucracy is essential to political order and democratic success. His analysis ought to underpin wide-scale institutional change in today’s bureaucracies in Australia.

It is the disease in state capability in contemporary democracy that I know best. Twenty-five years in the Victorian state government bureaucracy has given me direct experience of the decay of an institution, the public service, and the deformation of a culture, an ethos of governing well. Slowly, without anyone really noticing, over the last thirty to fifty years a model of governing, rooted in economic and social developments, has emerged triumphant within its enclosed walls. But its triumph has undone state capability, entrenched an elite consultocracy – squads of advisers, job-hopping executives and consultants – through new forms of patronage and clientilism. This consultocracy is befuddled by its own rhetoric and rites. The more it talks about reform, the less it contributes to the performance of a capable state. It is the unacknowledged legislator of Australia’s political crisis of recent years. Fukuyama’s analysis of the deformation of contemporary democracy by new forms of patronage, clientilism, kinship affiliation and reciprocal altruism shows how these bureaucratic gangs have taken over and sabotaged Australian public institutions. This is the treason of the clerks.