Taking back the power

AS WE start a new financial year it is prudent to reflect on the anniversary of our current Senate taking office in Canberra.

The Senate is a House of review that should hold the Lower House to account. Initially this was intended to be a safety measure for the States, but it has become increasingly important for political fairness with the increasing power of the two major political parties.

With our political duopoly in Australia it is essential that there is diversity in the Senate. If a single party holds the balance of power in the both Houses of Parliament then there is no effective political review mechanism. Simply, a major party with a “party first” dogma cannot review itself.

Regional Australians should be particularly interested in the performance of the Senate and its prospects for delivering better policy for our rural and regional communities. Given the nature of Senate terms of office, cross benches are very important in exerting political leverage and influence.

My greatest frustration with the Nationals is in fact that they enduringly fail to recognise their power in the Senate, and that is where their commitment to the Coalition fails rural and regional communities.

In just 12 months the Palmer United Party has lost its wedge in the Senate with the resignation of two of its three senators, making Jackie Lambie and Glen Lazarus independents. John Madigan is also an independent senator having quit the DLP since he was elected in 2010.

Nick Xenephon is an independent senator in the sense that his party is founded on a self-electing promise. In my experience, Senator Xenophon is a truly considerate and thoroughly genuine advocate for his constituents.

Taking a leaf out of Nick Xenophon’s book, Senators Madigan, Lazarus and Lambie will need some form of Party support if they are to have any hope of electoral success. In fact all three are all said to be establishing their own new parties to enable them to contest their next election.

The problem is that these senators are not accountable to anyone outside of the election cycle. Their preselection is never going to be in doubt, given a Party can be registered with a handful of people provided there is a sitting member of Parliament. This is essentially how Pauline Hanson’s, Bob Katter’s and Clive Palmer’s parties were established - and in the absence of the kind of integrity Nick Xenophon commands, they have all failed to deliver any real reform.

I would argue that a party established for the sole purpose of getting an incumbent politician re-elected is unlikely to survive the incumbent in any meaningful way. So, the question begs, what is the opportunity for rural and regional Australia and all those other people who are feeling disaffected by the major parties? What will happen politically for the rest of Australia without some orderly political reformation?

There are a myriad of conversations going on across Australia about the growing dissatisfaction with our democracy. However, these conversations are still happening in isolation and are not gathering the momentum required for genuine reform.

It is no good hoping that one of these independent senators will miraculously land in the right place given their initial focus is on re-election rather than political reform. With these realisations, I agreed last year to work with a growing group of people to provide a catalyst for reform via the Country Party movement.

When I co-founded that Party last Christmas I made a conscious decision to not make this blog overtly about the new movement. While I have been political in many of my commentaries, it was not intended as advertising. This entry is written with that same sentiment firmly in mind.

As a co-founder, I am acutely conscious of the seemingly slow progress of the Country Party vehicle. At the same time I have been surprised by the generally parochial and uninformed objections thrown up against it by some of the people I had regarded as better informed opinion leaders in the community.

Amazingly, the name seems to have been one of the biggest stumbling blocks. People have enduring preconceptions about the Country Party name and have been unable to see past it to the genuine agenda for broad and enduring political reform.

There were four good reasons we chose the initial name: to us it unapologetically conjured up an image of people outside of metro hubs; it related well to our necessary commitment to land we live from; it had a strong nationalistic overtone in “our country”; and it would piss the Nats off.

That said, the name was and remains the least important aspect of the political process that drives the Country Party. The movement is about providing a stable and effective voice for all Australians, one which understands the importance of stable and viable regional communities in a political landscape that sees their influence diminishing. It is not a farmers’ party or parochially constrained to the bush. It is meant to be a vehicle for responsible political influence which delivers a better future for all our children.

The undeniable truth is that the entire Australian economy is increasingly dependent on a strong, viable and competitive agricultural sector, which incorporates the entire value matrix, not just farmers. No existing party can demonstrate that they understand the issue - and worse, refuse to genuinely commit to addressing it.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten frequently condemns the government with no apparent awareness that as an MP he is intrinsically part of the machine, and thus the problem. This has created a misconception among voters that you have to be in government to have political influence. This is simply and grossly untrue. It is a terrible untruth that excuses individuals from making the difference their constituents need based on the notion of party politics and partisan government. Warren Truss regularly peddles this myth to justify the ongoing political capitulation of the Nats to the Liberals.

Australia needs more politicians and parties concerned with good government and fewer concerned with winning elections. This can only be achieved with an increase in the number of smaller parties with no agenda to actually form government the conventional way. We are all sick of the major parties using our taxes to buy their political offices with no enduring regard for good policy.

The Country Party was formed to be a catalyst that might help progress some political reform. It was created to evolve and accommodate a broad constituency. It has already commenced a process to review and if necessary change its name as a start and to demonstrate it is responsive.

Regardless of the Country Party, it is vital that regional Australians find a unifying vehicle to operate under and consolidate their political influence. The next election looms large, and too many of us will not survive another term of government without a better and more proactive Senate.

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