Some commentators are correctly observing that the nature of political and other power has changed a lot in the past couple of decades.
Nick Reece, Public Policy Fellow at the Centre for Public Policy at Melbourne University, says “From boardrooms to battlefields, from churches to nation states, being in charge just isn’t what it used to be”. He says power is moving from states to non-state actors and from state control to market forces. “In a deregulated economy, politicians haven’t controlled interest rates, the exchange rate, wage levels or prices for decades. Nor do they hold sway over industries like they did when they were protected by tariffs or regulation or even owned by the government”. (The Age 21/12/13)
Lord Paddy Ashdown, former UK Liberal Democrat leader, writing in the New Statesman (15-21 November 2013) points to the changes in global power taking place. “We are reaching the beginning of the end of six centuries of the domination of western power, western institutions and western values”. He says “Power is not only shifting laterally, but vertically, too. It is migrating out of the structure of nation states and into the global space, where the instruments of regulation are few and the framework of law is weak.”
He points out that those institutions growing in power and reach – the internet, trans-national corporations, international money changers and speculators, international crime and terrorism – operate oblivious of national borders and largely beyond the reach of national regulation and the law.
This decline in government power brings with it, of course, a declining capacity to solve people’s problems. Nick Reece makes the astute observation that the gap between public expectations and the capacity of politicians to meet them leads to “a sharp decline in trust and confidence in political institutions”, and that this is a global phenomenon. He says “Almost every advanced democracy in the world has a deeply unpopular government that is unable to deliver on its policy agenda”.
This is a very significant insight. But how can this unhappy state of affairs be altered? Nick says governments and political parties should campaign to increase political participation. But political participation has declined precisely because governments have surrendered power and are no longer capable of solving problems – given this, why would you bother?
The author Christian Caryl has also noted an increasing gap between rich and poor, with wealthy elites gaining immense sway over the political process. He says that in the United States 40% of political campaign contributions in 2012 came from one hundredth of 1% of United States’ households. The rest of the population feels increasingly divorced from meaningful participation. Christian Caryl says the erosion of alternative power centres, such as labour unions, contributes to a sense of rising cynicism and disengagement.
I think the Queensland academic Jane O’Sullivan has identified a key cause of the problem in her work on the burden of infrastructure provision on rapidly growing populations, which I have written and spoken about previously. In cities with population growth of 1% per annum or faster, no Council, State or Federal authorities are able to keep up, and many people cannot get basic problems solved.
Population growth also diminishes democracy, as pointed out by the late Professor Al Bartlett of Boulder Colorado. As towns and cities grow, people are no longer listened to as much as they used to be. They often respond to this powerlessness by disengaging from the political process, or with increasing resentment that can be seen in increasing incivility in our political discourse, or simply increasing incivility in our society full stop.
To stop the gap between the governing and the governed from becoming ever larger, and protect the quality of our democracy, I believe we need to stop the rapid population growth, and that countries should each seek to stabilise their populations. Only in this way can we retain the quality of our democracy and arrest the drift towards powerlessness, apathy and incivility.
The other thing we should do is recognise that although large corporations like disempowering governments and citizens, it’s not a good thing. We shouldn’t go further down this path. This means no to privatisations, and no foreign ownership of essential services. It means no to “investor-state dispute resolution” clauses in our trade treaties, which enable foreign corporations to sue the Australian Government if it takes decisions that disadvantage them.
And it means no to the silly idea I saw recently of amalgamating and reducing the number of Councils in Melbourne or Sydney. Larger Councils have increased the distance between Councillors and ratepayers, and even larger Councils will only increase the distance still further, leading to ever-more alienated and dis-satisfied citizens.