Friday, January 10, 2014

The Changing Nature of Power

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.


  1. Once again Kelvin you have hit the nail on the head. Why others cannot see these things is beyond me and the path we are taking will lead to disaster. Our greatest asset is the land we live in and our small population so why not protect that. However your parties previous PM in K Rudd for saw and encouraged a big Australia. In those six dreadful years of labor mismanagement the seeds have been sown for trouble as we are less capable of looking after our own people now. I think you should stand as an independent as the gap between you and your party grows ever wider. Do not change Kelvin and keep fighting the good fight as there are people out here that appreciate and respect what you do and what you stand for.

  2. I agree with your sentiments entirely. Governments, at both state and federal level, are unduly constrained from acting in the best interests of the populace, the environment and in certain areas of animal welfare because they are, in practice, controlled by the wishes of their major donors and influential lobby groups. We live in what is really a plutocracy where our governments dance to the tune of the people who control the means of wealth production and job creation. Increasing population levels fuel the need for more growth, further enhancing the power of the plutocrats. A cycle that seemingly has no end.

  3. An excellent paper and good comments too. You are doing a brilliant balancing act there in the ALP, Kelvin, please hang in there!

  4. Well said. History shows constantly shifting power balances over time, the individual, the state, the church, and these days, business.
    Individual citizens rattle around in all this. Collectively they wield the greatest power, but they are usually not organised.
    The trouble is, when it gets badly out of kilter, chaos follows. Look at what's happening in the Middle East right now. If allowed to grow, it's a dangerous situation.

    Our materialist civilisation bombards us at every moment with messages saying we must consume more. Set up this expectation, while depriving people is a risky proposition.

  5. Adroit as always, you cover a lot of ground in one brief and elegant article.

    Might I contribute one additional thought:
    From the information age we skipped right over the knowledge era and have firmly landed in the age of slick marketing... Citizens have been re-badged as consumers. (Preferably passive consumers.)

  6. Thanks for an interesting essay Kelvin. It is not often that I agree with anything that a “Labor” politician says these days but your posts are a definite exception.
    We have always lived in a capitalist society here in Australia and so that, in itself, tells us who really runs the place. The suggestion that the ‘big-end of town’ is in control is not in dispute. The country is and always has been, a plutocracy. It is just that the arrogance and influence of the ruling class is becoming much more pronounced. As Karl Marx quite correctly indicated, the propensity for power and profit of the capitalist class knows no bounds. I can recall as a child hearing anecdotal stories of Frank Packer picking up the phone and laying down the law to Prime Minister Robert Menzies. Nowadays it is Rupert on the phone to whoever is in office. The more things change the more they stay the same.

    In the last few days I fully agreed with a post that I noticed on the New York Times website by someone who described the Democratic Party as being the “hand-maiden for Wall Street”. It is just such pity that the ALP (Alternative Liberal Party) is likewise guilty of being the hand-maiden for Collins and Pitt Streets.

    On a more positive note, the changing nature of power with respect to religious authority in Australia and around the world has moved in a positive direction. People are now much less afraid to question the Catholic Church. For centuries we had the hideous spectacle of the Spanish Inquisition but as we all know what brought the Catholic Church into disrepute around the world in more recent times was their despicable history of physical, psychological and sexual assaults on vulnerable people in their care. The existential activities of another well known, very aggressive religion, must be watched carefully too, for if they ever gain the ascendancy then we will be delivered into another ‘dark age’.

    I had better leave it there. I support your efforts Kelvin and I certainly agree with your stand in regard to reducing immigration. Please keep up your great work.

  7. Kelvin, a well researched and thought out dissertation. The substantial evidence cited supporting your interpretation of trends is convincing. However perhaps a sharper focus on what may be the core drivers may help identify the root cause of this issue and so many others. These trends collectively continue to erode the hard won democratic rights and representation bequeathed to us and increasingly, place at risk our very quality of life and the continuance of a stable and coherent society.

    However all of these trends are symptomatic of a broader collective lack of comprehension or interest by Australian society. And as a nation and as a society we are not unique in this failure, many Western democracies are similarly placed and perhaps this provides a clue. A striking similarity amongst the citizenry the countries you list is that, as Brian so aptly puts it "Citizens have been re-badged as consumers". This has been done by those vested interests who seek to profit or gain power, or both, from such a transformation and it is a transformation that sets us collectiverly on a downward sloping path at the end of which is a very uncertian future. And as history has shown such is the enduring stupidity of greed and arrogance that those responsible for this care little or not at all. In this respect they share many of the characteristics of virulent viruses, given half the chance they will mindless destroy the host even though that means they also perish.

    However this transformation could not have occurred if the majority within society had recognized the risk of it and the questionable and ultimately harmfull motives of those perpetrating it. But the majority did not. Why? Suprisingly the answer is very simple. If you look at our collective Western history we originally had a flourishing culture of innovation, of science and knowledge. This could not have happened if the cultural values of our earlier societies did not support this direction and development of our inate human potential. Interestingly democracy was empowered and came into being from this culture of supporting our collective human potential. You cannot have potential if you have no rights. However the success of our previous cultural support for science, knowledge and innovation has resulted in a reasonable quality of life for most (although increasingly many are being denied this) and therefore the understanding and recognition of the importance and value of knowledge, of science, technology, skill and innovation has faded to the point where the majority now passively consume whilst contributing little or nothing to the continuity of this critical human cultural value. For now they can do this, but not for much longer. This fate befell the Romans and so many other since. But what was or has been the case, does not need to always be so.

    That is why your recently formed NGO is perhaps a critical and very timely creation. And yes unsustainable population growth is the major critical impediment due to its insatiable demand for dwindling resources and at least in the short term, its contribution to the ever increasing profit and power of those who seek to promote what is unsustainable and ultimately self destructive (the virus mentality). I would suggest the way forward is to develop the means to directly and effectively expose the motives and falsehoods of those who seek to profit and gain power by pushing for more and more population growth. In tandem with this to establish a consortium that develops and promotes establishment of Australia becoming a world leader in developing human potential, knowledge and capability. And this above all else as what it means to be an Australian. A daunting task but if it is put as a direct challenge to Australians to prove they can do it, maybe it might have a slim chance of success.

  8. Though a growing population also means greater economies of scale in some areas. Specifically - it provides the option of maintaining Defence expenditure at current (overall) levels - but reducing it proportionately.

    Agreed, though, that there have been errors of judgement by Labor governments - state and Federal. For instance - an Ideological commitment to a floating exchange rate - even when prevailing economic circumstances warranted at least a temporary intervention to lower the value of the dollar - and thus sustain manufacturing, education, tourism etc.

    Arguably labour market deregulation has also gone too far - with 'modernised Awards' being watered down - for instance - against the commitment 'none would be worse off'.

    I agree also - no more privatisations. But what about reversing some privatisations, and establishing new public enterprises - and public infrastructure? Think a public NBN as a natural public monopoly; think maintenance of a public Medibank Private - with a 'not for profit' mission in order to hold down premiums through competition. Think the re-establishment of a public savings bank - not only to deliver public dividends - but also to provide cross-subsidised services to the poor and in regional and rural Australia - all the while encouraging greater competition in the sector. And then there's Australia Post - which arguably could be streamlined with the creation of a new public savings bank...

    But the huge infrastructure deficit comes from pressures to 'have the best of all worlds' - which in reality is impossible... That is - hold down taxes, do not borrow, do not impose privatisation or user-pays.... And yet somehow provide for a growing population; and especially for emerging suburbs. Though the benefit from improved economies of scale potentially outweighs the cost of providing for new infrastructure... There are other problems there - quite apart from population...

    We need to progressively raise taxes to fix the infrastructure deficit. And we nee to question the power of the ratings agencies - which have us so fearful about public borrowing.... But the economic and social impact of the infrastructure deficit - Or otherwise the regressive and costly nature of PPPs, other privatisation strategies, user pays etc.

    Finally - I agree that small scale government CAN provide greater 'democratic intimacy' - And therefore empower citizens. But if we're on about radically extending democracy there are other things that need to be done as well....

    Reform the National Curriculum to promote active and critical citizenship - based upon ideological and political literacy. So every young Australian is provided with the knowledge and critical faculties to be effective, well-informed - and hence empowered active citizens...

    And continue to promote participatory media - Using existing public media (ABC, SBS etc) as 'a springboard' for ever greater participation....

    And encourage a renewed emphasis on active citizenship through participation in the social movements and political parties... Arguably the atrophy of our political parties especially is VERY damaging for our democracy....

    Reforming the ALP itself is part of this also - IF we cannot empower and include our own rank and file how can we speak of 'participatory democracy' in a broader sense?....

    But good to see a prominent Labor MP questioning some 'sacred neo-liberal cows'... Hopefully the beginning of a wide-ranging debate....