Representative Democracy in the 21st Century: Has it Changed?

If you’re thinking the world of politics is louder than it was a generation ago, chances are you are probably right in more ways than one. We come from a time of greater instantaneous connectivity and criticism than ever before. However, what does that mean for politics? Our system of democratic representation predates Facebook, Twitter and most other means of modern communication utilized today. Rather than be left by the wayside of advancing times, it has been forced to innovate. And fast.

At the Parliament House launch of Christopher Pyne’s new book, A Letter to My Children, Woroni took the opportunity to gauge his opinion on what’s changed since he was first elected to Federal Parliament in 1993. In Pyne’s own words, the book is for his children to read in aid of understanding why their father is away so much and why he acknowledges the ongoing sacrifices they make for his life in politics. A seasoned political warrior of 22 years, Pyne has survived countless elections, protests and gaffs that have failed to derail his own political ambitions. Today, the Education Minister and Leader of the House is pursuing one of the most touchy subjects in public discourse; the Deregulation of University fees. Everybody seems to have an opinion on the topic, and it has only been exacerbated further since the intervention of social media. In his own words, the Minister weighed in on the effects it has had on public life.

“I think public life has changed. People who couldn’t otherwise get to politicians to tell them how much they hate them, can now get to them instantaneously, and they do! And I think that for people with eggshell like personalities and thin skin, that might be something hard to deal with. Fortunately, I’m not one of those people.”

No surprises there. Pyne, who was crowned ‘The Most Painful Politician in Any Parliament’ by Crikey’s Arsehat Awards in 2010, is no stranger to controversy. His frequent weekly engagements on the Today program with Anthony Albanese, a friend and political adversary at the same time, have often been the source of as much controversy as his performance in Federal Parliamentary Question Time. The public usually instantaneously engages in response to both.

“With change has come the engagement of the public, but also the unshackling of the public in not necessarily good ways. I think it’s terrific that the public is so engaged in public life with social media. I just wish they weren’t quite so unpleasant when they don’t agree with the other people.” 

Acknowledging the lampooning he has received on Twitter in recent times, Pyne reiterated how he continually relishes the challenge of public opinion and expression of displeasure from his fellow Australians.

“It took me a long time to get on the ‘twitterverse’, and the only reason I am on it is because my staff assured me I wouldn’t have to read all the comments. Because, sometimes I feel as though if I helped an old lady across the road I’d be attacked on the ‘twitterverse’, and I think that it is a bad thing to constantly denigrate the people that you don’t agree with…But I don’t mind it at all, because it’s a very good valve, a very healthy valve and a very Australian thing. Yes I think they [the public] misunderstand us, but I think that we are a healthy polity.”

Scrutiny is still the name of the game. While Pyne argues for continual public engagement in the conversation, he is perhaps incorrect in asserting the public “misunderstands representatives” such as himself. There is an ongoing belief representatives are inherently out of touch with the public, and current events of helicopter rides, family trips and questionable expenses and entitlement claims from both sides of the political fence demonstrate this further.

“We are a skeptical country and a cynical country in many respects. That’s also one of our strengths as a country. The very skepticism of Australians I think, keeps our polity honest. There isn’t this sense that our politicians are on a pedestal, and I think that’s a good thing.”

Yes, times have changed exponentially in recent decades. Australian people however and their skepticisms about their representatives remain constant in the equation that defines the political landscape. If such criticism is viewed by representatives as little else than a valve, Australians should use it the best of their advantage. It is not often a country has the opportunity and privilege to express its views so candidly as through 140 characters or less. That needn’t mean however, that it be abused by way of excessive violent vitriolic hatred. It should demonstrate engagement, expression and free speech. That being said, it is always worth remembering whose job it is to answer to whom.

We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present and emerging. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.