Prof. Dr. Melanie Sully

Op ed in the Wiener Zeitung

Dr Melanie Sully writes on the common international problems of parliamentarians comparing Australia, Austria and UK: Wiener Zeitung, 5.1. 2016 "Doch mehr Gemeinsamkeiten als nur Kängarus.
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More in Common than just the Kangaroos

A look at the political year gone by presents the following picture: changes in party allegiance for allegedly personal gain, low trust in politicians, criticism of lack of leadership, instances where female politicians were overlooked, citizen disengagement, a federal system found wanting where the purse strings lie with the capital and a general belief members of parliament are in it for themselves and have little idea of the “real world”. The catalogue of political sins includes cases of leading politicians sending text messages while driving, party finance irregularities and incompetence. The widespread Austrian belief that this “could only happen here”, would be false. For these examples relate to Australia where a pronounced malaise is causing many to scratch their heads in search of solutions to save democracy from sinking. In turn direct democracy, reforms in the electoral system and upper house and more free votes in parliament are being looked at as ways forward.

But whilst knowledge of politics “down under” is relatively limited here, European news is widely reported especially concerning the English-speaking countries, in Australia. Recently a television interviewer raved about the speech made by the opposition Member of Parliament, Hilary Benn, in the UK House of Commons in the debate on military action in Syria. Clearly well-informed she described it as “simply fascinating and a highlight of parliamentarism”. The speech indeed did go viral but it contrasts with the rather more insular nature of Austria which at best stretches for inspiration to Germany or the neighbouring Alpine republic of Switzerland. It is also hard to imagine a speaker in a parliamentary debate in Austria generating many worldwide admirers for sheer eloquence. Possibly the election system plays a role where candidates on a party list do not even have to make a speech to get elected apart from those at the top of the list. In the UK system candidates develop some debating skills in contacts with voters in their respective constituencies.

Europe with it all is merely a region on the atlas often reacting to events (such as with the refugees) when they show up at the door of the continent rather than being proactive. Ten years ago following riots on a beach near Sydney involving attacks on Lebanese youth a discussion started on integration, identity and the role of Islam. Lessons and mistakes are for contemporary Europe arguably of relevance.

Interest ebbs and flows with crises such as in 2008 with the short-lived Georgian-Russian war. But crisis prevention requires more sustained interest and effort. For all its insularity the UK here is more internationally orientated as a quick look at the native media coverage will show.

The problems of the modern political world are not singular to Austria, to the EU nor even to Europe but cut across borders. Best practices drawing on international comparative studies can yield fruitful material for reform processes.

Melanie Sully, director of the Vienna-based Institute for Go-Governance, recently addressed a democracy conference at the School of Government, Melbourne University, Australia.