By Michael Koziol, Sydney Morning Herald
In a stylish waterfront office, not 500 metres from the Sydney Harbour Bridge, a high-powered group clink champagne flutes and imported Italian stubbies in the name of pre-Christmas cheer. There among the crowd, poised as always, is Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs. Former NSW premier Nick Greiner chats amiably by the hors d'oeuvres. A number of former senior bureaucrats, including ex-secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Peter Shergold, greet each other warmly. Their mingling host, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, is a man worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
By any definition, this is a gathering of elites. And yet their common purpose is one that might surprise: the overhaul of our failing democratic system in favour of something new.
The popular narrative would have it that elites are bunkered down right now, trying to figure out how to stop Donald Trump, Pauline Hanson and their populist ilk from changing a system rigged in the elites' favour.
But this glosses over the fact that Australians of all backgrounds are dissatisfied in record numbers with their nation's politics. Rich or poor, young or old, one thing that unites Australians seems to be our mutual disillusionment with politicians.
In a nationally representative Australian National University poll of 2600 Australians as part of the Political Persona Project, three in four agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: "I am disillusioned with politics in this country." Less than 10 per cent disagreed.
The joint project between Fairfax Media, the ANU's Social Research Centre and digital information analysts Kieskompas is one of the most comprehensive attempts to examine Australian political attitudes, lifestyles and social values.
The survey found that people earning $300 a week were just as unhappy as those making $3000 or more. The figures were broadly consistent all the way up the income stream – and while those with a Bachelor's degree were slightly less likely to describe themselves as strongly disillusioned with politics, overall the numbers were very similar among the university educated, tradespeople and high school leavers.
Disillusionment peaked among those aged 55 to 64: in a wholesale rejection of the political system, 1 in 2 voters in that group strongly agreed they were disillusioned with politics.
They might find some company at the newDemocracy foundation, the outfit set up by Mr Belgiorno-Nettis to advocate a radical rethink of the way Australia is governed. These people sit at the high, high end of the income ladder and stand rooted in the country's political and business class, and yet they want to blow up the system.
"I think modern democracy has reached its use-by-date," Mr Belgiorno-Nettis tells Fairfax Media. He says political parties, with their vested interests, electioneering imperatives and manufactured differences, are the root of the problem. And while they remained mired in old ideological battles, voters - including the educated political class - have largely moved on.
"Their ideological principles have effectively evaporated," says Mr Belgiorno-Nettis. "This great divide between the left and the right for most purposes is not relevant anymore. Most people recognise you need to have entrepreneurship as well as a safety net. We don't need to fight about it - the great fight has exhausted itself."
As chief executive of the Business Council of Australia, Jennifer Westacott personifies the Big End of Town. And yet even with a Coalition government in Canberra, she too has thrown herself behind this push to overhaul what most consider democracy. In her view, politicians have become too cautious and cowardly to debate frankly and fearlessly.
"Institutions will only inspire public confidence if they tell people the truth about what's achievable and what isn't, what they know and what they don't, and what the real costs of action or inaction are – not simply tell people what they think they want to hear," Ms Westacott tells Fairfax Media. "People shouldn't be considered weak because they tell the truth. In fact, it should be viewed as a strength."
It might seem counter-intuitive for the elite to be so disillusioned with the system that has supposedly served them so well. But it reflects the widespread disappointment evident in recent research, including the ANU's long-running study of Australian political opinion and a global survey by PR giant Edelman.
NewDemocracy supporter Cheryl Kernot spent more than a decade in Canberra politics, firstly as a Democrats senator and then as a Labor MP. She now teaches social business at the University of NSW, mostly to tertiary-educated students on comfortable incomes who are also "100 per cent disillusioned with the political system".
Ms Kernot says she's not at all surprised by the survey results. Even the educated elite are looking outside conventional politics for "authenticity and meaning", she says: witness the popularity of Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. Current generations have grown up in a time of individualism and neoliberalism, says Ms Kernot, but they now find themselves with the education, income and passion to "do something about it".
But what? According to Mr Belgiorno-Nettis, the future lies in the past. He wants to resurrect the ancient Athenian practice of sortition, replacing Parliament as we know it with a citizens' legislature, citizens' senate and a series of randomly selected panels on topics such as transport, tax and the environment. Indeed, he may be the only person in Australia who actually liked Julia Gillard's ill-fated "citizens' assembly" on climate change.
The best thing about this overhaul? No elections. "What elections are doing is they're causing divisiveness from the outset," Mr Belgiorno-Nettis says. Though it may seem a bedrock of the democratic system, voting only necessitates that political parties pursue "an agenda which goes to their own success and not necessarily to the success of the country".
And though she has contested a few of them over the years, Ms Kernot is pretty despondent about elections, too. "The thing that really distresses me election after election is people think that just changing sides is going to make a difference," she says. "And it doesn't."