A HARMONIOUS civil society rests on essential pillars, such as individual freedom, non-discriminatory equality, and the rule of law. As Chief Justice Earl Warren of the US Supreme Court pointed out years ago, law ''presupposes the existence of a broad area of human conduct controlled only by ethical norms and not subject to law at all''.

That aphorism sits uneasily with the realities of 21st-century Australian politics.

However, until official misconduct becomes egregious enough to overcome community cynicism and generate public outrage, few Australians seem troubled by, or even interested in, structural and systemic flaws in our political process and public administration.

Citizens not directly affected by a law are generally more concerned with day-to-day financial and other personal considerations than with the misuse of power or the impact of injustice on others.

This general apathy is not really surprising. Life is good for most Australians. Most have family and other priorities to distract them from matters that don't directly affect them personally. Few crave power or understand those who do. Like the Trojans who disregarded the warnings of Cassandra, the beautiful daughter of King Priam who had been cursed by Apollo, most of us are also reluctant to confront major problems that we would prefer to ignore. Our unwillingness to act on scientific warnings about global warming and its potentially disastrous consequences are a dramatic example.

Communal inertia is also magnified by Australia's anachronistic, rudimentary political system, which is based on flawed assumptions that democracy is synonymous with majority rule and that, because MPs are elected, parliamentary decisions express the popular will. The first proposition disregards the fundamental democratic prohibition on the majority oppression of individuals and minorities. The second ignores the realities of modern party-political decision-making, with rigid party discipline ensuring that, with few exceptions, MPs vote as directed.

A former prime minister once praised "the uniqueness of the Australian system''. What is unique is our virtually pristine version of theoretical parliamentary sovereignty; although in practice, under executive control, it is unfettered by constitutional constraints, international law or universal human rights. By and large, our laws are valid even if they are contrary to the public interest or unjust.

Voters are little more than observers of a substantially rule-free contest who are entitled, indeed compelled, to choose one or other of the established political parties to govern every few years.

The community is ill-served by this growing transfer of power from the public to the dominant political parties and the parties' disinterest in ethical constraints and resistance to oversight and accountability, even by independent anti-corruption bodies. Without satisfactory legal and ethical fetters, the political process, like all human constructs, can be, and is, manipulated and exploited to advance personal and group interests.

A political class has evolved which is interested in little but the acquisition and exercise of power. Careerists with little or no experience outside politics learn their craft in party administration, politicians' offices and supporters' organisations before party pre-selection and entry to Parliament.

Small groups control each of the two major parties and indirectly the national destiny. It is now extremely difficult, if not impossible, for another competitive political force to emerge because of the financial advantages held by the two major parties and the critical role that money plays in political activity.

The well-connected, and often wealthy, are given access to and influence over the political process. Decisions favouring special interests are common. "Media management" insults and confuses the electorate, which is denied the comprehensive accurate information which is essential to the proper functioning of democracy.

Most, if not all, conventions concerning standards of political conduct which the Westminster system once incorporated are now obsolescent; bipartisan support for fundamental institutions is periodically abandoned for political advantage; and social division, populism and prejudice are occasionally used as political tools.

Because all parties grasp opportunities when in power, opposition criticism of government self-indulgence is generally muted and the risk of an electoral backlash is low.

These short-term political practices and tactics risk serious social problems. Public figures are role models and their standards percolate into the community. Social capital and social cohesion built on integrity and trust are easily dissipated as the population increases, communities become larger and more diverse and economic disparities widen. People who consider themselves powerless outsiders readily become disillusioned, cynical, apathetic and disengaged and lose trust in government, the integrity of its process and decisions and even fundamental institutions. Principled leadership is essential to preserve our confidence in and support for each other.

Tony Fitzgerald is a former Australian judge, who presided over the Fitzgerald Inquiry. This is an edited extract from his address to the Accountability Round Table on Thursday 11 March 2010. See www.accountabilityrt.org