The Australian two-party political system needs major reform in order for us to progress towards becoming a republic, writes Dr Klaas Woldring.
IN RECENT YEARS, a desire has been expressed many times by Australians on account of the two-party system. What is resented mostly is the accusatory interaction between the major parties; that the claimed goal of improving problems in society is expected to be destroyed by the “other side”; that this was their “usual dilemma”; that voters could not trust them, or they were “incompetent” — an endless series of complaints and accusations. This is the Australian polarised norm. The people are fed up with it.
Can Australians stop assuming or hoping that the principal issues of society are adequately represented by either one of the two major parties? Not really. This is a legacy of British political history starting in the late 19th Century as a result of the Industrial Revolution. We really have not moved on but fortunately, this is better expressed by the more diverse representation in the Australian Senate than in the House of Representatives. The ALP introduced the Hare-Clark system of proportional representation (PR) in the Senate in 1948.
During 2021, the previous Australian Government, led by PM Scott Morrison, began to fail on several policy fronts. In particular, the deeply conservative attitude towards environmental issues, reflected in Australia's sad Glasgow Conference contributions, was unacceptable to many Australians. So the Liberal/National Coalition lost the 2022 General Election to the ALP, led by Anthony Albanese.
However, the ALP received a very low primary vote which suggests that its very cautious campaign did not strongly convince a majority of voters. The ALP gained office on second preferences from voters preferring other parties or Independents.
Doing politics “differently”, a wish of many Australians, requires different structures, different governance systems and different ways to achieve genuine majority government. The ALP needs to fully understand this. Therefore, the adopted approach of a “repair strategy” is plainly inadequate. Albanese's earlier cautious approach was understandable following the surprising election loss in 2019, but the situation has changed dramatically. Australia needs bold reforms. Voters will welcome them.
Most Australians want politics to be done differently. What exactly would that mean? Apart from the electoral system for the House of Representatives, there are the massive problems and costs associated with federation. Albanese did mention in Perth recently what he thought now of federal problems, demonstrated again during the COVID pandemic. He answered that if he had to decide again, as in 1901, what structure Australia should adopt, he would favour a unitary, two-level unitary system of government instead of federation.
In fact, the ALP has long favoured the replacement of federation, but his answer suggests “it is too difficult now”. Clearly, in contrast, former PM Bob Hawke mentioned many times that the federal structure should be replaced. Of course, this can be done now. It would represent a major step forward. Therefore, renewal has to be added to the Albanese Government program, frankly as a high priority.
Yes, that means a major constitutional change which is altogether overdue. In fact, there is so much more missing in that Constitution that rewriting the entire document prompted me to write a short book about it: Yes, we can... ...rewrite the Australian Constitution.
Would a courageous renewal position hurt the ALP Government? To the contrary — it is what voters are looking for. The campaign for the essentially purely advisory Voice to Parliament has started in earnest in 2023. This would require a constitutional referendum which, given the archaic procedure prescribed in Section 128 of the essentially colonial Australian Constitution of 1901, is always a risky affair.
The Indigenous people are not at all mentioned in that Constitution although, given the 1992 Mabo decision on the existence of native land rights, such recognition is plainly long overdue.
Therefore, if we want to move to a viable republic the important question needs to be asked now — what kind of republic? Are we still only talking about how the Australian president is to be elected, directly or indirectly, or should Australia tackle this issue in a much broader fashion combining it with the issues discussed here? One would think that the time has now arrived for that kind of approach.
Dr Klaas Woldring is a former associate professor at Southern Cross University and former convenor of ABC Friends (Central Coast).
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