Politics Analysis

Australia's political culture needs to be depolarised

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The two-party system in Australia has polarised its politics and the time has come to reconsider the structure of our government, Dr Klaas Woldring writes.

IN A RECENT issue of the Saturday Paper, the editor described Peter Dutton as Leader of the 'Noalition'. Naturally, this was not just the result of the decision to block the Referendum on the Voice but of a longstanding cultural divide between the two major party roles in Australia's system of governance. Even the seating arrangements – sitting opposite each other – are part of that culture. Surely, Australia can do much better.

The basic culture of the political society – which essentially derives from the electoral system in the UK, U.S. and here – is the dominant Single Member District system. This produces a two-party system with a polarised political culture.

Its origins lie in the political and economic developments during the second half of the 19th Century, which created major conflicts between business owners and workers. These groups/classes formed political parties: Conservatives and Labour in the UK and U.S.

In the European continent, this also happened but was less class-based, while other groups represented included various religious parties. In Europe, this resulted, politically, mostly in proportional representation. That made the emergence of more parties possible and greater political plurality the norm. In Nordic countries in particular, this also encouraged employee participation in business decision-making starting in the 1930s in Norway but elsewhere, as well, after WWII.

This democratising development did not happen in English-speaking countries, least of all in the UK, which had a strong economic and social class division — as typically reflected in the ITV television drama Upstairs and Downstairs. The electoral system for the lower houses of parliament – taken over from the UK, with some improvements – is the basis for the polarised two-party system in Australia.

In societies starting as English colonies – like Australia and New Zealand – political and industrial systems were taken over as they were in the UK. Other European systems were not considered. Remarkably, many Australians hardly understand that the dominant electoral system in Australia is also reflected in their industrial relations system.

As Australian society is changing dramatically and has become highly multicultural already, the time has come to introduce reforms. Similarly, the industrial relations system needs to change to reflect that too. It should create much greater participation in decision-making by staff at all levels. Works Councils are the answer here. Research by the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in 2011 strongly recommended workplace democracy.

In late 2022, this journalist made a major submission (Nr 219) to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (JSCEM) — the third such submission. The JSCEM is actually dominated by the major parties. It is, therefore, certainly not an independent reform commission. 

The problem here is obvious: the major parties are not interested in reforms that could reduce their number. While their voter support has been declining for the last 20 years, the time has come to demonstrate that there is nevertheless a need for electoral system change. We read about a lot of criticism in the media, but next to nothing about serious system reform.

However, a recent survey by the Greens found that the support for proportional representation is actually growing in Australia, regardless. Without any support in the media, 35 per cent of respondents indicated they favoured such a change.

The Voice Referendum became a clear victim of the Australian electoral system. That is the principal explanation for why that Referendum failed. It went entirely against the development of Indigenous recognition by society and growing awareness of the need for improvement.

If we look at many progressive aspects and general acceptance of the need to assist Indigenous people in Australia, the outcome of the Voice Referendum is almost completely out of character.

There are many indications of growing support for Indigenous people. This is quite apart from the general acceptance in Australia of the reality of the 60,000 years of existence for a large number of Indigenous groups referred to as First Nations people.

This culture is now widely acknowledged at most public meetings. The existence of the Aboriginal flag on many official occasions is further evidence. Add to that the fact that no less than 11 Indigenous MPs/senators represent political parties in the Federal Parliament and the amazing world-class performance of Indigenous sportsmen and women — all these realities make the "No" vote quite ridiculous and entirely unexpected (even by this cautious PM).

The single-member district electoral system creates a two-party polarising culture in Australia. The opposition party regards it as its duty to oppose whatever the Government comes up with as new policy proposal. The recent grudging acceptance of the amendments to Stage 3 Tax Cuts provided another example. Of course, it was a sensibly broken promise that could not be denied, but several Opposition speakers managed to heavily criticise the economic and tax policies of the Albanese Government, nevertheless.

The primary function of the Opposition in this system is to oppose. That's an important reason to change to a party-list proportional system — where parties come together to form a government after the election. The emphasis here is on cooperation. Occasionally, that can be difficult and take time, but effective majorities are generally formed due to cooperation.

There is no official "Opposition"; the seating arrangements in parliament are not opposite each other. Proportional representation reform movements are happening even in the UK and the U.S. for very good reasons. Moreover, proportional representation is clearly a fair and, therefore, more democratic system. The ALP even introduced this system to the Senate in 1948 — an improvement to the system as a whole.

Albanese is widely regarded as risk-averse. There seems to be little doubt that he did not expect there would be a "No" campaign. After the failure of the Voice Referendum, he announced that future referendums would only be held if the Government and Opposition agreed on the issue. This means there would have to be complete agreement between this Government and the Opposition on the next likely referendum — for a republic.

This doesn't look promising at all for the issue of a republic. The case for a newConstitution is obvious. This is not just a matter of doctoring Section 128 of the Australian Consitution — which has failed before and would have to be done again in terms of Section 128.

The time for a wide-ranging governance systems inquiry has arrived.

Dr Klaas Woldring is a former associate professor at Southern Cross University and former convenor of ABC Friends (Central Coast).

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