Election 2016 and the state of our democracy

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Palace of Westminster, London (image via en.wikipedia.org).

As we approach the 2016 federal election, Dr Klaas Woldring says our antiquated system of government should be reviewed to improve representation, cut costs and effect quality governance.

SOME VERY MAJOR issues are not being raised in this federal election. 

The electoral system

Have parties and candidates considered proportional representation with multi-member electorates for the House of Representatives or, at least something like what the New Zealanders introduced 20 years ago?

Federal – State relations

A costly problem. The expense of maintaining Federation is up to $50 billion per annum. Why not replace it with a two-tier system: a national and strengthened local government level?

Aspects of Westminster system

For example, the practice that ministers have to be in and of the parliament, meaning they have to be elected. We have far too many career politicians, resulting in functional amateurism. All other systems provide for appointment of functionally competent ministers from outside the legislature.

Constitution of Australia

The archaic Constitution of Australia virtually cannot be amended. Why not rewrite it? Surely, this is not beyond an independent sovereign nation?

Australia’s main electoral system is based on single-member-electoral districts, which yield one MP for each, almost invariably representing either major party. The huge number of minor party candidates and independents basically have no hope of being elected. Thus, the enormous diversity of our society is not fairly reflected in the parliament.

Our democracy is more like a pseudo democracy. There appear to be only “the two sides of politics” — how unrealistic really. And of the two sides, one forms the government while the function of the other is to criticise that government whenever they can. Thus, we have an adversarial culture, reflected also in the Westminster-style design of the parliament.

Even economic benefits are provided particularly to “marginal seats” like the 12 submarines in South Australia, or the $10 million for a hospital in Indi that was not paid because Sophie Mirabella was not elected! Elections can be won in such seats by one party even if a national majority is won by the other party!

The remedy here, of course, is proportional representation (PR) — an open party list system used by a very large number of countries in the world for over 100 years. This is based on multi-member electoral districts. Clearly, the major parties will not campaign for this change. They would lose seats and that would force them to enter into coalitions. Neither major party is interested in that. However, PR would introduce a much more cooperative political culture. Many would say that this would produce instability. Contrary to some quite uninformed opinion this is very much the exception, not the rule.

In reality, we have had enough political instability in Australia in recent years – although there may be much more to come – but it is the current system that is responsible for that. Wake up Australia! In New Zealand, which adopted PR 20 years ago, there has not been any instability. Some 30 Western countries use the PR open party list system. Voters have one vote only with which they vote for one list and the preferred candidate on that list. There is no pork barreling, and no by-elections. It is inexpensive, counting is fast and it is highly democratic. No country has moved away from that system once adopted. The unwanted compulsory preferencing of the current system would end as well.

The federal system was a practical political bargain of the six colonies in 1901 but it is now a costly hindrance to effective government. Much has changed in the last 116 years. Piecemeal tinkering to improve the situation has been consistently ineffectual — the latest casualty being the 'Reform the Federation Inquiry' launched by the Abbott Government and, amazingly, supported strongly by two former ALP Premiers!

Candidates should be asked if their party has any policies to replace this dysfunctional, costly Federation and move the nation forward to a two-tier system with much stronger local government. Research in recent years clearly shows that this is actually what the majority of Australians favour. In February 2013, Galaxy Research carried out a phone survey of 1052 Australians, commissioned by the Beyond Federation group. The results showed the majority of Australians are in favour of having a unified set of laws. Overall, 78% are in favour, 19% are opposed and 3% were uncommitted.

The regular Australian Constitutional Values Survey, done by the Griffith University Centre for Governance and Public Policy, reporting in October 2014, found the following. The percentage of otal respondents with a negative view of the present system, in practice or principle, during 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2014 was 86%, 90%, 89%, and 84%. In view of this strong popular sentiment we need to ask: Why is governance weakness not an issue in this campaign?

Add to this the enormous cost saving the replacement of Federation would bring. Estimates vary from $9 billion to $50 billion per annum. Advantages in efficiency and speed of national decision-making – difficult to express in dollars – would follow. Why is the political class not standing up and addressing this problem? Decentralisation is just not happening in this Federation. In fact, major national issues, like the issuing of mining licences by state governments, dubious education and health management decisions, are not dealt with effectively at all.

The much glorified Westminster system of parliamentary responsibility differs from all other European systems, as well as from the U.S. congressional system, in that the government has to be formed only from elected MPs and then only from “one side of politics". Most Australians can hardly believe that democratic governments could be formed differently but that really is the case — and often successfully so. The result of the Westminster system, in this respect, is a serious lack of competence in government as the pool of people from which to select ministers is extremely small, limited to the members of one major party.

The total membership of a major party is only 50,000. Thus, Australia ends up with people who should not be in parliament, let alone be a minister. From the around 80 to 90 MPs comprising the governing party, 30 portfolios have to be filled. You may say, but we have the competent senior public servants to assist them. But the public service has been politicised in recent decades. Even if still reasonably competent their political power is limited.

All other national systems recruit their governments from outside the legislatures and often they are not members of these legislatures, although, in the European case, they usually participate in debates. The choice of government talent is therefore much greater in these systems. In the Westminster system, the separation of power between the political executive and the legislature is seriously compromised. In fact, the government dominates the legislature entirely.

The Australian Constitution has been amended only eight times since 1901 — the result of 44 attempts. Why has the failure rate been so high? First of all, on account of Section 128, which requires an amendment proposal to be approved by a majority of voters, as well as gaining a majority in a majority of the states (four out of six). The latter qualification made sense in 1900 but it has frustrated many excellent proposals since and prevented many others from being put at all.

Secondly, unless the major parties agree on an amendment, it has no chance of being accepted. Thus, the two party system is a major cause of constitutional frustration, making it increasingly a hindrance to meaningful reform. Federal governments now avoid amendment referendums because they do not want to be associated with failures. Recent examples of protracted debate about changes are the Indigenous proposals and the recognition of local government — essentially a non-federal measure because local government is a state responsibility.

Is Australia prepared to continue with the ineffectual piecemeal tinkering of an essentially colonial Constitution, which is still an (amended) Act of the British Parliament?

A sovereign nation can, of course, write its own constitution and rewrite this document in its entirety, leaving in it what is useful and practical, removing all else and including new values such as the environment, human rights and Indigenous recognition.

Dr. Klaas Woldring is a former Associate Professor of Southern Cross University and Managing Editor of Beyond Federation: Options to renew Australia’s 1901 Constitution, (Amazon 2014).

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