Politics Opinion

Progressive coalition government is the future for Australia

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Australia's two-party system is holding us back (Image by Dan Jensen)

Australia's two-party political system is archaic and democratically inefficient, providing PM Albanese with an opportunity to consider a more progressive form of government, writes Dr Klaas Woldring.

THE TWO-PARTY SYSTEM may well be on the way out. Can Australia start talking about alternatives? The ALP’s Chifley Research Centre and the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) have organised a discussion in Sydney on 19 April 2023 on ‘building winning coalitions that last’ as it is described in its promotional message.

For a party that has long stressed that its ambition is to govern “in its own right”, many will wonder what the concept of “coalition” might mean here. It hopefully suggests the abandonment of the two-party system. That would be a major step forward which would require a change to a different electoral system, to begin with. There are many additional opportunities that a broader coalition would make possible, all for the good.

After the surprising result of the Aston by-election and subsequent statement by Liberal Party Leader Peter Dutton that he rejects the planned Voice referendum, the potential for a recovery of the Liberal Party under Dutton looks remote. In contrast, apart from the highly questionable AUKUS agreement on the nuclear submarines, the ALP is proceeding credibly, given a set of difficult circumstances.

However, it also suggests that the ALP recognises that its 2022 primary vote of 32.6% could mean that there are other party policy programs that it cannot or does not want to incorporate fully in its own national policy program but could be addressed in coalition with other parties. This is a new perspective that is promising for Australian politics.

In the 2022 Federal Election, Australian voters turned their back on the Liberal Party, voted strongly for Independent women and the Greens and, by doing so, essentially said goodbye to the two-party system. However, further reflection is needed as to what that means. It means that the Single Member Electoral District system (SMD) needs to go. Although a positive election outcome for the ALP, as the existing electoral system still delivered it majority government in spite of a very low primary vote of 32.6%, it is further proof that major electoral system change is in fact long overdue. 

The outcome also still resulted in severe under-representation of the Greens in the House of Representatives even though they ended up with four seats. Proportionally, they would have gained around 18 seats — a much fairer result.

The current adversarial system is not the preferred way of the new PM Anthony Albanese either. His stated preference is for cooperation, also for fairness and democratic representation. Here is his grand opportunity.

The ALP may not have a majority of MPSs in a proportional system but it can count on forming a majority coalition with smaller parties and Independents. The Westminster legacy of Australia's inherited parliamentary and electoral systems is no longer really fit for purpose. Certainly, the Greens and most, perhaps all of the Independents as well, will now reflect on campaigning for a more democratic electoral system.

For nearly half the voters, culturally diverse, the existing system is of questionable value. The electoral system can be changed straight away. A new electoral law can be developed right now, during this session even. The existing archaic Constitution, in several clauses, makes it clear that the Parliament decides on the electoral system. The opportunity is obvious.

Few Australians appear to realise that pork barrelling is a direct result of the current SMD electoral system. With multi-member districts, which are typical of Proportional Representation, it is just not doable. Similarly, branch stacking would also be too difficult. And gerrymandering (in the U.S.) would be pointless. There are several other major disadvantages with the existing SMD system that can be resolved by a system change and by the existing Parliament.

Currently, in an increasing number of seats – in fact, most seats – the MP does not even represent the majority — and the minority is often also not represented by the opposition party, either. It makes no sense to claim that a local MP represents all voters in an electoral district while the combative, oppositionist adversity of the two major parties is on display daily.

Overall, the SMD system results in a two-party adversarial culture, very much the situation in several English-speaking countries that still use this system, including the U.S. The few Independent MPs mostly emerge by breaking away from a major party. Even the Greens, receiving between 9% and 14% of the total vote, only have had one MP in the federal Parliament, for two decades, until the 2022 Election.

Just recently in the vital new energy debate prior to the Glasgow Conference, the Liberal-National Party of Queensland, opposing environmental legislation, virtually held the conservative Australian Coalition Government to ransom.

There are major changes to be considered by a long-term “ALP + others” coalition government, changes that were really blocked by a two-party government. Think of the Federation, the old Constitution and the republic. Can Australia afford not to move on politically?

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

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