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Tasmanian Election result a challenge to improve democracy

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Labor's Rebecca White and Liberal Premier Jeremy Rockliff (Screenshot via YouTube)

Results from the Tasmanian State Election could start a shift in political thinking away from the two-party system, writes Dr Klaas Woldring.

THE RECENT DECISION by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese not to proceed with an important ALP election promise, unless the Opposition supports the proposal, surely runs counter to the two-party culture often claimed to be a holy aspect of the Westminster political system.

At issue is the ALP's promise to protect the right of religious schools to practice their faith while also shielding teachers and students from discrimination based on sexuality.

Clearly, the PM and the ALP have been shocked by the result of the Voice Referendum and the unexpected capacity of Opposition Leader Peter Dutton to generate serious protest largely based on ignorance by voters.

Albanese has now made it clear that he won't proceed with the reform unless the Opposition supports this planned move. Once bitten twice shy has been the response, but much more is at stake here. A promise not kept based on an expected strong and damaging Opposition? What would future promises mean in election campaigns if that becomes the norm?

It may well be that Albanese's decision is the wisest under the circumstances, but the claimed democratic quality of the system surely is at stake here. Both major parties are now attracting only a third each of the vote and only ten per cent of the single-member district seats can claim to represent a majority of their electorates (in the 2022 Federal Election).

The still grossly underrepresented Greens plus the "Teals", together with the diverse composition of the far more representative Senate, make democracy in the Federal House questionable.

Sadly, the Leader of the Opposition's role in this system is seen primarily as a combative strident opponent of the Government. Often this is actually destructive to democracy. It polarises the parliament and society. Former Opposition Leader Tony Abbott also had this attitude earlier, opposing at all costs.

However, as a PM, his performance was quite unimpressive. Sound prime ministerial leadership requires a very different set of qualities and the two-party system frequently fails to achieve that. It is overly combative. Therefore, the room for improvement is simply massive and should not be delayed.

Remarkably, the Tasmanian early election result has provided an example of what is fairly normal in proportional representation systems. Tasmania increased the number of representatives to 35, seven in each of the five electoral districts. Unlike other states, the Tasmanian Lower House is elected based on the Hare-Clark system, a proportional electoral system started by Tasmanian academic and political leader Andrew Inglis Clark.

The Hare-Clark system was used for the first time in 1907, the year Clark passed away. While the current result is still not final, the reigning Liberal Government failed to achieve a majority — in fact, it suffered a 12 per cent swing against it.

It is conceivable that the ALP, Greens and the Jacqui Lambie Network will form a coalition government. In traditional two-party parlance, the talk now is about a possible “hung parliament” or a “minority government”, a kind of temporary phenomenon.

More likely – and hopefully – this is the beginning of a shift in political thinking and practice in the sense that governments can be permanently formed as coalition governments. This is quite common worldwide and has great advantages over the polarising two-party system. Of course, it should be the end of the single-member district system as well, but, by the same token, it would be a major improvement for Australia's democracy.

It should be realised that the single-member district electoral system is not used in several other so-called Westminster systems, notably Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa. The Westminster system is more typically represented by countries that have their ministers chosen from the elected representatives in the Parliament.

In many other European countries, extra-parliamentary executives are not uncommon at all. The choice of talent is then, of course, much wider than only from the elected parliament.

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

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