The ABC drama and Australia's system of governance

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Now former ABC Managing Director Michelle Guthrie (Image supplied) and CEO Justin Milne (Screenshot via YouTube)

The drama around the ABC’s sacking of Managing Director Michelle Guthrie and forced resignation of the Chair of the ABC Board, Justin Milne is, directly and indirectly, related to Australia's adversarial political system.

It is, therefore, also related to its single-member district (SMD) electoral system.

This is used for all lower houses except Tasmania’s. As readers may not have experience with the alternative proposed here and have grown up believing that the existing governance systems are the best or that alternative systems are no better, or even worse, this does require a flexible open mindset. An alternative system could solve not only the recurring ABC’s dilemma, but also the several difficulties created by the increasingly unsatisfactory political system.

The existing political culture, comprising the customary and often glorified Westminster system, meaning government and opposition dominating the Parliament, plus the associated SMD electoral processes, present major disadvantages. This combination results in frequent two-party combat. It certainly does not suit a diverse, multicultural society. We need political systems where true majorities are in fact governing, formed by compromises after democratic elections.

This is equally necessary for boards of public organisations that serve the public good and do not exist to make money for their shareholders and outrageous, undeserved salary packages for their executives — such as those of major banks and insurance companies now being investigated. Diversity covers ideas, interests, ethnic groups, gender, age and a fair distribution of income worthy of an egalitarian society.

There is, of course, a further problem, although it is clearly related to the above. When the conservative Coalition is in power, the management of the public media organisation, the ABC, is constantly viewed through the prism of private enterprise interests and culture. This attitude was reflected in the recent criticism of the managing director and two journalists, by Milne, but also in the personal views of Communication Minister Mitch Fifield. He is a member of the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), which actually favours the privatisation of the ABC. There is plainly no understanding in that ideological Institute of the importance of public service organisations and especially not of a public media organisation like the ABC.

Apart from the staff director, the entire current ABC Board was appointed by the Coalition Government since 2013. The Government has also appointed the Nomination Panel — which is often described as “independent”, as it is supposed to be. This process has in reality been dominated by the conservative faction of the Liberal Party, representing no more than 30% of the voting population. The fracas that has occurred is, therefore, not surprising at all. What is surprising is that it has not happened earlier

The remedy is not going to be easy unless there is a wider understanding in the Morrison Government that both ABC Board members and the managing director are executives of a public service organisation — paid for by taxpayers and not of any private corporation, media or otherwise. Suitable candidates for such positions are not in great supply at all, because most media organisations are private sector corporations.

For that reason alone, the Coalition Government should seriously consider the desirability of appointing the acting managing director David Anderson — a person with long experience in the ABC and liked and respected by staff. Alternatively, candidates should come from other public service organisations, including the public universities. Company directors are generally not the most suitable persons for such roles for very obvious reasons: they cannot be expected to be “balanced” or “independent”, as they are shaped by their career background, education and ideology and generally male gender.  

As has been demonstrated by many researchers in recent years, the management of many private corporations is dominated by men of Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-Celtic origin. There is also a serious proportional shortage of women and people of multicultural background in the Liberal Party. Australia’s much-praised multicultural character of the society is only thinly represented in parliament, as well as in senior management positions, both in the public and private sectors.

As to the parliaments – and therefore also governments – the single-member district electoral system has a lot to answer for. First of all, it creates the two-party system. Only very rarely are minor parties or independents able to score a seat in lower houses — in spite of voters having to nominate (compulsorily) a list of preferences. Thus, the main governments are either Coalition (a permanent alliance of town and country capital) or Labor. Just the "two sides" of politics exist, as though there are only two sides or aspects of politics. Their majority factions will run the country in reality.

Surely, Australia can greatly improve on this sad situation? How democratic is SMD really? SMD candidates are often elected on the basis of around 40% of the primary vote. They may get over the line on the basis of preferences, but it does mean that in such seats no less than 60% are not represented by that elected member. And in the seats that are decided by a true majority vote, a substantial minority are still not represented in parliament by this successful candidate.

And as to competence reflected in parliaments and governments, the pool available from which to form government happens to be extremely small. Ministers can only be selected from elected members of major parties!

In non-Westminster systems, ministers are attracted and selected from the entire society. Clearly, Australia has to settle for functional amateurism, possible perhaps with an outstanding, non-political public service, but they have been replaced, at least in part, by expensive private consultants.

The principal alternative is proportional representation, or open party list, used in around 86 countries. That is quite unlike the Hare-Clark system used in Tasmania, the Senate, ACT and NSW Legislative Council. This was first used in the UK in the mid-19th Century for school boards and taken up later by Andrew Inglis Clark for the State of Tasmania. Although also based on multi-member districts, it is suitable only for small legislatures where people know the candidates reasonably well. It is hardly used in the world, unlike the party list systems which are widely used and are far more suitable for modern mass societies.

Most Australians do not know this system well but, in my view, it is the answer to governance system change in Australia, which is long overdue. With the exception of the mixed member proportional (MMP) system (a variant of party-list used in NZ and Germany), voters have one vote only. There will be more parties as they have a proportional chance (meaning, fair) to achieve candidates.

There usually is a threshold of 3% to 5% for a party to be represented — thus avoiding too many small parties participating. Parties that qualify will gain seats on the basis of how many times they achieve the quota, that basically is the total number of votes divided by the number of seats. There are no boundary hassles, there is no pork-barrelling and replacement of an MP who leaves parliament is simply done by appointing the one on the list who just missed out at the previous election. Why don’t we have this democratic system in Australia? The major parties both stand to be reduced in their voter support. Isn't this what is happening already?

The result of the PR party list is, in most cases, that parties have to negotiate to form a majority government. That results in the opposite of the adversarial political culture. And it achieves diversity of representation in the parliament. If we can also reflect on abandoning the Westminster system and move governments out of the legislatures, political life would change dramatically and the ABC would no longer be subjected to the private corporate culture values.

The Senate PR system (Hare-Clark) has undoubtedly resulted in greater diversity of representation but, regrettably, the preferential system has made it possible to be elected on the basis of very small primary votes.

This is simply not possible with the party-list systems, which is a very important difference, of course.

Do I hear you say we don't know enough about this? Ask the ABC to generate a series of programs on proportional representation, party-list, and countries with extra-parliamentary executive governments.

Dr Klaas Woldring is a former Associate Professor at Southern Cross University. He is a committee member of ABC Friends, Central Coast.


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