There is a structural contradiction at the heart of the new parliament. Two diametrically different political systems co-exist. Incentives and expectations are at cross purposes. Until this contradiction is addressed the prospects for major legislative change must be judged slight.
On one side, the formal rules and procedures of Parliament remain in the two party mould. These tacitly frame the expectations of Ministers, advisors, the public service and just about everyone closely involved. The government proposes and the Opposition opposes. And an election determines whose legislative agenda will prevail. What could be clearer?
On the other side, we have an unacknowledged multi-party system. This is what the voters have endorsed. Look at the results of the last election: The Coalition: 42% in the House and 35% in the Senate. Labor: 34% in the House and 29% in the Senate. Only 75% of Australians voted for one or other of the major parties in the House and 10% of these switched their votes in the Senate. Regional differences also figured. One Nation polled 10% in Queensland, the NXT nearly 22% in South Australia. Moreover, around 20% did not vote, did not enrol to vote, or voted informal.
So this election was hardly a ringing award of legitimacy to anyone.
Here’s another fact. There is absolutely no sign that voters will ever restore either of the major parties to a dominant role. The voting system for the House sustains an illusion.
Compounding their loss of support, the major parties are both divided internally. The Coalition is visibly torn between its conservative and liberal wings. For the moment Labor looks united. But should it win it will have its own problems.
These internal fault lines can be as destructive of effective legislation as any divided Senate. The only solution is more free votes – in fact a hallmark of the liberal tradition.
So how do multi-party systems work? It is not that we are short of examples. Almost every European parliamentary state presents one or another version of this form of government.
But the best one is close to home. New Zealand has been operating a very successful multi-party system since 1996. Indeed, since this time, both Helen Clark (Labour) and John Key (National) have run successful minority governments. They have deliberately turned away from majority coalition. Instead, they work with confidence and supply agreements. They then assemble majority coalitions in the parliament depending on the issue at hand.
Working to this formula, New Zealand has raised its GST, tackled tax avoidance, withdrawn unseemly tax rorts and introduced social reform. But New Zealand is unicameral. So only in an indirect sense does it present a model for Australia. Moreover, the trigger for New Zealand’s regime change, the switch to a proportional voting system, attracts no serious proponent in Australia.
Australia’s parliamentary challenge is quite different. Because we have a bicameral system and a very strong (by international standards) Senate, any legislation must attract majorities in both Houses.
The conventions that now govern parliamentary practice tacitly assume that the electorate more or less divides in two. The rules of the game sustain the illusion that the winner has sufficient electoral authority to alone determine the legislative agenda. This is out of place in a multi-party context.
In a more plural political world, the forms and procedures and the incentive system in the House and Senate need to shift much more towards transparency. Most of all new issues need to be exposed before the executive decides what to do. This is an absolutely fundamental step. This way the protagonists can explore where common ground might lie and where trade-offs might be possible without loss of face.
In parallel, these inquiries need to be more accessible to key interest groups and the media. This way the prospects for coalition building can be explored and the process of public engagement can commence.
We are in thrall to opinion polls. But these are wholly misleading as a reflection of the way public opinion forms. It does not spring into life ready-made. It is the outcome of a serial process. A snow ball is a more accurate image. Opinion should gather weight and momentum as the issue cycle unfolds. Parliamentary procedures need to be congruent with this fact.
For example, in a multi-party system, both the parliamentary majority and the extra-parliamentary coalition that supports gay marriage will not likely be the same as the one that supports tax change. And the construction of tax change may take diverse forms – some elements from the government’s agenda and some from Labor and/or other parties.
Until the major parties come to see that the forms, procedures and incentives of the two party world are no longer fit for purpose, the country as a whole will pay the cost.
On the other hand, the political leader who first recognises that the political landscape has shifted will have an assured historic place. Alfred Deakin is rightly celebrated as one of our greatest leaders not only because he was a gifted policy innovator but also because he saw that social change required new rules for the political game.
If we return to the pre-two party period, we find that the parliamentary committee system played a key role in mediating policy action. This was the primary setting where proposals and remedies were first aired. This was where ad hoc cross-party deals were explored. This took place before the executive decided what to do. The late Liberal Senator David Hamer proposed a roughly similar role for the modern Senate. In recent years, the House of Commons committee system has gained substantially in stature and authority. Is it time now for a parliamentary inquiry into how this might work in Australia?
The two-party system has passed its use by date. Until we get a leader with sufficient wisdom and guile to exploit this fact, gridlock seems assured.
Ian Marsh is a Visiting professor at the UTS Management School. His study Democratic Decline and Democratic Renewal: Political Change in Britain, Australia and New Zealand (with Raymond Miller) was published in 2012 by Cambridge University Press.