Here’s a puzzle. Over the past decade or so Australian politics has veered from one crisis to another. In that same period New Zealand has enjoyed effective and constructive government. What’s the difference? Let’s start with the different records.
First Australia. Here is a rough summary. Five prime ministers in five dysfunctional years. Internecine party warfare. Gridlocked policy. Chronic leadership and factional rivalries. Intractable internal ideological conflicts. These factors in various combinations have stymied both Coalition and Labor governments.
Then there are failed public consultations. They meander meaninglessly as in the Turnbull/Morrison approach to tax and the Rudd government’s 2020 Summit. Or they present choices which, for political reasons, government’s fear to take up – the Henry Tax Review. Or they founder on internal divisions of opinion within both major parties – Climate Change, Marriage Equality.
It is salutatory that the only new items to successfully pass the Australian parliament in the last decade have attracted bipartisan support – plain cigarette packaging, NDIS, and (shamefully) a refugee strategy shaped primarily by political advantage.
Contrast this with the New Zealand record. In the past decade or so the GST has been increased (to 15%), the top tax rate has been progressively cut (by 6% to 33%), a tax deductibility boondoggle was closed off (making losses incurred by qualifying companies deductible), an ETS passed, and the minimum wage increased from $12 to $14.25. Refugees have been offered sanctuary. Further, an (advisory) citizen initiated referendum indicated 64% were opposed to further privatisation. The government has therefore commercialised rather than privatised a number of public enterprises.
Over this period John Key has remained prime minister. Like Julia Gillard, he has led minority governments. His party gained support from 45% of New Zealanders at the 2008 election and 47% at the 2011 and 2014 election. In no case did he score sufficient seats to win a majority in his own right. He was one seat short in 2014 but shortly thereafter lost a by-election.
Other parties in the New Zealand parliament include the Labor opposition and a variety of minor parties: ACT (free market), United Future (socially conservative), Maori, Greens and New Zealand First (populist). Their role is underwritten by the New Zealand’s proportional voting system which, provided certain threshold conditions are fulfilled, guarantees seats to minorities. This ensures expression of minority views in the public conversation, but in constructive ways.
Finally, unlike Australia, New Zealand is a unitary political system – only one powerful House.
John Key has deliberately opted for minority government. How has he succeeded despite an Italian style melange of parties. A threshold condition is no doubt a mature democratic electorate. Thereafter Key uses party differences creatively. He governs from the centre-right. When contentious measures arise, he reaches out to left parties on social measures and to right parties on economic measures. This was the governing formula pioneered with great success by his Labor predecessor, Helen Clark.
What does it tell us? First, that in these more pluralised times, great party blocs that try to aggregate too many diverse forces are dysfunctional. They are like unwieldy conglomerates, behemoths left over from the collectivist era. Look no further than the disabling factions that now thwart coherent government action for Turnbull.
In truth there is much common ground between the major parties at the centre of the political system. But you would never know. On one side, the sniff of electoral advantage seemingly trumps any possibility of sane debate (go no further than the current imbroglio on negative gearing). On the other, internal cultural differences and rivalries thwart common action (marriage equality).
Second, adversarial incentives dominate debate. The resulting public conversation more often than not thwarts public understanding of complex challenges. Paradoxically this is at a time when the backwash of globalisation creates an even greater imperative for prudent public discussion (e.g. refugees, global banking system fragility, the continuing advantages of free trade). Far from advancing this outcome, the parliamentary conversation is corrupting – it enhances public cynicism and, for immediate political advantage, forecloses options.
In a nutshell, we have a political system that cannot lead us into the twenty-first century. This system was formed in 1909 when the present two major parties consolidated around different domestic responses to the capitalist economy. This debate was partially seen off by Gough Whitlam and finally put to bed by the Labor government in 1983.
You have only to look at the recent agenda of issues to see how far we have come from that earlier era.
Climate change is an environmental issue, a cause that first gained a place on the political agenda in the 1970s. Live animal exports reflect new concerns about animal rights and the decent treatment of non-human life. Gay marriage concerns the equal rights of citizens whose identities are other than or supplemental to social class. Not that class and gay identities or environmental or animal rights (or women’s, ethnic or Indigenous rights) are mutually exclusive. Rather citizen identities have multiplied and differentiated in a way that the older class-based structuring of politics does not recognise and has trouble accommodating.
What can be done? We cannot mimic New Zealand’s solution. Our political system is too different. But we do have historic experience of how to govern in more pluralised times. This was the situation which the first federal governments faced between 1901 and 1909. This was also one of the most creative periods in domestic Australian political development. It was incidentally the last time in which we had a succession of five prime ministers. But then change worked constructively to advance compromise and the emerging political agenda.
One important difference concerned the role of the Senate. It functioned then more like its US progenitor. Its committees acted as gate keepers for emerging issues. This largely lifted inquiries above partisanship. They gathered evidence, held hearings around the country, attracted media attention and helped focus the public and political conversation on real choices and options. A multi-party report moderated flagrant adversarialism. It gave governments the opportunity to gauge public opinion and possible supporting coalitions. Crucially, this was before they decided what to do. No expert inquiry could deliver such a result.
What is the present relevance of this distant period? After a decade characterised largely by policy impasse, perhaps there is now some chance that the ‘problem’ might be parsed correctly. It is much more fundamental than poor communication, inadequate leadership or deficient narrative. The real political challenge is structural and systemic.
Ian Marsh is a Visiting Professor at the UTS Management School.
Ian Marsh and Mike Keating will be writing a follow-up article next week.