Ian Marsh. Disaffected electorates? Dysfunctional political systems? Part 2 of 3.

Apr 5, 2016

Malcolm Turnbull’s has created the grounds for a July election. This crafty electoral ploy offers short term gains. If the cross bench resist, the election is legitimate. If the cross bench cave in, he will have demonstrated bold leadership. Moreover, he will have attained legislation that is highly prized by his Liberal heartland. Then he can call the scheduled election later in the year.

But in neither election scenario is he likely to achieve a Senate majority. Further, there is talk of preferencing the Greens. There may also be guile here. This might give him leverage on social issues against the Abbott diehards.

But what about good government?

To explore this more important issue, look first at changing voting patterns. In Australia’s case, an astonishing (in historical terms) around 40% of eligible citizens either vote for minor parties, vote informal or don’t register to vote. Hardly a ringing endorsement of the once dominant major parties. The preferential voting system used in the Representatives gives a totally false impression of their   public standing.

The Senate on the other hand, is elected through a proportional voting system but based on state constituencies. Paradoxically, this yields a distribution of seats much more aligned to the actual distribution of the popular vote. The Senate represents our underlying diversity. So much for the ‘unelected swill’.

Australia is not alone in these expressions of citizen disaffection. Perhaps the most familiar and egregious examples of disconnect between mainstream parties and voters are in the US and Britain. Trump and Sanders are both leading anti-Establishment insurgencies. In the case of the US, the political structure, the party structure and political culture vary so much from Australia’s that comparison or inference is mostly superficial.

Britain is more familiar. Jeremy Corbyn reflects disenchantment with the neo-liberal consensus of the Blairite elite. Some say he is unlikely to survive the year although Labour Party rules on leadership elections are ambiguous. Despite his unexpected election victory, David Cameron may also later face a leadership challenge, so bitter are the fractures that the EU referendum has opened up in the Conservative party. Nicola Sturgeon and Scottish nationalism represent yet another fault-line.

In Europe, elections this year and late last year have disavowed mainstream parties in Germany, Spain, Ireland, Portugal and Slovakia. Spain took three months to form a new semi-stable government after elections in December. Germany does not face a federal election until 2017 – but in recent local elections voters turned from the established Christian Democrats and Social Democrats to Greens, Liberals and the anti-immigrant AfD.

The story was similar in Ireland with former Prime Minister Kenny’s Fine Gael losing 10 seats in the February election. Kenny remains Taoiseach (prime minister) but supported by an unstable coalition. There are now nine parties and four independents in the 158 seat House.

In both Sweden and Denmark mainstream parties are hostage to anti-immigrant parties. In France, Marine Le Pen is seen as no longer the candidate of only a mad fringe.

With 28% of Australians born overseas, it is hardly surprising anti-immigrant sentiment is more muted. Similarly, the financial crisis has not scarred the economy so deeply. But the unwanted consequences of globalisation and social differentiation both introduce new electoral fault lines.

The end of the mining boom is one uncomfortable expression of globalisation, asylum seekers and refugees another and the off-shoring of the auto industry a third.

For its part, social pluralisation is everywhere evident, reflected in school sex education controversies, same sex marriage debates, promotion of women, animal rights campaigns, environmental action and so on.

In summary, a slow-burn crisis of legitimacy would seem to be enveloping politics in many states, not just Australia. This fundamental issue invites a fresh look at basic political structures: do they remain fit for purpose?

In Australia’s case, the present system was born in 1909. Protectionist and Free Traders then joined to form a united bloc against Labour’s socialism. This adversarial structure has lingered despite the post-83 convergence of Liberal and Labor economic agendas. Yet our society and economy are transfigured.

If the logic for a wholly adversarial system has diminished, why is it so hard to question the present political structure? One obvious reason is that an alternative is hard to imagine. The way things are is so hallowed by time and habit that it simply does not occur to people to consider that what we have is dysfunctional or that there could be a better way.

Another explanation perhaps lies in the dominant voices in political discussion. At an expert level, economists enjoy greatest standing and respect. But neither by training nor preoccupation are political processes or structures a legitimate field of interest. In their world view, these matters simply do not figure.

Then there are the politicians themselves. At first glance you might imagine they would be most disadvantaged by the frustrations of office – the most troubled by neutered legislative achievement. Shouldn’t they be most open to alternatives?

But the major parties are the formal beneficiaries of current arrangements. They share the spoils of office, they receive most public benefits, and the theatre of parliament maintains the fiction of their representational dominance.

The Senate remains the House where the newer forces in Australian politics have standing and voice. We might therefore expect the promotion of change to come from them. Surely it’s in their interest to move parliamentary debate from its present negative and reactive style towards more proactive practice? For example, the late Liberal Senator David Hamer proposed that ministerial appointments from the Senate be ended. This would pave the way for the establishment of proactive committees with real standing and a forward looking brief.

Take the recent CEDA report on fixing the deficit. Endorsed by three former heads of Treasury and PM and C and one current Reserve Bank Board member, this is exactly the kind of document that a Senate Committee should be able to take up – hold hearings around the country – provide a platform for both conservative and liberal economists – and flush out public commitments from the myriad economic and other interests who stand to be affected.

The committee would no doubt squabble internally about options and trade-offs. This would be transparent. Perhaps limited bipartisanship might be flushed out. A full Senate debate and a motion for the House might follow. All or some of these actions would sustain momentum. It would demonstrate how the theatre of parliament can be used constructively to reach into wider media and public opinion. But for now this is fantasy!

Until the misalignment between the structure of politics and our newly pluralised society is recognised as a fundamental challenge, dysfunctional government will surely prevail.

Ian Marsh is a Visiting Professor at the UTS Management School.

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