Ian Marsh. Part 2. Democratic Renewal: policy-making practice.

May 12, 2015

Fairness, Opportunity, Security.
Policy series edited by Michael Keating and John Menadue.

In Part 1, I pointed out that the Westminster style two-party system is in trouble.

Part 2. Implications for Policy Making Practice.

At least four implications would seem to follow from the above analysis.

The first concerns the need to create systemic capacities to address single issues. As Bernard Crick observed many years ago, the present forms and processes of parliament under the Westminster system are tantamount to a continuing election campaign. This suits majoritarian or winner-takes-all government. This mise-en-scene was designed for an era in which the major parties championed different ideologies and different medium-term agendas. It assumed that these parties enjoyed support from more or less half the community. It also assumed that their approach to particular domestic issues as they arose could be derived from their distinctive overarching programmes.

Neither of these conditions now holds. There is no party platform or canonical document from which to infer attitudes to gay marriage, euthanasia, the financial crisis, live cattle exports, refugees or Gonski: to nominate just a few recent matters. Each of these issues is associated with distinctive alignments, distinctive agendas, distinctive coalitions and distinctive narratives. Thus there is no longer any natural nor enduring majority on many if not most of the issues that are on the current political agenda.

Furthermore, the present system has almost no capacity to create a political conversation around single issues that is at least partially separate from the struggle for office between the major parties. It lacks any capacity for what might be termed a ‘contemplative’ phase in the unfolding of contested policy issues.

Second (really a corollary of the preceding point), coalition-building needs to be made routine within the structure of the policy making system. As a large literature attests, where the community is fragmented and pluralised, a coalition symbolises wide support. Coalitions add important public cues to the political equation – cues that, in the majoritarian era, were largely delivered by major party brands.

Third, to the extent possible, bi(multi)partisanship opportunities need to be explored. As noted above, on many issues there is now substantial overlap between one or other of the parties. Yet you would never know from the present political conversation. A critical moment in the public policy process occurs at the point of time at which an issue first enters the political agenda. For recent examples, think of McClure, Gonski, Higher Education funding, the debate over the deficit. If the agenda entry phase in the policy process could be made more transparent, the opportunity to explore the scope for at least partial cross-party alliances would be greatly extended.

In a strategic phase, the political conversation might focus on: Why is this issue significant? What establishes its claim to a place in the national conversation? What are some of the options for dealing with it? If the scope for agreement around such matters could be made at least partially transparent, the public conversation might thereafter better focus on real areas of contention. This would need to occur before the executive makes more immediate policy choices.

And finally, opportunities for ad hoc public engagement need to be considerably extended. Digital media provide a variety of opportunities for ad hoc groups of citizens to come together around particular issues and to advance policy proposals. There are already examples of this occurring beyond the formal system. But the latter has no or very limited capacities to connect to this activity.

Recall the way citizens proposed a motion at a local branch and then followed its advance to regional and later national party conferences. This suggests how such processes now need to be orchestrated around single issues. Engagement needs to be serial and reciprocal, not sporadic or one-off. If groups of citizens propose something and it is rejected, the reasons need to be stated. More importantly, the proponents need the chance to return to their cause by augmenting their argument and by meeting a higher support hurdle. How these matters might be operationalised needs much more thought. But the principle that engagement should be serial and reciprocal is fundamental.

In sum, in a different era the major party organisations provided much of the tissue that connected the formal system to its publics. They still have important roles. But they can no longer deliver the necessary linkages. So how can connections be rebuilt?

System Adaptation.

There are many proposals for system development. Deliberative democrats propose much wider use of citizen juries and similar choice mechanism. Others see a redefined role for major parties, with requirements for community engagement and policy activism expanded (e.g. Latham, Reith, Faulkner). Voting reform is another possibility although there has hitherto been no mobilisation around this issue, as for example occurred in New Zealand. Social media is just emerging – but it has no connection to the formal system. Indeed to be effective all these initiatives need to be anchored in a formal structure within the representational system. Access and engagement, which is broadened and deepened and sited at the epicentre of the representational system, is fundamental.

It is hard to see any alternative to a much expanded and deepened role for the parliamentary committee system. Furthermore, Australia’s political system is almost purpose-built for such an outcome. The Senate was modelled on its US counterpart. In fact, the procedures that would be associated with a democratic transformation are evident in our own historic experience. Between 1901 and 1909, the electorate returned three parties – the Free Traders, Protectionists and Labor.

Governing required at least two of these parties to reach an accommodation with each other on particular measures. Deakin, the leading political architect of the period, led minority governments. To create sufficient parliamentary support to enact contested measures, he needed to initiate a parliamentary (and hence public conversation) at the strategic end of the parliamentary issue cycle, but before the government’s own approach was determined.

To achieve this outcome, he turned to the tried and tested vehicle, committees of the legislature. Indeed the Australian constitution provided him with an ideal structure. The Senate had been conceived as an independent House on the American model. In its initial years most members acted in this spirit.

More recently, the (late) Liberal Senator, David Hamer, recommended converting the Senate to a Committee House. Ministers would cease to be drawn from this Chamber. Committee chairs would enjoy extended standing (as is occurring now in the UK). Senate committees could then become important agenda entry points for new and emerging issues. The adversarial culture, which is now often breached in committee enquiries, could be equally qualified in broader Senate proceedings.

With an especial focus on emerging and strategic issues, committees could be agents of the legislature rather than the executive. They could recommend action – and the legislature would debate their recommendations. Ideally this would be free of the whips. But even with whipped or partially whipped votes, majority, cross-party support in the Senate would provide important guidance for the executive. A more diverse expression of views in the legislature prior to the executive determining a course of action would give the executive more flexibility in response. Following this debate, it would be up to the government to decide what to do. But such a change in the policy determining sequence would also represent a major change in the structure of political power.


The present adversarial system was born in 1909. It was based on two powerful party organisations that each appealed to roughly half of the Australian community. These days are long gone. The challenge in the twenty-first century is to develop a political system more aligned to Australia’s pluralised society.

Thus, while most of the contributions to this series of policy discussion papers focus on the nature and content of future policy choices, it is argued here that actually achieving future policy reform may well depend equally on reforms to our political system and decision making processes. Furthermore, it might be noted that this is not entirely a new situation. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the outstanding economic problem of the day was ‘stagflation’, and a significant factor in the election of the Hawke Government in 1983 was its promise to seek a new approach to dealing with this problem built around a search for consensus, based on equality of sacrifice. Indeed it is arguable that at the time of the election the incoming Labor Government was more strongly identified in the public mind with its promise of “consensus” than with the actual content of its policies. Whatever the case, however, it is indisputable that that Government was able to achieve a great deal of policy reform that set Australia up to meet the challenge of globalisation.

Now we are facing similar challenges of political and policy failure, and again we need to address the political challenge of the how to reform the decision-making system as well as the policy content. Essentially this political challenge is to change the system so that it is more conducive to producing a majority in favour of sensible reforms.

But unfortunately to date, the potential of the parliamentary committee system to meet this need is hardly recognised. The procedural and other changes that would be required to enhance its standing and influence in the broader political and policy making system would be tantamount to a democratic transformation. Such institutional developments would align the formal system much more constructively with its publics.

The incentive structure in parliament which presently favours an adversarial approach is a fundamental issue. Present parliamentary incentives dictate that what one declares black the other must almost invariably proclaim to be white. Until we face up to the mismatch between the formal structure of Australian politics and the society which it nominally serves, dysfunction and gridlock must be expected to continue.

Can any of the major parties (or any of the minority blocs in the Senate) summon the resolve, the tactical guile and the political imagination that is necessary to transit to a post-majoritarian political order?

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.


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