Ian Marsh. What wrong with Australia’s political system?

Most readers of this piece will not need lessons about the power of economic incentives. They know that efficient price signals can channel investment into productive assets and these same signals will drain funds from unconstructive pursuits. The same process more or less works at individual levels. Both good and bad performance is demonstrated by similar calculations. In turn these calculations draw on a variety of other metrics – prices, volumes, demand, supply, growth estimates and so forth.

Readers also know these numbers are reasonably reliable because they come from credible institutions. Thus markets are reasonably ‘free’ and undistorted. The Bureau and Census and Statistics is honest. The Stock Exchange is not manipulated. The judicial system acts according to the rule of law.

At a tertiary level, a variety of other institutions – the Productivity Commission, APRA, the Reserve Bank – police these secondary systems and reframe them when necessary to ensure that they continue to support wider public interests. This in essence is the familiar economic system.

Why do so many people then approach the political system with naïve or simplistic assumptions? Why do they not recognise that the political world is also a complex interdependent system where immediate incentives depend on the effective working of more embedded institutions?

If they did, the reasons for the current impasse in public policy in Australia might be more apparent – perhaps along with the profound nature of the present political challenge.

But let’s start with a fact. Since 1983, only one major piece of economic reform requiring legislative endorsement has passed in this country without bipartisan support. That was the GST which John Howard successfully navigated into law after winning the 1998 election. But he won that election and lost the popular vote. Hardly an auspicious signal to his successors.

Every other major measure in Australia since 1983 has required bipartisan support.

Why, short of a palpable crisis, is bipartisanship so elusive? Look first at immediate incentives. Politicians live in a two party, winner-takes-all world. Conceding common ground can spell disaster for a leader. Look no further than Malcolm Turnbull.

This adversarial system was conceived to highlight the choice between major parties that differed in their basic policy orientation. In the process, common ground, which was essential to sustain continuity in governance, was deliberately disguised or concealed. The parliamentary theatre was deliberately designed to highlight programmatic differences. The forms and procedures of parliament – question time, the allocation of time, executive prerogatives etc. – work to sustain this divide. The late Bernard Crick captured this perfectly in his depiction of parliamentary routines as ‘tantamount to a continuing election campaign.’

This political architecture was indeed appropriate and relevant for much of the period from the birth of this system in 1909 until the adoption of a softened neo-liberal programme by the Hawke-Keating government after 1983. Now party differences do not turn on the basic longer term agenda. The market system has more or less won.

But political leaders still live in a world in which immediate incentives dictate sharp product differentiation. How to respond? Is it surprising that from Tampa on we have seen a turn to populism and worse?

But you might say – OK, the major parties have converged in their fundamental approach. So why not share this agreement with the public and fight over the detail of measures. Why not make clear we agree that the states need more tax revenue – but we disagree about where this should come from. The blue side says a GST of 15% and the red side says the Medicare levy. Why not play the game that way.

The old problem of incentives recurs. Earlier we noted the political incentives that, on controversial issues, discourage disclosure of even partial common ground. These are reinforced by executive arrangements. Our present political system makes it impossible to separate debate into longer term and more immediate streams. The political system as it operates in parliament is governed by three basic conventions – ministerial responsibility, collective cabinet responsibility and confidence. Note these are conventions. They are not enshrined in the constitution. They have no wider legal base. They can be changed by votes on the floor of parliament. But they do determine the structure of executive power. They are long established. They distribute many privileges. And these rules of the game are sustained by the power and force of inertia. These conventions make it impossible to separate debate into longer term and more immediate components.

Then there are the distorting incentives that are associated with the media cycle. This reinforces populism and a short term orientation. Why does this incentive structure now exercise so much power?

The media cycle exercises its power because it now provides the primary link between political leaders and their publics. Earlier more complex tissue has largely dissolved. Once around 50% of the community had strong or very strong affiliation to one or other of the major parties. Party organisations enrolled activists. Party brands cued public opinion. Party programmes signalled longer term values and ambitions. Each party stood for a clear and distinctive position in the eyes of its supporters.

Political loyalty then turned primarily on class identification. This was the dominant social fault line. Class remains an important marker. But it no longer predominates. The women’s, gay, environment, consumer, animal rights, Indigenous, ethnic and other movements of the 1970s have busted that simple binary divide. And they have stimulated conservative reactions which have further compounded differentiation. Australian society is now pluralised in a way that would be unrecognisable to Alfred Deakin or Billy Hughes much less to John Curtin and Robert Menzies.

The major parties try to contain these internal pressures, not surprisingly often not very effectively.

So if you want to understand why the Australia political system is in trouble look no farther than this catalogue of distorting incentives and hollowed out systems. My personal view is that the two party system has past its use-by date. But this is a large judgment that is likely to be hotly contested – not least by those who in one form or another are advantaged by the present structure of power. Or by those whose political imaginations cannot extend beyond the existing architecture.

Were we to move beyond it, what should count as the central challenge? Surely the primary concern must be to renew the tissue that links the system to the people? In our more fluid and more pluralised society we need capacities for a more informed public conversation. We need to be able to debate single issues and we need capacities to do this initially at the level of strategy – is this an important issue for our country? What are some options in responding?

In other words we need an institutional design that can separate the longer term strategic conversation from a more immediate one about responses. Ideally the main parties would campaign fiercely over the latter issue – but bipartisanship would reinforce public support for the former. By such means, majority coalitions that can underwrite (or prevent) policy action could be constructed.

How to do this? We do not need wild schemes. This is how the Senate worked from 1901 to 1909. Ministers were drawn largely from the House. The Senate and its committees were custodians of longer term issues.

But this is a bigger story. We may need new political architecture for a more pluralised twenty-first century. But before there is even a remote possibility of that happening, the distorting incentives and dysfunctional institutions that are causing our present political discontents need to be frankly acknowledged.

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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