KLAAS & AAFKE WOLDRING. Has Australia now become ungovernable?

Jul 5, 2016


While the final outcome of the 2016 election will have to wait for a few days, a Hung Parliament or a Government with a narrow majority seems likely. The outcome for the Senate will take longer but will be even more remarkable with approx. 19 Senators not representing the major parties: nine Greens and 10 others. Probably 30 Senatorial seats will go to the Coalition and 27 to the ALP. The purpose of the Double Dissolution was to reform the Senate voting system and then pass legislation that was blocked by the Cross Benches. Not only will this be unlikely now but a Coalition Government would be hard put to get much of its legislative program through the Senate.

This presents a major crisis, the primary cause of which lies in the electoral system based on single-member-districts that produces Australia’s adversarial, point scoring two-party system. The secondary cause is the much more democratic, proportional system in the Senate. While that forms a positive contrast the combination of the two legislative chambers is a problem by itself. The system as a whole is dominated by the two-major party culture. Clearly, voters have lost faith in this system.

In the Senate the representation of a diverse, multicultural Australia provides a more accurate reflection of the society. This is primarily due to its proportional electoral system. BUT, we probably will have to hear again from whichever party that forms the Government that the “naughty” Senate is blocking its legislative program. A major deadlock seems guaranteed. The initial principal remedy here is NOT to change the Senate’s electoral system. It is to introduce Proportional Representation (Open Party List System) for the next House of Representatives election. This is used widely in the world but is not very well known in Australia, which only uses the Hare-Clark system. New Zealand had a Royal Commission into electoral systems in 1986 and plugged for PR, first used in 1996, now already 20 years ago.

The major parties in Australia are not really interested in PR because, in the short term at least they would lose support as smaller parties and Independents would gain representation in the House of Representatives. This is common practice in European countries; it results in Coalition Governments and a quite different political culture whereby parties seek common ground. Major parties would move away from the utterly negative adversarialism that has bedevilled the Australian political system for far too long.

If we want young people to come back to the political system that reform would be the principal remedy, something that the media, the Australian Electoral Commission and, sadly, most political science departments of Australian Universities seem to avoid. Australians have to get much better informed about these matters. The Government, through the AEC, surely could provide an inexpensive booklet to educate the nation and then introduce the required legislation. As long as we have states these could become multi-party electoral districts. Or the larger states could be sub-divided in somewhat smaller electoral districts.

There are two impediments that detract from the Senate as a fully representative and democratic chamber even though elected by a proportional system. The first one is the result of the federal system, a political bargain made in 1901 by the six colonies, to unite into a colonial federation. That system was made possible in part on account of the six colonies securing equal representation in the Senate. For just 10 years the Senate functioned as a states’ house but soon the impact of parties, not mentioned in the Constitution, was much more important. Strong population growth in the Eastern states gradually interfered with that plan as well. Secondly, the Constitution stipulated that at every federal election only half of the Senators would be up for re-election – Senatorial terms thus became six instead of three years (Section 13). Changing that would require constitutional change, which is almost impossible in Australia also largely due to the two-party system. This is often not realized.

Our archaic Constitution, which could hardly be amended since 1901, was certainly meant to be a flexible democratic document to be adjusted with the changing times and circumstances. Section 128 made that fairly difficult though but the most formidable barrier was thrown up by the evolving two-party system after 1910. That system was solidified by the 1918 and 1924 Commonwealth Electoral Acts. In practice, ever since that time proposed amendments needed both major parties to agree on them to achieve the double majorities required by section 128. Just eight out of 44 passed.

Australians should understand that their single-member-district electoral system not only causes major parliamentary obstacles but blocks constitutional change. Also, why are we engaging in ineffectual piecemeal tinkering with the very costly federation while we should really replace it completely? The two-party system in combination with federation is a major double-whammy obstacle in the way of improvement and progress. The so-called “two sides of politics”, when in federal interaction in COAG, waste time in point scoring and protecting vested state party interests, instead of serving the national interest. It is the electoral system that blocks long-overdue governance renewal altogether. However, before we can talk about replacing federation and rewriting the entire frozen Constitution, the new Government should have the guts to embark on this major task of electoral reform. It is the key to subsequent reforms and progress.

Klaas Woldring, A/Prof (ret)




















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