RAY BRICKNELL. Australia’s Broken System of No-Longer-Representative Democracy

Jan 6, 2020

A problem recognised is half solved.The biggest single problem facing Australia today is the fact that two major political parties have taken a stranglehold on our system of representative democracy.

In the process they have turned politics into a career,  making it no longer representative of the community at large, nor responsive to its needs and wishes. Our biggest challenge is to work out how to break that stranglehold.

The general level of dissatisfaction among voters with the political status quo is evidenced by almost one third of electors now typically voting for anybody else but the major parties, and 75 percent of respondents to the Australian Election Study polling indicating they no longer trust politicians to do the right thing.

This problem is huge, because it divides our society and impacts on so many parts of our lives. As things now stand, about forty-five percent of voters feel they have no real choice but to eventually vote for the Conservatives, even if many channel their vote via a minor party or an independent to demonstrate their disenchantment with the Conservatives. Likewise, about the same number ultimately direct their vote to Labor in the same way. That 90 percent of people are welded-on to one side of politics or the other.

Effectively their votes don’t count when it comes to electing governments, because they cancel one another out. Only six seats – four percent – changed hands at the May 2019 federal election, and only the less-than ten percent who are Swing Voters in those electorates decided who would form the government.

Those swing voters in the few marginal seats find themselves having to pick one side or the other based only on a general sense of philosophical agreement with one of the major parties, or on one or two major policy proposals regardless of how abhorrent or stupid they think many of the other policies of that side of politics are. One chance to vote, on one major policy, every three years. How antiquated is that in this age of sophisticated communication technology?

Multi-policy electoral “mandates” are a myth believed in, or claimed, only by politicians.

Given that birds of a feather flock together, we tend to choose to live within relatively like-minded groupings, or suburbs. The consequence of this is that ninety percent plus of seats are so safe for one side of politics or the other that they almost never change hands. The gift of pre-selection by the governing hierarchy of the party which holds that seat is therefore a privileged job for life, provided the chosen representative doesn’t do something totally stupid. And quite likely even if they do – as we have seen in several recent instances. One very undesirable consequence of this is that politics has become a career for life, with little chance for those with extensive experience of life outside politics ever gaining pre-selection by a major party for a safe seat.

And career politicians then become focused on career security ahead of good policy. That makes them very subservient to their party’s ruling hierarchy who, in turn, are subservient to their donor base. Meanwhile, the representatives of the other side of politics wait securely and comfortably in their own safe seats for their side’s turn to govern, making the most of the generous perks of office right through to and including retirement, and adhering to conventions such as not supporting parliamentary motions designed to embarrass Ministers.

Not to mention the lurks and perks. For example, “Bookshelves” George Brandis was apparently bribed into resigning as A-G with the offer of five years of prestigious living in London as Australia’s High Commissioner, to replace the serial ‘perkster’ Alexander Downer, who’s five years was up. And note this report in the SMH of 18 January 2019: “Liberal senator announces resignation, gets plum overseas post 60 minutes later.At 1.10pm, David Bushby said he was quitting politics. By 2.10pm, he had a new job as consul-general in Chicago.” There are hundreds of examples – enough to make you sick in the stomach.

Of course, the side having its turn in power introduces as much legislation and regulation as it can for the targeted benefit of its own ideological constituency (read donor base), in the hope that a significant proportion of what it introduces will prove impracticable for the other side to reverse when their turn comes around. Thus, instead of gradually evolving good policy, we get a sinusoidal wave of policy bias swinging from one extreme to the other, in sync with the (typically two term) electoral cycle. Tax and superannuation policies spring immediately to mind as some of the most significant policy areas negatively affected in this way, but there are many others.

The problem is actually much bigger than this. This cycle also results in an almost total lack of compromise between the two major parties. Consequently, populist policies are blatantly used during election campaigns to achieve the one prize worth having: electoral success and the accompanying ability to distribute largesse from the public purse to one’s own mates and constituency.

Such populist policies often appeal to the basest, most selfish elements of voters’ personalities, such as fear, greed, racism, etc. They are seldom good policies for the long term. They lead to real problems, such as the reform of bad taxation policies being kicked like a can down the road. They lead to the long term problems caused by the current generation of politicians, such as government deficits, lack of long-term policies to deal with climate change, unaffordable housing, inherited disadvantage, high unemployment and under employment, inadequate infrastructure, etc., being left for the next generation to endure and eventually be forced to deal with.

The only constraint on excessively biased legislation becomes the Senate, which is also dominated by the same two major parties. Voting together they can pass anything, and they regularly collude to limit the political success of minor parties which threaten their power. The rag-bag of minor party Senators currently entrusted by the electorate with the balance of power, a direct consequence of voters’ desperation to find ‘someone else’ to vote for other than the two major parties, gives excessive power to individuals who often lack the knowledge and qualities desirable for responsible and appropriate exercise of that power. And it results in cross-bench Senate votes being bought with policy payoffs which really are downright stupid policies, arrived at via secret deals. The negative consequences are frequently very long term.

The list of negative consequences of the current system is almost endless.

Is there no better way?

Future posts in this series will suggest common sense policies for an ideal future Australian government. Sadly, the author has not yet worked out how to incentivise either of the legacy major parties to adopt such common sense policies.

Ray Bricknell is a retired project management consultant who now tutors classes in Current Affairs and Macroeconomics at the University of the Third Age, Brisbane.


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