The ABC could improve political education greatly

Aug 14, 2023
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The issue of the Voice referendum has again brought to light problems that have to do with a serious lack of understanding of governance systems in Australia and, even more seriously, where major problems exist, lacking a capacity to generate superior alternatives.

In this article I will argue that the need to act is both urgent and timely. Furthermore, that primarily the ABC is in an advantageous position to develop such educational programs, aiming to rapidly improve the situation. This idea has recently been discussed by the Central Coast branch of the ABC Friends. Its President recently presented some of these ideas to the ABC Management.

“Given the frequency of elections in Australia and the percentage of the population who cast informal ballots or feel unrepresented by the major parties, shouldn’t the ABC devote more attention to the issue of civics education? We currently elect our representatives differently in the House of Representatives (preferential voting), the Senate (preferential voting by quota) and in the ACT and Tasmania where the Hare-Clark electoral system is applied. The complexities of voting procedures and the differences between different parliamentary bodies and states require more explanation than the AEC currently provides. The ABC could and should play an additional role to assist the AEC with a more comprehensive civics education, not just within schools through ABC Education but also to the general public on ABC TV, RN and iView. This is in keeping with the obligations of its charter. More opportunities are required to inform the public about the advantages and disadvantages of each electoral system, as well as comparisons with those of other countries, where the public may feel that their preferences are better represented in the election outcome.”

The knowledge about governance systems in other countries, especially electoral systems, is poor in Australia. In recent books I have explained that in some detail. There are several major problems with Australia’s Single Member District system that have a negative bearing on many other areas of governance, often not generally realised. That system, initially inherited from the UK, produces the adversarial two-party system that has shaped a combative political culture. Pork barrelling is only one of its serious drawbacks; lack of diverse representation another. An oppositionist mentality dominates the entire political culture. Furthermore, the Australian Constitution has become increasingly archaic, an Act of the British Parliament in 1901 that could hardly be amended thereafter. It is steeped in the colonial environment of 1900 and the federal structure of the society, then decided on for good reasons but no longer appropriate, and costly. Section 128 could now again present a major problem with the Voice issue. Should we not start discussing a new Constitution? A sovereign society can of course rewrite their Constitution if they conclude that the current one no longer reflects the nature, values and ambitions of the society.

The oppositionism of the adversarial lower house parliaments, excluding Tasmania, which sensibly followed the advice of Andrew Inglis Clark and introduced Proportional Representation, creates severe hindrances for renewal and alternative options. It limits and reduces our democracy. It does not really reflect Australia’s dominant national character of valuing cooperation. Why does the union movement still operate in that same way as in the late 19th century oppositionist mode? With now only 12% of union membership major questions should be raised as to what is wrong with that important movement? Why don’t we have more workplace democracy here, long practiced in most west and north European countries?

Thus far, the major parties have not felt obliged to consider democratic electoral systems, like Proportional Representation – Party List, based on Multi-Member Districts used in at least 85 countries. New Zealand and South Africa have adopted PR systems in 1996. In Australia, knowledge of such system is almost non-existent. The major parties are not interested in that for obvious reasons. That is NOT a good reason to discuss such an alternative. Even in the UK itself a campaign for PR is gathering pace: Make Votes Matter/Sort The System.

The severe lack of political science and governance studies courses, discussing alternative systems, should be an opportunity for the ABC to fill that gap effectively and quite quickly. But this is not happening now. It is not just a matter of better explaining the existing governance systems. We need to look at improvements, alternative systems, more comparative political education, the sooner the better. The prospect of another period of the adversarial two-party system with a conservative party doing its utmost to damage the ABC, surely needs to be avoided. This is the time to ensure we won’t go back to that situation.

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