The Tasmanian election result is a challenge to improve democracy in Australia

Mar 26, 2024
Ballot box with national flag on background series - Australia

The recent decision by PM Albanese not to proceed with an important ALP election promise unless the Opposition supports the proposal surely runs counter to the two-party culture often claimed to be a holy aspect of the Westminster political system. At issue is the ALP’s promise to protect the right of religious schools to practice their faith while also shielding teachers and students from discrimination on the basis of sexuality.

Clearly, the PM and the ALP have been shocked by the result of the Voice referendum and the unexpected capacity of Opposition leader Peter Dutton to generate serious protest largely on the basis of ignorance by voters. Albanese has now made it clear that unless the Opposition supports this planned move he won’t proceed with the reform. Once bitten twice shy has been the response but much more is at stake here. The promise is not kept on the basis of expected strong and damaging opposition. What would future promises mean in election campaigns if that becomes the norm?

It may well be that the Albanese’s decision is the wisest under the circumstances but the claimed democratic quality of the system surely is at stake here. Both major parties are now attracting only a third each of the vote and only 10% of the Single Member District seats can claim to represent a majority of their electorates (in the federal election of 2022). The still grossly underrepresented Greens plus the Teals together with the diverse composition of the far more representative Senate make democracy in the federal House questionable.

Sadly, the Leader of the Opposition’s role in this system is seen primarily as a combative strident opponent of the Government. Often this is actually destructive of democracy. It polarises the parliament and the society. Opposition leader Tony Abbott also had this attitude earlier, opposing at all cost. However, as a PM his performance was quite unimpressive. Sound Prime Ministerial leadership requires a very different set of qualities really. The two-party system frequently fails to achieve that. It is overly combative. Therefore, the room for improvement is simply massive and should not be delayed.

It is remarkable that the Tasmanian early election result has provided an example of what is actually fairly normal in Proportional Representation systems. Tasmania increased the number of representatives to 35, seven in each of the five electoral districts. Unlike other states the Tasmanian lower house is elected on the basis of the Hare-Clark system, a proportional electoral system started by the Tasmanian academic and political leader Andrew Inglis Clark. It was used for the first time in 1907 the year he actually passed away. While the current result is still not final the reigning Liberal Government failed to achieve a majority, in fact they suffered a 12% swing against them. It is conceivable that the ALP, Greens and the Jacqui Lambie Network will form a Coalition Government. In traditional two-party parlance the talk now is about a possible “hung parliament” or a “minority Government”, a kind of temporary phenomenon. More likely- and hopefully – this is the beginning of a shift in political thinking and practice in the sense that Governments can be permanently formed as Coalition Governments. This is quite common in the world and has great advantages over the polarising two-party system. Of course, it should be the end of the Single Member District system as well but, by the same token, it would be a major improvement for Australia’s democracy.

It should be realised that the Single Member District electoral system is not used in several other so-called Westminster systems, notably Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa. The Westminster system is more typically represented by countries that have their Ministers chosen from the elected representatives in the Parliament. In many other European countries extra-parliamentary Executives are not uncommon at all. The choice of talent is then of course much wider than only from the elected Parliament.

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