The Trias Politica and Australian governance

Jan 5, 2024
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In recent years a growing number of Australians have lost confidence in their system of governance, but few journalists and political theory academics have suggested alternatives. If Australia is to improve its governance system and its democracy, it should look to European alternatives.

The Australian system of governance is usually described as “Westminster”. This includes a number of organisational characteristics an important one of which is the combination of Government and Legislature in one chamber with Ministers being full members of it. There are essentially two major parties with one of them being the Government party, the other the Official Opposition. In addition, the British still have a First Past The Post electoral system while Australia uses the Single Transferable Vote system also based on Single Member Districts but providing more choice. There are other differences between the UK system and Australian practices, but these will not be discussed here.

In recent years a growing number Australians have lost confidence in their system of governance, but few journalists and political theory academics have suggested alternatives. There is a fairly widespread popular view that the only alternative is the US Presidential system, but this is incorrect. In this paper I refer to the tripartite system in particular put forward by the French theorist Montesquieu. Montesquieu used the phrase “Trias Politicas” to indicate the desired relationship and distribution of power and functions between the Legislature, Executive and Judiciary (Spirit of Law, 1748). The motivation of the theorist then was clearly to curb the centralisation of power in the monarchy. His example was the Constitution of the Roman Republic. Montesquieu is important in this debate as his views were used, criticised and amended by the conservative British philosopher Edmund Burke. He argued that the Executive, while having a separate function, should also be part of the Legislature. This is what actually developed in Britain and later transferred to the British colonies as well. Thus, Ministers in Westminster systems are members of and vote in the Parliament. Many European states have gone the other way, in particular the Dutch who are currently preparing for a new Government. In such examples the Ministers can sit in the Legislature, present and explain their views, defend their positions against critics, but have no vote.

The decline of confidence in the Australian governance system is real and the desire for change is growing. In the 2022 federal election the election of the TEAL group was a response especially from the conservative side. But both major parties suffered. The ALP only received one third of the votes for the 2022 House of Representatives’ election, after preferences. When one considers that of the individual Single District Seats only 18 out of 151 went to the major parties without preferences having to be distributed democratic representation is a nonsense. The ALP’s claim “one vote, one value” makes no sense either. The disenchantment with governments and oppositions has many causes but most Australians are still seeking improvements within the existing system of governance. The growing commercialisation of the public services is another serious aspect of decline. The associated effects of neo-liberalism since the early 1990s are probably separate causes of dissatisfaction but often handled poorly by the existing system of governance. Mismanagement like the Robodebt disaster and the Pacific Solution for boat people are related to failure of governance systems and the lack of quality at the top of them.

It should be realised that this is very different from the US system of Government in which a very powerful President is elected every four years who is supported by an Executive. If Australia is to improve its governance system and its democracy it should look to European alternatives, especially northern Europeans systems, not the US. Regrettably, knowledge about European systems is sketchy here, the result of inadequate political education at high schools and universities. The ABC and SBS could provide targeted educational programs to improve this situation within a short period of time.

The separation of the executive (the Government) from the Legislature would be a step in the right direction for Australia in my opinion. This has been the practice in the Netherlands since the mid 19th century, constitutionally, but this system is also used in many other European countries. The Ministers attend legislature sittings, when needed, but they are not voting MPs. They are in fact not MPs voted in as representatives of a Single Member District; they are recruited from the entire society by the often several parties, some of which agree to form a coalition government. This means that there is much wider choice as compared to the Australian system . The Dutch system is well described in an article by Chuka Nwanaria (The Trias Politica: the Dutch system of Government and why it matters, 2021).

The American system of Government is not a suitable example for Australia to follow, even though there is considerable separation of powers. In the first place the position of the very powerful President would not be acceptable. Article II of the Constitution states: “The Executive Power shall be vested in a President of the United States of America.” There is even the Presidential veto power over decisions by the Congress. Secondly, the Judiciary Power of the Supreme Court is also considerable (Article III). Recent events in the US concerning the Presidency and the Supreme Court, issues about the possible pre-selection of former President Trump, as well as the controversies about the Speaker of Congress suggest major problems. Reform of the US system of Government itself would not be out of place. The valued “checks and balances” seem to make governing very difficult at times.

This brings us to the problems of the Single Member District electoral system, still used in many English-speaking countries, including the US. Already the potential lack of democracy inherent in this system is a negative but the resulting two-party system is particularly undesirable. Proportional Representation, used in 90 countries, is the obvious improvement, especially the Party List system. This ensures that countries achieve democratic representation of various interests, gender and racial backgrounds. In a multi-cultural society, it particularly makes perfect sense. However, sensibly, most systems apply a minimum entry qualification which varies from 3% to 5% of the total vote. In this respect the Dutch is not a good example as the entry requirement is only 0.67% which means that any group that achieves that limit qualifies for one seat in Parliament. This results in too many small parties and difficulties when forming a Coalition Government.

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