June 2008


What stands between Australia and a one-party state?

By Judith Brett
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Is Malcolm Turnbull all that stands between Australia and a one-party state?

We all know the picture: Labor governments in all states and territories, as well as Canberra; the Lord Mayor of Brisbane the highest-ranking Liberal officeholder in the land; and state Liberal parties in unbelievable disarray. Western Australia's is led by a confirmed sleaze; New South Wales' is in the hands of the unrepresentative hard-right faction; Queensland's has only eight seats and is arguing about whether to merge with the Nationals; and Victoria's has uncovered a nest of young idiots in head office running a blog dishing out insults to the current leader and his allies. Then there's poor old Brendan Nelson, nodding and smiling away on borrowed time while everyone waits to see just when and how Turnbull becomes the leader. It's inevitable that all that competence and ambition will have its day.

The Rudd government's first budget was a cautious one, criticised by the special pleaders and the disappointed visionaries, but generally regarded as competent by the economic commentators, who on the whole ignored its foolishly short-sighted backsliding on support for renewable energy. Nelson's reply speech was not an embarrassment, but the lines of argument were confused: for example, defending a non-means-tested baby bonus, then arguing that the budget did not cut spending deeply enough. And the policies of opposing the increased tax on alcopops and arguing for a reduction in the fuel excise were such obviously desperate populist plays that they undermined the credibility of the response. Nevertheless, the budget reply reminds us of the key role of the Opposition in our system of responsible parliamentary government.

The budget bills, when the government goes to the parliament for approval of the way it will raise and spend money, are at the heart of our Westminster-derived adversarial system of governance. Once it was the king who sent his plans for taxing and spending to parliament for approval, and the key conflict was between monarch and parliament. Now the conflict is within the parliament, between government and Opposition, and the parliament's capacity to scrutinise the government depends, in the main, on the competence of the Opposition leader and the senior shadow ministers. And this in turn depends on how well the political parties are recruiting the political elites.

We know how important incumbency is in attracting people to politics. Tossing up between Labor and Liberal, both Nelson and Turnbull opted for the Liberals, in part because it seemed the shortest route to the ministry. Talent flooded into the federal Labor Party last year, when it looked like it had a real chance of winning government. And Peter Costello and Alexander Downer struggle between their obligation to the constituents who have just elected them and a very understandable desire to flee their sudden loss of relevance. But is the pull of power enough to give us good politicians? Shouldn't they also believe in something? Represent people and interests beyond themselves? Shouldn't they join the party that most represents their political values, rather than the one that gives them the best chance of gaining office?

For the past hundred years or so, political parties tied the ambitions of the men and women who aspired to govern to broader causes which they were expected to represent. The Australian parties had recognisable identities in different social groups and economic interests, and their own internal processes for balancing interests and determining policy positions. A person's advance in the party depended in part on their loyalty to the party's core sense of purpose, as well as on their talent. But parties have changed over the past couple of decades. Their ordinary membership has collapsed and their historically based identities have blurred. The bipartisan embrace of neo-liberalism has made it harder to distinguish them in terms of economic policy. Even the rule of thumb that the Liberals are more financially conservative than Labor no longer seems applicable. Out of office, both the Labor and Liberal parties get dragged down into the mire of factional politics, where cabals of what John Button described as aspirational politicians stack branches, count numbers and do deals to advance their members' careers. This is why the news coming from the Liberal state branches is so dire. To ordinary citizens the parties seem to be little more than organisations for getting people elected to parliament, and what we feel about them in part depends on what we feel about their current crop of parliamentary members, and in particular the leader. But, as always in politics, a preponderance of fools and villains in an institution is generally a symptom, not a cause, of its malfunction. The cause lies much deeper.

To understand what is going on in the Liberal Party at the moment, we have to distinguish between two broadly different roles that political parties play in liberal democracies like ours: they provide the members of the government and the Opposition; and they represent people's experiences and interests in the parliament.

As the current federal frontbench shows, major parties can and do renew themselves. Eventually the federal Opposition will start to apply real pressure to the Rudd government, under the leadership of Malcolm Turnbull or someone else. Eventually the Liberals will return to office somewhere, and provide competent government for a time. The problem with our political parties is with their second role, that of democratic representativeness: the capacity to mobilise people and interests and to connect them meaningfully to the processes of government. I firmly believe that the best days of political parties are over and that we have entered a transitional period in the evolution of our political institutions, something like the period when political parties first took shape as disciplined groupings of men within the parliament with strong ties to the electorate. Parties will remain important institutions in the way our parliamentary democracy operates, providing the adversarial opponents around which our parliament is structured, and the rival teams for election. But their democratic credentials are now so threadbare that their representative role is increasingly being supplemented by other forms of politics.

Kevin Rudd has been trying some of these: first, half-day or evening community cabinets where ministers meet members of the public to hear their ideas and answer questions. So far the government has held three, at Canning Vale (Western Australia), Narangba (Queensland) and Penrith (New South Wales). Community cabinets have been operating in Queensland since the late 1990s. Given the parlous state of the Opposition, the Beattie government needed to find other ways of presenting itself for scrutiny and keeping in touch with popular experience. Ministers front up to relatively unstructured public meetings and citizens get a chance to have their say straight to the government's face. In state politics, where so many issues are local, they have worked well. At the federal level they are a symbol of the government getting out of Canberra.

The government is also reviewing how parliament deals with citizen petitions. Apart from voting, signing a petition is the most widely practised form of political participation, yet parliament has not been required to formally consider and report on them. Most are simply tabled and never heard of again: the Howard government, for example, responded to only two of the 900 petitions it received in its last term. Anthony Albanese, who has carriage of this as the Leader of the House, said that the reform "strengthens the democratic rights of citizens and ensures that parliament is listening and responding appropriately".

Then there is the big one: the 2020 Summit. This was like a huge community cabinet of the nation, though mainly by invitation. The government was asking for big new ideas, opening itself up to a host of agendas and expectations. I was a participant in the governance stream, and like participants in the other streams we have been exercised about just what will appear in the final report and whether it will be a true record of what we decided. But actually we didn't decide anything, or not formally. There were no motions, and certainly no votes: just a facilitator with butcher's paper, a plethora of official scribes, loud voices and held tongues, chair-people with their own ideas and a mad scramble on the final Sunday morning session to record the Big Ideas. Since then, in the email exchanges among our group, there's been a fair bit of concern about whether the final report will accurately represent the results of the discussion we had, whether our careful deliberations will be lost in meaningless generalities, and whether our participation will be co-opted for some already-worked-out agenda. I understand participants in other streams have similar worries.

In our very last session, when we were meant to "agree" on our Big Ideas, co-chair Maxine McKew said she had two ideas of her own she would like to put on the table. One of these was the banning of political donations from third parties, including trade unions. Where did this come from? I thought. And how can we possibly discuss it now, at the very end, when we're meant to be summing up? Plenty of people had doubts, and it didn't make our group's final list of Top Big Ideas. It has since resurfaced, though, as one of the matters to be considered by a green paper Senator John Faulkner is proposing on electoral integrity. Clearly McKew was flying a government kite, hoping for some legitimation for an idea already in the pipeline.

I have been thinking a great deal about this, and about the post-Summit email discussions. There is, it seems to me, a great deal of confusion among the participants about what sort of political event the Summit actually was, and the worry about whether or not our decisions were accurately recorded misses the point. None of us was there as a representative, in the traditional sense of carrying the views or decisions of a larger group of people into a smaller assembly. We hadn't been elected by anyone; we weren't reporting back to any other body or organisation; we were neither delegates nor trustees. In so far as we were representatives at all, it was as a sample or cross-section of elite opinion and competence, balanced for various social characteristics like gender, state, ethnicity, age and economic sector, but not for others like income, occupation or educational level. Most importantly, we had no formal power to bind anyone to anything, so the organisers had not given much attention to the processes by which we would reach our decisions.

In their heated discussions about whether or not summaries had been agreed to, summiteers were falling back on the old forms of representative politics which were designed to control the transfer of power and the authority to make decisions. What we were engaged in was something very different, more about consultation and communication than effective decision-making. And as we were there at the government's pleasure, the government could make of our deliberations whatever it wanted, pick and choose among the Big Ideas that made the final lists and the scores of little ideas which, we were assured, had all been recorded by the busy scribes. This might seem to imply that the Summit was little more than a cynical exercise on the part of the government to legitimise already-determined policy directions, but this is not what I am arguing. It is clear that not only participants but much of the media and many members of the public found the Summit an exciting and engaging event, a chance to focus the national conversation on the future and to connect with the new government in a spirit of co-operation and goodwill. Many people want to engage in political discussions that are focused on solving rather than winning debates; they want to have their say and believe such discussions enliven the democratic process.

Political parties seemed entirely irrelevant to what was happening at the Summit. When they figured at all, it was as a problem, an institutional structure coming between the government and the people, which prevented the government from hearing the full range of views or tied them to unrepresentative vested interests such as big business and the unions. After the relentless adversarialism of Keating and Howard, and their dyed-in-the wool party identities, Kevin Rudd is opening up a new era of bipartisan consensus-building. He invited the Opposition to take a bipartisan approach to Indigenous welfare, and he invited Liberal and National parliamentarians, past and present, to the Summit.

There are plenty of doubters, for as that keen pugilist Tony Abbott realises, the whole point of the Opposition is to oppose. From the perspective of the Opposition parties, too much co-operation and they will become little more than adjuncts to a government-controlled process of perpetual community consultation. But given the current political mood, refusing to co-operate makes them look like bad losers. Brendan Nelson's on-again, off-again response is just another indication that he is out of his depth, with political values too feeble to guide him through this challenging new phase of our national politics.

Judith Brett

Judith Brett is an emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University. Her latest book is Doing Politics: Writing on Public Life.

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