November 2011


Lindsay Tanner

Window dressing

Robert Menzies, then prime minister, takes his place in the queue to vote at the 1958 federal election. © The Age/Fairfax Syndication

The mirage of political reform

How often have you heard someone suggest a magic solution to all our political problems? If only we had fixed four-year federal terms! Why don’t we ban politicians from breaking election promises? Let’s have conscience votes on everything! Increase politicians’ salaries! Cut politicians’ salaries!

Such sentiments are understandable but misguided. The rules that govern how our political system works matter, but the development of policies and legislation tends to be driven by more fundamental forces. When governmental process delivers decisions we don’t like, our natural response is to reach for the rule book. Just as supporters of winning teams tend to whinge a lot less about umpires than the supporters of losing teams, people tend to get agitated about the rules governing politics when they disapprove of the results.

Of course, no political system is perfect and some are more imperfect than others. The system exists to serve multiple purposes simultaneously, to meet a range of political, economic and social objectives that tend to conflict with one another, and everyone has a different view on how these objectives should be integrated into a single system.

Most would agree that democracy means government by, or on behalf of, the people, with decisions taken by majority voting. Beyond that, though, lies a host of questions. Should decisions be made by popular vote or elected representatives? What system do we use to elect representatives? How do we prevent a majority from tyrannising a minority? Do we separate or integrate the processes of making, implementing and enforcing laws? Should lightly populated remote regions have special voting rights?

Superimpose these and other fundamental questions onto an often messy set of existing arrangements and you have infinite scope for disagreement. The true nature of the political reform task becomes apparent. Some opportunities for incremental improvement will emerge, but debate will quickly become mired in the quicksand of self-interest and political calculation. Active players worry primarily about whether reform will advance or impede their own interests. Oppositions always campaign for Question Time reform, for example, then refuse to do anything when they win government.

When the nation votes on political reform proposals, extraneous issues can heavily influence the outcome. The defeat of then Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s apparently innocuous 1988 referendum proposals for constitutional change had little to do with their innate merits or lack thereof. The failure of the 1999 republic referendum partly reflected its very limited significance to most ordinary people’s lives. Glib one-liners such as “it won’t do anything to fix unemployment” inevitably have an impact on the outcome of significant proposals for change. The electorate tends to use such votes as a chance to express unhappiness about other issues – and Oppositions encourage them.

Progressive insiders can get very frustrated by the community’s lack of interest in political reform, and by the cynical behaviour of conservatives and vested interests in opposing it, but their own position is often less than pristine. There are very few examples of leading Australian politicians taking a major stand on a political reform question that is contrary to their self-interest. One example is former Liberal Premier of South Australia Steele Hall’s action in 1969 to dismantle an outrageous gerrymander that had kept the Liberals in power for decades, but I struggle to think of any others.

Reforms introduced by Labor and opposed by the conservatives – such as votes for 18 year olds, Senate representation for the territories, party voting in the Senate, and easier mechanisms for electoral enrolment – all tended to favour Labor. The ongoing battle over legislative identity requirements for joining the electoral roll and the timing of the closure of the roll are a classic case of competing principles masking political self-interest. While the Liberals argue the current legislation serves to maintain the integrity of the roll and prevent electoral fraud, it suits them to make enrolment more difficult as this tends to disproportionately exclude Labor supporters from voting. Labor argues for maximum enrolment to ensure the most democratic and representative outcome. In this clash of two worthy principles, everyone has an eye to the likely outcomes.

Even such an apparently unimpeachable concept as meritocracy is not quite as inherently worthy as it might appear. It has been championed historically by educated middle-class people; in truth, those who start the race of life with inbuilt advantages are less likely to favour social and economic handicapping.

The Greens propose abolishing the use of how-to-vote cards on polling day, ostensibly to save paper. This position conveniently coincides with the party’s self-interest, as they have struggled in the past to muster sufficient volunteers to staff polling booths around the country. Yet now the Greens’ activist base is growing and the major parties’ ability to staff booths is declining markedly. Don’t be surprised if you see some changes in position on the issue over the next few years. Unfortunately, the most important question in the debate – how to encourage the active participation of thousands of often relatively inactive Australians in the political process for a short time – is unlikely to figure prominently in the discussion.

A longstanding favourite demand is for four-year terms of federal parliament. The current three-year term structure is said to be too short to allow governments – allegedly stuck in continuous campaign mode – to make tough decisions. But from the Hawke–Keating reforms of the 1980s to John Howard’s GST, Telstra privatisation and WorkChoices to the current government’s plans for a Resource Super Profits Tax and carbon tax in recent times, there have been plenty of examples of governments pursuing bold, difficult initiatives. The government that has been pilloried more than any other for cynical short-termism and political timidity – the NSW Labor government led in turn by premiers Morris Iemma, Nathan Rees and Kristina Keneally – had the benefit of a four-year term.

This reform agenda reflects a thinly disguised contempt for the democratic process. It is really a demand for diminishing political accountability. The reasons for the current tendency in politics towards timidity and cheap populism have very little to do with the length of parliamentary terms. It was amusing to note the background discussions in business circles about finding a way to truncate the term of the former NSW government, for instance, given that the business community is the strongest proponent of four-year terms.

The associated proposal for fixed terms has more going for it, but the benefits to business confidence and political fairness would be relatively marginal. The advantage prime ministers stand to gain from being able to choose an election date is minor. Economic uncertainty that accompanies election speculation is transient and generally of limited concern. People who defer major spending and investment decisions during an election season would presumably behave in a similar way if they knew the date well in advance.

Most of the popular reform themes are at best highly questionable. Selecting expert ministers from outside parliament would concentrate even greater power in the hands of the prime minister and dramatically alter the nature of ministerial accountability, effectively delivering a presidential system in all but name. Handing inherently political decisions to supposedly neutral expert bodies would undermine democratic accountability, as voters would lose the ability to sack decision-makers. Greatly increasing the salaries of MPs would render their daily life experience much more remote from that of their constituents and thus tend to make them less representative. Paying shadow ministers more than backbenchers would diminish their incentive to win ministerial office and therefore reduce pressure on incumbent governments.

Dramatically increasing the incidence of conscience votes in the parliament would erode the brand identity of the political parties and thus reduce the ability of voters to exercise meaningful political choice, as they tend to know more about the position of the various parties than they do about individual candidates. Secret ballots in parliament would undermine the accountability of MPs to their constituents and foster opportunities for corruption. Changing the voting age to 16 would grant political rights to an age group that has less connection with the world of adult responsibility than any previous generation of that age, as people enter full-time employment, purchase homes and establish families a good deal later than in earlier times.

Some apparently important changes would be little more than symbolic in practice. Formal recognition of local government in the Australian constitution sounds desirable but, unless it is linked to something concrete, such as a guaranteed share of federal revenue or constraints on state government power over local councils, it would be virtually meaningless. That is, of course, unless the High Court chose to adopt a creative interpretation of the meaning of such a provision, potentially unleashing any number of unintended consequences.

Legislation purporting to outlaw politicians who ‘lie’ during election campaigns – that is, who break their electoral promises once elected – would be nonsensical. Politicians create misleading impressions all the time, but that is quite different from outright lying. Broken promises usually emerge from major changes in circumstances, not deliberate deceit. Do we really want to constrain governments struggling to deal with enormous challenges presented by an unexpected crisis (such as the GFC or the Queensland floods) with the threat of prosecution for ‘lying’ in a previous election campaign? Adjudicating on the intricate details of specific statements and decisions would be nightmarishly hard.

Other commonly cited reform options would fundamentally alter the nature of our political system. Tony Abbott’s throwaway suggestion of a plebiscite on the carbon tax might sound appealing, but few would want Australia to end up with the shambolic hybrid between representative and popular democracy that is crippling California. Abandoning proportional representation in the Senate sometimes tempts governments struggling to get legislation passed, but it would effectively lock strong minor parties such as the Greens, Democrats and One Nation out of parliamentary representation altogether, while a party that sometimes wins fewer votes – such as the National Party – would retain substantial representation because its support is geographically concentrated. Optional preferential voting is attractive to a strong, united government faced by a fragmented opposition, but it doesn’t look so appealing when the cycle turns and the roles are reversed. Australia’s continuing adherence to compulsory voting is starting to lose legitimacy and effectiveness, but its abolition would entail changes in the way Australian politics works that would be hard to predict.

A common complaint is that Australian politicians are always squabbling and bickering: why don’t they just sit down like sensible adults and come to a reasonable agreement about things? But democracy is about choice. When voters are presented with bipartisan agreement on a major issue, they are effectively denied the opportunity to exercise political choice. Consensus is sometimes appropriate, and actually happens a lot more than people realise, but too much of it would undermine our democratic system.

It’s inevitable that points of difference will be over-accentuated in political debate. When Holden advertise their cars, they don’t tell you they’re exactly the same as models by Ford and Toyota, even though the mechanics are in fact extremely similar; they tell you what’s different about them. In a democratic process of choosing parties and candidates, highlighting differences gives meaning. Political parties tend to represent the perspectives and interests of distinct groups of voters, such as working people, professionals, country people and so on, so it’s hardly surprising that their positions often collide.

Our political system is actually remarkably robust. We take its strengths for granted and can easily get distracted chasing reform phantoms. Changes of government in Australia are amazingly seamless and civilised events. Our system even managed to cope with the messy outcome of the 2010 federal election without missing a beat. Every state and territory has experienced minority government in recent times without serious political upheaval.

The combination of single-member electorates in the House of Representatives and proportional representation in the Senate gives us stable government with opportunities for minor parties to win significant representation and influence. The parliamentary committee system provides interest groups and citizens with the ability to interact with the parliament on specific issues of concern. Individual MPs and senators do a huge amount of work representing individual constituents and helping local community organisations. The depressing state of contemporary Australian politics is not a product of flaws in the system but derives from other factors.

Several fundamental issues deserve our continuing attention. The power of the Senate to bring down a government by blocking supply remains a latent threat to representative democracy. For those who desire for governments to be able to make tough but unpopular decisions, empowering a self-interested Opposition to force a premature election makes no sense. The mere threat of an unexpected election, however unlikely it may be, affects government behaviour. The flip side, though, of removing this Senate power would have to be a robust settlement of the long-running tug of war between the House and the Senate over what is able to be included in appropriation bills. If the government is genuinely precluded from incorporating new initiatives in the omnibus budget bills, any legitimate rationale for empowering the Senate to bring down a government by denying it funding for its ordinary functions would disappear.

Our outmoded federal system is still in need of serious reform. In this area more than most, though, immediate self-interest will always complicate the process. It is worth noting that various major employers complained about specific instances of increases in workers’ entitlements emerging from the recent award modernisation process. As always, everyone is in favour of a single national framework as long as someone else has to pay the cost to achieve it.

People are understandably reluctant to devote energy to a complex debate about abstract symbols, but the need for an Australian republic remains. Some lateral thinking is needed, as the public mood is less receptive to dealing with this issue than it has been for some time. One option would be to legislate to elect the governor-general, which doesn’t require a referendum to change the constitution. The prime minister would undertake to recommend the successful candidate for appointment by the British monarch, and a useful dry run for a future elected head of state could occur. If people get used to electing the governor-general and subsequently see that the sky doesn’t fall in, the transition to a republic with a directly elected president would become a lot easier.

Parliament has largely failed to adapt to the age of intrusive electronic media, and needs sweeping changes. Television has changed the significance of particular parliamentary processes and the wider political context dramatically, making a lot of previously important parliamentary mechanisms almost redundant. Formulaic speeches on legislation by backbench conscripts are largely a waste of time and could be cut back substantially to allow for more serious debate about major issues. Further changes to Question Time are needed, including abolishing Dorothy Dix questions from government members and drastically curtailing the use of condolences and indulgences that allow leaders to hold forth on everything from touring rugby teams to deceased singers. Individual ministers should be required to answer questions on their portfolios before relevant House committees, as many rarely receive questions in Question Time.

Perhaps the biggest reform challenge is to reverse the growing dominance of the professional political class. Banning former staffers from standing for public office would be discriminatory and counterproductive, but indirect mechanisms to tilt the preselection playing field back towards people with diverse life experience could be useful. A cleverly designed mechanism built into public funding of political parties might help, but it would require a great deal of thought.

How much does all of this matter? Less than many of us think. Our political decisions are influenced by the processes through which they’re made, but ultimately they are driven by much more powerful forces. Political reform is worth pursuing but our system will still work pretty well without it.

Lindsay Tanner
Lindsay Tanner retired from his position as the federal minister for finance in 2010 after a long career with the ALP. He is the author of several books, including Sideshow: Dumbing Down Democracy.

Cover: November 2011
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