Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Today by Michael Lucy


Super stoush
What does it mean to have a mandate?

Today we’re seeing another internal division for the Liberals to manage: on top of the ongoing tension between Turnbull’s cosmopolitan head and his party’s conservative rump, backbenchers are now kicking up a fuss [paywall] about changes to superannuation tax.

The most serious point of contention is a “lifetime cap” on voluntary super contributions of $500,000 that was introduced in the budget in May. The cap applies to any contributions made from July 2007 onwards, which critics say makes the new rule retrospective and unreasonable. During the election campaign it was reported that Julie Bishop had told Turnbull that the changes are unpopular among those affected. Labor has indicated it will support the legislation as long as it only applies to future contributions.

The merits of this particular legislation aside, we can expect to see more bickering and manoeuvring in the coming weeks as everyone tries to stake out some territory in the new order of things. One thing we’ll be hearing a lot about is the idea of the mandate: the magic gift of authority that victorious leaders always claim should protect them from opposition.

Liberal MP Karen Andrews, for one, says the government has a mandate to implement the superannuation changes [paywall]. In a sense, it does: the policy was announced in May, and Coalition voters knew what they were getting. On the other hand, we vote for people and parties, not policies. Do we really think that significant numbers of people would have changed their vote on this? And if so, where would they go? And – while we’re at it – don’t all MPs have a mandate to represent the complaints of their voters to their party leaders?

A claim to have a mandate is often little more than an excuse to keep on with what you were already planning to do. When a party is in power, its authority is a pure expression of the will of the people. When a party is in opposition, the government only holds power by some accident of the electoral process, or perhaps because they managed to hoodwink some of the people, and anyway it’s the job of the opposition to oppose.

As Bill Shorten put it in his concession speech:

In terms of mandates, they have got their policies and they have the numbers to put them through. I expect them to do nothing less than keep their promises they made to the Australian people. And, as I have said, I wish Malcolm Turnbull well with what the future holds. But we also have a mandate.

Which really gets to the heart of what a mandate means in our parliamentary democracy: having the numbers. There is no public opinion as such that can support a policy or a politician’s action. (Clive Hamilton is good on this point.) There’s only a system for electing representatives and then for letting them vote among themselves. If you get your legislation passed, it turns out you had a mandate for it all along.

 

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Michael Lucy

Michael Lucy is a writer based in Melbourne.

@MmichaelLlucy

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