I’ve avoided commentary on the Federal Election result because there has certainly been no shortage of it both online and in print (as one would expect). But I got a call from ABC Newcastle yesterday asking me to discuss the democratic implications of the election result in my capacity as a Director of the Australian Centre for Democracy and Justice.
Unfortunately ACDJ is starting to wind down now (more about that later) so I didn’t think it would be appropriate to comment in that capacity, but I do have some thoughts on the matter that I thought I’d share here.
I think this election is the best thing that has happened to Australia’s Democratic for some time and am extremely frustrated by comments in the media about the three ‘country independents’ holding the country to ransom when they only represent a small pocket of Australia. I’m also frustrated by the focus on two party preferred votes (which at the last count I heard, the ALP was in front by under 100 votes).
So let’s be clear, what matters is the number of seats you win. In the 1998 election, the Labor Opposition lead by Kim Beasley, won the popular vote but not enough electorates to form government. That’s the way our electoral system was constructed at the time of federation and it is a democratic check and balance. It is a way of ensuring that the geographic diversity of Australia is represented.
Anonymous Lefty makes a similar point in this post.
To say you need the popular vote to have a mandate is ridiculous. If you think that then we should move to a single multi-member electorate with 150 spots up for grabs and a proportional voting system. It’s actually a pretty good idea and would mean the Greens have a lot more seats (over 15 on the current count) but I’m pretty sure that’s not what these commentators are after. So let’s just keep that one in check.
Democracy is about ensuring that the widest possible cross section of the country has a voice. In this case, that is done geographically – something that is probably a little dated in this digital age but as fair a distinction as class, ethnicity, gender and so on. Democracy is better judged by its ability to give a voice to minority views, the disempowered in our society, than it is by representing the ‘majority’.
For this reason, I think the country independents are doing exactly what they should be doing – representing their electorate. If the numbers fall in a particular way and that gives them more leverage, then good on them for seeing it as an opportunity to look after their lot. You’ll notice that it is no coincidence that they are probably the MPs most connected to their local electorate.
I’ve always been a fan of minority governments. For years now I’ve been looking forward to the days when the ALP needs Green votes in the Lower House. Minority governments mean a lot more compromise and a lot less party influence. You can’t just automatically assume that a Bill will pass the lower house and then be amended until it passes the Upper House. Instead you need to work towards getting approval from MPs who aren’t part of the party machine and therefore beholden to the dreaded focus group. And the result is usually some pretty big initiatives. The NBN will now continue unabated and it looks like a price on Carbon will happen a lot earlier than initially expected. These are all big ticket items and not characteristic of a ‘timid’ government which many in the mainstream media are saying this government will be. So let’s cut that chatter out too.
I think the party machines of both major political parties are rotten to the core. The Liberal Party essentially has no base these days, very few people identify with the Liberal Party and the Labor Party is losing it’s base very quickly. The ALP Union affiliation is a major cause of the rot but also probably the last connection it has to its grass roots.
(and by-the-way this faceless men business is a little ingenious as well. The ALP is, at least in theory, the political arm of the Union movement, of course the unions are heavily involved)
In his press conference announcing that he would back the ALP to form government, Tony Windsor said “Philosophy, in terms of both these parties, died about a decade ago or probably longer.” He’s spot on. The only way we have left to ensure that Australia has a robust democracy where a wide range of voices are represented is to ensure that there are other MPs outside the traditional two party system that have a strong influence in Australia.
I hope that’s what this minority Labor Government will give us.