Saturday, 25 July 2015

Let’s Party or: How to Avoid Herding Cats

In part, a response to Jane Gilmore's "Australia’s Two-Party System Has Failed Us; Here’s How We Can Fix It" and the general gnashing of teeth surrounding boat tow-backs, the 2015 Labor Conference and the general state of political turmoil.
It seems we can hardly go a day without hitting an “all-new low” in Australian politics. The conventional wisdom is that this terrible state of affairs is so terrible that now is indeed the worst period in political history. Ever. Nobody stands for anything anymore (except for flags, more flags and the freedom to eat raw onions), all the political parties are the same (except when they’re opposing all the time) and Buzzfeed has a better seat than Leigh Sales (#TURCshorten). The horror(s).

While some of this gnashing of teeth is rightly warranted, let’s cool our tits and look at the situation calmly. Yes, much of the current political debate is pretty ordinary; some of it’s downright shitty. Nobody trusts politicians anymore, but did they ever?

I’m going to put forward an entirely unpopular idea: the frightfully unsexy two party system has provided Australia with largely dependable (if sometimes uninspiring) governance. The way to fix our current malaise is not to destroy the two party system, but to join it.

Despite protestations to the contrary, the vast majority of the electorate still votes for one of the two major parties. It’s called Duverger’s Law, the tendency for single member plurality electoral systems to favour a two party system.

Come next election day, you can bet around 80% of voters will send their first preferences to either the Labor or Liberal-National parties. This figure might jump as high as 90% if you include the Greens. Given our alleged distaste and distrust for political parties, you’d expect this figure to have plummeted over the past decade. It hasn’t.

The number of voters marking “1” in the Liberal or Labor box (or alternately writing “fuck you you fucking wankers” around the outside of the ballot paper, strictly speaking a formal vote so long as the numbers are legible) has been pretty consistent. Hardly a system on shaky ground.

But only an ignorant fool would say political parties are in good shape. There is a fundamental disconnect between the political class who claim to represent us and our desires for the country. Sometimes this is a good thing: public opinion was vehemently against Malcolm Fraser’s Vietnamese refugee migration policy, but Fraser thankfully stuck to his guns and ignored the electorate. At other times, this dismissal of public opinion is a bad thing: gay marriage, the Iraq War...take your pick.

Given the behaviour of Abbott and his band of moral delinquents, it’s completely understandable that many want do away with the two party system. For some, Labor is not much better, but are the parties themselves to blame? And is a parliament untouched by political parties a better solution?

Two Parties Preferred
Two-party politics is the natural state of affairs in Australia. At federation in 1901, the major political division was between those who supported protectionism and those who advocated free trade. Politicians had a bully time forming parties with like-minded MPs in support of one proposition or the other. And they had plenty of facial hair to go around. Just look at Alfred Deakin’s beard. Wow. Anyone for a spot of tea?

After the the trade question was sorted, the main political division in the Australian parliament was between the Labor and non-Labor parties. It’s at this point in political history, we begin to understand exactly why organised political parties are best vehicle for politics.

Between the 1903 and 1906 elections, the lack of a single organised non-Labor opposition ensured three different prime ministers from three different parties, including the world’s first national labour party government. The disciplined and unified Australian Labor Party was able to steadily increase its vote, forming the first majority government in Australian history at the 1910 election.

As we saw from 43rd parliament, minority government isn’t necessarily unworkable, but it was clear to non-Labor MPs at the turn of the last century that a formal party structure is necessary to win elections and achieve their policy goals. After all, isn’t that the point of politics? To win elections? It may sound cynical, but without power, the best policies are doomed to remain little more than an idea in search of an outlet.

Which brings us back to the 43rd parliament. As has been noted, this parliament, despite the perpetual droning of the Abbott opposition, was a particularly productive one. Complex and important legislation was debated and negotiated through the House and Senate with remarkable deftness.

In particular, independent MPs Tony Windsor, Rob Oakshott and Andrew Wilkie represented their electorates and the national interest with great integrity. But let’s remember, the great nation-building policies of this parliament didn’t come from the minds of the independent MPs, they largely originated from the Labor government who could count of the power of executive office to implement them.

And herein lies the problem with independent MPs. For every thoughtful and erudite Windsor or Oakshott, there are hardline conservatives like Pauline Hanson or Brian Harradine who find their way into parliament. Now you’re probably opening a new tab and typing “Brian Haradiene” into the search bar because mobile keyboards. Thankfully Google knows what you’re on about and will send you to the bastion of knowledge, Wikipedia.

You will read Harradine was a Catholic conservative senator who opposed abortion, stem-cell research and pretty much anything that constituted modernity. In a case of the independent MP tail wagging the governmental dog, Harradine ensured the abortion pill RU486 was not imported into the country and that Australian foreign aid never funded family planning involving abortion advice. I don’t know about you, but I reckon one MP from the backwoods of Tasmania imposing his values on the entire country profoundly undemocratic. Oh, and need we mention Bob Katter?

For a moment, let’s think about what a parliament of many, many more independents might look like. It would likely be a melting pot of conservatives and progressives, just as today’s parliament is. We can assume they would have campaigned on issues near and dear to them, promising better services, a new road and a school or something, even with no plan to implement them. If elected, the independents might then offer to support a party to form government in exchange for projects in their electorates, getting dangerously close to pork barrelling.

In order to maximise power, like-minded MPs would then be wise to band together to form a voting bloc. Perhaps one MP would offer support for another’s bill in exchange for support on their own. Then they might lunch together, informally talking about events of the day. Then they might even meet in the same room, agreeing on how they’ll vote and what policies they’ll present...wow amazing! They’ve made a political party!

Our august parliamentary system is designed around a majority to get shit done. It’s not a requirement, but as the 43rd parliament demonstrated, the electorate may lose its collective shit if we returned to federation-era shenanigans. This isn’t Abbottesque fear mongering, it’s a constitutional fact. Political parties, as terrible as they can sometimes be, remain the best basis for transformation of our political debate.

I share much of Jane Gilmore’s frustration with politics, but it is not the system I am frustrated with: it’s the parties themselves. There is a fundamental disconnect between the political class who claim to represent us and our desires for the country. We need to bridge that gap.

So here’s my take home message: instead of finding many cats to herd across the wilds of this brown land, I plead that you do something seemingly non-radical: go and join a major political party. Go and bolster their terminal membership with ordinary people like yourselves and ensure that they don’t fall prey to undue sectional and special interests. 

You won’t likely agree with all of their policies, but you can’t help change their direction if you’re not inside the tent. Through strength in numbers, you can ensure the parties represent you and not the already influential and powerful. 

Heck, you might want to stand for preselection so that political parties have a broader talent pool from which to draw, not just careerist politicians of the party machine. Can you imagine, for example, how invigorating it would be for the Labor Party if a large portion of the membership of a group like Getup signed up? Or if thoughtful, non-reactionary conservatives (if that’s not an oxymoron) joined the Liberal Party? It would be a breath of fresh air for the major parties and for democracy in Australia.

Our political system does not require new politicians, it needs a diversity of membership that is more representative of the community. The major parties already have the infrastructure in place to run, fight and win elections. Wouldn’t it be easier to co-opt their own resources, than to start from scratch?

It’s just an idea.

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