36 Faceless men

Let’s face it, the Australian political system is a winner take all arrangement. Either the ALP or the Coalition will win any given state or federal election and then proceed to implement some version of the policy that was voted on by the members of the political party at various conventions.

The winning party will claim that it has a mandate to pursue the policies it published prior to the election. But in the majority of cases the devil is in the detail and usually contained on some obscure page of a policy document or hidden beneath a number of mouse clicks on the party website.

Both parties will decry the ‘meddling’ of minor parties yet rely on their support when it suits them, as the Coalition recently showed us by relying on the Greens’ vote to legislate changes to the method of electing Senators while railing against the Greens over not supporting the ABCC legislation. The amazing thing is that either of the two major political parties can decry and accept the support of a minor party at the same time while nearly sounding logical and rational.

The standard of political debate in Australia is demonstrated by the actions of Tony Abbott over the past six years. First, as Opposition Leader, he opposed most of the government’s agenda for the sake of column inches and media sound bites. This and other blog sites have discussed over the years how Abbott at various times (let’s be nice here) argued passionately for both sides of a particular issue.

Then once Abbott got to form a government there was a single minded determination to implement his version of the platform of the Liberal Party (with considerable influence of ‘lobby’ groups such as the IPA and ACL). The 2014 federal budget is a good example. It should be noted that sections of the 2014 budget have never been voted on and are now being taken down the proverbial dark alley and shot by Abbott’s successor. Abbott’s end came about early last year when leadership positions were spilled, no one ran against Abbott and he still didn’t have the confidence of over 30 of his ‘colleagues’ in the party room. Turnbull finally finished him off in September.

The level of political debate in Australia is at a similar level. We have governments who cannot make rational policy changes because at some point in the past, the leader of the party or the minister responsible at the time opposed the measure. In the past, some allowance was given as quotes from five years ago were forgotten rather than being hidden is some corner of the internet waiting for a search engine to rediscover the item at some inopportune time.

Ironically Turnbull, as the one-time owner of an Internet service provider, is now finding out to his political cost the ability of people to turn up past positions on various issues such as the republic, same sex marriage, refugee policy and so on. Accordingly, Turnbull’s polling is tanking and despite an election being only weeks away, Kevin Andrews, another Liberal Party ‘conservative warrior’, is apparently not talking about mounting a leadership challenge.

Really, parliament is usually not being used as a place where legislation is debated and passed based on the perceived good for the country, rather it is the two major parties’ regular conferences and the wonderfully named ‘think tanks’ that have usurped the role. Then, when the relative party is finally elected to power (for it will eventually happen), the party policy will be rolled out as legislation and there is very little that the ‘average Australian’ can do about it, other that hope the worst excesses are rejected by the ‘feral’ Senate or someone looks at the polling numbers and joins the dots correctly.

Not a great way to run a country is it?

You know, it doesn’t have to be like this. The 2010 to 2013 federal government was, if you believed the commentators at the time, inevitably going to fail as Prime Minister Gillard did not have an absolute majority of the floor of parliament. Gillard relied on the votes of two independents in the event there was a vote on confidence or supply (money). Despite this, Gillard’s government managed to pass legislation on carbon pricing (since repealed but demonstrably more important now than even a few years ago), school funding, and funding for those with a disability. In Queensland, the Palaszczuk ALP government relies on the support of independents for power and despite some rocky patches seems to be more popular now than they were at the last state election. Absolute majorities are clearly not necessary for effective government in Australia.

In a number of ‘western democratic’ countries around the world, the election system is ‘rigged’ (for want of a better word) to actively discourage absolute majorities. To find an example, we only have to sit in a sardine can hurling through the sky at 30,000 feet for about three hours and hop ‘across the ditch’ to New Zealand. Since 1996, the Kiwis have had a voting system known as mixed member proportional (MMP) which replaced a first part the post system that was acknowledged as entrenching the influence of the two major parties — Nationals and Labour. Since 1996, neither of the two major parties have gained an absolute majority of seats in parliament, although John Keys and the National Party fell one seat short at the last election. The New Zealanders have two votes, one for an individual member and another for a party list. The New Zealand government has an explanation here which includes a cute video involving cherries, pears and bananas! While it won’t make you an expert, it clearly explains the concept.

The New Zealand system recognises that political parties have a level of support within the community, so if a party gains 10% support across the country, it is entitled to 10% of the seats in parliament. If the 10% of seats ‘earned’ by the party are not taken by candidates that have been directly elected, the ‘extra’ MPs’ come from the party list. It should also be noted that the candidates that are directly elected only have to get the highest number of ‘first past the post’ votes – not 50% plus 1 as in the Australian system.

To put it into an Australian context, say the ALP received 35% of the vote across the country, the Coalition (in its various forms) 30%, the Greens 10% and others received 25% (three minor parties receiving 8% each, another gets the final 1%). The ALP would gain 35% of the seats in Canberra, the Coalition 30% and so on. As there is a requirement for a party to gain 5% of the vote, the remaining one percent of the seats would go to others rather than the last ‘others’ party unless the last others party won a direct seat. The ALP would win in our example but to form government it would have to have some form of agreement with both the Greens and one of the ‘others’ parties to form a government that could be sure to get legislation through the parliament. Otherwise, the Coalition, Greens and two of the ‘other’ parties could determine that the legislation was to be amended or defeated. It means a government has to negotiate a compromise on occasions and while, potentially, it could make the Parliament less certain, it does eliminate the ‘winner take all’ mentality evident by both major parties in the Australian system, as well as ensuring the ideas of either of the two major parties (or the various lobby groups) that don’t have support outside the party don’t see the light of day.

It is probably worth noting here that provided the government is perceived by the country to be doing a good job, longevity is almost guaranteed. New Zealand has had four prime ministers since the introduction of MMP, rather than the potential six in six years Australia will have had by the end of 2016. Their current prime minister, John Keys, has been leader since 2008, Labour’s Helen Clark sat in the chair from December 1999 to November 2008. MMP is also used in Germany, Scotland and Wales.

If you want to sit in the flying sardine can a while longer, you can go to Iceland. Iceland uses a system of voting where voters in a particular electorate elect 10 or 11 people to their parliament (Althingi). They too have a system whereby people from a party list are elected in accordance with the proportion of the vote the political party receives across the country. Icelandic politics is not a regular talking point in Australia. It has recently been interesting due to the resignation of Prime Minister Gunnlaugsson after he walked out on a television interview while failing to explain satisfactorily his involvement with some companies mentioned in the Panama Papers. On April 13, Lateline’s Tony Jones interviewed one of the possible replacements for the Icelandic prime minister, Birgitta Jonsdottir, who leads the delightfully named Pirate Party. The Pirate Party currently holds three seats in the Althingi. Jonsdottir, who at one time lived in Australia, was also involved with WikiLeaks in a past life and when asked about the Panama Papers commented:
Well, we have only seen the tip of the iceberg. I think it is a very important leak and I really hope that more will come, because I have sort of been following the news about this.

And I think there is actually a question about why we haven't seen anything that is related to the corporate part of these leaks. And I'm hoping that will be coming soon. I know that it is coming in Iceland. So I think this is a very important leak in order to reframe our tax laws so that the tax haven option is out.

But I also want to stress, since I used to be a WikiLeaks volunteer and I'm talking to an Australian media and I have lived in Australia as well, that I feel a little bit surprised how little support Julian Assange has got from the Australian state.
Her Pirate Party is one of six parties holding seats in the Althingi. While they hold three seats, Icelandic polling currently suggests they would receive 43% of the vote ‘if an election was held tomorrow’. From the Interview:
We have been going up in the polls now for a full year, where we have been polling as gradually the biggest party in Iceland. And we've had more support than both the governmental parties put together for quite a while.

And I really don't think that we are going to get 43 per cent in next elections. And frankly, to be honest, I don't think it's healthy for any party to be so big, because it means that the will of the majority is going to be so overwhelming — and I'm a big lobbyist for that we have true democracy, where the will of the parliament is the dominant will, not the majority will. [emphasis added]

But if we get into a position to form a government — in Iceland we always have coalition governments — then we have been very clear about that. We have to implement a new constitution that was written in the wake of the crisis by and for the people of Iceland, in a beautiful process where the nation got to participate in creating this new social agreement on what sort of society we want reflected in the highest law: the constitution.

So that's one of the first things we will do and that will mean a short term. We also want to make sure that before elections it is absolutely clear what compromises the parties that are going to be working together will make if they get into governance.

And I'm the most excited about looking at, you know, who will be a great chairman in different committees in the parliament, rather than looking who will be great ministers. Because if you always look at the executive branch and the administrative body as the absolute power, then we will never change anything.
It is refreshing to see a politician who doesn’t want to grind others into the dust, is prepared to work with her opponents and look towards good government and the sharing of the power across a number of different political outlooks. This kind of thinking restores the power behind the government back to the parliament, rather than to Menzies’ ’36 faceless men’ concept which infects both sides of Australian politics.

Minority governments can and do work in Australia and in reality have to represent the electors better than say the Newman government in Queensland, the last term of the Howard Federal government or the Kennett Victorian government ever did. While the electors finally won the day, in all cases it took longer than it should have for a sense of representation of the community’s interests to be restored.

Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

What do you think?
Are minority governments a desirable thing for Australia?

Should we be looking at a more representative system for electing our representatives which more closely resembles the electorate’s wishes?

Let us know in comments below.

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6/05/2016What about those innumerable faceless women in Labor?

Pappinbarra Fox

7/05/2016I don't think the women of Labor are faceless. And a good thing too, even if the GG won't play shake hands.


7/05/2016Hi Patricia, Apparently one of the '36 faceless men' in the ALP executive that kept Calwell and Whitlam waiting outside in 1963 was a woman, while Menzies was factually incorrect with his assertion - conceptually he was on the money. While the number and gender of the 'faceless' has varied over the years, both major parties legislate the 'wishlist' of their party conventions at the expense of the rest of the country - while claiming to represent the rest of the country. The point of this is that MPs are elected by and supposed to represent those that live in a particular area - not the party machine that puts them up for election as a member of the party. It is fair to suggest that a lot of state and federal MPs are good at playing politics and absolutely useless at what should be the first item in their role description - representing the common interests of the people in the area they are elected to represent. There are lots of examples, from people like Barnaby Joyce voting against action to mitigate climate change (which has the probability to dramatically affect the ongoing ability of a large number of his constituents (whether they be regional Queenslanders - when he was in the Senate or primary producers around Tamworth and Armidale in his current House of Representatives seat) or Tanya Plibersek who supports policies that keep refugees in the illegal detentions centre on Manus Island (and elsewhere) while promising a fair go for all. Quite frankly, I would hope that the faceless women in the ALP would not stand for this blatant lack of regard for the representation of common good of all those who would like to call Australia home and force their party to do better. It is refreshing to see a Member of the Icelandic Parliament tells us how it should be done - working with others, gaining consensus, ensuring the views of others with differing political beliefs to be taken into account and then enacting legislation. It is possible and arguably the entire country is better for it. Their voting system helps - as does the New Zealand one which demonstrably leads to governments with more stability than Australia - we're the one with potentially 6 PMs in 6 years - not our cousins over the ditch. The 'unstable' government claim which was the catch cry of the opposition when Gillard was Prime Minister (and Palaszczuk Premier of Queensland) doesn't reflect the reality that Gillard and Palaszczuk actually have to convince the Parliament of the worth of any legislation. So far, I have seen little evidence of the women (or any other group) of any party having the courage to make their party MPs represent the country, rather than sectional interests. In the ALP's defence, at least they have given Shorten and Plibersek a chance to consider and release policy rather than knives in the back - but others have written http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-05-06/crabb-shorten's-budget-reply/7389312 that this could be a result of Rudd's legacy of changes to the way the leader of the party is decided. It would be ironic that Rudd was actually a good thing for the ALP at the end of the day.


11/05/2016I suppose the members of the IPA can't be classed as "faceless" but they seem to have a significant presence in the formulation of Liberal Party policy. Even Roskram once referred to "my Government" on QandA as if he was PM.
I have two politicians and add 17 clowns and 14 chimpanzees; how many clowns are there?