Political system needs repair work

by on July 7, 2017

HUMAN nature does not change much. Politicians are as idealistic, selfish, greedy, altruistic, competent, incompetent, foolish, smart and gifted as they ever were. So the explanation for Australia’s decade of political dysfunction must lie elsewhere.

That elsewhere is that our constitutional system needs some maintenance to make it function better for the changing conditions, particularly the falling support for major parties and Australia’s increased population.

This may sound like heresy, but we do not have enough members of the Federal House of Representatives.

New Zealand’s population is just 20 per cent of Australia’s, but its national parliament is 80 cent the size of our House of Representatives.

Britain has 2.7 times our population, but its House of Commons is four times as large as our House.

I know we have state parliaments as well, but New Zealand and Britain have local government systems with more power than ours and Britain has Parliaments for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Canada, which has state-level parliaments, has one and a half times our population, yet its Lower House is more than double the size of ours.

The House of Representatives has not been increased since 1984 when Australia’s population was just 15.5 million. It is now 24 million.

So each of our MPs is representing 50 per cent more people – and growing more distant all the time.

There are difficulties. Politicians as a group are more unpopular now than for a long time. And then we have the constitutional nexus. The Constitution provides that the number of Members of the House should be as near as practicable double the number of senators.

You could add 12 senators and 24 House of Representatives members, but that would not help a great deal. It would be better to add between 50 and 75 members and no new senators.

It would also help to address the Senate’s power and streamline elections.

A year ago Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull held a double dissolution in an attempt to clear things up. All he managed to do was highlight the mess.

The Constitution now insists that half the Senate be elected in the 12 months before their terms are up. Senators have fixed terms from 1 July to 30 June six years later, or three years later for half of them after a double dissolution. In effect, this will shave some months off Turnbull’s current term so an election around March 2019 is most likely.

It would be much better to align senators’ terms to two terms of the House.

Double dissolutions have proven not to be effective in resolving differences over legislation, as the Constitution foreshadowed. All they have done is mess up electoral cycles. Mostly, the legislation triggering double dissolutions has been insignificant.

Alas, fixing this stuff would require a referendum. In Australia, that has usually proven difficult, but after this decade of dysfunction voters might be keener to see some change.

I mentioned New Zealand. They have more referendums, and more successful ones, including citizen-initiated referendums, than we do in Australia. A number of those referendums effecting significant changes to the electoral system came after a decade of turbulent politics with lots a prime ministers and radical policy upheavals and disputes.

New Zealand had six Prime Ministers in the decade between mid-1989 and mid-1999. Australia has had five in the decade from mid-2007 to now.

In New Zealand there was a recognition throughout its decade of turbulence that the system was flawed and needed fixing. It took a bit of courage, a Royal Commission and a number of referendums, but the electoral system was changed and the number of parliamentarians increased.

The result was stable, competent government from both major parties with just two Prime Ministers in 16 years– followed by the present Prime Minister coming to office after the voluntary retirement of his predecessor.

The bitter wars of ideology and personality have been relatively absent in New Zealand. And New Zealand has done pretty well economically without the huge leg-up that Australia gets from its natural resources.

We could learn from it. We should do something like New Zealand did in the 1980s and 1990s when they thought their polity was getting dysfunctional: have a broad inquiry and debate and do something about it.

Many in New Zealand said the roof would fall in if there were any change. But, to the contrary, things improved dramatically.

In both countries the period of dysfunction was marked by increasing polarisation between the parties and increasing friction within them.

In Australia it has caused policy paralysis. In New Zealand it caused wild swings in policy.

True, personalities are important, but so are poor systems of government.

The nexus is silly. It would be folly for Tasmania to have any more senators, for example. If it is good enough for senators to have fixed terms, why not the House as well. Senators’ terms could be two terms of the House.

Double dissolutions could be done away with. Twice-rejected legislation should be able to be passed by the Representatives alone if the government is returned after an election.

Without double dissolutions, there would be no need for early elections. They could be held every three years on, say, the last Saturday in November.

Further, we should have New Zealand-style citizen-initiated referendums to end politicians’ monopoly on constitutional development.

These things, and more, could be put to some major inquiry to flesh out some referendum questions.

Unfortunately, it maybe that the very partisanship, short-term political point-scoring and personality politics that we are looking to overcome will be the very things to prevent any sensible change the system so it can cope with the changing landscape.

On the other hand, one can hope that the decade of dysfunction sparks a push for some constitutional change, as it did for the better in New Zealand twenty years go.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times on 8 July 2017.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

John Simmons 07.08.17 at 5:40 pm

Hi Crispin

All points well taken but I have an alternate suggestion.

Fixed term elections for Commonwealth Government to be held every 29th February and for that day to be a public holiday (no PH in lieu if 29th falls on a weekend). If the Government comes to grief in the meantime the GG may grant an election but only for the remainder of the period to the next 29th February. An now for the cruncher; all elections double dissolution and all elected Members and Senators take their seat from the date/time of autumn equinox. That gives parties prepared to negotiate in good faith enough time (about 21 days) to form a Government.

Think about it.


John Simmons

PS Looking at it from your yacht; what do you think about the latest GBR threat? assessment from wh

Kevin Rattigan 07.09.17 at 9:34 am

The only reservation I have about your suggestions, Crispin, is on citizen-initiated referendums. Elsewhere, e.g. California, they have led to repeal of progressive legislation; here I could imagine for example return of capital punishment being put up after a grisly terrorism incident. On the other hand, citizen-initiated referendums would presumably have the same difficulty in getting passed as parliamentary initiated ones.

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