25 June, 2011

Some Facts about Parliamentary Democracy

There’s a word that’s been thrown around a lot regarding the proposed carbon tax and that word is “mandate.”  The reasoning is that since the policy was not taken to the election, and indeed Julia Gillard said there would be no carbon tax under a government she leads, there is therefore no public mandate for the introduction of such a policy.  It may seem like an open-and-shut case on the surface, but there are a few problems with this argument.  It all comes down to how the Westminster system of government operates.

John Howard claimed a mandate to introduce the GST after the 1998 election.  However, while the Coalition may have won the majority of seats in the House of Representatives, they did not win the majority of the popular primary vote nationally.  As with most other systems, the national popular vote is not relevant and I am not specifically arguing that it should be.  My point is that while the Coalition may have won a working majority in the lower house and the right to implement their policies, it’s drawing rather a long bow to go claiming a public mandate.  Six years and two elections later in 2004, the Coalition won far more soundly, winning the House of Representatives, the irrelevant popular vote and most importantly, control of the Senate in their own right.  It was this that led to the introduction WorkChoices.  The industrial relations reforms that were enacted during that parliament had always been on the Liberal party’s wish-list but they knew they could never get it through the Senate.  No mention was made of the policy during the 2004 election campaign.  Howard’s excuse for enacting major reforms that were never mentioned during the campaign was that everyone had always known it was something the Liberals wanted to do.  Alternatively, he could have reiterated his comment from 1987 that “The mandate theory of politics from the point of view of proper analysis has always been absolutely phoney.”  He was right about that.  Mandates have always been an argument of convenience for one side or another. 

In this sense, the Gillard government in 2011 has as much mandate for a carbon tax as the Howard government of 2004-2007 ever had for WorkChoices.  If anything, they have more.  The policy is not a matter of arcane political history as Howard’s IR reforms were.  In 2010, everyone really did know that the ALP and quite a few muzzled Liberals wanted a market mechanism for reducing carbon emissions.  For sure, Gillard was an idiot to say there would be no carbon tax under a government she leads but then, she doesn’t truly lead the government.

No, I’m not saying she’s controlled by Bob Brown – that would be ridiculous.  What is conveniently forgotten by a lot of people who ought to know better is that under our system, we do not elect prime ministers, we do not elect governments, we elect a parliament.  Each electorate votes for a representative to go to Canberra and represent the views of that electorate in the parliament.  That’s it.  It’s the parliament that then decides who does what in the executive.  There is absolutely no reason why, in this parliament, we could not have Julia Gillard as prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull as treasurer, Bob Brown as minister for the environment, Andrew Wilkie as minister for defence, Barnaby Joyce as minister for finance and Bob Katter as speaker.  The government is the parliament.  Parties are merely convention.  There’s nothing that says parties have to split off and work against one another.  Anyone who talks about the two-party system doesn’t understand the system because the system makes no allowance for parties.  It’s simply human nature to form groups. 

Equally, there’s nothing to stop the National Party going into coalition with the ALP.  I’ve often suggested that they should since Labor policy often reflects the needs of the Nationals’ base more than the Liberals, who seem to take the Nationals for granted as the rural wing of the Liberal Party.  It’s telling that the Nationals are the most abandoned party in Australia with three of the four cross-bench independents being former National MPs.

Because most of the time, one party gets an outright majority in the lower house, we end up with what is effectively an elective dictatorship.  Legislation is passed on party lines, tempered only by the Senate – and in the case of 2005 to 2007, not even that.  This current parliament is different because no party has an outright majority.  As such the operation of this parliament is really a lot closer to what was originally intended.  Each MP represents their own constituents’ interests, all policy is open to debate and everyone has to show up to divisions.  Is that really such a bad thing?

Since the parties refuse to work together in the manner I suggested above, that meant both parties had to negotiate with the non-affiliated MPs to decide who would form government.  Greens MP Adam Bandt said from the outset that he would support a Labor government, as is his prerogative.  The four independent MPs said they would reserve judgement, as is their prerogative.  Nationals MP Tony Crook, despite being part of the LNP Coalition, chose to sit on the cross-benches.  As we all know, of the four independents, only Bob Katter sided with the Coalition, while Andrew Wilkie, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott sided with the ALP but importantly, they only agreed to support an ALP government on money bills and confidence motions.  All other legislation is looked at on individual merit, which is how it should always be. 

In order to secure these votes, Julia Gillard had to make policy concessions to the Greens and independents that were not mentioned in their election platform.  Predictably enough, this has led to accusations that she lied in her policy statements during the election campaign and that she is being controlled by minority interests.  It makes for cute politics, but it’s another argument of convenience.  We all know Tony Abbott sweet-talked the independents just as much as Julia Gillard did.  I’ll take Andrew Wilkie’s claim that Tony Abbott offered him a billion dollars to redevelop the Royal Hobart Hospital with a drop of saline, but the idea that the coalition would not have made policy concessions to the independents and even the Greens to secure their support simply isn’t credible.  Labor or Coalition, whoever formed government in this parliament was going to have to make policy concessions and adopt positions they hadn’t taken to the election.  Government policy is not about what either party said during the election.  Government policy is about what will pass the parliament because the parliament IS the government.

Tony Abbott’s almost daily demands for a redo election are an affront to the electorate.  The Australian people in their collective wisdom decided not to trust either party with absolute power.  If one really wants to talk about mandates, Australian voters have mandated that all policy is up for debate and no side gets to pass legislation easily.  Again, this is much closer to what the system intends than we have been used to. 

It also makes it much easier for the Coalition to enact its policy if they wanted to.  Remember that any member of parliament can introduce a bill.  This has always been the way, but it’s usually stifled by one party having an absolute majority.  In this parliament, all the Liberals would have to do is convince a couple of the cross-benchers that their bill is a good idea and it would be passed and Labor would be stuck with it.  There is nothing to stop them doing this other than the desire to hang onto the conventions of governments and oppositions.

This hung parliament is an excellent opportunity for the house to work as it was originally intended.  No wonder both the major parties think it’s such a drag. 


  1. "In this parliament, all the Liberals would have to do is convince a couple of the cross-benchers that their bill is a good idea and it would be passed and Labor would be stuck with it. "

    That is true, with one qualification - as I understand it, non-majority parties cannot pass bills that have budgetary implications, which is fair enough because minor parties could create chaos passing financially crazy bills.

    How that works when, as you have correctly noted, the system doesn't really make allowance parties - that I'm not so sure about.

  2. Good point - thank you.

  3. There's one point here about Tony Crook. The WA Nationals are an autonomous political organisation.

    In the Sydney Morning Herald:-
    26th August, 2010

    Don't count me among Coalition, says Nat


    Mr Crook has said there is greater potential for a deal with Mr Abbott, but was giving no ground to the Opposition Leader in yesterday's talks.

    ''He urged me to consider my position and said to consider that I am a member of the Nationals. But I highlighted to him that although we are a federated body, the WA Nationals are an autonomous political organisation,'' he said.

  4. Another good point. Thanks!