Neither of the major parties has been campaigning on system change. However, there is lot that could be done and should be done to bring about system change. The economic boom times may be over but is this nation in optimum shape for more daunting days?
Consider this: an electoral system that grossly favours the major parties and confuses voters confronted with a ridiculously complex ballot paper; a federal system that is highly dysfunctional and costly; an industrial relations system that is unable to promote workplace democracy; a Westminster system that delivers amateur Cabinets; a Constitution that is frozen in time and can hardly be amended; a refugee treatment that is tragically off course; a Republic that is long overdue.
I would think the last thing that Australia needs right now is another dose of Howard type conservatism. But the ALP is stuck in the two party tyranny mode as well, quite solidly. They both want to rule "in their own right". What have the two leaders to offer in terms of governance system change? The combination of adversarial two party rule, a product of the electoral system, and the federal system is a guarantee for stagnation. A second Sydney airport at Badgery's Creek is a prime example of this. There is in fact not a great deal of difference between the major parties anymore but it is incumbent upon them to make it appear that way. The class struggle, suited to the two party system, has just about disappeared. The need for federation has gone. Our system of governance does not reflect the realities of this diverse society and the stunning progress in communications. Economic development takes places in marginal seats, the safe seats don't count for much, thanks to the electoral system based on single-member seats.
Thus far, there is nothing in this election debate that promotes system change. During the decade the nasty tone and quality of the parliamentary debate have become the focus of attention though. Most people don't like the combative, unproductive style that is on display on a daily basis when Parliament is in session. Voters have turned away from this spectacle and politics generally, especially the young. Letter writers have condemned it in droves. Journalists have tried to describe and understand it. Only rarely are the pertinent questions asked: "Why is it so?" and "What can be done about it? Yes, there are explanations for this and they are grounded in system problems, all of which can be addressed but are avoided.
The Hung Parliament of the last three years has added a new dimension to the system. The need for the ALP government to make partnership agreements with the only Green MHR and three Independents has delivered benefits. That is a pointer for the future. All over Europe, in several English-speaking countries as well, where proportional representation is used, it is common practice to have Coalition governments. Instead of a race to the bottom, as with the absurd refugee policy there parties seek common ground. A true majority emerges. Instead of around 50% of the voters represented in Government in an adversarial parliamentary situation, the search is for common ground between diverse parties.
What about the obstacles of federation? Not long ago Tony Abbott, after he had a quite difficult stint as Minister of Health, wanted to end federation. This is what he said at an after dinner-speech at a conference on federalism in Tenterfield, in October 2008:
I appeal to the distinguished academic political scientists and professional students of government here tonight: don't assume that changing the constitutional position of the states is mission impossible. What's the point of political science faculties if they merely analyse the system rather than help to make it better? Provided it focuses on meaningful change, this conference could hardly be more timely in helping to achieve reform in areas where the national government pays the bills but state governments make the decisions. If the dysfunctional federation is to be addressed, the politicians who negotiate the cooperative arrangements, referrals of power or constitutional amendments required will certainly need the best possible advice and much of it could come from universities. State governments act as laboratories for different types of service delivery in federalist theory but not in Australian practice. Can anyone point out instructive or creative differences (as opposed to different degrees of mediocrity) between the states' public hospital or public school systems? Can anyone identify a governmental oppression from which the states have liberated Australians? Without specific examples, claims that the states are a source of creative diversity or a brake on excessive power can't be taken seriously. If having three tiers of government has been important to preserving Australian democracy, how has Britain, for instance, managed to avoid the supposed dictatorial tendencies of a strong executive?
The states don't exist because Australia's constitutional founders thought that three levels of government were needed to avoid tyranny. They exist because it was the only way to make a nation out of six colonies. It was the need for a deal that gave us states; not adherence to principle. Take health policy, for instance. Problems in our public hospitals have two basic causes: first, there's not enough money; and second, there's not enough autonomy. The funding problem is hard to resolve because no one government is responsible for it. The management problem is hard to address because every state has a history of micro-managing hospitals from head office. It's almost impossible to tackle these problems without addressing the wider issue of federalism.
Of the three options for fixing the federation, mere tinkering, on the grounds that this is about as good as it can get, is really a cop out. Giving more authority and commensurate revenue powers back to the states is possible but implausible. So why not give the national government constitutional authority to match people's expectations about who should really be in charge? Let's amend section 51 of the Constitution to empower the national parliament to make laws generally for the peace order and good government of the Commonwealth. This would not abolish the states – just ensure that in the event of disagreement, the national government calls the shots. Change will come, once Kevin Rudd's version of cooperative federalism fails, as it inevitably will, so we'd better all start thinking about the best ways to make it happen.
Abbott seems to have changed his stance as leader of the conservative faction of the Liberals, his constituency. Voters surely want to hear from their political leaders what system changes they will pursue.
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