Hans Christian Andersen’s famous story The Emperor’s New Clothes epitomises the phenomenon of the truth hiding in plain sight as a result of collective delusion or selective vision.
There is just such a collective public delusion at the heart of our current understanding of Australian politics and government. The expectations of Australians, particularly the Canberra Press Gallery, that our normal form of government is a two-party system with the government controlling a majority in the lower house and mostly able to get its legislation through the upper house without undue difficulty simply does not accord with reality and hasn’t for quite a long time.
Governments at federal level almost never control the Senate, and increasingly are forced to wrangle legislation through by negotiating and compromising with a disparate group of minor party and Independent Senators. Julia Gillard was quite good at this and Malcolm Turnbull is getting better, although Tony Abbott was hopeless.
In the House of Representatives as well, majority government can no longer be assumed. Julia Gillard governed in minority between 2010 and 2012, and Malcolm Turnbull (or whoever might replace him) is within one seat of having to do likewise.
A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald underscored for me that that this is unlikely to be a temporary phenomenon:
Australia is poised for widespread political instability as more than one in four voters flee the two-party system, political analysts say.
Disgust and disappointment with major parties is approaching historic levels as Australians follow British and Americans voters and reject new age politics. …
Previously, a 25 per cent primary vote for non-governing parties has been a red warning light for major Australian political parties.
In the 2016 federal election, the warning light started blinking deep amber, with a primary vote of 23 per cent for the minor parties in the House of Representatives.
Now, opinion poll after poll point to the vote for the minor parties breaching the 25 per cent tipping point at the next federal election due in 2019.
In the 2016 Northern Territory election the combined primary vote of the two major parties was around 75% while the primary vote of minor parties and Independents was indeed around 25%. Remarkably that ended up with five Independents elected to the Legislative Assembly (but no minor party representatives) out of a total of 25 MLAs. Fully 20% of our Parliament now consists of Independents. Such a dramatic result is unlikely to occur in larger states or at federal level, and was as much a result of “rats deserting the sinking ship” of the CLP as of any wider trend towards minor parties and Independents.
Nevertheless it is likely that the number of Independents and minor party representatives in the House of Representatives at federal level will gradually increase over time. Current representatives like Bob Katter, Andrew Wilkie and the Greens’ Adam Bandt have proven very durable and hard to dislodge once they got elected. The Greens are likely to take more inner urban seats from the ALP over time, and One Nation is likely to take seats from the Coalition if it doesn’t implode again first.
But the idea that this necessarily means “political instability”, although apparently almost universally accepted without question, is misconceived. Julia Gillard managed to get legislation through the Parliament without undue difficulty, and the instability we all remember was caused by internal undermining from Kevin Rudd rather than by Labor’s minority status in both Houses of Parliament.
I have never understood why so many people regard a stable two-party system with its resulting elected dictatorship as the ideal form of government. As far as I’m concerned it’s almost exactly the reverse. A system which requires discussion, negotiation and compromise between politicians representing as nearly as reasonably possible the diverse groups and interests of the Australian population is greatly to be preferred. Typically we get much better legislation and policy implementation as a result of that sort of deliberative process. That’s why I’ve been exploring various options for achieving such a system at The Summit, including multimember seats with election by proportional representation, and the New Zealand system of Mixed Member Proportional Representation. However it’s beginning to look as if Australia might achieve some such outcome, albeit in a fairly messy way, without any electoral reform at all.