Mike Steketee has an article in today’s Australian which carries forward the debate about constitutional reform we’ve been having in the blogosphere since John Howard announced his patently cynical proposal for reforming the Constitution’s deadlock/joint sitting provisions as a result of what he characterises as Senate “obstructionism”.
Steketee points out that the debate we really should be having is about how both major parties have completely corrupted the processes of the House of Representatives, especially by comparison with the Westminister model from which it derived:
THOSE attracted to John Howard’s proposal to nobble the Senate to stop it obstructing his legislation should look first at what he and his predecessors have already done to the House of Representatives.
So thoroughly have they debauched its role that, were it not for the requirements of the Constitution, we could close it down tomorrow and it would make no difference. Party discipline has become so tight that legislation never gets blocked in the house and seldom receives proper scrutiny. The house does not fulfil its role of holding the Government accountable, as is obvious from the farce that passes for question time.
It is worth making the comparison with the British parliament, whose traditions we adopted. When Tony Blair fronted up to the House of Commons last week for Prime Minister’s questions, he received a thorough working over on the issue of the moment Iraq’s elusive weapons of mass destruction.
In a half-hour, Blair fielded 19 questions. The biggest shock to an Australian reading the British Hansard is that Government, as well as Opposition, MPs asked real questions and Blair answered them, mostly point by point and succinctly.
Steketee might also have added that Australia’s political culture of rigid party discipline also compares unfavourably with the US model, from which our Founding Fathers equally drew in constructing our current constitutional model. In the US too, party membership doesn’t necessarily imply that a Senator or Congressman will vote the party line (although party discipline is tighter in the US lower house than in the Senate). American newspapers often publish a Senator or Congressman’s parliamentary voting record prior to general elections, so that voters can assess whether their federal political representatives have faithfully represented the local electorate on issues crucially impacting the local economy or community.
In the Australian context any analysis of that sort would be meaningless: both Government and Opposition MP’s are required to vote in accordance with the mandated party line in Parliament, irrespective of whether it accords with the interests of the local eletorate they were ostensibly elected to serve. An MP who crosses the floor and votes against his or her party’s position is subject to instant expulsion from the Liberal, Labor or National parties. The Democrats and Greens have somewhat less rigid rules, although they may give rise to their own difficulties (as Meg Lees discovered).
Australia’s evolved political system places primary emphasis on discipline, central leadership authority, and governmental effectiveness, at the expense of individual freedom, political accountability to local electorates, and diversity of political representation.
Personally, I would prefer a system that struck a better balance between these somewhat competing imperatives. I doubt that imposition of proportional representation multi-member electorates in the House of Representatives is the answer, however (although I’m open to persuasion). It would certainly be possible, as Dave Ricardo suggested in a comment a couple of days ago, to impose a threshold primary vote requirement to ensure that MPs must have a reasonable level of community support to get elected. However, you’re still inevitably going to end up frequently with relatively unstable governing coalitions, which isn’t desirable in my view. Both Tasmania and the ACT provide examples of the results of such systems, and neither model could reasonably be regarded as a success.
The central deficiency in the evolved Australian political culture flows not from the single member “first past the post” preferential voting system which applies in the House of Reps (and in most State lower houses), but from the excessive rigidity of party discipline. That could be partially remedied by a constitutional amendment making it unlawful for any political party to subject MPs to overt threats, pressures or inducements to cast their parliamentary vote in a particular way.
You would need to exempt Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries from this rule, otherwise effective government would become impossible. You’d also need to exempt Money Bills and motions of no confidence. A Member who no longer thinks his party is fit to govern should in conscience resign from that party, and the party should be able to expel him if he doesn’t.
However, on all ordinary legislation, Members should be free to vote in accordance with the dictates of their conscience and the local electorate’s wishes and interests. Of course, no such system could entirely remove pressure to vote in accordance with the wishes of a particular party interest group or power elite, nor would that be desirable. Many MPs aspire to be elected to Cabinet, outer Ministry and Parliamentary Secretary positions, and elevation to those executive offices is always going to be determined in part by the extent to which a member has shown loyalty to the party and governing faction.
The inevitability of such pressures is a major reason why the Americans opted for a complete separation of Parliament from the Executive. I certainly don’t advocate that Australia should move to an American-style system. A less radical reform would at least restore some degree of local and individual democratic accountability to the system. Ambitious MPs who aspire to high executive office will continue to adhere to the “party” line of the faction they believe can deliver them power. However, every party has its share of mavericks who either don’t aspire to Cabinet office or know they’re unlikely ever to achieve it. A system which at least attempts to ensure that these members can’t be overtly pressured would go some way towards recreating an ethos more like the Westminster model, where Question Time actually means something, and backbench MPs don’t always vote the party line or else*.
Reforms of the sort I’m canvassing would nevertheless run up against the problem of how to deal with preselections. Would failing to preselect a sitting Member who has consistently failed to vote the party line (or the faction line where a particular faction dominates the local electorate party branches or other body responsible for preselection) be classed as an unlawful threat, pressure or inducement? It’s difficult to see how one could legislate in that way without interfering to an unacceptable extent with core aspects of party-based representative democratic process. Nevertheless, and even without protecting MP preselections, such a reform might serve as a catalyst for recasting Australia’s parliamentary culture in a more open, democratically accountable mould.
* I should note for completeness that the evolved British system does involve a fair degree of party discipline, though less complete and rigid than Australia’s, as this extract from Britannia.com explains:
Inside Parliament, party control is exercised by the Chief Whips and their assistants, who are chosen within the party. Their duties include keeping members informed of forthcoming parliamentary business, maintaining the party’s voting strength by ensuring members attend important debates, and passing on to the party leadership the opinions of the backbench members.
The Whips indicate the importance their party attaches to a vote on a particular issue by underlining items of business once, twice or three times on the notice sent to MPs. In the Commons, failure to comply with a ‘three-line whip’, the most important, is usually seen as a rebellion against the party. Party discipline tends to be less strong in the Lords than in the Commons, since Lords have less hope of high office and no need of party support in elections.