Australian politics and the Emperor’s New Clothes

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.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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18 Responses to Australian politics and the Emperor’s New Clothes

  1. ‘But the idea that this necessarily means “political instability”, although apparently almost universally accepted without question, is misconceived.’

    I think we have to be careful here to remember to differentiate between the two arms of government. Yes, in the legislature ‘A system which requires discussion, negotiation and compromise between politicians representing [all] the diverse … interests of the …population is greatly to be preferred.’
    But there is also the executive. That is where you do have stability problems. Minority supporters in a ruling coalition have to be pandered to or the govt. will fall. The extreme situation happened in New Zealand about a decade ago when Helen Clark had to allow a different party MP, Winston Peters, to be Foreign Minister, in exchange for support to make government.
    The very simple solution to the problem is of course to directly elect the executive, as done in France, South Korea, the US etc, and then not worry about the parliament having as many diverse groups and interests as voters can field.
    Yeah, OK, you would have to make Senate voting (effectively) one-person-one-vote to stop the mendicant states of Tasmania and SA, with only 9% of the population, using their 32% of the seats to garner as much pork barrelling and welfare for themselves as possible.

    • Alan says:

      Almost all presidential democracies have senates that represent the states (by whatever name) equally. Indeed quite a lot of parliamentary democracies have similar senates. And some of those senates (South Africa is an example) are, contrary to the standard myth, very recent.

      Proportional representation in the senate means that, despite the equal representation of the states, the distribution of votes in the senate reflects the popular vote much more faithfully than the house of representatives.

      Of the three examples you quote, France is premier-presidential, South Korea is president-parliamentary, and the US is presidential. Although both countries have prime ministers and cabinets, the French cabinet is responsible to the parliament but the South Korean cabinet is not.

      I could probably live with presidential democracy but the powers of the president would need to be closely defined and I would prefer premier-presidentialism.

      I suspect one reason that our media tend to equate PR with instability is that PR does not provide a good election night story – who won and who lost. The government formation that follows a general election under PR can be extended and lacks the drama to which the media are addicted. The New Zealand media tend to spend most of the government formation writing inanities about how it is all very complex.

  2. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Another favourite instinct of those who imagine themselves as the ‘hard heads’ is the idea that the departure from the majors is an economic issue. This is the standard explanation for The Donald and Brexit. Yet the disaffection as measured by the non-major party vote in Australia is about the same and that’s without a big, punishing recession and austerity in its wake or the kind of rampant rent seeking from the moneyed that has seen the new gilded age in the US.

    Australia’s maintained reasonable levels of unemployment (though it hasn’t been great in recent years), income growth and income distribution in recent years, and yet with the same broad political result. Right now Brexit is leading the governing elite into the remarkable discombobulation of shepherding through change that 80 percent or more of it profoundly disagrees with. We led the pack in that regard when the Parliament abolished the carbon pricing regime and replaced it with a cockamamie scheme of subsidising polluters. This was something that over 80% of the parliament knew was a stupid idea – as did the PM. But they went ahead and did it.

    Pretty obviously when the electorate sees such rampant inauthenticity, when every politician is managed to hit KPIs which are the rehearsal of (often focus group tested) talking points in every media appearance, it gets the hebes. The fact that it votes for this can be shunted aside. The public doesn’t blame its own impatience, it’s own unpreparedness to defend the kinds of abstract values that underpin sensible deliberation. Politicians caught in this optimisation game are optimising for their own partisan advantage but, by doing so, continue to undermine the system as a whole.

    That, to me, is what links the experience of the three countries I’ve mentioned – the US, the UK and the Land of Oz.

    • paul frijters says:

      “Yet the disaffection as measured by the non-major party vote in Australia is about the same and that’s without a big, punishing recession and austerity in its wake or the kind of rampant rent seeking from the moneyed that has seen the new gilded age in the US”

      I think OZ is just as bad, if not worse than the US on the issue of rent-seeking because there is no real push-back so the corruption has spread far more quickly in Oz. And the lack of media-push-back is even more noticeable in Oz, though of course that is part of the cause. Oz has yet to have a Bernie Sanders.

      • Nicholas Gruen says:

        I think of finance, medicine, law and senior management in the US as rent seeking sectors that are far more out of control than here. That’s true of the sectors as shares of GDP and of senior management in terms of inequality, though it’s to a substantial extent a function of the US’s larger market. But I think I’m right in saying that even our outrageously paid banking CEOs are not as well paid as their equivalents of similar size market cap companies in the US – though I may be wrong about that.

        But you may be right that there are other areas like land re-zoning that are worse for rent seeking here.

  3. John Quiggin says:

    Oddly enough this same metaphor occurred to me in relation to climate change. But I haven’t published it – may do so now I’ve resigned from the Climate Change Authority

    • Ken Parish says:

      Thanks John. I’m sorry to see you decided to resign from the Climate Change Authority, although I agree there was no real choice as a matter of integrity. No doubt it was also becoming increasingly pointless given that the Coalition even under Turnbull has been completely ignoring its recommendations.

      Maybe ironically, it’s at least possible that the Coalition’s violent collision with reality over gas, blackouts, Hazelwood closure etc over the last few weeks might belatedly force at least a little bit of facing up to reality. You never know.

  4. Hasbeen says:

    I find it very interesting that the 2 most gullible groups on earth, when it comes to climate change, according to their public statements, are the lawyers & the economists.

    Could it be that these most opinionated groups are not as smart, or as well educated as they like to believe? Or could it be that there is a quid to be mado by them, along with the rent seekers on the gravy train.

    So what is it? Are they too dumb to understand the real science involved, or too smart to miss out on a good quid when waved at them?

    • John Quiggin says:

      Let me guess.
      * Your scientific knowledge is obtained entirely from the Internet, or from vague recollections of long-ago high school/undergraduate courses.
      *You regularly assert there’s been no significant warming since (insert varying date) but you wouldn’t know a t-distribution if you fell over one.
      * You’re old, male and politically rightwing

      How am I doing?

  5. Jones says:

    NZ has no upper house. We do. This makes a big difference. Provided the Senate is not controlled by the party of government, there is no elected dictatorship stemming from a party with a majority in the HoR. Having a minority government in the HoR is potentially a mess because the deals it needs to cut to get things through the HoR might be different from, and inconsistent with, the deals it needs to cut to get things through the Senate

  6. Douglas Hynd says:

    ACT ALP- Greens “coalition” provides a good example of balancing – some agreed policies with agreement for Greens Minister to withdraw from Cabinet & vote against matters on there is a real difference. Worked for one four year term and renewed again after the last election. Most of the people involved seemed to have behaved with maturity – some differences have been on accountability issues and that has worked to keep some openness in the government processes.

  7. Hasbeen says:

    No John. BSc, with enough math to be able to see CO2 can not have anything like the effect the IPCC claim.

    Just not possible.

  8. John Quiggin says:

    You might want to look up Dunning-Kruger syndrome

    • John R Walker says:

      Mr Quigigin
      In return I respectfully ask you to ask your self a question : why do do so many respond to you with ‘ better to die in my feet, than live on my knees’

  9. John Quiggin says:

    The “die on your feet” theme seems to be a thing on the right just now. Here’s Paul Kelly attributing it to Turnbull, of all people

    I said some pretty sharp things about his government in my resignation letter, but I doubt that can be the reason for his sudden conversion to “Death or Glory”

    • john Walker says:

      Mr Quiggin
      I don’t know why so many are angry-fearful, but some of it might be down to too many years of:
      “there’s always something cooking , but there’s nothing in the pot “

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