One of the enduring myths of Australian political life is the imputed social and economic conservatism of the Australian people. The received political wisdom of generations of politicians, commentators, hacks and advisers has been that Australians are apathetic and disinterested in political change, especially of the radical reformist kind. Whenever Australians are faced with the choice between the status quo and change, so the story goes, they will choose the comforting, “steady as she goes” bromides of those who believe in talking about, rather than implementing, radical reform.
The electoral evidence to support the myth seems conclusive. Since 1941, there have been 25 federal elections of which 10 have been won by the ALP and 15 by the various incarnations of the centre-right. Up to 2008, the conservatives have held national government for 41 years as opposed to the ALP’s 25 years. For most of the past six decades, the ALP has, in one form or another, been the proponent of social, economic and political change to the prevailing status quo. Labor’s leaders – from Curtin through Chifley and Evatt to Calwell, Whitlam, Hayden, Hawke, Keating and Latham – have generally been effervescent, trenchant proponents of change rather than reaction.
And yet the conservatives claim that the Australian people rejected them more often than they voted for them, and when they were in office could not wait to eject them from it. The apparent political success of the conservatives encourages and emboldens the forces of social conservatism. Egged on by their media shills and acolytes, the forces of social reaction insist that their doctrines and policies command the overwhelming support of the silent majority of Australians.
The proposition becomes satisfyingly circular. The only social and political change that is legitimate is change acceptable to “mainstream” Australia and the values of mainstream Australia are those of the conservative right.
In recent years, the Australian Labor Party seems to have been bamboozled by this nonsense. Can there be any doubt that the deplorable policy outcomes of the last decade, as engineered by the Howard government and many of the state ALP governments, are at least in part due to their shared assumption that there was no appetite for radical reform on the part of the Australian electorate?
Australians are not inherently socially conservative. They are prepared to embrace radical reform if circumstances require it. But our instinct for reform is at every turn frustrated and repelled by stifling and archaic institutions and political structures that were outmoded in the nineteenth century and are totally useless to us in the twenty-first.
The incompetence of the state and territory governments is apparent to all Australians, even to those who, like John Howard, for so long supported states rights federalism.
But of all the fossilised artefacts that plague us, nothing comes close in perversity and stupidity to the Australian electoral system.
For it is the deeply anti-democratic nature of the Australian electoral system, not any ingrained streak of conservatism in the Australian people, that has sustained Australian governments of all persuasions in office when the Australian people have voted otherwise: the Australian electoral system does an astonishingly poor job of converting a majority of popular votes into a majority of seats in the House of Representatives.
We may scoff at the outrageous outcome of the 2000 American presidential elections when the popular vote winner Al Gore was denied the Presidency, but the frustration of popular democracy occurs far more frequently in Australian electoral history than it does in the United States.
Since 1949, there have been five elections – 1954, 1961, 1969, 1990 and 1998 – when the Australian people voted clearly for a change of government which was then denied them by the arcane and anti-democratic workings of our debased electoral machinery. Had the will of the people been expressed fairly and honestly, the careers of several prime ministers would all have been considerably shorter.
The long Menzian afternoon would have been reduced to a five-year interlude between 1949 and 1954 — to be replaced by what would have undoubtedly been a riot of demented excess under Prime Minister Doc Evatt. And had Menzies not fallen to Evatt, he would have been replaced by Prime Minister Calwell in 1961. The Australian people again pulled stumps on the conservatives in 1969, when in the clearest parallel to the 2007 election, Gough Whitlam obtained a swing of over 7 per cent to defeat the Coaltion government, which nevertheless clung to office for another three dreary years.
To balance things somewhat, had seats followed votes, Prime Minister Peacock would have replaced Bob Hawke in the Lodge in 1990. In recent times, the much-eulogised Howard ascendancy would have lasted all of two years, from 1996 to 1998, when Kim Beazley decisively outpolled Howard to win that year’s elections. Had the will of the people prevailed at these five perverse elections, the political and social history of post-war Australia would have been greatly different.
Counter-factual history is entertaining, and no more than guesswork, but at the very least truly fair elections would have resulted in many more occupants of the Prime Ministerial throne over the last six decades. And in four out of five of these elections, the will of the people was to embrace the ALP rather than the conservative alternative.
Had the will of the people been implemented at these elections, whether to install governments of the left or the right, these governments would have been more reflective of the contemporary needs, aspirations and opinions of the Australian people who after all have voted for change ten and not just five, times since 1949.
It is therefore deeply wrong to blame the Australian people for the sclerotic timidity and lack of vision that has so often disfigured Australian politics and greatly delayed necessary reform by many post-war governments. Since 1949, the Australian people have voted for political change at almost every other election, yet their will has been denied by a complex system that does not reliably deliver a majority of seats to the side that wins a majority of votes.
This absurd contraption of single member electorates locks up and effectively disenfranchises millions of Australians in safe electorates, while showering largesse on a small number of voters in marginal seats. Over time, this has created a massively distorted imbalance in the national distribution of services and subsidies. This has counted against safe seat voters on both sides of the political spectrum – and especially voters in most rural and regional seats and the inner cities.
This grotesque travesty needs to be replaced by a simple system of true proportional representation under which seats in the House of Representatives are allocated in strict proportion to the votes cast by the Australian people. We should dispense with the nonsense of safe seats, which has led to the corruption and growing irrelevance of the political parties. Let the leaders of the national parties be elected on a list system that holds them accountable and responsible to the nation at large, rather than to an electorate, state or territory. Let governing coalitions be formed openly and honestly on the floor of the peoples’ House and not as a consequence of the arcane manipulations of electoral law and arithmetic by party politicians and unelected bureaucrats.
There is nothing wrong with Australian democracy that democracy cannot cure. But it is beyond time to discard a system that has served this country and its people so poorly.