Is our Westminster system past its use by date? | Thought Starters

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A short constitutional quiz:

What section of our Constitution defines the role of Cabinet?

How does the Constitution define the relationship between Executive Government and the Public Service?

Exactly what form of Westminster government is prescribed in the Constitution?

How does the Constitution define a “political party”?

A clue to the answers: in one of those management training exercises the trainer sets up a game of quoits, with a line drawn on the floor a couple of meters from the spike. The instruction to the participants is to get as many quoits on to the spike as possible, and there is no mention of the line. Almost all participants stand behind the line, and miss most shots.

Too often we assume the existence of constraining rules. The Constitution is silent on all these matters.

Yet by convention, we have taken on rules that shape our political decision-making. A government that does not have cabinet solidarity is in grave danger of collapse. The public service is loyal solely to Executive Government. Political parties must maintain their discipline. And so on.

These rules would be functional in a pure Westminster system, with two dominant party groupings each representing defined class interests.  In the 1951 election, for example, the primary vote as we now say was 50 per cent for  the Coalition and 48 per cent for Labor. There wasn’t much residual voter preference.

But the trend in the two party vote has been downwards for the last 75 years. In the 2013 election the combined Coalition/Labor vote was below 80 per cent. Some parties have come and gone, but by now the Greens seem to be fairly well entrenched. And that’s not to mention others in the Senate who would gain a quota even with more restrictive voting rules, and independents and Greens in the House of Representatives.

Political scientists offer a simple and compelling explanation for the slow death of the two party system: “class”, as we once understood it, has become less relevant to our political interests. It’s not that we have become a classless society – in fact by most measures Australia in the postwar years was more egalitarian than it is now. But there is no longer any reliability in assuming that our political interests are associated with our income or wealth.

In Australia Labor and the Greens have been chasing middle-class professional votes, while the Liberal Party has been chasing the “blue collar” vote and the National Party has found its constituency drifting from the squattocracy to hardscrabble farmers. In the US, states with higher average incomes tend to vote Democrat, while the poorer states vote Republican.

All this is well-known, but our governance arrangements have not kept pace with these changes.

The problem of this misfit is starkly clear in the Turnbull Government.

Two issues – allowing same-sex marriage and taking strong action on climate change – illustrate our policy bind.

Both have strong community support. And, it is almost certain, a majority of our elected representatives would be in support of these measures.

Standing in the way of a common sense solution are the supposed rules of our supposed “Westminster” system. By application of these rules a rump of the governing party can stymie reform. In fact, it can be shown with a little arithmetic that when a governing party has a formal factionalised system of representation (as is the case in the Labor Party and in the Coalition with the formal status of the National Party), at the limit 12.5 percent of parliamentary members could dictate how the legislature votes on policy, even if the other 87.5 percent of parliamentarians would vote differently.

So attached are we to these rules that we live in terror of a “hung parliament” – notwithstanding the demonstrated successes of so-called “minority” governments. The Gillard Government worked quite well without a majority in the House of Representatives,  various state governments have operated in “minority” status, we rarely have a Senate in which the governing party has a working majority, and in most European democracies a majority government would be a rare phenomenon.

Similarly, when a politician votes against his or her own party’s positions, the media talk about disloyalty and we use the emotive term “crossing the floor”, conjuring images of soldiers in trench warfare running across no-man’s-land to betray their colleagues.

When there is a rumour of policy dissent in Cabinet, the media brings out the tired and overworked cliché “disunity is death”. It’s as if the ideal democracy is one led by an unimaginative bunch of men and women suffering from terminal groupthink.

And, of course, the public service is loyal to the governing party and the governing party only – providing advice, and, increasingly, de facto political support. No form of torture is so feared by public servants as having to appear before parliamentary committees where there may be politicians from other parties. Yet more and more legislation is being modified in the Senate, where so-called “opposition” and “crossbench” members have no access to the advice of the public service – a situation that can lead to very poor legislation. Senior public service would suffer stress-related breakdowns if they had to deal with a House of Representatives where each major issue required cross-party negotiation.

Our present “Westminster” system is past its use-by-date. There are two ways we can go.

One is to forget about party discipline. If Turnbull were to put up a bill on same sex marriage or climate change then obviously some in his own party would vote against it, but that is no different from the situation that has faced every US President, who can never take partisan support in Congress for granted. Some may say a loss of cabinet and party solidarity can lead to uncertainty, but is uncertainty any worse than blocked reform and a denial of the community’s wishes?

The other way is to see our main parties break up into more defined gatherings – for example with the Liberal Party breaking into a liberal party and a conservative party, the Labor Party breaking into a conservative trade-union party and a progressive “left” party, and the National Party going its own way (as has been the case in Western Australia at times). That would lead to a system more akin to those operating in mainland European countries. Those who deride such systems frequently refer to the instability of the Greek and Italian Governments, but neglect to mention Netherlands or Germany as successful and stable examples. In fact, the criticism of multi-party democracies is that in terms of policy they tend to be too stable, because it’s hard for one strong party to dominate. But anyone looking at some of our main policy arenas – taxation, climate change, health insurance, immigration, education – would say that our combative “Westminster” system has been a major source of policy instability.

Either way we can break from our self-imposed rules, without changing a word of our Constitution.

Ian McAuley is a CPD fellow, and co-author of Governomics: Can we afford small government? 

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