What next for the two party system?

The first challenge posed by the disconnect between the two party system and political reality is absolutely fundamental. This is to create a larger capacity to expose real (if broad) consensus and to focus on specific disagreements. This will require a policy making process that can explore points of consensus and points of sharp disagreement between key protagonists. In addition, what might be termed a contemplative phase is needed in the process.

In other words, a new infrastructure is required to manage the strategic or agenda entry end of the policy cycle. This is the key phase for marking out consensual possibilities and points of fundamental difference. This is the phase in which a new issue is recognised and its broad significance and priority assessed. This would represent a new and transparent political phase in the policy making process.

Remember this is only at the preliminary stage in deciding what to do – it’s only at the stage of gaining the degree of agreement possible that there is an issue and (also if possible) a definition of its broad scope. Remember too that political leaders mostly work with the grain of public opinion. Sometimes they must confront their publics. But mostly they need to work within an envelope of interest group and community opinion.

A policy structure capable of exposing consensus would be good for politics, good for policy making and good for the community. This needs to occur without compromising the electoral standing of the various parties or the government’s right to govern. In fact, procedures that would achieve this end are evident in our own political history. Between 1901 and 1909, the electorate returned three parties – the Free Traders, Protectionists and Labor.

Governing required at least two of these parties to reach an accommodation with each other on particular measures. Deakin, the architect of the period, led minority governments. To create sufficient parliamentary support to enact acutely contested measures, he needed to seed a parliamentary (and hence public conversation) at the strategic end of the issue cycle, but before the government’s own approach was determined.

To achieve this outcome, he turned to a tried and tested vehicle: committees of the legislature. Indeed the Australian constitution provided him with an ideal structure. The Senate had been conceived as an independent House on the American model. In its initial years most members acted in this spirit.

More recently, the (late) Liberal David Hamer recommended converting the Senate to a Committee House. Ministers would not be drawn from this Chamber. Its committees could then become important agenda entry points for new and emerging issues. The adversarial culture, which is now often breached in committee enquiries, would be equally qualified in broader Senate proceedings.

With their scope specifically confined to emerging and strategic issues, committees could be agents of the legislature rather than the executive. They could recommend action – and the legislature would debate their recommendations. Ideally this would be free of the whips. But even with whipped or partially whipped votes, majority, cross-party support in the Senate would provide important guidance for the executive. A more diverse expression of views in the legislature would give the executive more flexibility in response. Following this debate, it would be up to the government to decide what to do.

If government rejects a report, the committee could return to the issue and respond to the executive’s argument. If it rejects the latter and the Senate votes to uphold the report, the government could either back down or use the mostly dormant procedures for resolving inter-House disputes. There are numerous imaginative examples from the US.

Within this constraint, the key point would be to shift some of the power in defining strategic policy direction from the executive to the legislature and, via this forum, try to narrow points of agreement and disagreement between the key protagonists. The theatre of parliamentary contention might then unfold in a more positive way. Meantime, the enquiry process and the subsequent parliamentary debates would educate all participants (the political parties, stakeholder interests, the media and the broader public) about the need for action and perhaps also about the most effective forms of action.

At the same time, such a procedure might be expected to have much greater impact on the mobilisation of relevant interests and the broader public. By such means, it might stimulate processes of social learning and the development of public opinion. All this would be designed to create a base in constituency and public opinion for whatever action might later be required.

Is this thought experiment just fantasy? Probably, until the hold of the two main parties is seriously challenged – as it may well be by the rise of independents in the House of Representatives. The present adversarial culture would need to be significantly qualified. Senators would need to approach their task with a more independent sprit. The fact that matters are being considered before decisions are taken by the executive would no doubt be opposed by ministers. It would compromise their powers – but it would be good for ministerial performance.

One path to change involves the rise of minor parties. With the Greens gaining such a pivotal role after this election, such a change would be in their particular interest. They will need to be able to demonstrate to supporters why they accept particular government measures and how they are advancing their own program. Backroom deals will not be sufficient. (Remember the Democrats?) A strong committee system would make the reasons for such decisions, including the trade-offs that might have been negotiated as part of a compromise, much more transparent.

If the challenge is to reconnect voters to the formal political system, few options are available. Other responses, like community cabinets or ministerial door-knocks, involve political make-believe where the distance between espoused purposes and actual achievement ultimately fuels public cynicism. The real need is for a process to build public consent for political action. A tilt of the overall political incentive structure from wholly adversarial toward more consensual styles is the only option. In recent decades, the major party structures have calcified and the social base of the two party system has imploded. But the major parties continue to draw upon and deploy its considerable resources and inertial power. For how long can the assumptions of another era thwart adaptation?