||Issue No. 293||20 December 2005|
Waves of Destruction
Interview: Back to the Future
Unions: A Real Page Turner
Industrial: The Pin-Striped Union
International: Around The World In 365 Days
Legends: Terrific, Tommy
Your Rights At Work: Worth Fighting For
Politics: The Year That Was
Economics: Master and Servant Revisited
Culture: 2005: The Year of Living Repetitively
Bad Boss: The Bottom Ten
Religion: Hymns from a Different Song Sheet
The Locker Room
Free to Rat
Tax Cuts and Cockroaches
Proportion, Not Distortion
Letters to the Editor
Proportion, Not Distortion
Last week's Editorial makes some very valid observations about the decline of our parliamentary democracy. It correctly observes that the power of executive government in our constitutional framework is at its zenith. Equally it points out that the nominal separation of powers between legislature and a responsible executive government have been rendered inoperative by the rigidities of party disciple.
Unfortunately the editor's prescription for this malady is for the parties to abandon the discipline of the whip on all occasions except for confidence votes. This would be a serious error for any party committed to reform. Party discipline is the critical link of accountability between a party's election commitments and what it does in government. We may not like what Howard is doing but the vast majority of this reform agenda has been coalition policy for a long time. Any vaguely politically aware person has known that the Coalition has wanted to do some really nasty stuff on the IR front. The critical factor is that up until now they have lacked the numbers to do it.
The cruel irony is that it was the emergence of the Labor Party on the national political stage that led to the adoption of rigid party discipline. Labor introduced of the union principle of solidarity to parliamentary processes through the instruments of the pledge and the binding caucus. Our conservative opponents were forced to respond with their own tightened discipline. And so we find ourselves in our current predicament.
The Editor holds up the individual freedom of members of the US congress as a model to be emulated. In this system party policy is meaningless and the self-interest of representatives is the key determinate of their voting patterns. That is why money rules in this system and that would be no different here. In the US the Labor movement have been trying to repeal their equivalent of the Workplace Relations Act since 1947. This is despite their so-called friends - the Democratic Party - having a nominal congressional majority for most of the preceding half century. The Labor movement has simply not been able to outbid corporate America to buy back a majority on this issue in the congress. Give me the Australian system any day!
If we are looking for possible ways to strengthen the role of the parliament over the executive then perhaps a better model lies across the Tasman. The New Zealand system of proportional voting (Mixed Member Proportional - MMP) has done just that. Before MMP New Zealand probably had the strongest form of executive government among western democracies. With no upper house and no written constitution a government with control of the numbers in the parliament could do pretty much what it liked. And they did! That's how they got Rogernomics and the Employment Contracts Act. But the change to the electoral system has rendered that style of government impossible now. The executive has to negotiate its entire legislative agenda through a parliament where it lacks a guaranteed majority. The Executive is truly held accountable to the parliament!
Admittedly coalition government has its down sides. Critics of proportional electoral systems often point to post war Italy and the instability of its governments. But other more stable democracies, like post war Germany and Sweden, have operated under PR without this instability. Arguably the key element of stable parliamentary democracies is not the method of election but a nation's history and political culture.
A future Labor government committed to restoring the integrity of our parliamentary system should give serious consideration to changing the way our lower house is elected. What might be lost in stability would be gained in accountability and the strengthening of parliament as the central institution in our democracy.
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