Australia Punched Above It’s Weight ..150 yrs Ago!

In 1856 Australia gave the world the ‘Australian Ballot’. It was radical at the time. Most voters thought that men, (who were the only ones voting then) should have the courage to defend their vote in public.

The Victorian Legislative Council, (and two weeks later South Australia) introduced the Electoral Act 1856. Within twenty years New Zealand, Canada and Britain had followed our lead. It took almost another twenty years for the Americans to wise up. As Gideon Haigh writes, “..the Australian Ballot is an artefact of antipodean aspiration; of the possibilities with which the colonies seemed to teem”.

Does Australia still have the stamina? Haigh goes on to say: “Imagine seeking impetus for such a scheme today, in an era…. when transparency (or the appearance thereof) is next to godliness, the status quo is so resolutely defended, and Australia moves in such disciplined arrears of trends overseas.”

Yet, Australia, being younger and less hidebound by tradition, may still be better disposed to radical invention than the countries of Europe and North America

What’s wrong with the present system?

For me the major defect of the current system is the all too regular occurrence of serious compromises in policy development and implementation.

I’ll cite just two very recent examples – one at a State level and the other Federally. But there are plenty more.

In NSW, Carr and Egan implemented surplus budgets for 10 years, to avoid being seen and portrayed by the public and the Opposition as fiscally irresponsible. During these 10 years, NSW (and Sydney’s) infrastructure was depleted.

It was plain to some that carrying a reasonable deficit was not going to be detrimental to the economy, however for mostly popular political motives, the NSW government chose to neglect long term infrastructure investment. Today the Government is being forced into substantial deficits to redress the chronic underinvestment.

Federally the Howard Government’s most recent compromise was in its dealings with Indonesia. The Australian public have taken a view that Abu Bakar Bashir, the Muslim cleric implicated in the Bali bombings, should have remained in prison. Howard took the extraordinary step of releasing to the press a letter to the Indonesian President Yudhoyono. Beazley and Rudd weighed in saying the letter was strong but the follow up was “soft”.

Paul Kelly, from the Australian, has described the situation as ‘a naked bidding ward in our politics to sieze the “tough on Indonesia” position. He goes on to say that “..making a martyr out of Bashir is exactly what he wants. It plays into the hands of Indonesian extremists. Such demands make it impossible for any Jakarta Government to be seen to buckle before Australia.”

Of course Government and Opposition generally appear to be at odds, but too often their public displays of rhetoric and posturing simply fabricate debate so each can parade a point of difference.

So, whether Government and Opposition are in agreement or divergent, the party political agenda on both sides remains to play up to popular opinion.

None of this puerile politicking furthers good government. These are but symptoms, I think, of a systemic failure in our basic electoral framework- the way we elect our political representatives in contemporary Australia, on the eve of the demise of ideologies.
And for as long as there is the cartel of incumbents,
there is little likelihood of any alternatives being aired by them.

Is there an alternative to Populism in Politics?

During the Hawke/Keating Labor Cabinet in the 80’s, far ranging macroeconomic reforms were implemented with bipartisan support, including labour market reform, the reduction of trade barriers and the floating of the dollar. From about this time the divide in Australia between Left and Right began to close.

Today, Labor and the Coalition are bickering over the middle ground, with no real ideological distinction discernible.The latest IR debate is possibly the last hurrah for both.

Populism has arisen to the foreground because Government and Opposition have no real policy distinctions. Strident political rhetoric seems to be the prevalent tone fuelling popular opinion and vice versa.

It is difficult to imagine how a Government could resist the Carr/Egan budget programme or the Bashir bashing when both the populist vote and Opposition are egging you on.

The only avenue for reform, in my view, now in 2006, is to seek a more deliberative framework – more akin to the workings of early Parliaments – less factionalised by artificial groupings. Of course associations will always develop of like minded people –but the incentive to entrench them should be not there from the outset.

As Adam Michink says: “Today, the classic ideological positions, like liberalism, conservatism or socialism, do not dominate public debate about taxes, health reform or superannuation”.

Our proposal for a newRepublic, is to start by having a Citizens Assembly: a random selection of the electorate to review how one may elect a less polarized representative class from the outset.

The aim is to have a government which is more focussed on a deliberative framework and less dependant on party political allegiances.
At the end we might just be able to sideline puerile divisions so as to encourage considered and responsible consensus.

Much like the way most modern organisations work.

But as Haigh concludes: “Political beneficiaries of an existing system would scarcely propose its replacement. Corporate interests would hardly favour a move that limited the scope of manipulation of the electorate. Progressives would counterclaim that democracy is merely an illusion anyway. Focus groups would incubate the same ‘if-it-ain’t-broke’ attitudes as developed during the debate over the republic. The media would revel in the short term political turmoil, churning out analysis of polls, amplification of spin, profiles of personalities and unsourced stories of party-room intrigue.

“Voters would finally conclude with a shrug that whatever the system, it’s always a politician who gets elected. The Australian ballot, then, is a symbol of the democratic achievements of our past, and a reminder of the political exhaustion of our present.”

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