The Bane at the Heart of Democratic Politics
Party politics is the bane of the world’s democratic political systems, not only in Australia but also in other Liberal Democracies. It is the cancer at the heart of a free-thinking democracy. In How Democracy Ends,[i] David Runciman says: “Nothing seems more artificial than political parties. As India’s Gandhi pointed out, political parties exist to stop people thinking for themselves.” Although Runciman’s discussion is focused on the USA, it is equally applicable to Australia. The author quotes Joseph Schumpeter who, in 1942, defined (party driven) democracy “as a competition between teams of salesmen to get the voters to buy their product.”
In America, the Republican party was hijacked by Trump. Despite that, almost every member of the Republican Party came together behind their new leader for the sake of party survival. The consequence for the USA is widely seen as disastrous with many referring to America as a “failing” state. The final question in the Vice Presidential debate leading up to the recent US Presidential election came from an eighth grader who said:
“When I watch the news, all I see is arguing between Democrats and Republicans, when I watch the news, all I see is citizens fighting against citizens, when I watch the news all I see is two candidates from opposing parties trying to tear each other down. If our leaders can’t get along how are our citizens supposed to get along?” The candidates floundered as they attempted to respond – this young student underscored the tribal party versus party wars. Australia has a comparable challenge.
In Britain, following the recent suspension of Jeremy Corbin, Labour MPs supporting Corbin threatened to resign from the party and to sit as independents. Ian Lavery, a former chairman of the Labour Party argued that “The only way we will win an election is by staying as a united party.”[ii] So much for conviction – it is all about political survival at any price.
Combative Party Politics in Australia
Australia’s combative political culture, where opposing parties are in government in different States and at the Federal level, has frequently rendered the Federation unworkable. One of the most poisonous characteristics of Australia’s public life is its aggressively adversarial system. Politicians are more interested in picking a fight with each other than finding common ground. British law is highly adversarial, and Australia has adopted these values which have infected its public life.[iii] The first step towards any reform and restructuring of Australian governance is to change the party system[iv]
Former Prime Minister, Bob Hawke argued that the party system in Australia, with its requirements of strong party allegiance and discipline had undermined the Parliament’s checks and balances. Rigid enforcement of party politics, and the possible loss of party endorsement ensures that the policy of the Executive is largely agreed to as a formality. Any meaningful questions are raised in the party room – not on the floor of the House.
Unfortunately, according to Hawke, no one “believes the end of the party system to be imminent” or that we are about to witness a return to the Parliament of “unattached free-thinking souls”.[v]
The Sydney Morning Herald recently wrote of the foundations of liberal democracy becoming increasingly fragile, and of a “rising tribalisation” of Australian politics and culture. The same article reported that public faith in democracy in Australia was in decline and that less than half of Australians aged under 45 agreed that democracy was preferable to any other kind of government – good policy was not a “left-right” issue, but rather one of basic competency.[vi]
There is nothing in the Australian Constitution requiring the continuing existence of political parties. Parties can come and go. They can form coalitions such as the Liberal/National Coalition and they can dissolve. As reported in The Australian, “once great political parties in the West and some developing countries also seem to be on a fast track to oblivion.” In France, President Macron secured a massive majority in 2017 for his one-year-old movement, En Marche, effectively consigning the Socialist Party to the dustbin of history. In South Africa, the once great party of national liberation, the African National Congress is today facing rot.[vii]
One of the most severe consequences of the party-political system is that after each election, roughly half of the voting population and approximately half of the elected representatives on the losing side are not in government and are effectively disenfranchised, until the next election. It is no wonder that this fails to represent the wishes of the Australian people. As well, in a keenly contested election, the nation might be held to ransom by a few independents as happened during Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministership. Doing “deals with the devil” to survive leads inevitably to compromised outcomes frequently against the nation’s best interests.
Left-wing - Right-wing
The Australian system of government derives largely from the more than 700-year-old adversarial Westminster system. Much later, in 1789, the concept of “left-wing” and “right-wing” emerged during the French Revolution. Members of the French National Assembly were deeply divided about the monarchy. The anti-royalists were seated to the left and the conservative monarchy supporters gathered to the right (reminiscent of the recent and continuing Monarchy v Republic debate in Australia).
The terms “left” and “right” has become associated with political ideologies. Many regard the “left” as including anarchists, communists, socialists, libertarians, and progressives, while the “right” includes conservatives, monarchists, and traditionalists. There is no reason why thinking individuals should not have a range of opinions, some left, others to the right and some at the centre. The labels do not help. Even worse, they give rise to factions within Australia’s political parties. “Often the effective Government is in reality the dominant faction of a major party in Government. Thus, this group may represent no more than about 30% of the electorate. Here too the recent failure of Turnbull as PM is a typical example.”[viii]
The time is ripe for change.
Eliminating Partisan Party Politics
I do not underestimate the challenge in the following proposal nor do I underestimate the difficulties in achieving acceptance. The existence of political parties is deeply entrenched. However, I propose nothing less than the abandonment in Australia of political parties. This is not about a “One Party” system - it is about a “No Party” system. What does that mean and how would it work? It was tiny New Zealand which led the world, becoming the first nation, in 1893 to grant women the right to vote. Australia followed in 1902. These were giant leaps at the time. There is no reason why this proposal to kick out party politics cannot now achieve just as great a breakthrough.
Electorates would continue to operate as they do now. Candidates for office would stand for election in each electorate, not as party representatives but in their own right. Citizens will vote for their chosen candidate based on their values, priorities, community standing, history, opinions, objectives, track record, and experience. Candidates would have a diverse range of values and opinions including liberal, conservative, capitalist, and socialist. Candidates would owe no allegiance to a party. Instead, allegiance would be owed solely to the voting public.
To avoid an excess of candidates, each candidate for election would require a minimum of, say 1000 endorsements in each constituency. If too many candidates remained, then the six with the most endorsements would stand for election. A candidate securing the most votes in an electorate would be the elected member of the House of Representatives. If no candidate achieves an absolute majority, then Australia’s system of preferences could be applied to achieve a clear outcome.
Participation by all Members
All elected members of the House, not only representatives of one party, would nominate and vote for a Prime Minister. The system of choosing would be similar to that currently used in the party room of a victorious political party, but instead all members of the House would have their say – a real democracy!
Frequently, there are highly skilled, capable members of the House who are elected as Independents and not as members of a Political Party. Under the current system, they would have no prospect of serving in the Cabinet, let alone becoming the Prime Minister. Under a No Party system, every member of the House would have the potential for holding high office, serving the best interests of the Nation.
All members of the House should work together to select and vote for a Cabinet of 20 to 30 of their peers. The Prime Minister would have the authority to allocate Ministerial portfolios.
Debate in the House
Healthy, vigorous, and critical debate, including questions in the House should, must and would continue. This is the lifeblood of good democratic government. However, much of the debate in the Parliament, as currently constituted, too often descends into vicious, acrimonious and hostile point scoring, as opponents seek to gain the upper hand, not for the sake of good government but rather to score political points. These contests may at times be interesting, even amusing, but it is difficult to see how they contribute to good government. Without political parties, the focus of the debate would be directed at outcomes – outcomes which aim to serve Australia’s National Interest.
Major benefits would flow from a No Party system including a greater diversity of thought and opinions, and the elimination of Australia’s aggressively adversarial politics. Tribalism would disappear. There would be only one tribe - the Australian people. All would be represented in the Parliament. Members of the House would be free to speak and vote for or against proposals in open Parliament, not behind closed party doors. They would vote according to their convictions, not in conformity with a party line. The next election would not be clouded by party political considerations. The elimination of aggressive party politics would almost certainly bring an end to “broken promises” as well as pork barrelling during election campaigns. Branch stacking would disappear.
The pool of members from whom to choose the Prime Minister and the Cabinet would be approximately doubled since every member in the House would be a potential candidate - not only that half whose party was victorious at the last election. No longer would half of the voting public and half of the elected representatives be disenfranchised. Everyone would count, and all would be represented. Every member of the House would be a free thinking “Independent”, free to support or oppose a proposal, not to score party political points, but because they believe they should.
[i] How Democracy Ends by David Runciman, Ch 3 - 2018 [ii] The Guardian, UK 31 October 2020 [iii] Reboot Ch 2 by Richard Walsh 2017 [iv] Beyond Federation (Options to renew Australia’s 1901 Constitution)-2014 [v] The Boyer Lectures by Bob Hawke 1979 [vi] SMH 19 November 2018 [vii] The Australian 22 June 2017 [viii] How to Improve Australia’s Democracy by Klaas Woldring 2020