Party games in Australia

I’ve got two stories in Crikey this week about Australian politics: one on Tuesday about possible attempts by the federal government to stop minor parties using words like “Liberal” or “Labor” (or even “Labour”) in their names; and one today about the problems the Victorian government is having in dealing with its rogue independent, Geoff Shaw.

Both have interesting international parallels. Indeed, both are examples of how Australian political debate could be improved by a greater understanding of democratic practice in the rest of the world. (And both are paywalled, giving you two more reasons to subscribe.)

In Tuesday’s piece I explained the position like this:

Traditionally, Australia’s treatment of political parties and candidates has been very egalitarian. The requirements for nomination and for party registration are not onerous, and once nominated or registered everyone is treated equally, at least in theory. Ballot paper positions are allocated by random draw, and no special indication is given as to whether a party is a major national organisation or a hastily contrived front group.

It’s not the same everywhere. In many countries, ballot access is much more tightly controlled and considerable favouritism is shown to established parties. The downside is that challenging the incumbents can be much more difficult, but it must be admitted that there is a considerable upside in reducing the sources of voter confusion.

In many respects, Australia’s politicians have been quite ready to stack the electoral system in their favor and disadvantage newcomers. But ballot access hasn’t been one of them. It would be a pity if that tradition were to change.

The solution, I suggest, is to get rid of automatic ticket preferencing, which would reduce the incentive for the proliferation of tiny parties. In Antony Green’s post on the subject he reaches the same conclusion. The body of the post is neutral as to remedies, but in response to comments he makes his view clear:

If you get rid of ticket voting you will solve all the problems with candidates being elected from tiny votes, which means the number of parties and candidates putting themselves forward would be diminished, and voters would be presented with a manageable range of candidates that voters will have a better chance of distinguishing between.

The other reform that an overseas observer might suggest would be to get rid of compulsory voting. The chronically unmotivated voters, who are probably the most likely to get confused, simply wouldn’t turn up.

The Shaw story is more of a lesson about parliamentary government:

In a typical Westminster system — in the United Kingdom, for example, or in the Australian federal Parliament – there would be a straightforward remedy for this situation. The government would declare that it regarded a particular bill or motion as an issue of confidence, and if it were defeated (or prevented from coming to a vote) it would go to the governor and ask for a dissolution of the Assembly for an early election.

Since Shaw’s chance of holding his seat (especially at an early election) is negligible, he would be most unlikely to vote against the government in those circumstances.

But as I explained last year, that course of action is not available in Victoria. The Legislative Assembly has a fixed four-year term, and the only way an early election can be held (apart from a case of conflict between the two houses, which isn’t an issue here) is if a motion of no confidence is passed by the Assembly.

So the Napthine government is reduced to considering either drastic options to expose the unworkability of its position, or else trying to buy Shaw off. My guess is that it will attempt the latter.

In a presidential system, of course, where fixed terms are the norm, it’s accepted that the government may sometimes be unable to control the legislature. That’s the position that Barack Obama is in at present. It’s an irritation, but it doesn’t threaten the survival of the administration.

But a parliamentary system depends upon the government being able to command a majority on the floor of parliament, so it needs enough flexibility to deal with situations where that doesn’t happen. In introducing fixed terms – a measure that I basically support – it seems that Victoria maybe tied the hands of the government a little too tightly.

The problem could have been minimised if the constitutional reform had provided for an odd number of members in the Assembly. That would seem a basic precaution for the lower house in a parliamentary system. Yet even numbers are remarkably common: a quick look at the G8 countries reveals that five of them currently have an even number of members in the lower house.

Of the three with odd numbers, the United States is not a parliamentary system at all, and Germany has an odd number only by luck, due to “overhang” members produced by its proportional voting system – the base number is even. France is really the only one that isn’t asking for trouble.

The Shaw story is also a reminder that Australians are not well educated in just how our constitution is supposed to work. We seem uncomfortable with such boring but essential details. How else to explain the repeated failures of the media to understand what’s going on.

Here, for example, is Josh Gordon in this morning’s Age:

Trouble is, blocking financial supply is no trigger for an early election under a constitutional overhaul introduced by the former (minority) Bracks government in 2003 designed to enshrine fixed four-year terms.

[A]n early election would require a successful ”no-confidence” motion in the Premier and other ministers. A likely outcome would be deadlocked numbers at 44-all, meaning the vote would fail. Even if such a vote were to pass, there is no clear mechanism to allow the Governor to intervene by dissolving the Parliament.

Well, for a start, the Bracks government wasn’t in a minority in 2003: it won a landslide at the 2002 election. More importantly, a no-confidence motion can’t be deadlocked 44-all, because the speaker has no deliberative vote. It’s unlikely to be deadlocked at all, unless Shaw chose to abstain, in which case it would be defeated on the casting vote of the speaker.

And if a no-confidence vote did pass, it’s not true that there’s “no clear mechanism” for dissolving parliament – that’s actually the one thing that is clear. (Read section 8A, here.) The problem is that Shaw and the opposition are unlikely to support a no-confidence motion, and without one there’s no obvious road to resolution.

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