Running a country these days is not for the faint-hearted. While the problems may vary, the degree of difficulty is high nearly everywhere across the world’s 230 nations. If the problem isn’t terrorism or racial tensions, it’s low economic growth, high debt levels, a high unemployment rate, ecological challenges or the absence of a working majority in government. Sometimes it’s all of the above.
Australia elected a new government on 2 July, but we didn’t know who was in it – or which party had won – until August. Effectively, the nation has a hung parliament due to the Coalition’s slim majority in the House of Representatives, and the minorities-dominated Senate, where no party has control. So, no meaningful reforms will likely be undertaken during the life of this parliament. More’s the pity, since we haven’t had any reform of significance for a decade. And the clock is ticking on deficits, debt, jobs, productivity, growth, the energy mix, social issues such as same-sex marriage, and more.
The first chart below shows the state of the House of Representatives.
There have only been three other knife-edged parliaments in Australia: in 1940 (United Australian Party), 1961 (Liberal-Country Party) and 2010 (ALP).
Of statistical significance is the fact that the ALP has only governed for around 28% of the time since Federation. This is clearly due to the socialist ideology that underpinned the party, and the ALP only begun to revise its platform when capitalism proved to be the better direction by the mid-1960s. The ALP’s periods in power have increased to around 45% in the past 50 years. This is due to leadership more than its ideology and union roots, both of which are on an irreversible decline.
The second chart shows the state of the Senate.
The upper house has been a mess for a very long time. No major party has had a majority since the Fraser Coalition Government in 1977, some 39 years ago. And another majority in the senate is not in sight. Up until 1980, a major party had been in control of the Senate for over 80% of the time. Since then, none of the time.
The Senate does not serve the purpose intended in the 1901 Constitution. It was created as a protector of state rights and powers – given an equal number of seats per state – and a house of review of legislation from the House of Representatives. From inception, the Senate has been an unrepresentative and undemocratic institution, as is the upper house in the British Parliament, the House of Lords. The difference is that the British upper house cannot indefinitely veto legislation from the Commons, only slow it down. Not so with our upper house, once referred to by Paul Keating as ‘unrepresentative swill’.
By 1908, the issue of free trade vs. protectionism had been put to bed (in favour of the latter). There were then only two competing ideologies – socialism vs. capitalism – until the new age began in the mid-1960s. So clearly one of the two had a majority at each election.
The new Infotronics Age of service industries (and the underpinning IT), which displaced the Industrial Age, gave rise to a new set of ideologies. We touch on these shortly, but suffice it to say at this point, these new ideologies attracted votes away from the traditional parties, and enabled significant numbers of new senators in the upper house. Indeed, over 26% of all the 72 seats in the recent 2016 election were won by Independents of Other parties. This was aided by the absence of a one-person one-vote democracy for the Senate.
The most important reform of our upper house would be the restriction of its powers to that of reviewing legislation rather than being able to veto bills; although prospects of that change to the Constitution are minimal, as is the creation of representative voting. Again, more’s the pity.
This leads us to the new ideologies of the Infotronics age, which have arisen both here and in other developed countries. The next two exhibits summarise the changes.
Australia’s dilemma in 2016 is that the governments that have been in power over the past decade have been ensconced in the lower emotional ideological position. And now the ALP and Coalition have the company of The Greens, Family First, the regressive Hansonites and Xenophonites, and a ragtag of independents. All are sitting in the emotional – and often irrational – zone. We can expect no progress of the nation while this situation prevails.
We only need look at two examples of pigheadedness or ideological idiocy to see the blockages to reform and progress as suggested below.
So most are aware of the dismal state of our Federal Government. Neither major party has the vision or courage to do the more rational things that will put the nation back on the path to 3.5% growth instead of the 2.7% growth of the past decade, and full employment. Both the ALP and the Coalition were rational for almost a quarter of a century from 1983 to 2007. Neither are in 2016, and neither party appears to have the talent to take the nation out of the doldrums.
Politicians’ spin and spoiling tactics need to be countered by fact-checking, vision and explanations of the benefits of reforms. In the absence of political parties’ ability or willingness to do the right thing, businesses and rational social groups need to encourage the media to fulfil this role.
Fortunately, it is businesses that create most of the wealth and jobs each year (around 85%), so the absence of good government is not the end of the world. And our consumer confidence sits around the dividing line of confidence and worry. But it would be nice to have a party in power with rational, visionary and courageous leadership again.
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