Vote Independent? Not if you believe in democracy
Did anyone else choke on their breakfast cereal hearing Rob Oakeshot demand party discipline from the Liberal leadership to protect him from ‘rogue’ MPs? This from a guy who wants us to believe that unwillingness to be bound by a party room is the defining virtue of a good local MP.
There’s been a lot of naive commentary about how having independents control our Parliament would be good for democracy. Here’s a realist perspective on what a Parliament with a decline in the dominant two-party political setting would look like.
First prediction: the weaker the discipline that the strong two-party setting imposes, the greater the influence would be of lobbyists. We need only look to the effect the weaker party discipline of the Republicans and Democrats in the US has on American politics to back this prediction.
It’s a lot harder for lobbyists to control leadership groups and party rooms than it is to control and pick-off individual MPs who cannot seek the protection of party policy when explaining difficult decisions to electorates with the vulnerabilities the lobbyists are leveraging.
Second prediction: ‘horse trading’ and ‘pork barrelling’ would grow at the expense of rational allocation of funding, based for example, on need and the interests of the majority. We have already seen how this works, with Andrew Wilkie shamelessly seeking out-of-program largesse as the price for his vote (and, given he said he wants funds this week, apparently with disregard to care-taker conventions).
A real test of the independents in this regard would be whether they would support moving electorate funding decisions, once a policy is adopted by Government, to a statutory body that based allocations on explicit needs against national comparisons or strategy.
Third prediction: confidence in, and the legitimacy of, our political system would decline. As the legislative process gets bogged down, and deal making characterises every major policy matter, disillusionment would set in. Tell me where in the western world growth in independents or multiple parties or proportional representation has increased voter belief in the effectiveness and relevance of their parliament?
It seems to me that we have the best of both systems in our democracy: a stable lower chamber with a preferential single member voting system characterised by a two-party contest for executive power that provides the basis of Government, and an upper chamber with proportional representation to provide some opportunity for the entry to the Parliament of smaller parties that gather a critical mass of support.
It would be a great mistake to blithely accept the view that the decline of the two-party dynamic in Australia and the increase of independents would be good for democracy.
Our independents – all four of them – are individuals who have run for office on the basis of their unwillingness to be bound by a majority vote in a party made up of like-minded citizens.
Once elected, they claim they want Government to listen to the electorate, but in the end the only electorate they really want heard is their own, and that electorate’s view on a policy matter is, wonderfully, always the view the independent MP happens to hold, unchallenged by any accountability mechanism such as a party room.
Let me draw on two popular TV shows to make a final point. The attraction of characters like Dr Greg House in the series House, or Dr Martin Ellingham in the series Doc Martin, is that we all dream of being the person who can be unrestrained when dealing with everyone we see as fools. The occasional House of Doc Martin is tolerable only because of their brilliance. But we all know that a society would be very unpleasant and could not survive with lots of Houses or Ellinghams. I think a Parliament with a critical mass of independents would have similar problems (and it’s not clear that our independents have the brilliance that would justify tolerance of their orneriness).
Our two-party political process in Australia, with its dialectic between the dominant western political traditions of liberal and social democracy, and its success in forging and holding our politicians closely to a majoritarian centre, was one of our great advantages in the 20th century.
It’s not one I think we should naively undermine in a vicarious identification with the Houses and Doc Martins of Australian politics.
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