By Steve Laing
The changes in the senate rules were actually a good thing. A very good thing. By allowing a much reduced below the line preferencing, it made below the line voting realistically possible for the majority of voters for the first time. Sure, the DD plus those changes created four (now three) One Nation senators (although I’d suggest that we’d possibly have got 2 anyway – given the collapse of Palmer United, and the disaffected were always going to go to the next party of protest), but this change is the first step in what really must be the next logical step to democratize the system – getting rid of above the line senate voting. Imagine what that might do amongst the ranks of the right wing crazies where their senate seats are pretty much guaranteed through ensuring they are kept top of the list. I believe that most Labor and Greens voters are smart enough to be able to vote below the line (and indeed did so to great effect in Tasmania), but right-wingers? Not so much – the simpler the better for them (and that’s how the party members like it).
Labor’s opposition to the senate voting changes at the time was entirely political, and completely short-sighted, particularly given that up to that point they had been fully in support of such changes. Fortunately in this situation, the Greens supported the government and the legislation passed. The old rules actually suited the right wing much better. The only reason that the cross-bench didn’t support the government more in the last government was that Tony Abbott is a complete klutz (as indeed were most of his cabinet – hell, that lot couldn’t even manage to form a government in 2010 when all they had to do was convince a couple of right-leaning independents!) – Malcolm would have smarmed that cross-bench with ease. The new cross-bench, bar the faux Liberals of One Nation, is more than a little bit trickier for Mal. He has managed to get bills passed, but they have been nowhere close to the legislation he wanted to pass. Moreover once you start tinkering with one rule, you’ve actually admitted that the system is improvable, and that opens the door for more changes. By not supporting the change, Labor have given the Coalition a stick to beat them with if Labor propose any new changes in the future. Once again short-sighted politics may end up delaying essential long-term progress.
Now there is a very, very good chance that Labor will win the next election through playing the game by the current “rules”. And they will probably do it without the Greens in the lower house – though it should be noted that they may not do it without Green voters, nor Greens senators. Sure, they may have to continue bending towards the centre to get elected; continuing to prop up private schools, continuing the lie that private health insurance makes financial sense, that propping up foreign owned coal miners is acceptable, even continuing offshore detention as they have now tied themselves to the Coalition’s “stopping drownings at sea” narrative.
But so what? If Labor don’t have the power to make any decent policies stick long-term, (as you can bet they will be repealed when the Coalition get back in again), what is the point? Labor policy enactment is increasingly an exercise in hope and futility.
What Labor (or if I may be broader – “progressive politicians and their supporters) need to do is not just look to how to win the next election, but to win the next election such that they can make the necessary changes in the rules, such that they stop favouring those on the right getting back into power so they can look after their mates at the expense of the majority of the electorate. If Labor don’t change the rule-book, sure they may continue to win an election or two, but then what? Because as far as I can see, much of what has been achieved by Labor governments over the last fifty years has been wound down, or is under attack. So have they really achieved much? Or has it simply been that democracy as it exists in the Westminster system, is an illusion designed to keep the majority compliant, whilst the elites remain very much in control, their capital and power expanding at the expense of everyone else’s?
And finally if we haven’t already passed the point of no return on climate change, we are going to very soon, so structural changes in governance need to happen soon. We simply cannot afford for another government like the muppets we currently have being given the reins again. This isn’t to say that I don’t want the perspectives of those from the right being either heard, and in certain cases enacted – contrary to what those on the right think, promoting diversity includes being tolerant and inclusive of those with diverse views (except the intolerant views – there really is no place for such). If we are to have a future that is people, rather than money, centric – changes in the way we are governed must occur. Even the Silver Bodgie says so.
So here is the big question. Are those of us who consider our viewpoint progressive, who are more concerned about the needs of the many than of the few, going to push those in the Labor party (given they are the ones most likely to get the next chance to be in the big chair), but indeed any party, who truly believes in a truer and fairer democracy, to make the necessary changes to help us break out of a system that continuously fails to deliver for the citizens that it is supposed to be working for? Or do we continue to play the role of compliant pawns, providing the veneer of democratic respectability to an increasingly brazen kleptocracy?
So whilst I am more than happy for Labor to have policies to get the economy under control, create more jobs, put more money into healthcare and public education, and the rest, the absolute priority has to be to make changes to the system to make it more representative, to make it less combative, to implement better processes to improve problem solving and build solutions that are not only effective, but also collaborative, and most importantly will stop them being unwound by the next group of lobby controlled puppets of the 0.1%.
This means the Westminster system, and the way that its members are elected, need to change significantly. If Labor truly wants to stop the populist backlash to right-wing politicians who will promise them the world, but will actually deliver very little, they need to find ways to give voters much greater choice in the candidates they can vote for, as well as ideally also have some direct input into voting for the countries leader. The current situation whereby self-invested cabals decide who will be the representatives that can be voted for, and then ultimately who the leader of the country will be, is increasingly being recognized for the sham that it is. We already know that Coalition members are entirely self-interested, but what about those on the left? Is there loyalty to the people, or is it actually primarily to the party?
Changing the processes of government to improve the problem solving process (which is really what government are there to do) is actually not that difficult. Don’t simply announce the legislation, but involve other parliamentarians of other parties in the process of developing it. Remember they all represent some part of the community. Such that when you do present the legislation into parliament you’ve already got some support outside the party, identified potential issues and have recognized mechanisms to deal with them. Sure, the Coalition won’t play ball, but at least the public will get the opportunity to see that. They may be “in opposition”, but they are still paid by the people to do some work on their behalf, and work they should.
If we don’t, we will continue to get the same kind of clusterfluck that was the Backpacker tax. Seriously, if that is how parliamentarians of all persuasions believe is an appropriate manner to resolve a minor problem, then we really are right royally screwed in believing they are capable of determining a decent solution to a major one. Of course, the right are more than happy to continue to do things this way. It plays to their limited abilities, safe in the knowledge of the cash rewards that will be put their way when they finally leave. They truly don’t care that the country will keep spiraling downwards as they do – as long as they are in power, and Labor aren’t.
And changing the election system to give the voters not only a greater say in who their representatives should be, but also encouraging more of the many capable people there are in Australian society to stand as candidates who are genuine contenders without having to sell their soul (and loyalty) to a political party first, is also entirely possible. If electors can work with below the line senate voting, we can truly change how elections are run, and significantly take away the advantages in the rules that those on the right rely on to give them the whip hand.
How do I know? Because as a problem solver, I’ve come up with a new election process that is more representative of the electors wishes, but also has mechanisms of government that adapts how legislation is developed to include a much wider range of perspectives to improve the quality and also the acceptability of such to the general public. Now at this point, I know the system I’m developing isn’t perfect, and whilst I have already recognized some of the possible issues, know there will be more that I haven’t considered. Fortunately I happen to know this online community that I am sure will be willing to help with critical feedback and more ideas. And I WILL get round to finish writing it up, as long as I can keep away from the bloody gaming, of course.
Of course, I should end this article here. But I found that I can’t. You see perhaps my biggest concern is that the necessary change, the “progress”, simply won’t occur. At times it seems to be that Labor politicians, and indeed perhaps even the Greens, are actually more invested in the process than the outcome. Is the enjoyment of playing the game; the personal power, importance, and celebrity that comes with being a federal politician; not forgetting the not unpleasant salary and perks; actually as big, or perhaps a bigger motivator than the outcome that they are supposed to be trying to achieve? How many have been seduced by “Canberra”?
Sure Labor certainly look like they want to win the next election, and their clever antics in the chamber are certainly moving things in that direction, but in the meantime the country is going to the dogs and who knows what tricks the Coalition will have up their sleeves for the next election. And I already see this commonly in forums and comments sections, where Labor supporters attack Greens supporters, despite the stated intention that the most important thing is who is kicked out, not who actually gets in. Replacing one tyranny with another of a different colour is but a temporary solution, and if we progressives can’t recognize this, then meaningful change simply won’t occur. And if the world indeed is going to get better, that critical change has to take place must be in the key institution that is meant to look after us, the one that our progressive forebears; the chartists, the trade unionists, the suffragettes, the AAF and FCAA, fought and sometimes died to achieve our representation at – our democratic parliament – and it is our right and duty to ensure that it works to properly represent the rights of the people of this country rather than the desires of the few. And when it doesn’t, to change it till it does. The evidence is plain to see that the current rules are not in the favour of the many, but of the few, and the few are prepared to fight tooth and nail to keep it that way.
You see in my opinion there was one trump card that Labor could have played at the last election that would have been enough to get the extra votes they needed – to push for a Federal ICAC – an opportunity to drain the swamp, as Trump would put it. One thing I do know talking to people of almost every political persuasion, is that they all believe “pollies” are at it. We know that Coalition members wear their entitlements almost as a badge of honour, but Labor? Well Labor’s lack of commitment to the creation of this one critical institution suggests that they either have stuff to hide, or perhaps they have really just become another part of the “few”, publicly fighting the good fight, but quietly enjoying the perks and the prestige, seduced by the glamour of the historic institution, and slowly institutionalized into a process that is increasingly unrepresentative of the wishes of the people it is supposed to look after. Have they indeed, become part of the problem? And if Labor haven’t realized that the rise of Trump, of Hansen, and Brexit aren’t due to policy, but a fundamental and growing distrust in the system and the “elites” that are in it, then they’ve learned nothing from the last election at all. Without wanting to improve those critical systems of government, and make them more democratic and inclusive, I’m afraid that like it or not, they are part of the problem, more interested in winning the battles, but continuing to lose the war.
Steve Laing – Steve is unaligned to any particular party, but cognizant of the reality that people are our biggest asset, so it makes sense to look after them. Uncomfortable with the ineptitude that permeates our current government, and yet sees such as the prevailing condition in our political system. Over the years Steve has worked for a number of different businesses, both corporate and small, and has experienced good and bad “policy” development and decision making, and seen the outcomes of such. Steve also has his own blog: www.makeourvoiceheard.com.
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