Let’s hear it for a hung parliament!

Two great outcomes in successive days[1], and neither would have happened without a hung parliament. I never accepted the horror with which many commentators viewed the election results (after all, minority governments have been common at the state level and have generally worked fine), but now I’m a positive enthusiast. It would be a pity if the independents who supported the government are punished by their electors – I’d say we need more independents of all kinds as a check on the executive power of the PM and the majority party

fn1. For subsequent record, the passage through the House of Representatives of the carbon tax/price legislation, followed by the rejection of the government’s “Malaysian solution” and the subsequent announcement of an end to off-shore refugee detention.

63 thoughts on “Let’s hear it for a hung parliament!

  1. I’ll believe you on the happiness thing then Dan. You can find yourself quite irrationally happy of unhappy, which I guess proves your point….

  2. Of course, anyone who looks at the record of ‘representative democracy’ over the last four decades when Parliaments have not been hung — privatisations and two illegal wars against Iraq and one against Afghanistan, etc. — could not help but agree with Professor Quiggin.

    But let’s not forget the hated Goods and Services tax which Howard was able to get a hung Senate to adopt after he rorted Australia’s parliamentary and electoral processes to just scrape back into office in 1998, having lost the two-party preferred popular vote.

    Hung parliaments are still only a second-rate alternative to the democratic rights guaranteed in Switzerland’s constitution. Direct Democracy in Switzerland’s constitution gives Swiss citizens the right to overturn, at periodic referendums, scheduled to be held every three months, any government decision they don’t like provided they they can first obtain 100,000 signatures calling for its overturn. (A roughly equal figure, given Australia’s larger population population, would be 250,000.) If they obtain a double majority, that is a national majority and a majority of votes n a majority of cantons, the law is overturned. The Swiss can also have put to a referendum any other proposal for a change to Switzerlands laws.

    If we had Direct Democracy in Australia, what privatisations would not have been overturned? The list of laws enacted by federal and state parliaments and local councils which would have been overturned if we had Direct Democracy in Australia’s constitution is considerable.

    For more information, listen to the ABC Radio National Rear Vision program Direct Democracy of November last year or read the trascript. if you are convinced as I was that Direct Democracy would fix a good many problems that Australia now faces, then please add your support to the GetUp proposal at tinyurl.com/3nmwwjq.

  3. I’m a big fan of including direct democracy structures into our system. I especially like the idea of TABOR to limit tax increases and citizens initiated referendums for the repeal of unpopular legislation. We could ditch the carbon tax pretty quickly if we had such democratic tools in place. And taxation would be a lot lower under TABOR.

  4. Sure, direct democracy sounds nice – but have a look at California for how it plays out when you’ve got aggresively polarised political parties.

    Further, I am reminded of Anatoly France’s comment: “If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing.”

    It would be nice to think direct democracy would be used to overcome a lack of political will to address major problems like climate change and social inequality, but I fear it would simply become a semi-legislative form of tea-party-style liberalism where selfishness and short-term vested interests become (or remain?) the dominant force in our society.

  5. @Dr Nick

    There are some very specific features in the California constitution that encourage attempts to entrench policies. Amongst other things a constitutional referendum requires the same majority as a legislative referendum so every petition becomes a constitutional one. We should also recall that Switzerland ended up with the famous minaret ban because they submit fundamental rights to popular vote. You could design a system that avoided both problems. For myself proportional representation in the House of Representatives is a more important reform.

  6. I’m not a fan of direct democracy in the absence of media neutrality or an informed public; ignorance and fear harnessed by the unscrupulous for the manipulation of the susceptible is more than capable of delivering horrendously self defeating and regrettable outcomes. Gunboats to sink refugees? Declaring CO2 a harmless gas that can’t impact climate and defunding climate science to boot? Demanding free medical care combined with elimination of taxation? Actually I think there is something to be said for governments that use the expertise at their disposal to professionally explore and develop policy options. Harnessed by a better class of politician with real commitment to outcomes it looks superior to mob rule.

  7. The present system (with majority governments) is an elective dictatorship. We should have a stronger and less partisan Senate (no Senator ministers would be a good start) and the Governor General should be able to take advice from other sources than her government; statutory officers (perhaps appointed by the Senate ) such as the Auditor General, the Ombudsman, the Head of the Public Service Board (yes bring it back..we need all of the Chilfley/Menzies “seven dwarfs” ) with the Speaker (elected as in England) should together be a counterweight to the Executive Council and be able to give Her Exec. separate advice.

  8. @Peter Kirsop

    I am, as others will know, sympathetic to your claim that the current system amounts to “elective dictatorship”. (I think I’ve used the term plebiscitary for elective in your text).

    I’m not sure I can make the journey with your recommendations though. Personally I’d prefer to abolish the senate entirely. At best, it’s an unnecessary piece of duplication. More practically though, it’s a veto over executive power that in practice will only ever be cast against progressive reform.

    I’d also abolish the state governments and councils too amalgamating the functions of these two tiers of government into genuinely regional government. In practice though, such moves are improbable. Privileged stakeholders aren’t going to give up that feeding trough so easily.

    Proportional representation is often proposed and there is something to be said for it, relative to what we have now. I’ve previously sketched out in this place how a single-member electorate PR system could work. In my version of the scheme, every significant community of opinion has an MP somewhere, and localism and independents also get a shot, yet the weighting of the parliament strongly reflects actual voting. There’s less emphasis on local pandering and pork barrelling as well.

    That said, I would prefer a combination of sortition (for candidate selection and subsequently, with deliberative voting, in choosing successful politicians) and direct democracy (to approve/amend “National Plans” and amend, rescind or approve measures the parliament wasn’t able to pass). That’s a fairly radical structure and I fancy that it would be even harder to get up than abolition of the states and the senate of course.

  9. All forms of government are ideal, until they are tried. It follows that their problems, like communism and a variety of other ideal solutions, must be in their implementation and not in the or their conception.

  10. Since 1972 the Senate has more often had a progressive majority than the House of Representatives. Occasionally the case has been that the House has rejected progressive reforms proposed by the Senate. A unicameral parliament may well have passed the asylum-seeker bill. There is just no case that the modern Senate always vetoes executive power and there are cases like WorkChoices where a Senate veto would have been a very good thing. The function of parliament is not to rubberstamp what the Executive wants.

  11. @Tom

    Direct democracy will only work if the media is neutral {intellectually rigorous} {neutrality is a bankrupt concept and implies a bipartisan system rather than a pluralistic polity}.

    It’s the other way around — direct democracy in concert with the other measures I’ve suggested would force the media in the direction of policy analysis rather than tribal or personal analysis. The media would have no fixed target to aim at, other than the population as a whole. That would be a poor strategy.

    Under a system such as I have suggested, it would be very difficult for gthe media to create a consensus around its own preferred ends or even devise an independent narrative.


    I can recall only one occasion in the last 40 years in which the senate blocked a reactionary campaign from the HoR*. Just one. They have however blocked lots of progressive things and aided and abetted much that was ill.

    The senate also creates moral hazard. Howard probably wouldn’t have been elected in 1998 if there had been a unicameral legislature. He lost the popular vote, but most thought (wrongly as it turns out) that the Dems would block the GST and Telstra sell off. Had he run with those things as certainties, Beazley would have won. There’d have been no GST or Telstra sale or Tampa. We’d have ratified Kyoto. There’d have been no Latham or Iraq or Afghanistan interventions by us. We would have had a price on carbon by 2007. etc …

    * The CPRS of 2009

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