Political reform: chill wind
11 May 2015|
Parliament House, Canberra

It’s budget week in Canberra. Politicians and influencers fly in to confab with stressed bureaucrats, complain about the cold and fog and watch autumn leaves falling faster than interest rates. At this time thoughts turn naturally to the quality of Australian public administration. At ASPI we have for years met many curious international visitors who all ask: why has Australia lost the ability to make practical, reforming policy decisions?

It’s a hard question to answer. On the surface, the quality of Australian government continues to rank among the best on the planet. The World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators puts Australia at the top of the league in ‘governance effectiveness’ alongside the Scandinavians and Canadians, and well ahead of the British, French and Japanese. Almost all other countries lag behind. Yet the reality is that Australia has had as many changes of Prime Minister since 2007 as Chad, which languishes at the bottom of the World Bank’s index. Richard Nixon reportedly said ‘the Prime Minister of Chad doesn’t matter; we treat them nice, but none of them matter.’ Does Barack Obama think that about Australia?

In the last few years the Australian Government suffered through a hung parliament and even after a decisive election outcome in 2013, the Abbott Government has been unable to conclude Senate passage of the 2014 budget. A number of state governments have been voted out of office after only one term. The ability to make big reforms in taxation, healthcare, social spending and most other parts of government seem to fail in the face of immovable opposition from sectional groups and voters. One of the sharpest observers of Australian politics, Paul Kelly, judges that:

‘Australia’s political system is failing to deliver the results needed for the nation…The process of debate, competition and elections leading to national progress has broken down.’

Kelly concludes his book, Triumph and Demise, by saying that ‘Australia slumbers in prosperity but responds with resolution to crisis.’ But let’s not wait for Pearl Harbor. A small number of reforms to our system of government could go a long way to improving the quality of policy-making. Here I suggest three reforms to parliamentary elections that would help swing the system more towards supporting good policy and away from populist short-term thinking.

Four-year fixed terms for the House of Representatives

As David Cameron contemplates a five-year period of office following the UK election, spare a thought for Australian prime ministers elected for just 36 months. The cliché is true: governments spend their first year working out how to run the country, their middle year trying to effect change and their last year campaigning for the coming election. As voters switch their allegiances more quickly, governments risk removal just as Ministers hit their stride. Policies are biased to show quick outcomes and needed but difficult reforms are shelved. A four-year term would create a longer middle game where experience and capacity to make reforms combine.

Downsides: A three-year bad government could become a four-year bad government.

Achievability: A referendum would be required to change the Constitution (s28), which provides for three year terms. A favourable referendum outcome would only be possible if there was strong bipartisan support for four year terms.

Minimum voting threshold for Senate seats

Our complex preferential voting system for Senate candidates elects individuals to the sixth available seat (in a half Senate election) on the basis of preference flows rather than direct support. For example, in the 2013 election Ricky Muir of the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party became the sixth Victorian Senator elected on the basis of 479 personal votes (0.01% of voters) and 16,604 ticket votes for his party (0.49% of voters). As is the case in New Zealand, a 5% threshold should be established which a candidate and party has to reach to eligible for election. The effect of this would be to reduce an unintended consequence of the Senate electoral system to elect marginal candidates that can find themselves holding the balance of power and able to prevent the passage of critical government legislation.

Downsides: Hard to see any.

Achievability: The electoral act would need to be amended, which means passage through the Senate, so bipartisan support will be needed. The minor parties would likely object, but a 5% threshold will not weaken minor parties, so much as discourage electoral gaming by micro parties.

Add more House of Representatives MPs.

Given Australian dislike for politicians, one might as well advocate being nasty to puppies, but a sensible case can be made for adding more MPs based on the growing population size of electorates. Australia doesn’t exactly have one vote one value. There are about 130,000 voters in each of Canberra’s two electorates, but less than 75,000 in each of Tasmania’s five seats—that’s because the constitution specifies there must be five seats in each founding state. In NSW and Victoria electorates have around 100,000 voters. Contrast this with international experience: In Canada’s 2011 election 14.8 million people voted in 308 seats, an average of 48,000 voters per seat. In the 2015 UK election 46 million people were eligible to vote in 650 seats, an average of 71,000 per seat. Australian MPs are overloaded simply responding to electoral matters and as a result, are less able to focus on national policy. A larger Parliament would be a more considered place for shaping good policy.

Downsides: More politicians. That’s also the upside, but just try selling it to the electorate.

Achievability: This is a matter of amending the electoral act, accepting that constitutional reform to change the position of Tasmania, the ACT and NT is not advisable.

In a later post I will present options for reforming Parliamentary procedure and for changing aspects of Cabinet and Ministerial processes which could all significantly improve prospects for delivering better policy.