tip off

Poll Bludger: the hole where Qld Labor used to be

Suddenly Kristina Keneally’s performance doesn’t look so bad. What happened to Labor in Queensland on Saturday is without any precedent in Australian history — certainly not since the Second World War, before which the party system tended to be more fluid. Labor can be assured of only six seats, holds the lead in only seven, and on the best-case scenario will win only eight, for a total of 9% of the Legislative Assembly’s 89 seats. That compares with the “cricket team” of 11 members that Queensland Labor famously managed to return in 1974, at what was previously the gold standard for Australian election massacres — and at that time the Parliament only had 82 seats. As for Keneally, she managed to win 20 seats in a chamber of 93, albeit that she did so with 24% of the primary vote against a provisional 26.6% for Anna Bligh.

I don’t normally presume to tell the voting public its business, but this is an unhappy state of affairs. While it might be argued that a useful example has been set for future governments considering breaking election commitments, the result is an unmitigated disaster so far as the effective functioning of Parliament is concerned. Lacking anything that could meaningfully be described as an opposition, its sessions will henceforth resemble those of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR.

The problem is exacerbated by Queensland’s lack of an upper house, both as a venue for holding the government to account and for providing Labor with a second 11 to fill out a shadow ministry. The precise dimensions of the problem can be detailed with reference to an online cheat sheet for British high school politics students, which tells us that Parliament has five functions: legislature, representation, recruitment, scrutiny and legitimacy. I shall consider the first three in turn, while also shedding light on the last two along the way.

It might be argued that the Queensland Parliament’s legislative functioning will be little worse than usual: so long as a disciplined party has a majority of whatever size, a unicameral Parliament exists largely to do the bidding of the executive. However, the result will hamper the vitality of the committee system, which offers the public and interested parties a point of access to the legislative process, and helps iron out problems in legislation to the extent that doing so doesn’t tread on the toes of cabinet and the forces to which it responds. Each of the Parliament’s 10 current committees have three non-government members from a total of six (seven in the case of the Committee of the Legislative Assembly), requiring 30 non-government members to maintain the existing state of affairs. Since the election appears to have only turned up 11 non-government members, it is clear that these committees will be dominated by the government, tending to make them both less vigorous and less representative.

This brings me to the second function of Parliament, which is the one that presumes to make the system democratic: representation. While nothing should be taken away from the immense achievement of the LNP on Saturday, it has still not on present numbers cracked 50% of the statewide vote (although late counting may tip it over the line). However, such is the system in Queensland that it has emerged with very few fetters upon its power. This is not a situation Queenslanders tend to lament. The public is very easily persuaded that good government can be equated to “strong” and “decisive” leadership, rather than apparent abstractions like accountability and consensus. Media players are eager to fortify this view, knowing that systems that concentrate power are most responsive the pressures brought to bear by powerful interests.

It tends not to register that such issues lay at the root of the abuses of the Bjelke-Petersen era — for which, incidentally, Queensland voters were far more forgiving than they were for Labor’s failings on Saturday. Opponents of reform may argue that such abuses are best addressed by extra-parliamentary accountability mechanisms such as corruption commissions, ombudsmen and auditors-general, but none of these is a substitute for Parliament’s role as the expression of the sovereignty of the people. For as long as it plays this role, democratic principles demand that it be chosen by a system which produces representative outcomes.

There is plainly no clamour for these issues to be resolved by restoring the upper house, which Queensland abolished in 1922. The obvious alternative is to replace the single-member constituency system, which is increasingly a peculiarity of the English-speaking world, with proportional representation. Such a system in its purest form would have given Labor 24 seats, a suitably humiliating total that would nonetheless have left it enough personnel to credibly perform the job of opposition. An Australian public schooled in the notion that power should be wielded singularly and authoritatively would no doubt complain about minority government and the empowerment of marginal groupings, which we are told has had such a disastrous impact in Canberra over the past 18 months. However, there are ways in which such impacts could be limited. One that is very familiar from Australian practice involves dividing the state into regions represented by, to pick a fairly conservative total, five members each. On the basis of Saturday’s results, this would have had the LNP winning three or even four seats in each of the state’s regions, giving it a substantial working majority without entirely demolishing Labor.

There is another possibility which, although foreign to Australian practice, would put to rest any complaint about minority or coalition government. This would be to introduce a directly elected executive along American lines, balanced by a proportionally represented legislature. Such a system would do away with the anachronistic notion that those wishing to hold executive office should have to pay their dues through a lengthy parliamentary career. The limitations of this model were illustrated by the need the LNP felt to pursue its perilous Newman-for-Ashgrove strategy, with potentially disastrous consequences if it didn’t come off. How much more rational it would have been for Anna Bligh and Campbell Newman to have faced off in a direct contest for the premiership with all of Queensland given the chance to vote, together with a second vote to determine the composition of a legislature giving voice to a broad range of interests.

Finally, there is the question of Parliament’s role in recruiting political talent. Partisan critics may scoff, but Queensland has been done no favours by the wipeout inflicted upon Labor’s ministry, which has between three and five members left standing out of 15 who were re-contesting their seats. The 43 incoming LNP members will no doubt include many conscientious local representatives and a smattering of stars of the future, but there will just as surely be several ill-prepared and under-talented accidents waiting to happen, who will in no way constitute a happy trade-off for Andrew Fraser, Cameron Dick and Stirling Hinchliffe.

Even before the election, the LNP showed that its vetting procedures were rather less than fail-safe, with three candidates in seats it looked certain to win forced to withdraw at various points. As noted, the government will not even be able to keep all such members out of mischief by providing them with committee work. More broadly, the election’s demonstration of the remarkable volatility of modern voting behaviour will act as a disincentive for talented people wishing to enter state politics, given the perilous lack of job security involved.

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    Ralph Becker
    Posted Tuesday, 27 March 2012 at 4:09 am | Permalink

    Indeed, what more can be said than already has been by William. Maybe this: It is high time that Australians recognise that democracy is a right that requires to be exercised - not by compulsory voting, but by engagement of each individual. Then again, it’s far easier to cast a vote and resort to that favourite Australian past-time: Criticising without contributing.

    The political system in this country, and in particular Queensland’s, is a direct reflection of our society.

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