“Not since the South Australian government was defeated at the 2002 election have Australia’s voters removed an incumbent government at any level,” former Keating chief of staff Bill Bowtell writes in The Sydney Morning Herald today .

“And in the 20 state and territory elections since then, incumbent governments have not only held office but most have been returned with substantial and often increased majorities.”

But this isn’t just a debate over the power of incumbency. Bowtell broadens out the argument.

“The power of incumbency is a consequence of Australia’s economic prosperity,” he writes.

“Australians elect governments to deliver economic results and reasonable basic services.”

He warns: “This state of affairs will last about one day after the economic pot stops boiling.”

Still, the two big parties have taken out insurance. They have created a system that entrenches their power – and gives them privileges not enjoyed by other entities.

Andrew Murray, the Australian Democrats Electoral Matters spokesperson, is having another go at changing this. Today, he’s tabled his private senator’s bill, the Electoral (Greater Fairness of Electoral Processes) Amendment Bill 2007.

“If passed, the bill will require political parties to meet similar standards of accountability demanded of corporations and unions,” Murray says.

“For instance, to gain registration they will require a written constitution that meets minimal standards. They will also be subject to scrutiny by the Australian Electoral Commission should a complaint be lodged for non-compliance with material matters in a party constitution.

“Additionally, the bill will provide legislative measures for the establishment of a fully regulated and transparent regime of political donations and disclosure, including reduced donation thresholds and banning foreign and strings-attached donations…

“If passed, the bill will also restore Australian democracy to its rightful and historical place as a leader in the pantheon of representative democracies.”

The bill is certainly topical – but that “if” is pretty big.

Peter Fray

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