The following is an extract from a speech from Professor Geoff Gallop — former Western Australian premier and director of the Graduate School of Government at the University of Sydney — delivered as part of the annual Hawke Lecture in Adelaide last night…
Politics needs to be about leadership as well as responsiveness. Electors want their leaders to stand for something and to craft a narrative and policy agenda for the future. Part of the disenchantment we see relates to a belief that the political class has been too short‐term and risk‐averse in its thinking and practice. Even the language of politics is seen to have become too managerial and insufficiently ideological. We should consider such criticisms when designing a political reform program.
Take direct democracy for example. It would certainly give power to the people. It would mean majority rule but at what price? To go beyond the valid requirement that our Constitution only be changed with the support of a majority of electors overall and a majority of states and incorporate a popular veto for all matters would make legislative change difficult if not impossible. One of the good things about our current system is that it does provide room for change that may be disapproved of today but accepted tomorrow. This is how a good deal of economic and social reform has been achieved in the past. Such a leadership function can be best exercised in a representative rather than a direct democracy. What of the left‐green agenda or proportional representation? This has been the system in Tasmania since 1909 and has become accepted throughout Europe. After the intense debate about the unfairness of New Zealand’s first‐past‐the‐post system, they too changed to proportional representation.
I would like to address the logic of proportional representation and how it relates to the theme of disenchantment. Proportional representation will certainly give the minor parties a greater say and will guarantee that there is a balance in the relationship between votes and seats. Coalition government (or minority government) will become the order of the day. Politics will be more complex and outcomes less predictable. In relation to this let me say a number of things.
Firstly, I note that we already have proportional representation for our Senate. Smaller parties and Independents have won seats there and come to play a not insignificant role in legislation and public policy. Proportional representation is well entrenched and well understood in the electorate. This is reflected in different voting patterns for the two houses of parliament.
Secondly, it would mean that the capacity for a party to form government in its own right would in all probability be lost to the system. It is true that the major parties are under pressure and have been found wanting but do we want a system that would forever prevent them from achieving a majority presence in the House of Representatives? Systematic change is already difficult to achieve in Australia today, why would we want to make it even harder?
Those who advocate change will need a carefully crafted agenda that is relevant, feasible and acceptable. It needs to take into account the views of the disenchanted on the way things are done and what is prioritised. Such views cannot be swept under the carpet and ignored. Sitting still and waiting for the world to return to where it once was is not an option. However, it will need to transcend the political reform politics associated with the left‐green movement and the right‐populist tendency. It needs to lead and that means engaging with electors and mobilising support for change. To be engaged, electors will need to hear a message they can understand and support and which is based on conviction as much as it is based on attitudes within the electorate. Necessarily it will challenge as much as it responds. Indeed there can be no such thing as a genuine re‐engagement that is free of risk or devoid of conflict.
How then can we create such interest and harness such energy? Our political class needs to send out a message that they wish to engage the electorate around sound principles of democratic reform. Our citizens need a light on the hill as well as an extra penny in their pocket. Given the right‐populist tendency to seek rule by the majority and the left‐green tendency to seek rule by the percentages this is not going to be easy. Both have helped create the necessary pressure for change but defend or promote political institutions that fall short of what the nation needs.
When it comes to political reform we need a new radical centre built around the consolidation of parliamentary reform in the short‐term, a Charter of Rights and Responsibilities beyond that, and a meaningful Republic in the longer‐term. This needs to be linked to a new concept of political leadership that seeks to better engage the public on a range of issues including political reform. Indeed, a move to a republic will need to involve the public every step of the way if it is to be successful.
In recent decades, both here and abroad, we have seen very successful exercises in political engagement that have taken us beyond the politics of public opinion and parliamentary power. Parliament can — and should — play a more active role in the development of national policy. Hopefully, the Climate Change Committee created by Prime Minister Gillard will prove to be a good example of what can be achieved through focussed and non‐adversarial consideration. However, it should not be seen as in competition with alternative mechanisms of deliberation such as my own government’s dialogue with the city which developed planning policy for metropolitan Perth.
One third of the participants in the dialogue were randomly selected from across the city to join representatives from government, business, academia, interest groups and community associations. The government made it clear that it would follow up on the recommendations made and we did with ‘Network City: Community Planning Strategy’. So too did we involve representatives from the dialogue in the implementation team set up within government. For such initiatives to be add real value to our
representative system they need not only to guarantee influence for the participants but they also need to be genuinely representative of the population and facilitated to ensure there is open and informed deliberation.
The Commonwealth government’s ill‐fated Peoples’ Assembly proposed during the election campaign would have been a good idea for the 1990s when it became obvious that climate change was real and threatening. Imagine too if it had used some form of deliberative process to assist in the matter of tax reform, particularly for the resources sector.
There are many issues for which such processes would not be appropriate, most notably areas of strong political commitment and mandate. However it should not be ruled out as an option on the grounds that parliament is the font of all wisdom. Just as citizens are now involving themselves in politics in a range of different ways and not just through party membership, so too should government develop policy in a range of ways that are more participative and deliberative.
Power is a wonderful thing but if not shared it may become a liability. What we need is power with authority. So too does power need to be regulated, particularly executive power. We need a Charter of Rights and Responsibilities as recommended by the Brennan Committee and as instituted in the ACT and Victoria to place individual rights and liberties at the forefront of our decision‐making and public administration. Such proposals have well understood that rights have to be defined and their boundaries marked out. What are the limits of free speech? How do we best institutionalise the right to vote? So too has it been recognised that rights may come into conflict with each other or with wider public interest considerations such as national security.
The aim of a Charter is to open up a proper dialogue between the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary. It does this without undermining the pre‐eminence of the Parliament and with full recognition of the need to balance rights against each other and against competing public interests. By requiring the Parliament to carefully consider the rights implications of its work and the public sector to act in ways that are compatible with human rights would add a new dynamic to our political processes. It sends a powerful message to our legislators and to our administrators about the accountability of government to the people. Indeed the British experience with such a system tells us that public authorities have been encouraged to search for solutions to situations that had previously been viewed as unavoidable and unalterable. In other words it helps avoid that tunnel vision that all too often operates within executive government.
Finally there is the question of the Republic. It is unfinished business in Australian politics and debate about it necessarily takes us to debate about our Constitution and political system. We need to take the opportunity it provides to take a serious look at our Constitution. A popular vote on the question of the Republic would sensibly come first. Should it be a popular vote in favour of a move to a Republic we would then do well to refer the matter to a properly constituted Constitutional Convention. Such a convention could examine what type of Constitution we wish to have and what the powers and responsibilities of a president would be.
Attempt to cut off debate beyond a politician‐dominated minimalist model would almost certainly fan the flames of disenchantment and populism. This time around more detailed consideration could be given to models of direct election and presidential power. Indeed a strong case can be made that a move in the direction of an Executive Presidency separate from the Legislature would be good for Australian politics. Not only does it accord with the evolution of our system in the direction of presidential politics but it creates the possibility for Cabinet Ministers to be selected from outside Parliament. Many Australians who would exercise ministerial office with distinction and effectiveness are simply not willing to stand for parliament. In the case of some of the smaller states and territories the pool of talent from which to select is limited. Indeed an American‐style system of government would work well for the States and Territories given the service delivery functions they perform. Having Ministers less trapped by the imperatives of electoral and parliamentary politics should allow for better management and more innovation.
Due to our Westminster inheritance all our ministers are members of parliament. Some rise to the occasion, others don’t as the pressures of maintaining a political base in the parliament and within the electorate overwhelm their best intentions. We know that the way we govern can be improved but seem addicted to the view that Westminster is the only way. This reflects itself not just in the composition of our cabinets, but also in our reliance on conventions to run the system. At a minimum level we ought to be clarifying and properly codifying the powers of the head‐of‐state, the role of the two houses of parliament and the relationship between the executive and the legislature so that the conflict and uncertainty that surrounded the crisis of 1975 is not repeated.
In other words the republic debate allows us to put on the agenda new ways of thinking, not just about government but also about the functioning of parliament. By separating the government from the parliament voters could be given a wider range of choices. Who do I want to be president or governor? Who do I want to be my member of parliament? Already electors have shown that such questions are relevant to them by their different voting patterns for the Senate and the House of Representatives.
It is important, however, that I put these proposals into a political context. I’m not arguing that the Australian government drop everything else it is doing and make political reform the sole focus for its legislative and policy development. Politics should be just as much about vision as it is about the nightly news. What we need is a serious strategy for political reform that distinguishes between short, medium and longer‐term initiatives.
In the short‐term it is important that the current case for a more constructive and policy‐making parliament be consolidated with real support and commitment. Couple this with the utilisation of new forms of public engagement where it is appropriate and a strong message is sent to the community about support for change. It will signal a turning of the tide.