Mandate wars: redux.

On The Drum, Tim Dunlop correctly suggests that most talk of “mandates” is rhetoric … and then falls into the same trap as those who argue that Tony Abbott’s victory means that Labor should abandon its support for the carbon tax and fall into line, in the Senate overlap period, which ends in the middle of next year. So …

“… that, there is also no doubt that an election victory does give to the winning party or parties the right to govern. As imperfect as the whole system is, a democracy works on the assumption that the winning party has the support of a majority of the population. “

So …

“Given this, Labor has to think very seriously about opposing the new government’s legislation to repeal a price on carbon (the so-called carbon tax) … there is no doubt that the new PM went to the election promising to repeal it and in winning the election he has the right, in this matter at least, to govern as he sees fit.”

Dunlop preserves two misunderstandings. The first is the separation of powers. The prime minister and the ministry — the government appointed by the governor-general — have the right to make executive decisions (by regulation, and direct instruction to public servants), and the right to introduce legislation for a vote in parliament. But the entire point of a legislative/executive split (hidden more in Australia than anywhere else) is that the vote must be won in Parliament. The purpose of opposition, and non-government MPs, is to test the legislation.

Most likely the carbon tax will get through, but who knows? Maybe next month, we’ll cross a threshold, the Siberian peat fields will release all their methane at once, and global opinion will change on a dime. Dunlop suggests that “compromise” ensures that democracy does not become majoritarian rule. Nonsense. It is opposition, conflict and representation of minority views — or simply of the views that did not win — that protects minority groups.

That relates to the second error, which is to presume that Parliament is some incomplete “real” version of an “ideal” form — and so features such as the Senate overlap should be disregarded. Wrong. The real is the real. Any idea that alternative forms of parliament may be better or worse are political judgements. There’s good arguments for and against a Senate overlap, but it can’t simply be discounted as an anomaly in comparison to some invisible other.

The point of opposition, aside from representing different opinions and interests, is to test legislation, make it “better”, by various lights, argue it out in public. Should the process become toxic — Dunlop quotes the current US government shutdown — then it serves a purpose by revealing the structural deficiencies of the system of governance (in the US, the capacity to create absurd omnibus bills, forms of legislative blackmail), and if one side is doing it with no legitimacy whatsoever, then punishment by the public will be swift. By using the US stand-off as a model for adversarial politics, Dunlop is taking the pathological case, and making it the normal condition.

There are good strategic reasons for Labor to let the carbon tax repeal through — and good arguments against (rebooting the Greens, for example). But none of them turn on legitimacy. This Senate is the Senate until mid next-year — by which point the Palmer United Party may well have collapsed, a couple of major party members may have peeled off to become independents, and some of the micro-party reps may have decided they can’t be arsed doing it. There are numerous examples throughout parliamentary history in which cunctation has produced a result seen, in retrospect, as the better result.

Should we want to reform the Senate, its timing, its voting procedures, well … we bloody should. But let’s do that as a separate thing, rather than looking for the ghosts of it in mystical and unidentifiable public will. Remember: 53.5% preferred a party, with dozens of specific policies. The only state-focused way we find out which of those have unquestionable mass public support is to test them in the Parliament.

Mandate schmandate. Consensus shmonshensus.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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