May 19th 2001

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Articles from this issue:

Canberra Observed - Private opinions politicise High Court

AFA intervenes in IVF test case in High Court

True competition only way to keep banks honest

Franklins' sale shows supermarkets' power

The Media

Straws in the Wind

Straws in the Wind - Straws II


Victoria abandons marriage

Will CEOs rule the world better than governments?

Why the domestic market is so important.

The next American Century begins,

Europe's ticking time bomb

COVER STORY: Gene manipulation: time to call a halt

Books promotion page

Straws in the Wind - Straws II

by Max Teichmann

News Weekly, May 19, 2001
Misrepresentative government

"Libs plot Upper House switch"
(Herald Sun, May 6)

Victoria's Bracks Government, in its desire to use the possibly limited time it has to exploit the weaknesses of a still recovering Opposition, would clearly like to construct a mechanism whereby unpopular measures could be rammed through without the public having time to resist. Current examples: drug decriminalisation, anti-private-school discrimination, etc. Whatever caucus and the pressure groups want.

The ideal situation would be the Queensland solution - get rid of the Upper House. The only way to accomplish this is to persuade the Upper House to abolish itself, with Lower House approval, or at least to accept its own legislative castration. But the Upper House is in no mood to do either.

So, a $2 million "Constitutional Commission to study Upper House Reform" has been set up, presumably to produce a report just before the next election, which Bracks can use as an election issue.

The Commission is headed by former Supreme Court Judge Hampel, and includes two former Liberals, Ian Macphee and Alan Hunt. Justice Hampel had never described himself as a Liberal - indeed I remember his elevation to the judiciary by the Cain Government, along with some Labor lawyers - whereas Macphee and Hunt, like Fraser and Fred Chaney, haven't said many nice things about their fellow conservatives for a long, long time.

Although these are early days, I would be confident enough to put money - some money - on a finding emerging which Mr Bracks will find quite acceptable. But our conservatives - probably not.

State Labor supported the abolition of the Upper House until nine years ago - now it wants proportional representation, of which we have a number of examples in Australia. The utilities or disutilities of PR systems vary from time to time, but I think their original intended functions, the representations of minorities of citizens - whose special needs or aspirations would have otherwise been smothered or ignored in a system dominated by a few mass parties (or States) - have either disappeared or else become an impediment to good or even honest government.

Minorities, entrenched and secure within a PR system, enjoy power or at least notable influence, without responsibility.

They never have to assume the burden of government, so don't need to make the deals, the compromises, accept the watering-down of platform objectives or promises, which major parties often have to go through, if they are to retain office or gain office. Better half a loaf than none, is a familiar dilemma in democracy.

But it makes the minority groups seem purer than they often are, and the big parties cynical or acting out of bad faith, whereas often they are simply being realistic, making the best of a bad job: e.g., the disastrous GST compromises.

Of course, power without responsibility is a standing invitation to corruption. This occurs in some political cultures, not others.

Thus the Scandinavian and Swiss PR systems were always cited as more democratic, and successfully democratic than first-past-the-post systems, or even our preferential voting system.

But other countries with immature electorates and a corrupt political class have thrown up instability: no stable majorities, constant regime changes (these strengthen the pressure groups, bureaucracies and judiciaries, which normally don't change, but rather, accrue more and more power), and the buying of votes. PR systems can be especially destructive when firm government, based on the national interest, is urgently required in the face of a major crisis. That spontaneous joining together hasn't always happened.

I think the PR system of Weimer Germany materially hastened the collapse of German democracy, just as I think PR has been a burden, not a blessing, to Israel.

But a newish development is jeopardising our small parties, and those new ones which could emerge, were we to extend proportional representation. We have reluctantly digested the fact that the big parties either need, or want, massive infusions of outside capital - donors - to operate.

Only big corporations, including unions, have that sort of money, plus the access to refined ways of laundering donations. The rank-and-file members, or supporters, are irrelevant. They are simply the necessary gun fodder. There being no such thing as a free lunch, the big donors expect their policy preferences to be respected, although this can just be a one-off sweetheart deal: changes to the media rules, decriminalising drugs, or porn, etc.

The little parties obviously find themselves attracted by the same possibilities. Thus, in the Herald Sun (May 6) it was said, "Victoria's corporate world is being offered a chance to dine with Senators Stott-Despoja and Aden Ridgeway - at $2500 a head. The $25,000 a table dinners are being held in all states during June, July and August."

In future, as with the big parties, voters should first discover, where possible, not what is on the party program, but who are the principal party backers - i.e., corporations, pressure groups - and what it is that these backers want. The story of little parties being pure, and large parties impure, is a myth. The truth is more likely to be the reverse.

Thus, a small party, with scads of corporate money, enabling it to buy public relations and media support, and with tacit back-up from a major party, doesn't really need or want a big membership.

Such members might want to have an actual say. So, simply for the sake of the argument, rake Australia. You probably only need, or want, perhaps 2500 members.

Whatever happens to Victoria's Upper House, it won't mean a better deal, or a stronger voice for the average voter. That is not the idea of the exercise; more likely it is a strategy for a one-party state. That is, a semi-permanent hegemony of pressure groups and patronage systems, some of which are already in natural decline. A hegemony made more respectable and pluralistic in appearance by one or two little "parties", that in reality act as conduits for money with which the major party may not wish to be publicly associated.

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