Australia’s political system is broken.

The recent review by the ALP on their election result revealed a party in disarray. Policies and prime ministers were switched on the run. Kevin Rudd as not-PM acted as in-house land mine, as PM he acted like a demented one-man brainstorming group.

Julia Gillard saw some excellent legislation through (almost all of which Abbott is pulling apart) but her government did an appalling sales job, so voters decided that anything would be better than the confusion they perceived to be prevailing in the Labor Party.

But “anything” was the Abbott Government, and post budget, many voters are discovering that they had made a terrible mistake. An extreme right wing government, that beat up a non-existent financial crisis in order to fatten the corporate world to the severe detriment of the underprivileged, is not what Australians need or want.

Most of the Liberal cabinet from the PM down are devout Christians, which allows them their unique twist to the Magnificat: “We have filled the rich with good things and the hungry we have sent empty away.”

Liberal-Labor policy conflation

While enacting such legislation as Gonski, NDIS and NBN, Labor had also been singing from the Liberal song sheet in their legislation on asylum seekers, yes-no to carbon pricing, cutting single mothers’ payments, and school chaplaincies.

Indeed, Labor had been supplying the tenor line in the Liberal choir for the past thirty years. Labor under Hawke embraced deregulation, privatised Qantas and the Commonwealth Bank, and lowered both corporate and personal income taxes thereby distributing some $50 billion from the workers to the already rich, while Keating locked wage earners’ superannuation into the stock market. Our political centre of gravity had swung sharply right.

Here are some of the similarities between the two parties on recent policies.

Asylum seeker:

While Hawke and Fraser to their everlasting credit were in accord over the Vietnamese boatpeople, mandatory detention was implemented by Keating in 1992 as a measure of border protection. Thus was sown the seeds of the myth of “illegal” asylum seekers that sprouted its strange fruit with the 2001 Tampa crisis when Howard sent in the armed forces to prevent 438 asylum seekers, whose vessel had foundered, from landing in Australian territory.

Opposition Leader Beasley concurred with this brutal decision. It got even more brutal when Labor tried to match the Coalition’s nastiness with the desperate and ill-thought-out Malaysia and Nauru solutions. Labor has disgusted many of its own supporters yet any change in Labor’s immigration policy has been voted down as I write. The souls of Labor and Liberal main players on asylum seeker policy seem to have been cloned from the soul of the same cockroach.

Iraq War:

John Howard off his own bat committed Australia to war in Iraq, on what we now know to be false information about weapons of mass destruction, because George W Bush had become a mate of his. At least Simon Cream argued strongly against going into Iraq but again Beasley was too weak to stand up to Howard. At least Howard was right about Beasley’s “lack of ticker”.

School Chaplaincies:

For sheer out of nowhere wrong headedness, it’s hard to beat Labor’s support for the Liberals’ school chaplaincy programme. This commits $245 million to supply schools with religious “chaplains” many of whom are religious zealots from the hard right.

The Scripture Union would be the supplier for Tasmania and they explicitly state that their mission is to encourage children to become “followers of God.” These proselytisers will largely replace professionally trained school psychologists and social workers.

This is not only deeply offensive to non-Christians (and no doubt to many Christians as well) but downright dangerous. Children having problems with drugs, sexuality, bullying, dysfunctional families and other problems that cry for professional help, will be in the hands of untrained zealots.

Labor’s support for this dangerous and expensive programme is incomprehensible. The programme has twice been rejected by the High Court as unconstitutional, not unfortunately on the grounds that compulsory religious programmes are out of place in a secular country, but that the Commonwealth/State financing would be tangled. If the states are then to give this programme the go ahead, please, Mr. Hodgman, not in Tasmania.

Funding higher education:

Both Labor and Liberal governments have severely cut higher education, making Labor’s criticisms of the Coalition’s cuts to universities and the CSIRO more than somewhat hypocritical.

Climate change:

Labor and Liberals in 2007 were united on the issue of climate change and the need for carbon pricing. Labor is now for carbon pricing, after forcing Rudd to drop his ETS then changing their minds again, while the Liberals are now strongly opposed.

Given this bipartisan shemozzle, it is not surprising that, according to a survey by the Climate Institute on the eve of the reintroduction of the legislation to scrap the carbon tax, one in five people agree that the Coalition has an effective plan to tackle climate change, and one in four that Labor has. Not much difference there.

Corruption:

In recent years corruption looked like Labor’s forte, with the Health Services Union boss Michael Williamson and secretary Craig Thomson being found guilty of misappropriating millions of union funds.

Then of course there’s the NSW ICAC finding that Eddie Obeid and Joe Tripodi corrupted parliament itself for personal and mates’gain. But as The Drum puts it, “ICAC’s destruction hits both sides”. The Liberal Party accepted massive donations from Australian Water Holdings, of which Liberal Senator Arthur Sinodinis was Deputy Chairman, in exchange for favourable legislation with regard to its subsidiary Sydney Water, a saga of dirty dealings reported in ABC’s Four Corners’ Democracy for Sale.

The doozy was that Eddie Obeid is a major shareholder in Sydney Water. Corruption in NSW had become truly bipartisan.

Forestry:

Both parties, at state and federal levels, have subsidised the forestry industry although it has been unsustainable and it was and is making heavy losses. Whoever was in power at whatever level, taxpayers shelled out millions, reaching into billions,to support an industry that employed fewer than 2 per cent of the workforce.

The CMFEU, one of the most powerful in Australia, had relations with both parties. Who can forget Labor Premier Paul Lennon and 2,000 CFMEU workers cheering John Howard in his 2004 election campaign in Braddon?

Another bizarre aspect of the forestry industry is the saga of the Tamar Valley pulp mill. Public opinion was strongly against; it had been rejected as “critically noncompliant”with the guidelines of the government’s own assessment body, the RPDC; Gunns couldn’t get it started by the deadline, so the Tasmanian government obligingly extended the permits twice. When Gunns went belly up, the state Labor government, with Liberal support, extended the construction permits a third time. All that effort and again for nothing, for nobody wanted to buy the permits.

The forestry industry was in such dire straits that in 2010 it initiated discussions with environmentalists to seek a way out of their tribulations. After intense discussions over three years an agreement was negotiated to bring peace to the long standing forest wars. But astonishingly, that agreement, as Labor Premier Lara Giddings announced, was in order “to get the pulp mill up”.

That’s not what most people had thought, but no matter, Liberal and Labor parties both state and federal were again backing the wretched mill. But whatever role the pulp mill did or didn’t have in achieving the peace agreement that was eagerly awaited by the industry, environmentalists and the general public, state and federal Liberal governments have committed to tear up the agreement.

Looks like we’ll be returning our old growth forests to their traditional role of battlefield.

These capers of the major political parties and their policy conflation have marginalised, alienated and disenfranchised many Australians. Much of that damage is due to the collapse of what was a major reason for Labor’s very existence: social justice for the underprivileged.

The Liberals for their part have remained consistent in their remit, although far more ruthless in enacting it under Howard and especially Abbott. Further, under Abbott they are facing a massive credibility problem. The Coalition’s pre-election promises are a mind-boggling mismatch with their post-election actions, particularly as realised in the recent budget. Then Tony Abbott walked the world stage saying that President Obama’s climate change policy had been lifted from Abbott’s Direct Action policy, and that he and Obama are “on the same page” with respect to climate policy.

Perhaps in his excitement he hadn’t noticed that his policy flatly contradicts Obama’s.

Labor’s flaccid acceptance of many Liberal policies, and the Liberals’ rock-hard rapaciousness, have delivered a thundering vacuum for voters on the centre and left of centre.

Can the problem be mended with a new party or a coalition of parties on the left? Or is the two party system so broken we need multiple parties representing more specific constituencies? Or should an issues-based system of government replace a party-based one?

A new coalition on the left

What is the place of the Greens in this? While current Green policy largely addresses this vacuum on the left, the problem is that the Greens are doing very well if they get 20 per cent of the vote. This is not enough to form an alternative government.

The irony is that probably a large majority of voters would agree that a government should:

• act immediately and firmly against climate change,
• increase public participation in political decision-making,
• remove inequalities of wealth and power that inhibit participatory democracy,
• legislate in the interests ofsocial justice,
• make spending on health, public education and public transport a major priority,
• support small business, including farmers, over giant corporations,
• engage in greater public consultation and transparency,
• establish a more labour-intensive, diverse and sustainable forestry industry,
• adhere to established due process in policy making.

These policies distinguish the Greens from the two major parties but many who would agree with these policies would never vote Green. Relentless and irrelevant name-calling and blatant misrepresentation of Green policies have poisoned the public perception of the Greens.

Dennis Altman, addressing “a Labor-Green opportunity” in Inside Story, doubts that after the recent turbulence Labor can ever win government in its own right:

Labor has yet to find a convincing definition of progressive politics … . Any serious questioning of the mantra of growth and consumption is regarded as electoral suicide. The party is trapped in the legacy of economic rationalism, which leads to the contradictory position of its current leaders, who simultaneously talk about the need to focus on climate change while also increasing economic growth.

Altman points out that although Green numbers are small, they comprise a high proportion of young voters that would make the Greens more powerful in future than present numbers suggest. Further, Green policies – as is clear in the above list – range far beyond environmentalism per se. On social justice they are where Labor was years ago (and still should be).

As both Greens and the Labor are, or originally were, social democratic parties, Altman suggests a coalition between the two, with each party preserving its own identity.

While many Labor voters would probably resist a coalition with the Greens, the numbers for forming an electorally viable coalition are not impossible. If only 30 to 40 per cent of Labor voters rethought matters, the new coalition could indeed form majority government with the Greens. The fractured Labor-Green arrangement in Tasmania should not be taken as proof such a coalition would not work.

The Tasmanian case was so structured it allowed Labor to be portrayed as a Green front although it wasn’t, while the Greens were seen to have compromised their principles.

An alternative is to form a new party with a new name, such as the Australian Social Democratic Party. This would lighten the baggage from a Labor Party that is Labor in name only, and would neutralise the mud-slinging at the Greens when many people mostly agree with Green policies.

An Australian Social Democrat Party after unsuccessfully contesting the 1983 election, threw their support behind Bob Hawke. But Hawke swung the Labor Party away from social democracy. With Labor now in disarray, maybe it’s now time to rethink ways of strengthening the party in a way that respects its principles.

Both alternatives preserve the broad left-right two party structure. But maybe that’s not the best way to go, given the problems of two party systems:

• pre-selection of candidates is in terms of their allegiance to this or that faction of the party, not according to their ability or their acceptability to their own electorate. Such candidates usually have little experience outside the party machine and represent the party not the people,
• politicians vote according to caucus or cabinet dictates, often against their own judgment or conscience, and against the interests of their constituency,
• the present orientation of the major parties presents the electorate with the choice of a hard right neoliberal government or a centre right neoliberal government. In either case, neoliberalism represents the interests of the corporate world, not those of the people.
• issues that concern voters are not even raised if cabinet or caucus doesn’t want them to be.

These factors are antithetical to a properly functioning participatory democracy.

Multiple parties

Many European countries have parties representing narrower constituencies than a single left-right divide. France for example has ten parties, Belgium 14. These smaller parties have the advantage of more accurately representing the spectrum of views and values across the population and they vote accordingly, allowing that they can also form alliances for getting a broader and representative range of legislation through parliament. Australia, the UK and the USA on the other hand have two or three party governments that provide an ill fit for the spread of views that exist in the electorate.

In Australia we have small parties but they are almost entirely restricted to the Senate, such as the Hunters and Shooters Party andthe Motoring Enthusiasts Party. These parties achieved Senate seats by manipulating a deeply-flawed voting system and have miniscule representation in the population.

It is difficult to say how a multiple party system might be instituted and made to work in Australia. While it works in many countries (and admittedly not in others) we have been wedded to the idea of a governing party and an opposition party since Federation. But then that might suggest, to pool political clichés, that it’s time to be moving forward.

Issues-based government

Something like issues-based government exists in Hong Kong. The Legislative Council, which enacts legislation, comprises 35 members elected by citizens and who may be members of political parties, and 35 members elected by functional, occupation-based constituencies, such as education, health, business, transport, and so on. Thus, decisions are made by politicians who are responsible for different sectors of the community. The tendency for councillors to horse-trade amongst themselves is mitigated by the presence of democratically elected members to keep the bastards honest.

The problem in Hong Kong is not the Legislative Council, which works reasonably well, but the China-appointed position of Chief Executive, who then appoints an Executive Council to advise him. We certainly don’t want politicians to be appointed, but the notion of functional constituencies has merit and could be applied to Australia.

Young people today are accused of narcissism and political apathy. The Whitlam Institute’s Young People Imagining a New Democracy project on the other hand suggests that young people only appear apathetic because they see that the party system is failing them, that their interests are on issues they see as important and that the party system is neglecting, climate change being a major one. The fact that young people are the up and coming demographic in the Greens reflects the fact that of all parties, the Greens focus on issuesthat look to the future.

An issues-based governmental structure may take many forms, but first the issues and the constituencies that support them would need to be defined, such as health, education, transport, the environment, the rural sector, science, the arts, and so on and on. Candidates up for election in each constituency would then need to show their credentials for such a post. There would also need to be a second rank of advisors, a public service, and checks and balances.Whatever the structural and operational specifics, legislation is passed on the basis of politicians’ commitment and expertise in the area in question.

For such an ideal system to be put in place however the existing system would have to be dismantled. While such a consummation is devoutly to be wished, it is presently baying at the moon to expect parties to vote themselves out of existence.

But, who knows, a new generation might well see in a new era.

So?
It is evident that our political system is increasingly detaching itself from engagement with the values, concerns and needs of ordinary people. Our politicians inhabit a cocoon spun by the corporate world.

I see three broad possibilities. The most conservative one is to retain some sort of party system by creating a social democratic coalition from existing parties to correct the right leaning tilt that currently exists. The most radical possibility is to go for a new structure that is based on issues, not party allegiance. A multiparty system is somewhere between the two.

The up and coming generation are angry and frustrated that the present system is not looking to a future that is theirs. Future systems are their call and all the signs are that they won’t be hamstrung by a party-based boa constrictor but a system that resolves issuesby requiring evidence, rational argument and cooperation. Political structures for the future should be in the hands of those forming the future polity, not in those of rapacious corporations and their political henchmen who in their greed are endangering the planet itself.

This proverb is attributed to the indigenous North Americans: “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.”

At the moment we are cheating our children big time.

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