A Kinder, Gentler Polity?

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The suggestion that the new Parliament, with its minority Labor government, will represent a "new paradigm" has already been soundly mocked. While the thought that there will be any sort of "kinder, gentler, polity" in the nation’s new governmental arrangements is rightly derided as nonsense, it should be remembered that this was a suggestion — albeit a fleeting one — made by Tony Abbott when he was still hoping to convince enough of the independents to support him to form government.

When "a kinder, gentler polity" was revealed to be a totally hollow prediction of how the so-called "new paradigm" might work, the notion that things might nevertheless be different to previous parliaments was too quickly consigned to the dustbin.

Politicians will generally still behave like politicians, but this new parliament is likely to be quite different, and most likely better, in some important ways — although perhaps not the ones that have got most attention.

While the changes to Question Time rules will at least make answers less drawn out, I doubt they will do much to make Question Time any more useful for those who want information rather than political point-scoring.

Similarly, once people get used to the fact that a government can lose a vote on the floor of the House of Representatives without the sky falling in or chaos ensuing (assuming it’s not a vote of confidence or something similar), it will soon be clear that this is little different to them losing a vote on the floor of the Senate — which happens quite regularly, especially on procedural matters.

The difference of real significance will be a transfer in power from the Executive back to the Parliament. The subservience of the Parliament to the Executive is something which grew under both Labor and Coalition governments. The Senate’s role as the only bulwark against the power of the Executive was seriously undermined during the recent period of Coalition control of the Senate. The key challenge for the new Parliament is to reverse this power shift — and also to make sure the reversion endures when a majority government takes power.

Apart from their various key policy areas of concern, this should be the major focus for all the independents (including Nick Xenophon in the Senate) and the Greens in both chambers.

What this will mean is not only greater transparency and accountability. It will also mean more genuine consideration given to private members business — that is, proposals and legislation put forward by those MPs who aren’t part of the executive (including ALP backbenchers). It will limit the scope for the government to pursue the (until now) standard practice of gagging debate and forcing immediate votes on any matters it wishes.

Not only will the government have to see debates — and potentially lose votes — on matters it would rather not see getting oxygen, it will also be much harder to ignore decisions by the Senate — including demands for documents — that it doesn’t like.

It’s unlikely there will be an outbreak of conscience votes among major party MPs but having more private members business being raised by a diverse range of MPs should mean more matters will actually start to get genuine consideration, rather than be subject to pre-determined partisan views.

A Parliament in which parliamentarians get a real chance to make informed contribution to policy debates and use the Parliament as meaningful platform of advancing policy changes will be a major step forward. While senators have always had far more scope to raise and inquire into issues, the fact that the government had always been able to use its House of Representatives majority to oppose any private members matters agreed to by the Senate meant the direct capacity for influence was still lower. Now it will be possible for Parliament to pass laws even where they are opposed by the government of the day. I doubt this will happen very often, but the very fact that it could will force the government to engage much more genuinely with the Greens and independents.

The simple fact that each party will need to use persuasion to get matters agreed to and passed by the Parliament significantly changes the way parties and MPs will engage with each other. This doesn’t necessarily mean being nicer to each other – although simple human nature means you’re more likely to get agreement from others if you don’t abuse them or act like a jerk. But it should mean more willingness to negotiate and consider different approaches to an issue. This definitely would be a new paradigm, especially for the House of Representatives.

A lot of current commentary still seems to portray the Labor government’s position as unstable or insecure, with an underlying prospect of en early election. It is possible that some or all of the independents (including Andrew Wilkie) may decide to withdraw support from Julia Gillard and agree to support the Coalition forming government but it is hard to see circumstances — short of an improbable internal Labor Party meltdown — in which this scenario would arise.

I think the chances of an early election are even smaller. While Labor gave a commitment to the Independents to go full-term, work still needs to be done locking this commitment in by making it unbreakable. (I would think amending the Electoral Act would be the best approach.) But going to an election after anything less than a full three year term would mean having a House of Representatives-only election, with an election for half the Senate having to be held separately down the track. Why would any government want to get elections for the House and the Senate out of sync? It is also difficult to see a trigger developing that would enable a double dissolution election to occur.

So despite all the perception of uncertainty and potential instability, I think there is a very strong likelihood of this Parliament running a full three years and Labor staying in power throughout that period.

Ironically, once the Senate composition changes on 1 July next year, the Labor government might find it easier to get legislation passed through this new Parliament than they did in their previous term. The Coalition is able to block any legislation in the Senate as long as Family First Senator Steve Fielding agrees with them, which he usually does. Given how much the Coalition railed against an allegedly obstructionist Senate when it was in government, it is somewhat ironic, although not in the least bit surprising, that since moving into Opposition, they have used their virtual control of the Senate to be far more obstructive that the Senate ever was when the balance of power was in the hands of people such as the Australian Democrats.

This will undoubtedly change when the Greens take on sole balance of power in the Senate. For all the nonsensical talk by the Coalition and self-admitted anti-Green elements of the mainstream media about a so-called Labor-Greens alliance, there will continue to be occasions when legislation passes the Senate (and the House) with the joint support of Labor and the Coalition — with the Greens (and some or all of the Independents, depending on the issue) being in the minority opposing the measure. In such circumstances, there is no balance of power situation.

However, when the Greens do find themselves in balance of power positions in the Senate, I expect they will be far more constructive than the Coalition has been in the past few years with their de facto control of the Senate. Having observed closely the way the Greens have operated in the Senate over the past five years or so as they have increased their Senate representation and moved towards partial and now full balance of power, it is clear the party has broadened the range of issues in which they get involved, the depth of their participation in Senate Committee inquiries, and their preparedness to be involved in negotiation and compromise where feasible.

I expect the Greens will use Senate balance of power in a quite similar fashion to the Democrats in decades past — with the added benefit of being in a position to have seen and learn from the mistakes the Democrats made. Balance of power requires an enormous amount of work — and one reason for the Greens to be happy about having their Senate numbers expand to nine is simply that there will be more people to share the huge workload. But I don’t believe it is the sort of minefield of political booby traps and potential disasters in waiting that it is often portrayed, as long as a party keeps its focus and its wits about it — something the Greens should be quite capable of managing.

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