The incessant leadership speculation plaguing our political system today is more than a symptom of the sickness in the ALP. It is also a symptom of a greater contradiction between the way our system of government was designed to function and the way it has come to be perceived by the people.
Our political system is a parliamentary one with the executive drawn from, or "responsible" to, the parliament. But national elections are increasingly fought in terms of national leadership. Party leaders are now able to connect more directly with the people than was previously possible.
This change has been driven partly by concentrations of power. A professional political elite have consolidated control over the parties. The concentration of national media further intensifies the importance of the national stage. Local MPs have become both increasingly irrelevant to national government and removed from their constituencies.
Concurrent with this concentration of power and representation has been what we might call an "Americanisation" of Australian political culture. The political narratives that dominate popular culture in Australia today are not prime ministerial but presidential. Australian political elites borrow not so much from Britain, as from their greater friends in America. In 2007 Kevin07 arrived as the culmination of this trend towards presidential campaigning. Labor however, wanted the election campaign tactics without the practical political consequences.
When the Labor party decided to abandon their leader and replace him with another in its first term of government, Australians were shocked. They had not "voted for" Julia Gillard. The political elites shrilly reminded them that the people do not vote for the prime minister. The parliament and by extension the party room does that. Australians seem to have become a more democratically minded people than the system would like. The result has been four years of political turmoil marked by an angry and resentful public.
Their anger and resentment may be treated as freakish, unwarranted, or unappreciative of how good things really are for them. Often, perhaps, the anger is misdirected and unarticulated. Yet the great feeling of being cheated and the resentment at the political leaders foisted upon them that pervades public opinion should be understood as a loss of faith in the political system. Australians, whether they did so in fact or not, believed themselves to be voting for a prime minister in 2007. The unmasking of the lie in 2010 shook the public’s confidence in the political system — the effects of which are still playing out.
Restoring Rudd to the prime ministership however will not right the wrong. Faith in the system might only be restored by granting the people what they believe themselves to have had — the power to elect the prime minister. This is the real unfinished business of Australian democracy. This would bring our political system into line with public expectation.
In this are echoes of the republican debate. That debate ended inconclusively for a similar reason — the failure of political elites to trust the people. Rather than grant parliament more power, the people themselves desired the power to decide who governs them symbolically as well as in practice. Many republicans, wedded to the Westminster tradition, despaired at the rejection of the 1999 referendum. Instead we should see the 1999 defeat as an opportunity for more rather than less democracy.
One option would be to elect the prime minister and separate the executive from the legislature. Grant the PM codified powers similar to the American model and the opportunity to select ministers from outside of parliament. This would broaden the talent pool for potential ministers to potentially include experts in the field. Responsibility to the parliament could be preserved through the committee system by giving parliament the right to interrogate ministers as the US Senate does its various secretaries. This would replace the redundant ritual of question time with a more meaningful chain of accountability.
Prime ministerial candidates could be nominated by a minimum number of MPs (for example 20 MPs combined from either federal or state legislatures, similar to the Irish presidential nomination process) or through the collection of enough signatures of electors.
In Ireland a suggested reform is that its presidential nomination process should be expanded to allow for signatures of 10,000 electors, or roughly half a percent of voters — this would equate to around 70,000 signatures in Australia. This would ensure that candidates had a base of support within the parliament and/or among the public. Having an open nomination process is vital to breaking the dominance of internal party factions over our politics and returning power to the people. A preferential voting system would ensure that the preferred candidate of a majority of the voters would gain election. Strict regulations over donations and campaign finance should limit the amounts that can be donated and spent.
A problem with the American separation of powers is the recurrence of deadlock between the executive and legislative branches. Two reasons for this are the mid-term elections and the practice of filibustering. In Australia, concurrent prime ministerial and parliamentary elections, and the preservation of simple majorities would be vital. A circuit breaker, as currently exists in the event of deadlock between the Senate and House of Representatives, could be provided for allowing for legislation to be sent to referenda where it has been repeatedly rejected over a certain period.
We could, of course, rename the prime minister the "president" and therein revive the ailing republican movement that has long suffered a lack of popular enthusiasm. The leadership crisis in the major political parties in fact provides a perfect opportunity for such a revival, if only republicans could free themselves of the elitism that causes so many to cling to Westminster traditions like reluctant colonials.
Defenders of the Westminster system may howl, but it is the next step in the evolution of Australian democracy to finally trust its own people to elect their government directly.
Parliament for its part may find itself improved by the experiment. No longer would the House of Representatives be merely a glorified electoral college fulfilling the leadership ambitions of party leaders and their hangers on. It might actually rediscover its original purpose as representing the interests of its local electors, and of keeping the government transparent and accountable.
We often hear opponents of direct election fear monger about the kind of politicians who would win such democratic contests. Yet look at what we have now. By contrast, polls consistently suggest that had the people a say, more eloquent and popular leaders like Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd would be likely to win nomination for the contest.
Were we to extend direct democracy to the election of the executive, the faith of the people might be restored, and we may even elect leaders who can fire the imagination of the people, not merely rub the backs and egos of faceless men in party rooms. Parliament would be forced to work with the people’s choice. In a democracy that is only right.