Political Consciousness: An Interview With Dr Nick Economou

Following ten months of political instability and chaos at the hands of “one of the world’s most unpopular prime minister’s” (The Washington Post), political knowledge is fast becoming an indispensable commodity for all Australians. With so many people being affected by recent government propositions, it seems as though ordinary citizens will have to become more politically astute to recognise when and how their rights and their voices are being forsaken.

Having previously studied a semester of introductory Australian politics under the tutelage of Dr Nick Economou, it seemed rather fitting that I again turn to Monash University’s political guru to answer some of the burning questions regarding what I perceive to be weaknesses in our political system.

The induction of new members into the Upper House last month represented the largest number of crossbench senators in Australia’s history (18 – up from 13 in the 2002 – 2005 period). Do you think this signifies a faltering of the traditional two-party-preferred mentality of Australian politics? Could Australia’s growing disillusionment with the major parties possibly lead to an increase in the number of minor party MPs in the House of Representatives as well (something we have already seen with Adam Bandt becoming the first Greens member to be elected to the Lower House in a general election in 2010, with an increased primary vote in the subsequent 2013 election)?

While I agree that the Australian electorate has become much more volatile in recent times, it is not uncommon for the major parties of government to not have a majority in the Senate.

The non-major party vote for the Senate in 2013 was 31.8 percent which is the highest since the introduction of proportional representation in 1949, but between 1984 and 2014 the average non-major party vote for the Senate has been 20 percent. I suspect that the 2013 result reflected something of a particular voter reaction to the way the political debate had gone between 2010 and 2013.

The Bandt results were quite historic, but they reflected a realignment of Labor support. Coalition support has been much more consistent and much more resilient especially in metropolitan and regional city electorates. I seriously doubt that we will see an increase in non-major party representation in the lower house over the long term.

Is the way Australia elects its Prime Minister inherently flawed because, unlike the United States, the people are not directly voting for an individual to serve as the leader of their country? Ultimately, do we not have a system whereby political parties choose who will serve as the leader of Australia rather than the people themselves?

No the system is not flawed in the sense that Australia utilises the Westminster system of parliamentary government. The US uses a completely different system based on a different set of liberal democratic norms.

Reflecting on the origins of democracy, was it not the role of “politicians”/elected representatives to reflect the views of the people? Has this system now mutated into an infectious organism whereby politicians say what is necessary to get elected and then merely ‘decide’ what is best for Australia based on their personal views rather than on the actual views of the majority? The polemic of marriage equality is often cited in regards to this aberration of democratic ideals. Despite growing support for marriage equality, no government action has been undertaken to reflect the changing views of society. Personal and religious beliefs prohibit the Liberal party from even allowing a conscience vote on the issue.

Most of those matters cited here constitute fringe issues that are of interest to minorities in the community. Without wishing to deny the right of minority interests to be addressed, most modern mass representative democracies are mobilised on the assumption that government should be discharged by those who receive majority support. The idea of majoritarianism is embedded in our electoral system for the lower house, for example. We know from opinion polls that the majority of the electorate desire of the major parties that they provide stable government and address economic policy, industrial relations and national security. Pushing the two major parties to address matters beyond this can prove to be a herculean task.

Party politics has been integral to the Australian political system since federation, and especially after the consolidation of the party system after 1910. The idea that MPs are supposed to be voicing the concerns of their parishes is an old fashioned and romantic notion associated with British parliamentary practice between 1650 and the passing of the Great Reform Act of 1842.

Also, as a point of fact: Liberal MPs are allowed by party rules to vote according to their conscience if they so choose to do. The Liberal party rules do not allow for disciplined caucusing. What is happening in the party room at the moment is probably more a reflection of the fact that the vast majority of Liberals being pre-selected reflect the ascendancy of social conservatism especially within the party’s branches. The decision not to allow a conscience vote in the party is thus political rather than a reflection of a structural feature of the Liberal party. If a Liberal wanted to vote on these matters according to her or his conscience, this is allowed under party rules (the chances are, however, that these people might struggle to retain their pre-selection later on, especially if their branch was particularly conservative).

Is it possible for Australia to become a Republic whilst still retaining a Governor-General and remaining part of the Commonwealth? One of the reasons for the defeat of the 1999 referendum to institute a Republic form of governance in Australia was the potential loss of Australia’s Commonwealth title and the centuries-long ties to Great Britain. A Republic form of government would allow Australians to directly elect who they want to represent them as leader of the nation, reclaiming a right of the people that has been usurped by the party-system for far too long. Do you see any chance of Australia going to a referendum on this issue in the near future, and do you suppose the outcome would be any different from 1999 given the growing disillusionment with the party system in Australia?

I see no prospect of any such referendum under Tony Abbott’s prime ministership. Labor won’t touch it either.

The claim that there is disillusionment with the party system is contestable: voters are simply shifting their support from one party to another.
The last attempt at becoming a republic was based precisely on the idea of keeping a Governor General (re-branded as Head of State) and basically keeping the system as it is. The defeat of the republic cause was due to the division between the minimalist republicans and the radicals who want to use this matter to radically alter the Australian system. As long as this division persists I think that republicanism in Australia is doomed to fail.

Dr Nick Economou is a senior lecturer in the School of Political and Social Inquiry, Monash University.

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