What Murdoch could do instead

| July 15, 2013

Australia should start talking about new systems and a new constitution. Dr Klaas Woldring thinks that Rupert Murdoch with his considerable media influence could help.

The two documentaries about Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, recently shown on ABC TV, clearly demonstrate the need for more media diversity in Australia. Leaving Murdoch’s remarkable entrepreneurship and the internal growth of News Corporation aside, the role of the powerful Corporation in pushing his own ideological preferences can only be described as demonstrably dangerous to democratic values.

Thatcher was favoured by Murdoch in Britain. Successor John Major had an unexpected victory over Neil Kinnock’s Labour, thanks to the Murdoch paper The Sun; Hawke, Keating and Howard were favoured in Australia. Now it is Abbott and his team who are assisted by News Limited newspapers, having 70% of circulation here. It appears that winners are those who are favoured by Murdoch’s personal views and bias, but democracy is not a one-man show, quite the opposite.

That is why legislation aiming at media diversity remains very important. A major reason why the former Gillard Government was down in the polls was the non-stop negative treatment by the Murdoch media of the Australian Government. But what was really the benefit of this for Australia? What is actually Murdoch’s purpose in favouring one of the parties over the other in a two-party system that has huge problems? Why does he not throw his considerable media influence behind system change if he wants to do something really useful, e. g. by hiring newspaper editors and journalists who are capable and willing to support such an agenda?

As was made clear in his reply speech to former Treasurer Wayne Swan’s budget, Tony Abbott is not thinking in terms of system change at all. He was even mentioning a restoration of state sovereignty, a reactionary position. There would be “no surprises and no excuses”; back to “golden” days of the Howard period, he flagged. Really, this is not what Australia needs now! But it also needs a lot more than what Gillard was offering at the time.

There are several areas that do require at least extensive debate and political initiative. That is simply not generated by the traditional media, to the contrary. Given that there is now a huge surge on the way for new parties to register, a clear sign of widespread system dissatisfaction, this is the very time to address the issue. As Ben Raue has forecast, these several new and the existing smaller parties won’t get anywhere as the electoral system is grossly biased in favour of the major parties.

The two-party system in this country is the result of the 1918 Commonwealth Electoral Act and the 1924 Act introducing compulsory voting. These acts virtually guarantee that in the federal House of Representatives minor parties and Independents virtually have no chance of getting a foothold. This being so donors will naturally favour the major parties as well because one of them will form the Government.

Therefore, to achieve real political diversity, the single-member-district system, which in Australia includes the compulsory preferencing of any participating minor parties (which creates a false sense of democracy), needs to be replaced with proportional representation (PR).

The Australian Senate has a system of PR, the so-called Hare-Clarke system of English origin, which makes it possible to have some success for minor parties and Independents in that Chamber. Hare-Clark is used for the Senate, Tasmanian Lower House election and the ACT. The problem with it is that is requires extensive preferencing of individual candidates (resulting in very large ballot papers) and is therefore avoided by voters who opt for the “above the line option” instead.

The European variety of PR is mostly the “Open Party List system” which, in my view, would be a great improvement for Australia. Just one vote would provide a preference for (1) a party and (2) one of the listed candidates of that party. The introduction of PR would end the nasty, dysfunctional adversarial parliamentary discourse and structure; result in diverse parliaments and a healthier and democratic political system.

The New Zealanders changed to a PR system in 1993 (MMP) and virtually all new states post-WWII adopted PR list systems. It is high time to move away from the Westminster sphere and begin to open up the debate about the causes of Australia’s political malaise. As a first step the states of the Australian federation could be used as PR electoral districts.

Another major reform that should be contemplated is the replacement of the federation with a more effectively decentralised national state. Almost unbelievably, this was Abbott’s own position, stated at a conference in Tenterfield in October 2008.

This would require more time to engineer, but a start could be made now by appointing a Council of Constitutional Change staffed with progressive thinkers. The Australian federation should not be “rescued” or “repaired”, as timid academics argue, but instead abolished as it has outlived its usefulness.

Conditions in Australia have changed enormously since 1900. The current federation’s cost has been estimated to be at least $30 billion per annum. If Australia is looking for savings, that’s where some of them are. And we are not even considering the enormous additional cost of the two parties playing endless political games at federal and state levels. Not surprisingly, voters have turned away from politics in droves. In 2010, 3.25 million avoided to vote.

Then, let us consider the virtues or otherwise of certain important aspects of the Westminster system that Australia has inherited from colonial times.

The Westminster System is defined as a Representative Parliamentary system in which the Ministers are “in and of the parliament”. Citizens cannot be Ministers unless they are elected to Parliament as MPs. This virtually ensures that most Ministers are functional amateurs. In the UK the choice is from 600 MPs, minus the Opposition MPs. In Australia’s federal Parliament it is 150 MPs, minus the Opposition MPs. In the states of the Australian federation the number is often much smaller. Sometimes, as in Tasmania, there are not enough Government MPs to fill the portfolios.

The fusion problem is equally problematical. As a result the Government and the front bench of the Opposition dominate the legislature. There is no separation of powers between the Government and Legislature. This has long been seen as undesirable.

Should it not be a prime objective of reformers to improve the quality of Governments and political leadership? It may be much better for the party executives to be able to choose from the entire society. There are a huge number of outstanding potential candidates out there but they would not want to bother to go through the tedious party pre-selection process and then be involved in election campaigns. The Westminster system rules such people out to serve the nation. As party membership in Australia is now below 0.5%, in total, this is a very serious situation indeed. The pool is very small.

Separation of powers is very desirable. Why should the Government have to be “in and of the Parliament”? Ministers may have to be called to the legislature, to explain government policy or to answer questions, but why should they have to be “of the Parliament”? The system surely affects the independence of the legislature, especially in a two-party system. So-called “extra-parliamentary” executives are the rule in all non-Westminster systems, both in the US and all European, collegiate parliamentary systems. Australia could adopt this as well.

Australia should start talking about new systems and a new constitution and for that, but only for that, Australians may need the help of media baron Mr. Murdoch. The kind of help his paper, The Australian, did provide at the time of the Republic referendum.

Klaas Woldring
Dr. Klaas Woldring is a former A/Prof of Southern Cross University, co-founder of Beyond Federation and Managing Editor of Beyond Federation – Options to renew Australia’s 1901 Constitution. Email: woldring@zipworld.com.au.

0 Comments

  1. klaas.woldring

    klaas.woldring

    July 16, 2013 at 2:52 am

    System change – who thinks about it? Why?
    I am encouraging Australians to think in terms of system change. Surprisingly, very few political scientists have done that in recent years in spite of the fact that the system has serious problems. Why are they and others, like political journalists, not asking: WHY does Australia have a toxic parliamentary system in which negativity plays such a dominant role? There are answers for this and there are remedies. But first has to come the awareness of causes. The three major causes are the dominant electoral system (single-member-electoral districts, combined with compulsory enrolment, compulsory voting and compulsory preferencing), the federal system, and a constitution which can hardly can amended and is frozen and archaic in many respects. Presumably the educational system has failed Australia in this particular area. The ignorance of Australians about alternatives and remedies is shockingly inadequate. As an academic am fully aware of this and have spoken out repeatedly and in many places outside the university. Connected with the lack of diverse representation is the great belief in the Westminster system. But there are major problems with this as well One of them this is that it ensures a lack of quality of politicians because they have to be “in and of the Parliament”, that is elected. Given that the pool of possible politicians – of all political parties together is less than 0.5% of the population – and many of them are not interested to be candidates –
    it is small wonder that this quality is often less than average. Surely this has to change! Australia needs to start talking about system change.

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