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No paradigm shift in hung Parliament

By Jo Page - posted Thursday, 2 September 2010

The prospect of a hung Parliament has revealed widespread ignorance about the fundamentals of our democracy. Representative government means we elect people to make decisions on our behalf for a limited period, currently three years for the House of Representatives and six years for Senators. Unlike the Swiss we don’t expect our elected representatives to keep coming back to us asking what they should do. All we ask is that they protect our interests with few surprises. On most issues, we hope they are better placed to decide than we are.

Commentators who should know better see the inconclusive result as requiring a “paradigm shift” in Australian politics, as though voters deliberately intended to produce a dead heat. In fact most voters gave their first preference to a Coalition candidate, most others to a Labor candidate, and most of the rest to a Green candidate. Those who voted Green generally made Labor their second choice. In four of 150 Lower House electorates voters supported independent candidates (three of them disillusioned ex National Party members). It is therefore absurd to claim that a hung Parliament indicates deep dissatisfaction with the major parties or support for more diverse representation.

It is equally absurd to claim that the “independents” have been given the right to determine the “national interest” as they see fit. Of the Independent MPs, one, Adam Bandt was elected as a Green, and is aligned to the Green senators who will hold the balance of power when they take their places ten months from now.


Another, Andrew Wilkie, is a former Green who as an Office of National Assessments (ONA) intelligence officer blew the whistle on aspects of the Howard government’s policy in Iraq and is now presenting as being in favour of “stable, effective and ethical” government.

There is also the strange case of Tony Crook, the West Australian National, who claims his promise to eliminate the proposed mining rent tax and to obtain federal funds matching state mining royalties (at least in Western Australia) puts him at odds with the Nationals federally.

The three rural “independents”, Bob Katter, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, have tried to present a united position when appearing together publicly but their differing views are evident when they are interviewed separately. A common thread echoed by others is the need for changes to the way Parliament works, specifically offering greater influence to ordinary MPs at the expense of the Executive Government. Presumably that would be popular among voters who supported independent candidates.

Certainly the Executive should be made more accountable, as anyone knows who watched the mockery the Rudd government made of Question Time. Kevin Rudd eccentrically referred to the process as a “debate” whereas it should be the process by which MPs on both sides of the House obtain information they need to assess the merits of government policies and actions. In practice the Rudd government used embarrassingly bland questions from its own back benchers to launch lengthy expositions which if presented in the form of ministerial statements would have been subject to debate. Questions from Opposition members were never answered except by a generalised restatement of government policies and abusive attacks on every aspect of the Howard government.

An issue seemingly popular throughout Australia was the demand for Treasury to cost all Coalition as well as Government election policies. The issue has now been resolved in a way that denies the caretaker government access to confidential advice about Coalition policies. The preceding debate however, revealed ignorance of the structure of government and administration even among the long serving MPs who wanted personal briefings from heads of Treasury and Finance.

Treasury is not “independent”, despite Kevin Rudd’s repeated claims whenever the Opposition queried Treasury advice. It is a department administered by the Treasurer as provided in the Constitution. Its function, ironically demonstrated in the case of Godwin Grech, the Treasury mole, is to provide advice to government, not to the Opposition, not to Parliament, and not to the public at large. What this means in practice is demonstrated frequently when public servants are asked during Senate Estimates hearings what advice a minister may or may not have received.


Otherwise nothing the rural independents have said suggests they can more accurately assess the “national interest” than their newly-elected parliamentary colleagues who stood as Labor or Coalition candidates. Imagine if the “Three Amigos” had replaced the Rudd kitchen cabinet during the global financial crisis. That should surely rule out naïve aspirations aimed at replacing the major parties with consensus-seeking minorities. As the examples of France and Italy show, such composite government tends to be either inert or unstable, or both.

There may be a place for more private members’ bills and conscience votes but not as part of any federal government agenda. The primary role of the ordinary MP is to consider and debate legislation proposed by the Executive. Legislators need to earn the right to govern.

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About the Author

Jo Page is a former public servant with experience of sitting alongside senior officers at Senate Estimates hearings.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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