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Ainít broke, donít fix it?

By Joel Palte - posted Monday, 26 November 2012

On Monday night on ABC's Q&A program Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd engaged in the kind of debate of substantive issues that has been so overwhelmingly lacking in the past 24 months of political vitriol and hyperbole. While on some issues they disagreed, on one point they were starkly in unison; the level of political discourse in Australia is insufficient and lagging behind the rest of the world.

Mr Rudd lamented how Australian politics had descended into a 'Punch and Judy' show while Mr Turnbull noted that the release of the Henry Tax Review just prior to the 2010 budget meant it was impossible to have a measured discussion regarding the ill-fated Resource Super Profit Tax.

For all their agreement, it seemed surprising then that no one considered whether the system itself may be broken. Put down to the nature of the headline driven media, no thought was given to whether the current state of affairs of Australian politics may have some deeper institutional roots. The implication was that if politicians in years gone by have were able to have a debate on the merits, then so could politicians today if they just remained civil.


What they do not realise is that the exponential emergence of technology and the reduction in the news cycle of a nation with a fleeting attention span for such headlines has drastically altered the political landscape so far that our current system of government is incompatible in the current environment.

In the absence of a directly elected head of state with substantive rather than just ceremonial powers, the fact that our head of state still technically remains the queen has resulted in a system where our leaders are chosen from within the respective parties, giving ordinary Australians no say on who is ultimately driving Australia forward. Indeed it is remarkable that in a country where democracy is considered so foundational that overnight the Prime Minister can change without any voter input as happened when Julia Gillard took over from Kevin Rudd.

This system of internal elections places the future of Australia at the whim of party factions, rather than being accountable to who really matters; the Australian people. As such our leaders are constantly forced to toe a party line set by a select few powerbrokers, regardless of conscience, doing little to encourage strong and considered leadership that would engender true democracy which should be more than just a system of majoritarian representation.

True democracy necessitates a system of direct representation and accountability by people willing to set a vision whilst simultaneously keeping in mind the views of minorities, rather than selecting the position amenable to some often slim majority of the population. Indeed, one need not look any further than the current corruption fiasco with Eddie Obeid and the far right faction of the NSW Labor party to realise that a staggering volume of power is placed in the hands of an all too small group of individuals.

For all the criticism of America surrounding the political gridlock around the reduction of US fiscal debt, there can be little doubt that the recent election was one of substance. Money aside, although Mitt Romney was able to convince many Americans that he had a better plan for the economy, he lost because he could not overcome the concerns of a variety of relative minority demographics regarding the social policies of the Republican right. Ultimately, the system of direct election meant that citizens were empowered to voice their opinion on positions held by factions such as the Tea Party.

This is not to say that any one alternative system is perfect as the US debt crisis clearly suggests. Rather, we must consider what is uniquely best for Australia. This would involve a system that respects the sovereignty of parliament guaranteed through democratic representation yet also creates greater accountability between the head of parliament and ordinary Australian citizens.


If nothing else, while for too long proactive change has been defeated by those who cry 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it', the consensus reached by Rudd and Turnbull on the current state of political debate last night indicates that time has come.

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About the Author

Joel Palte is a fourth year law and finance student at Macquarie University.

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