Like what you've read?

On Line Opinion is the only Australian site where you get all sides of the story. We don't
charge, but we need your support. Here�s how you can help.

  • Advertise

    We have a monthly audience of 70,000 and advertising packages from $200 a month.

  • Volunteer

    We always need commissioning editors and sub-editors.

  • Contribute

    Got something to say? Submit an essay.

 The National Forum   Donate   Your Account   On Line Opinion   Forum   Blogs   Polling   About   
On Line Opinion logo ON LINE OPINION - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate


On Line Opinion is a not-for-profit publication and relies on the generosity of its sponsors, editors and contributors. If you would like to help, contact us.


RSS 2.0

What is wrong with our political system?

By Alex Kats - posted Tuesday, 6 August 2013

As a kid, I used to watch a lot of American television, and I noticed one theme that is consistent throughout all the shows: Americans – or at least those depicted on television or in movies – respect or even revere their leaders and particularly their President, no matter what political affiliations they may have. They may at times vehemently disagree with some of the policies and attitudes, but they very rarely disrespect those who they elected to lead them. Unfortunately this is not often the case in Australia, and I think it is at least in part because of the political system we have, or more accurately, how the politicians use the system.

To start with, I think some of the disrespect comes from the lay-back, casual Aussie vernacular. In America, the President is always referred to by their title, and usually as 'Mr President'. In our country, interviewers often refer to the politicians by their first names, whilst the two current leaders of the major parties are referred to by monikers and nicknames that are usually disparaging. Our current leaders are KRudd or Ruddy, and the Mad Monk. It is much harder to show genuine respect for a Prime Minister when he is referred to by the kind of name that you might call him if he was your mate at the pub.

But names alone are only part of the issue. The real problem we have is that Australia has a Westminster bicameral political system, though according to the leaders, and exacerbated by the media, it appears that we have a presidential-style system. The difference is that we only vote for our local candidates and not actually for the leader, yet the leaders campaign as if they are the only ones in the race.


Most people, with even a peripheral knowledge of Australian politics, will likely know the names of the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader, but are much less likely to know the name of their local representative. According to one survey, only 2% know their local MP's name. This is exactly what the leaders count on. When they ask for your vote, what they really want you to do is to vote for the candidate whose name appears under the insignia of their party, irrespective of who that person actually is. Yet the only people who can genuinely vote for Kevin Rudd or Tony Abbott, live in the electorates of Griffith and Warringah. That of course is lost on most people.

The problem this system creates is that in the public sphere, local members are shunted in favour of their leaders. Nationally, this makes it much harder for candidates not from the major parties to get elected in the first place, whilst in some electorates, the problem is even more pronounced when a local member is popular, active and well-known, yet not from the party that some people might like. The quandary those people then have is should we vote for the active local member in the hope that their leader doesn't win, or should we vote for the party of the leader we like, hoping that our local member survives without our vote?

This may not be an issue for everyone and in every electorate, but the fact that is for some points to fundamental problems in the structure of our system. The further proof of structural problems is that even the media has turned to calling the current faux campaign a presidential-style one. When Tony Abbott launched the Liberal Party's Victorian campaign recently, with John Howard present to introduce him (as a former presidential-style Prime Minister), it was so American that most newspapers reported not just on the content, but on the flags plastered all over the room, the tiered hanger in which the launch took place, and the convoy of Ford SUVs parked at the back, as if it were a scene taken straight out of the West Wing.

If punters had a chance to vote for the leader directly, then such presidential accoutrements would be fine, because the leader would be a leader chosen directly by the people. But in our system, the people choose their representatives, and then those parliamentarians choose their leader. This could happen at any point during an election cycle, as we've seen recently in Labor and as we've seen on previous occasions across both parties. Tony Abbott is the third leader of the Coalition since Rudd was PM the first time, and now, potentially just weeks before an election, there are rumblings that a return to Malcolm Turnbull might guarantee a victory for the Coalition, since Abbott is often seen as being divisive, and especially with a resurgent Rudd. To stop Labor going through the same shambles again, very soon after re-assuming the top job, Rudd announced new measures for the ALP, to stop knifings mid-term, as happened to him. This was ratified by Caucus and presumably now, no matter how dysfunctional he becomes, if he is re-elected then he will surely serve out his full term. But even this solution is only a cover up of an issue that clearly Rudd knows about. It might be easier than changing our system, but at the same time, it is not quite solving the fundamental structural problem.

The other problem that our system has is that it doesn't reward individuality. For the most part, the people who enter politics have a civic calling of wanting to make a difference, and are also often the most vociferous and opinionated people in their communities. They join a party because they believe in the values of that party and want to affect people by acting on their behalf. They often campaign on local issues and loudly tell everyone that if elected, they will stand up for what they believe in. But then, if they are a member of a party, once elected they are forced to stand up only for what the party tells them to stand up for. Conscience votes are almost unheard of in the Australian Parliament, and even people with known opinions are unable to voice them.

There are many examples over many years, but one of the most astounding recently was by Peter Garrett, after he announced his intentions to leave politics at the election. "I took the view, painful as it was, that if you are a cabinet minister in a government and you accept the fact that government policy won't always reflect your specific personal viewpoint then you've got one of two choices," he said in an interview. "You can either leave or you can be a responsible member of the cabinet. I chose the latter course of action. But it was by no means easy. I do reflect my views very strongly where I need to with my colleagues. But when the argument in cabinet is over, it's every minister's duty to express support for the final policy in public." It is worth noting that Garrett was recruited by Mark Latham at a time when he was lead singer of Midnight Oil and one of the most outspoken people in the country on matters like Indigenous people and the environment – two issues which the ALP does not have a very good track record on.


Garrett, like many others, might voice his opinions behind closed doors, but in public everyone reads from the same page. If that were not the case, based on what is known of the private opinions of many in the parliament, then maybe by now we would be a Republic with legalised gay marriage. We may also not have gone to war in Iraq and real steps would have been taken to combat climate change. But these things can only happen in a system where politicians are not prevented from voting the way they actually think. If that were the case, then maybe many more of us might know who our local representatives are, and then we would vote not just for the party of the leader, but for issues that really matter to us in our electorates. Of course that is unlikely to happen, and it seems like the American-style political system that I've been watching on TV for years is likely to stay with us for some time yet.

  1. Pages:
  2. Page 1
  3. All

Discuss in our Forums

See what other readers are saying about this article!

Click here to read & post comments.

2 posts so far.

Share this:
reddit this reddit thisbookmark with Del.icio.usdigg thisseed newsvineSeed NewsvineStumbleUpon StumbleUponsubmit to propellerkwoff it

About the Author

Alex Kats has worked in and around the public sector for more than a decade, where he has written speeches for politicians, policies for government, and has organised training programs and conferences across Australia and Asia. His articles have often appeared in internal newsletters and magazines, while he has also written for the Australian Jewish News and online publications, including and

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Alex Kats

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

Article Tools
Comment 2 comments
Print Printable version
Subscribe Subscribe
Email Email a friend

About Us Search Discuss Feedback Legals Privacy