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Returning to representation: reform the political system from left and right

By Peter Andren - posted Friday, 15 February 2002

I am convinced, after almost six years in the Federal Parliament as an Independent, that only the most radical surgery on our political process will reform it so that it is truly representative. If they ever had it, the political parties have now lost the plot. Only through the installation of a truly proportionally representative electoral system can we deliver the kind of democracy we deserve in place of the one we are told, by vested interests, is already the best in the world.

The model for such a proportional system is open to debate. The Hare Clark multi-member electorates operating in Tasmania and the ACT would appear to offer a good starting point for such a debate.

If we don’t reform our representative system, we will inevitably see our parliamentary representation become more and more irrelevant to the constituent, with greater and greater frustration and disinterest in the political process. That is not only bad for democracy, it offers opportunities for further concentration of power in the hands of the governing party, most often based on just 50 per cent or even less of the vote.


At the moment, our so-called House of Representatives is in serious decline as a true legislative chamber representing the will of the people. So often, the government with little or cursory debate rams through legislation, knowing it has the numbers. Government and Opposition backbenchers, and independents, are treated with disdain. At the moment, the only serious debate and amendment to bills takes place in the Senate, which was supposed to be the states’ house of review. The Senate is now both the primary debating and legislative chamber. Was that the intention of those who drafted the Constitution? I think not. Is the electorate relaxed about the Senate usurping the legislative role of the House of Representatives? I think not.

The Senate of course, has metamorphosed into its de-facto "representative" role because of the increasing power of the executive and gradual irrelevance of the House of Representatives in the legislative process. As always, the public has sensed this increasing concentration of power in the hands of Ministers and unelected bureaucracy, and countered this trend by exploiting the options available in the proportionally elected Senate. That chamber now better represents the kaleidoscope of the Australian electorate than does the House of Representatives. Proportional representation, with its quota voting system, has delivered a mix of Liberal, National, Labor, Green, Democrat, One Nation and Independent Senators, and no party winning the government benches in the lower house has controlled the Senate for more than 20 years. The electorate has deliberately constructed this "check and balance" and it looks like being a permanent feature of the Australian political process for the foreseeable future.

At the same time, the House of Representatives vote for other than the main political parties has grown to a consistent 20 per cent, yet the proportion of seats representing that vote has ranged only from a possible five (including four former party members) independents in 1996, to 1 (me) in 1998, to 3 in 2001. That’s hardly reflective of the vote. Yet when a believable, broad-based independent offers himself or herself for election in recent years, the voters have taken that option in preference to the major parties. The trend against the parties is even greater at state elections, with West Australia, Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales all having significant numbers of independents elected to their lower houses in recent years, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the perceived disadvantage of competing against the party propaganda machines.

So concerned are the major three parties (Liberal, Labor and National) about these trends moves have been made to increase the Senate quota, to restrict the registration of small political parties, and in Tasmania’s case to reduce the number of members in multi-member seats so as to concentrate power in the hands of the ruling elite. Such attacks on democratic processes are enthusiastically supported by both major party blocs whenever the opportunity arises.

If all this seems like the bleating of one "outside the loop" of the established political processes, then you have missed the point. I have no need to be "within the circle" to properly represent my constituents. I am able to seek and find answers to a range of complex problems from government and bureaucracy. I am able to stand up in Parliament, or in public, and say what I believe, ever mindful of my constituency and sensitive to their individual and collective viewpoint. With roughly a 12 to 15 per cent increase in my primary vote at the last two elections, I presume my "representation" is appreciated by my electorate.

The political parties have evolved to the point where they no longer represent the broader electorate. Their memberships are pitifully low, their procedures antiquated, their preselections pre-arranged, ordained, rigged or overruled by faceless unelected national or state executives. They are captive to special interest groups, which represent but a tiny fraction of the wider community, and a privileged fraction at that. Their power is sustained by patronage and electoral laws regularly modified to enhance that power. An example? Recent amendments to electoral funding laws that substantially increase the contribution threshold before the need arises for public disclosure.


The ever-expanding treasure trove of lurks and perks, regularly supplemented by ministerial decree and a compliant and supposedly "independent" tribunal, is another example of the contempt for public standards and values that so hurts the party and political system. Any endeavour by an independent MP to highlight the inequities inherent in the privileges available to a member as opposed to his constituents, is met with derision from the government of the day, backed through silence by the would-be government on the Opposition benches. No doubt there are reservations and concerns expressed by some members behind the party-room doors, but that very inability to speak out beyond the confines of the "club" is well recognised in voter land, and regarded with the contempt it deserves.

Any attempt to highlight the contradiction and hypocrisy of parliamentary entitlements vis-à-vis those available in the real world, is met with muted contempt by the parties. The recent debate over parliamentary superannuation, which arose after I introduced a Private Member’s Bill seeking to give MPs the right to choose their own super fund, is a case in point. I was roundly accused of "grandstanding", or "seeking cheap publicity". The political establishment is still trying to justify a system that allows for an average 69 per cent employer contribution to a totally unfunded parliamentary superannuation scheme, while at the same time overseeing laws that mandate an 8 per cent contribution from employers in the market place. Not only that, the current government is vigorously pushing market solutions and "freedom of choice" in all policy areas, including health, education, the labour market and in superannuation for all except MPs!

This issue, perhaps more than any other, is basic to the disillusionment, frustration and indeed contempt towards our politicians, state and federal, because in these areas of MPs’ self-provision, the states’ "lurks and perks" are largely a reflection, if not a template, of the federal system.

The inability of the political parties to properly represent the broad church of the Australian electorate is no better illustrated than in the Greg Barns case, where the outspoken but thought-provoking young Liberal was disendorsed by the very party that supposedly stands for the individual’s rights to freedom of speech. So often have I heard "liberals" invoke the spirit of their patron saint Edmund Burke, elected to the House of Commons in 1774. Burke is supposed to embody everything a true liberal holds dear. But it is sobering to note Burke’s word to the electors of Bristol as he began his period as their representative:

"Certainly, Gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinions high respect; their business unremitted attention.

But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgement, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure. No, nor from the law and the Constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion".

As our political parties ponder the increasing disillusionment in the electorate and the tarnished image of politics and politicians, they could do no better than to ingest rather than simply invoke Burke’s philosophy of representation. The Barns’ execution and the Tampa debacle were classic examples of judgement being sacrificed to public or private opinion, where "enlightened conscience" was cynically squashed for short-term political gain. This unreasonable power of the party over the individual is reason enough to look for alternatives to our dominant adversarial two-party system. In the absence of proportionally representative multi-member electorates, a cross-bench of independents (whose preselection and election is one and the same), holding the balance of power, seems to me the most satisfactory solution to what is currently a representative vacuum.

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Peter Andren was the independent member for Calare (NSW).

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