There are some very important non-major party issues, which the major parties don’t want to be discussed, if they can avoid it. These are not sleepers, they are major issues that are often deliberately avoided or ignored, for either electoral or self-interest reasons or both.
Opinion polls suggest that the people select the issues. Ostensibly that appears to be so. In reality this is often not the case. Issues can hide their underlying causes. A case in point is the hospital crisis. This is not just a case of management style and/or state finance. Behind this is the imbalance of fiscal powers between federal and state governments, major party political interests, the electoral system, as well as lack of constitutional flexibility and change.
Let me mention just four major hidden issue areas: the very first one, understandably, is the dominance of the major parties itself; second, the federal structure of government; third, the archaic constitution; and, finally, the functional amateurism of our ministers (there are several others such as the growing inequality of incomes and wealth, and the obscene salary packages of executives).
The dominance of the major parties is the direct result of Australia’s principal electoral system, the single-member district system that has produced the two-party dominance. Of course this is not treated as an issue at all by either of them but it effectively prevents minor parties, especially those with constructive reformist platforms, from making much of an impact.
Most of them come and go, the Australian Democrats a sad recent example of that right now. The system does not allow them to grow. The two-party tyranny prevails and the systemic problems mount steadily. What we are faced with is a vicious circle, nothing less.
The dominance of the major parties is a curse on the body politic reinforced by compulsory voting and the tendency of the media to ignore minor parties and Independents. They devote a lot more space to sport and “celebrities”! Inconveniently, the environment revolution pursued by the Greens, in spite of the two-party dominance, has survived but still has to be accommodated within the two party system so much so that people like Peter Garrett have to squeeze their principles into that mould: a painful and often questionable experience.
The problems of the outmoded federal structure are there for all to see, on many fronts, so much so that even the deeply conservative John Howard and his ministers recognise that it is a huge hindrance to effective government.
Amazingly, the ALP Premiers commissioned research to show us that federalism is alive and well in some parts of world and, perhaps, could still offer Australia great benefits. What an amazingly opportunistic reversal while we should all be searching for forms of effective decentralisation in Australia to spread the population and develop this great land. Why should we allow this madness to add to the growing problems of pollution, congestion and people concentration in Australian capital cities?
The ossified nature of the colonial constitution of 1901, setting out the ground rules for an era long past, presents a frozen political system landscape that is out of tune with the possibilities and needs of the 21st century. The major parties consistently avoid talking about serious remedies for this huge obstacle. We have heard very little from them in this 2007 election or at any other time. The concept of a Republic has been pushed right off the public policy agenda in recent years. Instead, Australia behaves like a colony of the US, without much questioning by politicians.
The enormous area of public policy concurrence by the majors on many issues surely is in itself a concern. Major party candidates typically present as local representatives of either party machine but they have no public individual position on the kind of national problems such as raised here. Once elected they can be expected to behave in Parliament like faithful servants. Only away from public exposure and scrutiny, that is in caucus, can they have their say but often only as much as the faction leaders allow.
This situation results in a highly regimented Parliament, dominated by the major party executives, performing as staunch adversaries. As a result the legislative function of the Parliament suffers and new ideas are limited. Only Independents operate publicly outside these straightjackets.
Could we dwell for a moment on the lack of functional competence of today’s politicians, especially the ministers or shadow ministers? This is a direct product of certain flawed aspects of the Westminster system. The systemic incompetence of ministers, often amateurs in the portfolios allocated to them, can be staggering. Many are novices when they are allocated a new portfolio. The norm is that they have to learn almost from scratch. What can one expect? Amanda Vanstone, Brendan Nelson, Carl Scully and Reba Meagher are just some recent examples of this phenomenon. The need for a minister to be “in and of the Parliament”, an outmoded limiting requirement found only in the Westminster system, is the root cause of the problem.