9 June 2003

The Australian Parliament: Time For Reformation
Leaving aside the question of the functions of parliament, and proceeding to the second question: What is wrong with parliament that it needs reform? The implicit answer of the orthodox reformers is that it puts too many difficulties in the way of governments governing, too many limitations on the power of governments to do what they like between elections. This naturally leads to a further question: Why should governments have absolute power between elections? What advantage would we gain by removing parliamentary limitations on government power? Usually the orthodox reformers have no answer. If pressed, they say it is because the country must have certain legislation. Currently it appears that we must have certain media ownership legislation, which is self-evidently good for us. How we are to know that it is good for us without thorough examination through parliamentary processes is not explained. The claim is also made that we must be economically efficient, and we will regress economically if the government does not have unfettered power to do what is economically good for us. The same people, however, tell us that at present, under the current parliamentary system, the economy is doing wonderfully well. Perhaps we could have an even more efficient economy if the government were all-powerful. If asked for an example of an efficient economy, these people usually cite the United States, the country which has the most rigorous institutional and political constraints on the power of the government.

In any event, the argument that powerful government equals economic efficiency has been blown out of the water. The American academic Arend Lijphart conducted a detailed study of stable modern democracies, rating them according to whether they have more majoritarian systems (in which one party wins power with few limitations) or proportional or consensual systems (in which parties are compelled to share power and compromise). He found that, on a range of economic and social indicators, including economic growth, inflation and employment, the proportional/consensual systems clearly outperformed the majoritarian systems. This finding has been supported by a recent comparison of Australia's economic performance with that of the Netherlands, Lijphart's most proportional/consensual country..4 In spite of their only argument having been decisively refuted, the proponents of orthodox "reform" press on. Every so-called reform of parliament turns into a proposal to reduce it to a rubber stamp. We have been provided with a perfect example in recent days. A proposal to change the parliamentary term to four years was floated, probably initially to fill in time between afternoon tea and the cocktails at a party conference. This change is said to be self-evidently necessary for economic efficiency. We were not given time to consider whether, if politicians now are short-term thinkers, incorrigible pursuers of quick political advantage and pork-barrellers, adding a possible extra year to their term would turn them into statespersons and great forward planners. The proposal immediately developed into schemes to nobble the Senate entirely, to allow the government, under various guises, such as joint sittings, to pass any legislation it liked and, as a necessary by-product, to avoid any parliamentary accountability. If these schemes appeared too drastic, perhaps we would buy the old chestnut of 'stopping the Senate blocking supply'. As this usually involves allowing the government to call anything 'supply', the effect would be the same.

Australian government is about modified majoritarianism. By its nature, a federal government always commands a majority in the House. Any bill supported by both government and opposition always passes the Senate. All Howard's reform would really do is lock the opposition out of the process, so naturally the hereditary political geniuses in the federal parliamentary opposition are tempted to support this.

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