Monday, 6 September 2010
When exactly is this new transparency actually going to begin? For putting together what is supposed to be a new, much more accountable government, it is not getting off to a very good start. Rob Oakeshott may look as though he’s just seen Jesus, but it doesn’t disguise the fact that this is one of the most unaccountable ways a government has been chosen since Federation. OK, there have been other exceptions. But at least then it was swiftly followed by an election. As the negotiations get to their final stage, this is all about trying to prevent one.
Gillard said at the NPC last week that Australians want continuity in government. Well they didn’t vote that way. The 2010 election marked a clear break with the past. The refusal to give either party a clear mandate was not the result of a deadlock between competing interests in the electorate, but a fairly clear recognition of the unprecedented inability of either major party to represent any significant interests in society at all. It is on that basis that the independents have felt confident enough to humiliate them over the last two weeks.
However, the independents aren’t terribly representative of anything either, other than an anti-major party vote, and indeed they have gone out of their way to stress that they don’t necessarily even need to reflect their electorates. Windsor has been especially adamant on this, dismissing calls he has received to back either major parties as politically organised campaigns (which most of them probably are). Instead, the only advice he seems to be taking seriously is from those who come up to him and say they are happy to leave it all up to him.
It is this background that explains why the negotiations are all being carried out behind close doors, in seemingly sharp contradiction to their high aims. It was something brought close to parody by Gillard last week when she submitted a proposal for greater transparency in government in secret to the independents for their consideration, but not ours. At an interview yesterday, Oakeshott claimed that he would release the details of the proposals when the negotiations are over. Well why not now? Normally, a democratic election to decide a government is conducted in public. That it didn’t produce a clear result has left it up to a handful of independents and on the rare occasions this has happened before there have been back room deals. So it could be argued that this is not that new, nor especially anti-democratic compared to what we have seen in the past. But this time it is being so much trumpeted as all about making Parliament more accountable, that it raises questions about what ‘accountable’ actually means here. Accountable to whom?
One consequence of the hollowing out of the major parties over the last couple of decades is that some basic concepts of democracy have become confused. For example, one complaint often made of Howard, most amusingly by Fraser and Whitlam back in 2007, was the erosion of accountability of the head of the executive to Parliament and even Cabinet.
The tenets of the Westminster system didn’t come about as an idea of democracy in someone’s head. If they did, we would hardly have an unelected overseer of executive power. It came about through the evolution of competing interests. The Constitutional Monarchy represented the lack of resolution of those competing interests, in the case of Britain first between capital and land, then between capital and labour and, in Australia’s case, an unresolved nation state to top it off.
The erosion of ‘accountability’ in Cabinet and in the party is really about those interests no longer being pursued through those institutions. For example, a Coalition Cabinet would often be important as a means of the Nationals asserting rural interests, something that becomes less important as the Nationals effectively ceased to play that role. Ironically, Fraser and Whitlam attacked Howard just before this whole process was to go even further under Rudd, who not only bypassed the traditional party power bases and Cabinet, but formalised it with the Gang of Four.
However, the real irony is that the power faction brokers attempt to wrest back control has only accelerated this process even faster. It’s not only the party and Cabinet that is losing power. Now Labor is ready to bargain away powers that even the executive had, such as the timing of an election, a prerogative the power brokers used so skilfully two months ago. Anyone who lives in NSW would know that taking away the governing party’s right to decide the timing of election hardly guarantees better government. Indeed polls even suggest that this whole process might be turning off the electorate so much that they are even prepared to go through another election right now to sort it out. But such considerations don’t really figure. This is not about the electorate, but keeping the independents as long as possible in their current position to take advantage of the decaying two party system.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 6 September 2010.Filed under State of the parties