Friday, August 27, 2010

Principles vs rules in Australian electoral reform

In a comment on Independent conundrums - a chance for change, Kangaroo Valley David wrote:

Election reforms I would like to see include: set terms; an absolute limit on the amount of radio and TV minutes advertising; no new policy launches within two weeks of the election date; unlink electoral campaign funding from ‘campaign launch’ - i.e a set cut off date to which taxpayer money is available; Treasury costing on all major party policies to be mandatory, and to be released no later than a week prior to election. These would require much goodwill on all sides to be effective, so no doubt will never come to pass.

On the Independents, while I respect Mr Windsor, I think that Messrs Katter and Oakeshott provide several good reasons why non-aligned candidates should be disregarded when calculating parliamentary majority. Their votes on declared matters of importance (which needs definition) should automatically flow to the government of the day, leaving them free to influence most policy areas, including of course the position and angle of the pork barrel.

Finally, (sorry for length) I think the idea of a cabinet composed partly of unelected members does not fit with our form of parliament, just as I thought Ms Gillard’s 150 citizen congress on climate change was unrealistic. Idealism (and I include the Greens in this) is a very fine thing, but has little to do with stable government of any flavour. Meanwhile the GFC rolls on, and our troops continue to mark time.

I found myself confused and to a degree conflicted when I came to look at his comments. I can see various ways of improving the Parliamentary process, but my thinking about electoral reform is quite muddy. Part of this lies in the distinction in my mind between rule based and principle based approaches.

By rule based, I simply mean specific rules intended to control actions. By contrast, principle based approaches allow for a variety of outcomes so long as the core principles are observed. Of course, both approaches have their weaknesses.

Once you set a rule, then people are meant to comply with that rule. In practice, human ingenuity soon leads to the practical outcome that while the letter of the law is complied with, people work around it to achieve their ends. Electoral funding laws are an example. New rules are then required.

For their part, principal based approaches can fall over when people either ignore or even reject the principles. Further, their nature allows plenty of room for alternative views. Yet they can be quite powerful because they provide a broader guide to action and to judgements about action. This may sound abstract, but a fair bit of our constitutional system is not written down but relies instead on the acceptance of general principles.

Rules based approaches may be introduced when principle based approaches fail. More often, rule based approaches come into effect because people want action to fix something that they perceive to be a problem without addressing the basic principles at all. See problem, fix problem. The difficulty is that as rules expand, principles tend to decline.

One of the reasons why my thinking is so muddy lies in the interface between practice and principles, between rules and principles.

We are all influenced by our own experiences. I grew up in a world in which Parliament was central. This was also a world where the role of the local member was seen first in terms of effective representation, if constrained by Party and, more importantly, by obligations to Parliament. Then, too, it was also a world where the views and causes that I might espouse were generally minority positions in a state or national sense even when majority positions in a local sense. Most times, the problem lay in getting action despite the views of the two major parties.

This was also a world where, and especially in the 1960s and 1970s, the battle of ideas was sharply tinged by battles with the far right. Supporters of Eric Butler's League of Rights and its various out-riders were active.

Much of the commentary in this area at the time and later focused on particular aspects of League of Right views perceived to be anathema in broad terms. Less attention focused on their constitutional principles. Here they argued, and with force, that the local member must be bound by the views of the electorate. Of course, they also argued that they represented that view! There is, in fact, no difference between League of Rights' views in this area and some of the arguments put today in The Australian about the need for the country independents to do as their electorates say as measured by the public opinion polls. They are both majoritarian positions

The defence developed to this type of attack lay not in party, but in the combination of two broad principles.

The first principle was the need for effective electoral representation that took into account needs and views across the electorate, as well as your own values. This then linked to a second principle, the importance of Parliament. Once you became a Parliamentarian, you accepted a broader obligation not just to other parts of Australia, but to Parliament as an institution. Like all principles, these two could conflict. You just had to work your way through as best you could.

Let me give an example from my own experience. In 1961 the Menzies Government had a majority of one and was on a knife-edge. In pursuit of its two airline policy, the Government placed pressure on East-West Airlines to merge with Ansett. When Don Shand as chair of EWA said this, the Minister for Civil Aviation denied it.

The then Member for New England knew that pressure had been place on EWA. Despite the wafer thin majority and the pressure placed upon him to desist, he rose in the House to confirm what Don Shand had said. In doing so, he represented not just his electorate, but also the role of Parliament and the parliamentary member in holding the Government to account.

There is not room in this post to trace the decline of the local member. However, key to that decline has been a decline in both the conventions and principles that used to apply to local MPs. I guess I can see it just because I have been involved at a personal level since I was a kid.

None of this should be construed as an attack on KVD. I think that his suggestions are worth pursuing. Rather, consider the post as an opening shot in an effort to clarify my own thinking.                  


Anonymous said...

Very interesting comments Jim - much food for thought. I would just like to make it clear that my comments were directed to the election process, not the ensuing parliamentary operation – except for one point, which I note again below because I consider it important.

I referred to “declared matters of importance (which needs definition)” which in your earlier post comment you took to mean matters of confidence and supply, but I meant it more broadly to mean those items of policy which either major party considered of importance to the incoming parliament. (The broadband options might possibly be an example of this?) Michelle Grattan discussed exactly this concept today, using the term “key legislation”.

On your wider comments about the role of the MP I would only add that in times past, when members of parliament took days if not weeks to travel to assemble, I think their electorates were attempting to select “a good and honourable man” to represent both their own and the nation’s best interests for the term of the parliament.

For this reason, and even in these days of instant communication and polling companies, I would have no difficulty in accepting that, for instance, Mr Windsor might choose to support a Labor government, despite the overwhelming conservative nature of his constituency. You have put it more succinctly, but that is precisely what he was elected to do – to exercise his judgement honourably, and for the good of the nation..


Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, KVD. On matters other than supply or confidence, I really think that the Government has to convince the independents. Otherwise there is likely to be too much conflict over what is classified as important. I would like to say more on the MP one. With ever bigger country electorates, country MPs actually spend more time travelling!

Anonymous said...

What democratic societies should learn a lessen from Australia election 2010:
1. What goodwill of Australia parliamentary reform? Peoples power to ease their pains?
The Australia historical hung parliament demonstrated the big gap of inequality society between the small educated elite groups who get highest pay by talk feast used mouth work controlling live essential resources of the country in every social platforms against the biggest less educated groups who get lowest pay by hands work squeezed by discriminative policies that sucking live blood from poor/less wealth off?

Voters’ voices do not hear?
Voters’ pains do not ease?
Voters’ cries do not care?

1. Poverty will not be phase out if no fairer resources to share;
2. Illness will not be reducing if no preventive measurement in real action;
3. Agriculture will not be revitalize if urbanization continuing its path;
4. Housing affordability will not be reach for young generation if government continues cashing from young generation debt by eating out the whole cake of education export revenue without plough back;
5. Manufacture industry will shrink smaller and smaller if no new elements there to power up to survive;
6. Employability will not in the sustainable mode for so long as manufacture and agriculture not going to boost.

Ma kee wai
(Member of Inventor Association Queensland since 1993)

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Ma Kee Wai. You make some interesting points here. I had to read them several times to get your messages properly. I am not sure that I agree with all your linkages; I do agree with some of your core messages.