26/08/2010 - 00:00

A constrained executive can work

26/08/2010 - 00:00


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The federal election outcome could improve the quality of government in Australia.

GOOD government involves a series of carefully calibrated checks and balances.

In most democracies, this involves the separation of the executive arm of government from the legislature and the maintenance of an independent judiciary.

Having a house of review – the Senate in Canberra and the Legislative Council in Western Australia – is another component.

The overall goal is to have a system that puts some checks on the power of government, without making it unbalanced.

The federal election outcome seems to have left many people in Australia worried our national system of government will become unbalanced, if a handful of independents and minority parties wield disproportionate power.

This is new territory for Australia, where the dominance of the major parties – Labor and the Liberal-National coalition – has delivered stable and effective government that would be the envy of most countries around the world.

Compare Australia’s track record with most other countries and the advantages become readily apparent.

The US, for instance, has perennial battles between the executive arm of government (the president and his ministers) and the legislative arm (the Congress).

Even within Congress there are recurring logjams, in part because members of both the House of Representatives and the Senate are not bound by the conventions of party loyalty that apply in Australia.

This illustrates the tension that exists between pure democracy and effective government.

If every member of parliament has the freedom to vote as an individual on every piece of legislation, as occurs in the US, then individual freedom prevails. But the consequence is less effective government.

Another illustration is New Zealand, which has gone from one end of the spectrum to another.

Up to the early 1990s, NZ had a unicameral parliament and a first-past-the-post electoral system. As a result, whichever party won government had almost unfettered power.

That’s why NZ lunged from having one of the most regulated, protectionist economies in the Western world under conservative prime minister Robert Muldoon in the early 1980s, to one of the most deregulated, free-market systems under Labor prime minister David Lange and his reformist finance minister Roger Douglas.

New Zealanders reacted by introducing a proportional representation system that enabled minor parties to win seats in parliament.

The result was an unwieldy period of instability as the electoral system threw together what were, usually, unholy alliances.

Australia, by contrast, is facing a scenario where the major parties will need to be more accommodating and flexible if they want to get legislation through parliament.

But this is not radical change.

It will actually bring some positive changes, not the least of which is restoring more authority to parliament.

Australia has seen a gradual shift of power to the executive arm of government, to the point where the Rudd government, for instance, was dominated by the so-called ‘gang of four’ – Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan and Lindsay Tanner.

Parliament was left impotent; even the rest of the cabinet was largely impotent.

Part of the reason Mr Rudd was dumped as leader was his inclination to try and concentrate power even more, turning the government into a gang of one.

This can be a good thing if power is in the right hands. Former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett is a prime example; many people admired his reformist zeal and willingness to crash through all barriers to introduce change.

But what would happen if this concentration of power became institutionalised? For every visionary leader, there would be a buffoon who wreaked havoc, with no checks on their power.

The outlook for Australia is a period where the prime minister will be more constrained than they have been in recent years.

Whether a deal is done with the independents, or the Greens, or Tony Crook from the Nationals, who many people mistakenly put into the coalition camp, the governing party will need to craft policies that accommodate a wider range of interests.



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