Wednesday, 16 May 2007
An Australian Experience-democratic representation
Despite those flashy royal trappings and colonial legacy, plus occasional interventions, Australia has a lively and well-established democratic political structure to its long term advantage. In my opinion, this system, with typical Westminster parliamentary flavours, has certain definite merits over the US system of President and Congress. The key issue here is representation in a parliamentary democracy. The political parties in Australia have their regularly elected party leaders and cabinets (governing or shadow) as fixtures. The electorate and the media have pretty clear ideas of the party figures, leaders, policies on various issues, and initiatives.
Set in structure, the government is responsible to the Parliament, and its fate is decided at elections by simple seat counts in the Lower House. The mandate is usually very clear to favour a particular party, based on the Australian system of compulsory voting. Government ministers and shadow ministers must be elected members of the Parliament, and the leader of a winning party with a House majority serves as the Prime Minister. The party which lost an election turns to be the opposition, still with a shadow cabinet, waiting for the next election time for a reversal of fate. The numbers of returned members of the Parliament could clearly decide the winning or losing side in an election, without having to resort to another instrument such as an electorate college.
The political system in the US displays a rather loose and random nature, in that elections for the President and Congress are separate runs. Anyone with certain national popularity at a certain time can be suddenly called in as the candidate on behalf of a political party. That particular person may be disguised party believer, may be little known to party loyalists around the country, and worst of all may be very detached to own party members of Congress after being elected President. A presidential candidate does not have to carry an electorate seat, so there is no strong sense of answering to particular electorate constituencies and voices from below. The setting of the electorate college is obviously another drawback of this system.
Once elected, the President drafts the persons he trusts most to form the new cabinet (so far no female President has emerged), with his own selection priorities on loyalty and intimacy. A President could quickly surround himself with lieutenants from his campaign committees and from his own state, those people who were little known to the public and even to politicians outside the administration. Anyone with certain credentials can serve various portfolios right away in the cabinet, if nominated. This is why personnel shuffling is usually so massive after the President from the other party moves into the White House. It is much like a Russian roulette game in that the public have to accept a new cabinet formed on a random basis and filled with a number of previously obscure figures.
The US President is not responsible to Congress, in a majority or minority situation, and sees not need to directly and frequently face enquires and challenges shot over from Congress; the person in fact seldom set his foot in that building of Legislature anyway. if proposed bills fail to pass, the President is merely slightly scratched, mostly his pride, and he can last till the end of his tenure; no early election has been called in recent history for the reason of an unpopular President who could not have his bills passed.
Under the parliamentary democracy of Australia, a government minister must be an elected MP or Senator. This means the person has to get the hands dirty down to an electorate and win that seat before having any chance of taking up a ministerial portfolio. A party's regular connections with the electorate is more ensured this way. It is not rare a cabinet member in governing or shadow position lost the seat and ceased to be appointed. A similar example in Britain is Mr. Chris Patten who lost his Bath seat at the election and failed to gain a cabinet post, despite him being a close friend of Prime Minister John Major. Although he made an international name out of his stirring things up in colonial Hong Kong, his influence and hope in the party were dashed, becoming a wondering figure outside power circles.
In the case of failed bills, the likely results in Australia would be a hung parliament and a collapse of government, leading to a fresh election. Consequences could be either an increased majority for the passage of a particular bill, or the the government loses office to the opposition. That gives people some hope of solutions to a stalemate in parliamentary proceedings. Even when prime ministers are replaced at mid term due to party leadership challenges, their successors are political figures well known to the public, such as the Hawke-Keating transfer and the forthcoming Howard-Costello transfer. This provides consistency and stability for a party to carry on its policies and reduces the risk of tension in in the process. In contrast, vice presidents in the US are usually obscure, peripheral figures whose occasional power grabs often create awkward scenes. Some of them are so significant that people fear a scenario of a sudden accident to the incumbent President, which allows these deputies to effectually take over.
The separation of the President and Congress in the US displays a deep desire to accord the former's office some regal touches, short of a king, in order to represent national interests above entangled and sometimes carried away party politics. On the other hand, the parliamentary system in Australia put political parties in close contact with the public, and the electorate identifies those parties with certain declared goals and evaluates them accordingly at elections. The Prime Minister is none other than a member of the Lower House who happens to be the leader of the ruling party. This is a more democratic representation in nature. And the essence of modern democracy is this far best embodied in parliamentary democracies, as that existed in Australia.
One fairly urgent change is to be made about this system, the three year time span in between elections. With a high possibility of an early election due to a quagmire in the Parliament or a sudden opposition disaster seized upon by the government of the day, there will be an even shorter time than the three years allowed for the administration. This make it harder for the government to govern, and inevitably reelection is placed as a top priority, in order to achieve some sensible continuity and undertake designated tasks in two terms, rather than one.
Under these circumstances, it is easier for an Australian politician to claim three or four elections wins in a row. Bob Hawke grabbed four election victories in the 1980s, and John Howard countered this with his own four wins in the 1990s and 2010s. Record breaking has been a fair game played by Australian politicians most fervently.
An option of a four year term of government in future then come under discussion. The previous Labour opposition leader Mr. Kim Beazley gracefully made it clear that he was not opposed to this idea, despite the fact that this new scheme would first extend his arch rival, the Prime Minister incumbent, a longer stay in the official residence, the Lodge, in Canberra.