Fixing voter anger
Political parties need to make brave changes if they want sullen voters to like them. ROSS PEAKE reports.
The dissatisfaction gripping voters around the world is permeating through Australia’s electorates.
People are angry with “career politicians” and are being attracted to those going against the mainstream political order, such as Donald Trump and Pauline Hanson.
The trend towards “anti-politics politicians” is worrying the established political parties but they seem unable or unwilling to respond.
I think the nub of the problem is the career politician.
Professor Ian McAllister of the ANU School of Politics and International Relations believes the rot is serious but the mainstream parties can act to save themselves.
His prescription for reform will be seen as radical to the political establishment – abolishing compulsory voting, weakening the stranglehold of political parties and reforming the Senate by ending above-the-line voting.
“The growing disenchantment is what we call a secular change in the sense that it's a long-term change unrelated to whichever party is in office,” he says.
“People are becoming more distrustful and much less satisfied with the political system.
“Our surveys show a lot of these really quite dramatic changes happening in a relatively small space of time – people are really disaffected by the system.
“This is being driven by suspicion and disaffection from career politicians – people who make politics their career but who have not had a job other than in politics.
“Voters don't know a lot about politics in terms of the day-to-day debate and the operation of institutions but they pick up these cues about how the political system is operating.”
He says the rise of career politicians in Australia is due to strong, highly disciplined political parties where members rarely cross the floor to vote against their party.
“What the party rewards is not necessarily intellect or innovation but loyalty to the party,” he says.
“I think the nub of the problem is the career politician who regards partisan conflict as being what politics is about rather than good public policy,” he says.“To try and solve that what you need to do is weaken the role of political parties, make them less disciplined.”
Four-year terms for Parliament struck me as a no-brainer but they couldn't get it through the 1988 referendum.
McAllister identifies the Senate as a problem because it is one of the strongest upper houses in the world but is no longer a states’ house.
“It has become a party house due to the 1984 decision to introduce above-the-line voting, partly to reduce the size of the ballot paper, but that has allowed political parties to take control of the people who get elected,” he says.
Abolishing above-the-line voting would mean a large ballot paper initially but smaller parties would fall away, he says.
He believes the Federal Parliament should introduce four-year terms, as has been done in all states and territories.
“Four-year terms for Parliament struck me as a no-brainer but they couldn't get it through the 1988 referendum,” he says.
“The reason appears to be that people don't like politicians and they want to hold them to account frequently,” he says.
Another item on McAllister’s wish-list of reforms is abolishing compulsory voting but surveys show most voters want to retain it.
While that one may have little chance, he believes many people would like to see a truly independent Speaker in the House of Representatives, to follow the example of the British Parliament.
The long-time watcher of politics also advocates:
- reducing the frequency of Question Time in the lower house, as was done in the United Kingdom
- mandating leaders’ political debates during election campaigns
- replacing proportional voting for the Senate with first-past-the-post voting.
“Change takes great leadership and bipartisanship,” he says.
“If nothing is done to try to redress voter discontent, then over the next five to six years you are going to see the sort of things we’ve seen happening in other places.”