Marsh, Ian: What’s wrong with Australian politics (Parts 1-3)

Marsh, Ian

What’s wrong with Australia’s political system?‘; ‘Disaffected electorates? Dysfunctional political systems?‘; ‘What’s wrong with Australian politics?Pearls and Irritations, 4, 5, 7 April 2016 updated

People fail to recognise ‘that the political world is … a complex interdependent system where immediate incentives depend on the effective working of more embedded institutions …’ Major economic reforms almost always require bipartisan support; such reforms thus happen rarely. This is partly because politics is by nature adversarial and partly because the media cycle encourages populism and short-termism.

Perhaps the conclusion is that the two-party system is outmoded and we need a new system ‘that can separate the longer term strategic conversation from a more immediate one about responses’. In turn, this depends on fostering a more informed public debate.

In the current political situation, a Senate majority for the government is unlikely, regardless of which scenario is played out. Citizens are disaffected, just as in the rest of the world; party majorities have fragmented. Australia has escaped so far the worst effects of immigration and financial crisis but problems still arise from the end of the mining boom and cross-cutting social cleavages.

The question arises whether our political structures are still fit for purpose. ‘Until the misalignment between the structure of politics and our newly pluralised society is recognised as a fundamental challenge, dysfunctional government will surely prevail.’

The author compares Australia’s recent troubled political history with New Zealand’s relative stability.

What does [New Zealand experience] tell us? First, that in these more pluralised times, great party blocs that try to aggregate too many diverse forces are dysfunctional. They are like unwieldy conglomerates, behemoths left over from the collectivist era. Look no further than the disabling factions that now thwart coherent government action for Turnbull.

Further, adversarial incentives stymie dominate debate and stunt the public conversation about alternatives. Point-scoring trumps policy discussion. Marsh looks at some examples.

For a possible model, Marsh looks back to Australian federal politics 1901 to 1909, another period when we had five prime ministers but which was ‘one of the most creative periods in domestic Australian political development [where] change [of prime ministers] worked constructively to advance compromise and the emerging political agenda’. The Senate worked as a proper house of review and gatherer of evidence for policy alternatives. ‘The real political challenge’, Marsh concludes, ‘is much more fundamental than poor communication, inadequate leadership or deficient narrative. [It] is structural and systemic.’

In a later article (18 May 2016), Marsh points to the gridlock in our political system and its inability to facilitate longer-term policy making. Some months later, Mark Triffitt in The Conversation proposes some radical solutions. More from Ian Marsh in September 2016 on parliamentary gridlock and minor parties and whether this creates a problem. Evan Williams on the same set of issues.

Pearls and Irritations is the blog wrangled by John Menadue, one of Honest History’s distinguished supporters.

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