Local Members

I read an excellent book by Guy Rundle in 2009 about the previous year's presidential elections in the US. Since then, he seems to have gone marginally insane, perhaps as part of Crikey's apparent editorial belief that exaggeration and extremism is the only way to survive as a small media organisation.

This article initially seemed to be part of this new tendency for the wild and half-baked. It looks back over 60 years of representative democracy in Australia and laments the historical existence of governments that held a majority in the House of Representatives but had been defeated in the popular vote.

There is some lengthy rumination on what might have been if the result had been different on the four occasions Rundle writes about, followed by this:

Most pertinent for our era, Beazley’s victory would have turned him from a tragic figure into an enduring Labor hero — the man who got it back. Howard’s one-term disaster would have confirmed what everyone thought of him in the ’80s — that he was a figure the Australian public would not accept. None of these judgments would have been any truer than the alternatives that stand, but it’s a measure of how shockingly arbitrary the whole business is that this can be the case.

Four elections out of 24 have delivered the wrong result. That is an absurd situation and one that makes a lie of any notion of real democracy. Yet what is most amazing is that these results occasion no great consternation in the land. The 2009 green paper on electoral reform barely mentions the situation — when it should be the pivotal problem on which electoral reform is based.

Public judgements of politicians are arbitrary and not meaningfully true, we are told - but then we swing back headily the other way: these elections produced "the wrong result", no equivocation or doubt allowed to qualify that statement.

So when I first read the article I was prepared to write it off as having missed the point of Australia's parliamentary system. In a way, that is true, but on reflection I think there is something to the point Rundle makes.

The House of Representatives is made up of members representing local electorates across the country. But when lobbying for local issues by those members is all but non-existent, when local members almost without exception follow a central party line in the Parliament, and in particular when voters largely vote for a party, on the basis of the policies and personalities of a national executive (the leader and frontbenchers), its no longer obvious that the local-representative model makes much sense.

Why not acquiesce to the fact that people make their decisions on a national level - they decide based on the Prime Minister and her/his policies, not the positions of their local candidates - and carry out those decisions on that same level? Present an executive, just as we do now, but without the bizarre stricture of having those ministers and shadow ministers simultaneously attempt or pretend to represent a geographic region. Because given that voters largely are expressing wishes about a government as a whole, it is strange to force them to do so through a representative system which, as Rundle identifies, often doesn't represent those overarching national desires.

This all depends on various ideas of what it is that makes a government legitimate, and I'm not sure there's a correct answer. There is no doubt a stout defence of local representation to be made. Of course, we don't really believe in democracy anyway, and academic discussion of voting systems tends to suggest that almost any system we could care to think of is flawed. But perhaps a modern flaw might make more sense. The local member may be past its prime.