Australian Independents’ Day

Posted by - - Politics.

Whilst it remains to be seen whether things are AFU, it is certainly not SN. The failure of either of the two large parties (ignoring the inconvenient truth that the Coalition is itself two parties) to gain an absolute majority of seats in the Federal Parliament is, at least in modern times, a novel situation. Many commentators have suggested that this will create uncertainty, and that uncertainty is bad. Are they right?

First, Constitution 101. The Federal Government exists by virtue of, and is limited by, the Constitution, an instrument of 128 sections. It provides for three arms of government, the Parliament, the Executive Government and the Judicature. Sixty sections of the Constitution are devoted to the Parliament. The Executive Government and the Judicature get nine sections each.

Voters are given the power to vote for a candidate in their local seat, a senator in their state, and for or against referenda. They do not get to vote for either a political party (apart from an amendment in 1977 responding to the replacing of retiring or deceased mid-term Senators, the Constitution makes no reference to political parties) or any candidate for Prime Minister (the Constitution does not refer to the office of Prime Minister at all).

For most of the life of the Commonwealth of Australia, and particularly the last 30 years, the party system has bastardised the structures anticipated by the Constitution so that, first, a party, and more recently, a single person (the Prime Minister) has controlled both the Executive Government and the Parliament. The two most extreme examples of this are John Howard, and until his dethroning, Kevin Rudd.

The independents, those non-aligned Members of Parliament, have decided to think for themselves, rather than slavishly follow party discipline effectively enforced by the appropriately named party whips. And, with a finely balanced parliament, the way the independents think, and the way they vote will matter. (The irony is that they have no more power than any other Member of Parliament—the others have handed their power to their parties which increases their power when in the majority, but reduces it in a hung Parliament.)

With her weak grasp on power as Prime Minister, Julia Gillard is not in a position to dictate to the Executive Government. She will need to listen, to consult and sometimes to have her ideas voted down in Cabinet (another institution not recognised by the Constitution).

Nor will the Prime Minister, or the Executive Government, be in a position to dictate to the Parliament. Rather, the Parliament can now (at least partially) unshackle itself from the chains of party discipline, put aside the rubber stamp of approval, and behave like an institution important enough to have devoted to it sixty sections of the Constitution as against the Executive’s mere nine.

If ‘certainty’ is code for keeping things just the way they have been, ‘uncertainty’ means change. And that’s no bad thing.

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