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We need better parties to deal with the coming crises

6 August 2022

9:00 AM

6 August 2022

9:00 AM

We’ll all be rooned…It’s not just Hanrahan in Catholic priest Patrick Hartigan’s iconic century-old poetry collection Around the Boree Log who reckons that whatever the future holds, rain, hail or shine, ‘we’ll all be rooned before the year is out’. Last week, new Treasurer Jim Chalmers had to admit that Australia faces such tough economic times ahead that Labor’s key election commitments like ending stagnant real wage growth and throwing even more money into pet projects (and bigger budget deficits) than in the Morrison government’s record spending spree, were no longer achievable for years – a reality that was clearly evident from a turbulent global outlook when these impossible promises were dishonestly made pre-election.

And as Speccie contributor Judith Sloan lamented in the Australian

Instead of backing away from a whole lot of unaffordable additional spending… Chalmers hasn’t announced any initiatives that might significantly accelerate the repair of the budget… (so) the Reserve Bank will have to do (more) in terms of the size and rapidity of raising interest rates.

But that’s the ‘good’ news. The bad news was provided last week by the government’s own CSIRO, an organisation so heavily committed to its role in the IPCC climate change horror story that it sees the world through a dismal lens. ‘Australia is at a pivotal point. There is a tidal wave of disruption on the way, and it’s critical we take steps now to get ahead of it’, said CSIRO chief Dr Larry Marshall launching its megatrends outlook to 2042. ‘From resource scarcity to drug resistant superbugs, disrupted global trade, an ageing population and an increasingly unstable climate threatening our health and way of life – these are just some of the challenges we face.’

In line with its climate obsession, the CSIRO warns that the annual cost of natural disasters driven by climate change is projected to triple to $39.3bn by 2050. Its concerns about superbugs extend well beyond Covid-19, whose devastation, it says:


underlined the heightened risk of infectious diseases in line with global population growth, increasing air travel, urbanisation, livestock handling and wildlife harvesting. Drug-resistant germs… could slash up to 3.8 per cent from global domestic product if not contained.

And by 2060, it forecasts almost a quarter of Australians will be over 65, with the ratio of working people to retirees slumping from the current four to only 2.7 – a social security financial nightmare for government.

But will Australia’s political structure be able to cope with these crises? With action on urgent reform required both now and in coming years, the prospect of a majority government being able to act decisively without deference to empowered minority legislators with their own limited agendas, is not bright. And not only in the Senate, where governments have been hostage to balance-of-power minorities most of the time since the Hawke government’s 1984 increase in the size of parliament made it near-impossible for a government to win a Senate majority.

According to cantankerous, but perceptive, psephologist Dr Kevin Bonham, a continuation of the recent rate of decline in the major party primary vote beyond its current record low, will likely result in the number of crossbenchers in the House of Representatives increasing beyond its current record high of 16 (four Greens, one Katter, six Teals and five independents). This would result in majority government becoming harder and harder to achieve – let alone control of the Senate. Continuation of this flood of crossbenchers, which has gone within two seats of robbing the Albanese government of its majority, represents a fundamental change, for the worse, in Australian politics.

With one or two rare exceptions, crossbenchers had no place in the House of Representatives from the 1949 Menzies government until 1996 with John Howard’s majority government, untroubled by five independents. But since then, the Gillard minority government needed the support of a Green and three of her six independents. Continuing this trend would increase political instability. Instead of resolving, in the privacy of the party room, any conflicting political positions within a governing majority party (a ‘broad church’) so that a united party position emerges, a minority government’s conflicts with its parliamentary allies could lead to a government’s defeat. As many European governments have demonstrated, depending on unstable coalition partners is not a recipe for strong and decisive government, especially at a time of crisis.

But this prospect of future minority governments, as first preferences for the major parties dropped this year to record lows (with Labor winning with only 32 percent and the Coalition losing with 36 percent), is only part of the problem. The major parties also require increasing volumes of preferences from the growing ranks of minor parties and independents just to win their diminishing proportion of seats. This year’s national totals show that Green preferences, which always favour Labor, rose to a record high of 86 per cent and independents gave Labor 64 per cent, with the Teals lifting the pro-Labor preference flow to 70 percent. Without such preference flows, Labor cannot win. For the Coalition, the problem has become almost as acute as less disciplined preference flows from competing right-wing minor parties continue to damage it. Nevertheless, two-thirds of One Nation preferences again went to the Coalition (but not in Wentworth) as did 62 per cent of Clive Palmer’s UAP (but not in North Sydney); all others were almost evenly spread.

Turning, due to justifiable disillusion with the major parties, to single-issue and minor parties and independents, with the consequential inevitable prospect of political instability, is a luxury the nation cannot afford as we face a ‘tidal wave of disruption’. But the major parties have a long way to go to deserve your trust. They can only be reformed from within. Join one.

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