How strange it is that the calls for greater accountability of elected politicians have been accompanied by scant attention in the media about what is on the agenda of the rural independent MPs and their supporters.
This follows a parliamentary term in which the policies and practices of Labor and the Coalition were held to account, while the Greens leader Bob Brown got by with soft questions from interviewers, especially on the ABC.
On the AM program yesterday, Sabra Lane interviewed Ted Mack, whom she described as “the father of independents in Australia”. He was the independent MP for North Sydney between 1990 and 1996.
Mack said: “One of the problems is that, since Federation, major political parties are the only ones who can do any real reform and they will only do reform if it suits their partisan advantage. And that is why things have really gone downhill over the past century.”
When she announced her intention to contest the Senate election, Cheryl Kernot issued a similar statement. The former Democrats leader expressed the view that Australia is poorly governed and this is understood by the electorate, which is apathetic at best and disillusioned at worst.
Someone who arrived in Australia from overseas in the past couple of months, and who followed the thoughts of Mack and Kernot, could be forgiven for assuming Australia is a dysfunctional democracy and close to a failed state. Would they be correct in this assumption?
The facts indicate otherwise. Australia has had perhaps the strongest economy in the Western world for over a decade. Corruption at the federal level, involving politicians and senior public servants, is non-existent. The nation has a relatively low level of ethnic motivated crime and a relatively high level of inter-marriage between ethnic groups. In short, Australia is a prosperous, efficient, law-abiding and tolerant country.
This did not happen by chance. Rather, it took place under a political system which is derided these days by the likes of Mack and Kernot.
Mack, in his alienated way, may look back on the past century and see failure as “things go downhill”. Most of those who lived through the times – along with the multitude who would have liked such a fate – recognise that our leaders, Labor and Coalition alike, presided over a nation which got through two world wars and a general depression in pretty good shape.
The change which has occurred in Australia over the past 50 years has been quite remarkable. In the mid-1960s the Coalition government, under the leadership of Harold Holt, began dismantling the White Australia Policy – a policy which was completed by Gough Whitlam when Labor came to office in 1972.
In the late 1970s Malcolm Fraser’s Coalition government, with John Howard as Treasurer, took the first tentative steps at deregulating the economy.
Economic reform was embraced with a vengeance when Labor came to office with Bob Hawke as prime minister in 1983, continued by the Keating and Howard governments. In three decades – with broadly bipartisan support – the currency was floated, protectionism reduced, government entities privatised and the industrial relations and taxation system fundamentally reformed.
All this was achieved under a two-party system where, for the most part, the government of the day did not have a Senate majority and had to negotiate legislation through the upper house by dealing with the opposition or the minority parties.
There is reason for some reform to parliamentary procedures – along the lines suggested by Rob Oakeshott, Tony Windsor and Bob Katter. Tony Abbott spoke about this before the election and Julia Gillard advocated such changes in 2006.
Yet this is primarily a matter of concern for the Parliament House set – politicians, staffers, public servants and the journalists who report their activities.
Out in the electorate, few care all that much if the prime minister has just delivered a 12 minute answer to a Dorothy Dix question or if the opposition leader has described a minister as a fool or fraud. Such behaviour may well get a run in the evening news bulletins and it may be less than edifying. As the saying goes, such is life.
Over the years the Australian electoral system has worked well. Preferential voting favours the two main parties in the House of Representatives while giving minor parties or independents a chance.
This time around the Greens MP Adam Bandt and independent Andrew Wilkie won on Liberal Party preferences; in 1990 Mack prevailed on ALP preferences.
In the Senate, however, the proportional voting system – introduced in 1949 – gives minor parties and independents a real chance. This assisted the Democratic Labor Party from the mid 1950s until the early 1970s, the Democrats in the 1980s and 1990s, and now the Greens.
And then there is the question of ministerial responsibility. The likes of Gillard and Abbott are more accountable than their counterparts in Britain and the United States.
The Prime Minister’s question time in the House of Commons is a tame affair when compared with question time in the House of Representatives. What’s more, the likes of David Cameron and Gordon Brown do not do many media conferences.
In the US, such presidents as Barack Obama and George Bush are not required to take questions from Congress and rarely conduct formal media conferences.
The Australian political system is both responsive and transparent, which explains why over 80 per cent of electors still give their primary vote to one of the two major parties. This suggests the status quo does not need dramatic change which could be counterproductive.