Is parliament essential to democracy, or just a pesky intrusion that must be endured?
By Tracey Arklay
There has been a lot of attention to the political manoeuvring of governments across Westminster systems over the past few weeks.
In the House of Westminster embattled Prime Minister Theresa May has called off the Brexit vote in order to delay what now seems like inevitable defeat for a solution painfully carved out over many months, not to mention the end to her term.
Closer to home we have witnessed the unedifying process of the Morrison Government using parliamentary tactics on the last sitting day of the year in order to stall a vote on asylum seekers getting off Manus and Nauru on medical grounds.
At a time when many Australians are questioning the value of democracy, these strategic games appear self-serving.
Peter Dutton’s recent comments aired on Sky News that he has long regarded parliament as “a disadvantage for sitting governments” put in words what many suspect some politicians, particularly when in government, think.
Parliament keeps the fight fair
Let’s turn the table on the view that parliament is a pesky intrusion that must be endured and counter Mr Dutton’s statement with the fact that parliament is about checks and balances and to ignore or minimise the institution is a short cut to tyranny.
Parliament was created to provide alternative voices, differing views and establish the rules about how the political game should be played out.
These rules are the parliamentary procedures which include standing orders, sessional orders, and rulings which provide some order to adversarial politicking.
Procedures determine what members of parliament can say and how they should act. They are about keeping the fight fair.
That doesn’t mean that governments should not seek loopholes to achieve their objectives, but they should be aware when they act in this way it provides us, the voters with evidence of their values, attitudes and beliefs, upon which we can judge them come election time.
Politics is all about power
Theresa May is still playing the political game using the old rules, as is Scott Morrison. (Pool via AP: Dominic Lipinski)
Scott Morrison’s admission last week that he would use “whatever tool, or tactic I have available to me to ensure that we do not undermine our broader protection laws” was the theatre of politics being played out in a country increasingly turned off by belligerent tactics.
National interest was only one consideration in the actions of last week. Part of the strategy was also to insure he wasn’t the first prime minister in 90 years to lose a vote on legislation in the House of Representatives.
Politics is all about power. A weakened prime minister doesn’t last long particularly when the rest of the government side is worried about keeping their jobs.
Conventions such as responsible government — the notion that all ministers debate in private and then support a policy in public despite their personal opinions — has been re-cast in recent years as infighting and leaks become more commonplace.
Little wonder Australians are less trusting of the motivations of their representatives.
Mind you, Australian politics has never been known for its conviviality. In the era where majoritarianism dominated, the bullying, blustering winner-take-all approach worked well enough.
Governments assured of the numbers in the Lower House were aggravated at times by the “hostile”, Senate but in the main politics chugged along pretty well.
May and Morrison still playing by the old rules
What we are now witnessing may be a game-changer to how politics in the future is played out.
Since 2010 federally, and even longer at the state level, we have seen an increasing number of minority parliaments.
Yet still many politicians in government have shown that they have not yet adapted to what might well be a new normal — where minor parties and independents have significant influence over policy decisions.
Julia Gillard managed minority government successfully but was persecuted for her willingness to negotiate with the crossbench and Greens.
Mrs May and Mr Morrison are still playing the political game using the old rules.
By any judgement it’s not going too well for either now.
We are crying out for authentic leadership
Our politicians, particularly in the House of Representatives need to develop a new skillset.
Our politicians, particularly in the House of Representatives, need to develop a new skillset. (ABC News: Toby Hunt)
I would argue politicians need to understand that consensus, compromise and being willing to debate and communicate policy issues is an asset, particularly when governments are considering policy that has consequences for all Australians: human rights, climate change, energy policy or national security laws.
The polls highlight how we are crying out for authentic leadership — but what this means in practice remains undefined.
We want strong leaders who can make decisions but who are also prepared to negotiate and utilise the soft skills alongside the parliamentary rules to develop policy solutions that we need, rather than winning a fight we don’t need to have.
Politics has always been a tough gig and the new normal will only make it harder.
Still, it is imperative for the future of democracy that those skills are learned quickly.
Dr Tracey Arklay is a senior lecturer in the School of Government and International Relations at Griffith University.