In a recent interview, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce mused, “Imagine a House of Representatives with 150 independents.”
He was referring to the instability that will result from the election of people like independent Tony Windsor.
Barnaby probably regards any House of Representatives with independent members as a collection of worshippers of the Antichrist.
And I suspect that if we were able to get him in a dark room and whack him with a rolled up copy of the Gunnedah Bugle, he would admit that a good House of Representatives would be made up of 90 or so members of the National Country Party, with him as Prime Minister, 20 or 30 members of the Liberal party, with MalcolmTurnbull as Deputy Prime Minister and a few odds and sods from Labor and the minor parties and Tony Windsor, upon whom Barnaby would piss from a great height whenever the mood came upon him.
Under this scenario, the country would be run by right-minded country folk who would give such issues as same-sex marriage short shrift and tell its proponents to bugger off.
But his question is an interesting one. What would a house full of independent representatives be like? Joyce maintains that it would be chaotic and he’s probably right.
It would certainly not be orderly in the way that a two-party system produces order where party discipline ensures that government members will vote along party lines. This may produce stability but it may not necessarily be good for democracy or the interests of the electorate.
Parties are generally elected on the strength of the policies they announce during election campaigns and in part, if they are the government, on their track record. Often, they break election promises or are required to formulate policies that were not announced during the election. In these situations, the electorate has no influence whatsoever about how or what decisions are made.
In a House made up entirely of independent members, policy decisions on matters that had not been raised during the election campaigns would be subject to a range of views equal to those of the elected members of the Parliament. There is a much better chance that this would equate to the views of the electorate than would be the case in a two-party system.
The downside of an independent House of Representatives is that decision-making would be unbelievably complicated and time-consuming. But is this too high a price to pay for a highly democratic system?
There is a party standing for election this year that has no policies. The electorate can contact its representatives through an app where they can indicate how they want their representatives to vote on any given matter. It’s electronic and immediate democracy, a bit like Barnaby’s House of Representatives with 150 independents but immediately responsive to the electorate.
There are indications of growing disillusionment with the two-party system in Australia. Political systems are notoriously difficult and slow to change but without constant pressure from the electorate, we may be left with a system that is unable to respond quickly and effectively to the challenges of a rapidly changing world.
The vote in the United Kingdom to leave the European Union was won by around 18 million voters out of a total population of just under 65 million, many of whom did not, or were not able to vote. Yet, despite this, the decision will be binding on future generations and will have consequences for years to come. It is worth considering whether a referendum, which appears to have been decided primarily by voters over 35, was correct way to decide this issue.