Saturday, April 17, 2010

Democratic conventions

Australia is well into election season, with two states down and more to come, including a federal election. Predictably we are also flooded with nonsense statements as the jockeying for power heats up. Out here in my rural retreat, with limited power and access, I manage a great deal of time to muse on the political dynamics. One of the issues which both amuses and annoys is claims of breaches of the ‘Westminster System’.

There are many variants of democracy, officially Australia, and the states, are considered part of a ‘constitutional monarchy’. In reality we are constitutional/parliamentary democracies. The Westminster System is a set of conventions or behaviours accepted by the various parliaments and clearly subject to ‘common usage’. The fact that the ‘system’ is clearly evolutionary, subject to perceived political need at any given time.

Even so our politicians, especially on the conservative side, like to claim breaches of the system, forgetting they were most likely the ones to change the base dynamic. Probably the best known convention was ministerial responsibility. That means that the elected minister must take responsibility for any faults in the department’s they administer.

Here in Victoria the conservative opposition, with an election in sight, are making a mockery of the convention which their previous governments managed to sideline. In an attack aimed at the state’s planning minister the opposition have been demanding that public servants should face a parliamentary inquiry.

Following last years bush fires and with a Royal Commission currently underway the opposition are after the scalp of the former police commissioner and current head of the fire reconstruction effort, Christine Nixon. At the same time various of the conservative members, including the opposition leader have bemoaned breaches of the Westminster System.

I expect it makes good copy, and good politicking, as few in the wider community have any real concept of what these people are referring to. Another current issue relating to the Westminster System of government is unfolding in Tasmania, the smallest and arguably most over governed state of Australia.

The issue of ‘cabinet solidarity’ faces a severe test in that state following their recent inconclusive election. Well inconclusive in that neither major party managed to gain enough seats to govern in their own right. The Tasmanian lower house is elected on the basis of five multi member electorates of five members each.

The major parties only managed ten seats each, with the Greens taking up the other five. You could say the majors were hoist on their own petard, having reduced the parliament by ten seats some years ago in an attempt to lock the Greens out. Both Labor and Liberals could probably work together quite happily, egos apart, as both are supported equally by the state’s dominant timber industry leaders.

The odd part is that they chose not to, and it is highly unlikely the Greens will allow Gunns Ltd and other forest companies to have free reign on any government involving them. In fact they have gone further and said they will only support the Labor government if there in the absence of the sort of corruption that has been evident over the years.

Premier David Bartlett has suggested a formula whereby a Greens minister could excuse himself from discussions with which he cannot entertain. That would suggest a sort of optional cabinet solidarity, and once the convention is tampered with, even with a clearly expressed alternative, that old evolution comes into play again.

I suppose, in some ways all this is healthy for democracy. Like a lot of words there is really no clear concrete definition, it is simply a set of conventions again that we are willing to accept. Of added interest is the British election, which could also deliver a minority government with the centre left Liberal Democrats holding the balance. Still, the Brits have a few more than 25 members in their parliament.

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