There has been an awful lot said on the subject of mandates in Australia since the last Federal election, and much of it, of course, has centered around the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax (an Aussie form of the British VAT.) For the first time in living memory a government in Australia actually ran for office on a platform which advocated the introduction of a new tax...and even more amazingly...they won! Faced however with a concurrently elected 'hostile' Senate, the government's GST seemed to have little or no chance of survival; and when Brian Harradine, the independent Senator from Tasmania, declared he could not support the Bill because he believed it was regressive and discriminatory, it seemed that the Bill was, in fact, 'dead in bed'.
But things are not always as they seem and The Australian Democrats; who ran strongly against the introduction of such a tax during the last election, suddenly announced that they would support it, albeit with significant amendments. Holding as they did the 'balance of power' in The Upper House, the Bill soon became Law. This 'about face' by The Australian Democrats outraged many Democrat voters (as well as much of the rank and file of the party itself) many of whom claimed that they gave their support to the Democrat platform mainly because it was implacably opposed to a GST.
Prior to The Democrat's change of heart, The Liberal Party, under Prime Minister John Howard, had protested loudly that it had a 'mandate' to introduce the tax as a result of it's election win in the Lower House and great pressure was brought to bear upon members of The Senate to recognise and validate this 'mandate'. The Upper House, he claimed, had no right to frustrate the 'will of the people' as expressed through it's election of the current House of Representatives.
It was a very strange claim from a man who, himself, had played a significant part in the most notorious Senate rout of a Lower House 'mandate' in Australia's history. And that is not a bad place to begin; because to understand something of the true nature of the Government's 'mandate' on the GST it would be helpful to revisit that event; an event which predates the current machinations by nearly twenty five years. I refer, of course, to 'The Dismissal'.
(For Overseas readers, a short account is perhaps in order. In late 1975, Gough Whitlam, a Labor Party Prime Minister who had swept to power in 1972 on a wave of widespread support was watching that support evaporate. A series of government scandals and a generally worsening economic situation saw his government reach it's lowest political ebb. There were many in business and in the bureaucracy at the time who felt that Labor's economic mismanagement had become a national crisis and the polls seemed to agree.
Sensing the public mood, a 'hostile' Senate, dominated at that time by Australia's main conservative political body, The Liberal Party, and headed by Malcolm Fraser, took the unprecedented step of blocking Supply; those finance Bills which make it possible for all government business to be transacted.
The country ground to a halt. It was rumored that there would soon be no money for the payment of essential Federal services. In the midst of a huge constitutional crisis, Sir John Kerr invoked the Reserve powers of his office as Governor General; powers made possible by the authority of, what many saw as a foreign power, The British Crown. He used these powers to dismiss The Whitlam Labor Government and to call new elections. In those subsequent elections Mr. Whitlam's Government was heavily defeated by a very large majority and many people thought that to be the end of the matter. In a less sanguine nation such an event may well have been the trigger for a civil war, but here...well.... the vanquished quit the field, if not gracefully then at least, peacefully.)
Australians are a notoriously pragmatic people and for many "The Dismissal' was a case of the electorate wanting a change of government, and getting it. As long as there wasn't bloodshed and the trains still ran, they didn't really care very much about how that outcome was achieved. They were happy in the main to leave the constitutional debates to the academics. But not many people at the time realised how profoundly that event would alter the way that any election outcome could ever be interpreted again.
The unintended side effect of what The Liberal Party achieved in 1975 was to teach a previously unsophisticated, and largely disinterested, electorate that voting outcomes were far more manipulable than they had ever believed possible. Up until 'The Dismissal' it didn't occur to the the average 'punter' that a 'house of review' could really have that much power. It didn't take long for most Australians to realise that this meant that they could actually 'modify' their vote in the Lower House by the way they voted in the Upper. Before this, political observers had been used to the phenomenon of the public voicing it's disapproval of government policy between elections at bi-elections and Senate half-elections. What they never expected to see, however, was the kind of bizarre outcomes that have dominated elections at both State and Federal levels in Australia since 1975.
These outcomes are often typified by large lower house majorities and the concurrent election of hung or hostile Upper Houses; where the balance of power often falls to single issue or minor parties with a very rigid agenda. I say that this is a bizarre outcome because it occurs when the very voters who vote for government policies in the Lower House, at the very same moment, vote against them in the Upper House! And make no mistake, this is exactly what happened at the last election.
Many Liberal voters who voted for the Government and its GST in the lower house voted for the Democrats and other parties vehemently opposed to it in the The Senate.
Well, I think that one of the things that people learned from 'The Dismissal' was that the Upper House could be constructed in a manner that made it far more than a 'house of review.' Voters learned that they could actually elect their 'government of choice', whilst simultaneously preventing it from enacting particular pieces of legislation which they clearly did not want, and that they could achieve this effect by stacking the Senate with parties who would co-operate with the government in the main, but, could be counted on to block the 'targeted' legislation. And like most things that are good for Democracy (in that they disempower politicians and re-empower their constituents) it has driven governments of both persuasions wild with frustration.
As this type of voting pattern became more firmly entrenched in the electorate, the Senate became a much more active and valid expression of the 'people's will' arguably with a 'mandate' of it's own. Consequently the only 'mandate' that a government in The House of Representatives can now ever claim is for policies which the parties that dominate the Senate at any given moment have not actively opposed during their election campaigns. By this reasoning the current government has a 'mandate' to govern, but it never had a mandate to introduce the GST which was actively and publicly campaigned against by a majority of those who hold seats in The Senate.
There is a danger in all of this however. For the 'will of the people' to be achieved in such a sophisticated version of Democracy it is imperative that those parties and independents elected to the Upper House actually execute the positions they espoused at the time of their elections.
Which brings us back to, of all people, The Democrats. And I say 'of all people' because, if ever a Party set itself up claiming to be a bastion of Constancy and Integrity, it was The Democrats.
Most Australians are used to the spectacle of politicians modifying, some times even reversing, policy positions in the wake of an election defeat. Sadly we are also used to the even more unedifying spectacle of them reversing policy positions in the wake of an election success, so it was inevitable at some time that a political force would eventually build enormous capital out of such perceived duplicity. When the Australians Democrats under disaffected Liberal Senator, Don Chipp emerged, their main reason for existence was to 'rescue Democracy from cynicism'. They claimed that they would 'Keep The Bastards Honest' by holding the balance of power in the Senate and ensuring that no legislation which contradicted a government's election promises would be allowed to pass. The Democrats believed that the betrayal of trust that was becoming endemic in Australian political life, was undermining the very nature of the Democratic process. For a Party to act other than the way in which they had ensured their constituents they would when elected was a threat to the very fabric of Democracy. It was a laudable position which pitched it's camp firmly on the high moral ground, if such exists at all in Politics.
As the years passed, however, The Democrats felt that their future must lie in independent policy development; and in time they developed a raft of these, although they never fully abandoned their original stated role which was to be the watchdog which kept politicians to their promises.
As a result of their policy position however, during the last election, the Democrats promised faithfully that if they held the balance of power during the next Senate term there would be NO GST. It was not negotiable. It was a 'core' election promise and I believe they were elected to hold the balance of power in the Senate largely on the basis of it.
Regardless of whether the GST is the advance for the Australian economy.that many people claim (...we might debate that in a year or two), the 'about face' of the Democrats represents a massive breach of faith with their own constituency. By the terms of their own manifesto, it is unforgivable. And in the end Don Chipp was right. Such betrayal does undermine the very viability of the Democratic process. In the end it leads to cynicism and alienation, and the refusal to participate.
Apart from everything else, current Democrats leader Meg Lees' position is also insulting because it completely underestimates the subtlety and sophistication of the voting public in it's current construction of the parliamentary majorities and in it's understanding of mechanisms of the two house Parliamentary system.
Regardless of Prime Minister Howard's claims, it is clear that 'mandates' no longer reside only in the Lower House in Australia. Since 'The Dismissal' they have resided in the total makeup of both houses and the voting public is critically aware of this fact. They have consistently constructed complicated outcomes which are full of checks and balances. When the Australian voters elect big majorities in The House of Representatives and equally hostile Senates they are not being stupid or undecided. They do it with very set outcomes in mind and those outcomes should not be frustrated by duplicity.
All of this may seem a little academic now. The Bill has passed and for better or for worse Australians will have a GST, which I suppose brings us to the question of 'political realities' at last. As with 'The Dismissal' Australians will, in the main, be more concerned with the outcome than by the nature of the process by which it was achieved and now, as in 1975, that will be a big mistake. For each major political event is not without it's legacy. Each one teaches the electorate something new. In a country renowned for it's contempt of parliamentarians, we have long accepted the Democrats message that we should never trust a politician. What we have now learned, in Spades, and ironically from the Democrats themselves, is that we can trust least of all, those politicians who deign to tell us this.
Fri, 11 Feb 2000 00:45:06 +1100
Cathy Rytmeister <email@example.com>
Hi Pat -
Not only did the majority of non-Liberals in the current Senate actively campaign against the GST, many of the Liberals did too. Because only
half of the Senate was elected at the last election, the Liberal members from the election before (not sure of the numbers, but they'd be roughly
50/50) campaigned on the "never, never" platform with which Howard was elected the first time.
As you point out, the (Liberal) Opposition's behaviour in 1975 indicates an acceptance that any mandate exists in both the Lower and Upper
Houses, and in that case about half of the Liberal members of the current Senate have a mandate to OPPOSE the GST.
But this "mandate" stuff is just semantics. They will do whatever they can get away with. The Democrats have lost a great deal of support
because of their vote on the GST, and this will be exacerbated once the new tax takes effect. So where to now?
(I vote Green in the Upper House and I think you can guess where my Lower House vote goes, although when you live in Bennelong it doesn't
make much difference!)
PS How about an editorial on eduation - school and higher ed - and the
damage both State and Federal Governements are doing to the educational
opportunities of Australians. Heard Gus Nossal on this topic today -
eminently sensible and forthright as usual. Cheers.
Sat, 21 Apr 2001 14:00:04 +1000
Have not looked in on your web site for a while, but dropped by today & read your editorial on Political Mandates.
Firstly let me say I opposed the GST & felt that it was always going to be a negative piece of legislation.
What I think needs to be corrected is that the Democrats policy going into the last federal election was not opposed to the GST at all. They actually said they would support it in a modified version that would be fairer. From memory they were opposed to having the GST on Food & Books (this meant that if you could read it or eat it is was to be exempt) They also wanted better compensation for the less affluent in society.
(Sorry Tony, whatever Meg Lees private views prior to the election may have been, that is just not correct. I was a voter at that election and the campaign stated constantly and unequivocally that the Democrats would oppose the introduction of the GST in any form. Their position that the government had won a mandate on the issue and that they would support it in a modified version came after... not before the election. )
The anger came when Meg Lees moved away from that position. She allowed some foods to have the GST & dropped the exemption on books.
(This certainly caused further anger both in the ranks and beyond.)
My own beliefs are that Tax reform was required, but this did NOT mean a GST. We already had a system of Wholesale Sales Tax, which had become a bit
tired over the years. Wouldn't it have been easier to simplify & update that system, rather than throwing it all away & bringing in a whole new mess?
On another point, I would like to tell you an idea i have had about the Telstra mess that we have now. I was also opposed to the Telstra Sell Off.
Now we have the situation where it's half private & half Govt owned. My thinking is that we cannot unbreak the eggs, but we can at least make it a
damn good omlette!
What I would like to see happen is that Telstra gets split into two parts.
Part One would be all the infrastructure. This would be the lines, networks, exchanges etc. This would remain in Public Ownership.
Part Two would be the Service Provider. This would be 100% owned by the current shareholders.
This has many features that are attractive.
- Telstra would no longer have a conflict of interest with other Telco's as
it would no longer own the network.
- Rural areas would get updates to the network as required, or their local
member would cop it in the polls. Under a privitised system they would not
unless it was profitable.
- The Govt could set the price for using various parts of the network, that
way it could make the use of rural lines cheaper thus making sure remote
communities get a fair deal.
- We would retain ownership of 'the farm'
All The Best