The hole where Queensland Labor used to be
Suddenly Kristina Keneally’s performance doesn’t look so bad. What happened to Labor in Queensland on Saturday is without any precedent in Australian history – certainly not since the Second World War, prior to which the party system tended to be more fluid. Labor can be assured of only six seats, holds the lead in only seven, and on the best case scenario will win only eight, for a total of 9% of the Legislative Assembly’s 89 seats. That compares with the “cricket team” of 11 members that Queensland Labor famously managed to return in 1974, at what was previously the gold standard for Australian election massacres – and at that time the parliament only had 82 seats. As for Keneally, she managed to win 20 seats in a chamber of 93, albeit that she did so with 24.0% of the primary vote against a provisional 26.6% for Anna Bligh.
I don’t normally presume to tell the voting public its business, but this is an unhappy state of affairs. While it might be argued that a useful example has been set for future governments considering breaking election commitments, the result is an unmitigated disaster so far as the effective functioning of parliament is concerned. Lacking anything that could meaningfully be described as an opposition, its sessions will henceforth resemble those of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR. The problem is exacerbated by Queensland’s lack of an upper house, both as a venue for holding the government to account and for providing Labor with a second-eleven to fill out a shadow ministry. The precise dimensions of the problem can be detailed with reference to an online cheat sheet for British high school politics students, which tells us that parliament has five functions: legislature, representation, recruitment, scrutiny and legitimacy. I shall consider the first three in turn, while also shedding light on the last two along the way.
It might be argued that the Queensland parliament’s legislative functioning will be little worse than usual: so long as a disciplined party has a majority of whatever size, a unicameral parliament exists largely to do the bidding of the executive. However, the result will hamper the vitality of the committee system, which offers the public and interested parties a point of access to the legislative process, and helps iron out problems in legislation to the extent that doing so doesn’t tread on the toes of cabinet and the forces to which it responds. Each of the parliament’s 10 current committees have three non-government members from a total of six (seven in the case of the Committee of the Legislative Assembly), requiring 30 non-government members to maintain the existing state of affairs. Since the election appears to have only turned up 11 non-government members, it is clear that these committees will be dominated by the government, tending to make them both less vigorous and less representative.
This brings me to the second function of parliament, which is the one that presumes to make the system democratic: representation. While nothing should be taken away from the immense achievement of the LNP on Saturday, it has still not on present numbers cracked 50% of the statewide vote (although late counting may tip it over the line). However, such is the system in Queensland that it has emerged with very few fetters upon its power. This is not a situation Queenslanders tend to lament. The public is very easily persuaded that good government can be equated to “strong” and “decisive” leadership, rather than apparent abstractions like accountability and consensus. Media players are eager to fortify this view, knowing that systems which concentrate power are most responsive the pressures brought to bear by powerful interests. It tends not to register that such issues lay at the root of the abuses of the Bjelke-Petersen era – for which, incidentally, Queensland voters were far more forgiving than they were for Labor’s failings on Saturday. Opponents of reform may argue that such abuses are best addressed by extra-parliamentary accountability mechanisms such as corruption commissions, ombudsmen and auditors-general, but none of these is a substitute for parliament’s role as the expression of the sovereignty of the people. For as long as it plays this role, democratic principles demand that it be chosen by a system which produces representative outcomes.
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Categories: Queensland Election 2012