Parliamentary Democracy: An (opinionated) post for non-Australians

It occurs to me that the more politically-minded among my USA-based friends might have actually gone looking for newspaper articles on Australian politics to try to work out what I was talking about yesterday, and the odds are that you wouldn’t have got very far (the Brits might do better, since we inherited most of our political system from you in the first place).

So, for the curious among you, a  short explanation not so much on what is going on just now but on how and why it can go on in the first place.

It comes down to this: Australians do not elect their Head of State.  Or even their Prime Minister.  Our head of state is basically the Governor General (or, really, the Queen, but since it’s all a bit honorary these days it doesn’t really matter), who has virtually nothing to do with politics.  The reason for this, incidentally, is that back in 1975, the Governor General went so far as to sack a sitting government, to the absolute horror of many Australians, including some of the ones who didn’t like the sitting government, leading to a change in the powers of the Governor General.  I’m fairly sure she no longer gets to sack anyone (yes, at the moment Australia’s three leaders are all women!  How about that?).

The Prime Minister isn’t the head of state, but she is the head of Government, and she is the person most people view as running the country.  Well, not so much this particular PM, but that’s largely due to a hung Parliament, a very hostile media, and an opposition leader who never shuts up and whose sole policy appears to be ‘I should have been PM and it’s not fair.’

You become Prime Minister by being the head of the party that is in power, and at present, that’s the Labor Party.  You become head of a political party by being voted in by the members of your party who are in Parliament.  Generally speaking.  The smaller parties do it a bit differently, largely because they often don’t have more than one or two people in Parliament, so it comes down to consensus of the party membership.  The general public get no say in the matter, really, which is what allows us to get a situation where the Prime Minister can change overnight and without an election being called.

What the general public vote for is who will represent them in a particular seat.  Generally, the major parties select a candidate to run for each seat, and if you’re lucky, you get some exciting minor party candidates too, so if you really want a particular party to win, you hold your nose and vote for that candidate, even if you don’t like them.  Of course, if that person decides to leave the party, become an independent or cross the floor (become a member of the opposing party), then guess what?  Your seat has just changed, too.  (Of course, most people view themselves as voting for a particular party or a particular Prime Minister, and get quite annoyed when they don’t get the one they want.) This also means that if a political party is having issues with one of its sitting members who, say, wants to be PM and is destabilising things (whether actively or just by being present as a focus of public discontent), there isn’t that much they can do about it.  Yes, there is party discipline, but if someone has been voted in by his or her electorate, he or she is the member for that electorate until he or she resigns or is voted out by that electorate.

Which is how we get to the situation right now where the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, and former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd are basically battling it out for the party leadership – and with it, the job of Prime Minister – next Monday.  To make life that little bit more piquant, Rudd is very, very popular with the electorate and quite unpopular within the party.  Gillard, conversely, is very unpopular with the electorate but pretty well-liked within the party.  This is a bit of a problem for Labor, because Rudd quite probably does have a better chance of winning an election – but if he can’t hold the party together or manage the delicate job of getting a hung parliament to achieve anything, it’s not going to get that far.  Frankly, I don’t think Gillard has much chance of winning an election, and she is handling the current crisis rather poorly insofar as the public politics are concerned, but I can’t help noticing that all the Labor pollies who I actually *like* seem to be on her side, which suggests she must be better at her job than she appears.  And whoever is running Labor’s PR ought to be taken out and shot, but that’s another matter.

I suspect that Labor might do well to have Gillard voluntarily step down in favour of a chosen successor who is *not* Rudd.  But I can’t see that happening.

Meanwhile, about all the Australian public can do is speculate.  The future of the Labor Party and the country is completely out of our hands.

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with Parliamentary Democracy.  There are far worse systems out there, but right now, this one is pretty bloody frustrating.

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