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Is parliament locked in a crisis of representation?



Most of us accept that over the last twenty-odd years, something has shifted in the way politics in Australia is conducted, and not for the better. A recent report by the Edelman Trust Barometer declares that ‘Australia’s trust bubble has burst,’ more than in any comparable nation other than Germany. Notably, our government (and media) were seen by most voters as a dividing force within society rather than a uniting one.

Separating out cause and effect with all this is difficult and beyond the scope of this piece. What is interesting, though, is that citizens themselves are homing in on one particular aspect of the problem, the role of the major parties in our democracy, and what is happening is potentially transformative.

The truth of politics is that, in the end, you can’t think your way to right action. You only act your way to right thinking, and more and more ordinary Australians are deciding that change will only happen if they make it happen. To put it another way, the desire for good government is always a yearning of the spirit towards community, and in Australia that yearning is currently manifesting in a rise of support for small parties and independents. 

The ‘Voices of’ movement, as it is usually called, has grown from its rather mercurial roots in the Victorian seat of Indi, where Cathy McGowan defeated the Liberal incumbent in 2013, to its present-day manifestation in seats across of the country, many of them blue-ribbon conservative seats, in which well-educated and economically secure voters are letting it be known that they are no longer willing to be taken for granted by the major parties.

I have given talks to a number of ‘Voices of’ groups, and the gatherings I have addressed have been genuine community events, organised by local citizens –– many of whom have had no previous political experience –– and they have been events fizzing and popping with questions, with people suddenly alive to the possibility of their own political agency.

The realisation that democracy is not just a matter of voting for parties, that the parliament can be a place of genuine deliberation and argument, and that the balance of power in the House is something they can actively influence, has, I think it is fair to say, been life changing for many.


'Reform of Question Time, the creation of a federal ICAC, electoral reform, issues of gendered violence, let alone climate change, are only likely to be seriously addressed with an independent cross bench, removing the control the major parties currently wield in their own interests and the interests of their donors.'


The overwhelming feeling amongst these voters is not they have fundamentally changed their values, or that they have left the party they have traditionally supported. The feeling is, rather, that the party has left them, that the Liberal-National Coalition has turned into something they neither recognise nor like and that they will no longer support it in its current form.

The problem is less obvious on the Labor side of politics, though not absent, and an increasing number of Labor seats are, for instance, vulnerable to Greens candidates.

What we are seeing, I think, is a crisis of representation, and it goes deeper than the seats in which the ‘Voices of’ movement is currently operating, and the nature of the problem is apparent in the figures.

Party members are increasingly drawn from a smaller and smaller section of the population, and an inordinate number of them are political operatives of one sort or another, ushered into safe parliamentary seats where they become virtually immoveable.

So while less than one per cent of Australians work as political consultants or lobbyists, they make up 11.9 per cent of our federal parliament. Party and union administrators are less than one per cent of the general population, but they make up 8.4 per cent of sitting members. Trades people, on the other hand, are 13.5 per cent of the general population but 0.4 per cent of parliament. Teachers run 3.5 per cent and 0.4 per cent.

It gets worse.

Six per cent of parliamentarians come from non-English speaking backgrounds compared to 23 per cent for the rest of us. Woman make up just 29 per cent of the Reps and 39 per cent of the Senate, and while Labor is 44/56 women to men, a good result achieved with a quota system, the Coalition runs at an embarrassing 20/80.

Tie all this to a preferential voting system that channels votes away from alternatives back to the major parties and you have system that makes it very difficult to inject any new blood.

More than anything, though, I think the real ah-ha moment for many attracted to the ‘Voices of’ candidates is the realisation that major party discipline requires individual members to vote the party line regardless of their own views, let alone the views of people they represent. When, during talks, I point out that their local member may honestly tell them that he supports stronger action on climate change but is then obliged to vote the same way as Barnaby Joyce, it is a like a light goes on.

Given all this, I think it is fair to say there is a once-in-generation opportunity to restructure parliament, this key institution, and change our idea of what governance can be. Voters have a chance to elect what journalists call a ‘hung’ parliament — but what I would call a ‘deliberative’ parliament — one in which neither major party commands a working majority of the Lower House. One in which whomever forms government can no longer govern from a back room full of party hacks and lobbyists.

Reform of Question Time, the creation of a federal ICAC, electoral reform, issues of gendered violence, let alone climate change, are only likely to be seriously addressed with an independent cross bench, removing the control the major parties currently wield in their own interests and the interests of their donors.

Will such a deliberative parliament solve all our problems? Of course not. But it opens the possibility of moving past a two-party system that, if left to fester in its current form, will see us flushed down the democratic drain we are currently circling. It will give us a chance to rediscover the sense of purpose that can arise when government is about more than the agenda of two dominating parties.

Changing the status quo is always a big ask, but like climate change itself, the question is no longer, can we afford the risk of change. The question is, how can we afford not to change?



Tim Dunlop

Tim Dunlop is an author and independent researcher. You can follow him on Twitter (@timdunlop) and support his writing through Patreon.

Main image: Illustration by Chris Johnson

Topic tags: Tim Dunlop, Covid-19, pandemic, inequality, class, neoliberalism, values



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Existing comments

I suppose we currently have the mediocrity we don't deserve in Parliament. There are able people at both state and federal levels, but too many 'Teflon types' like Kristina Kenneally, whose preselection for the Lower House for Fairfield was very on the nose. You are correct, Parliament does need to be more reflective of the normal population in diversity. It is interesting that, in the UK, there are some prominent Persons of Indian Origin in the Cabinet. That is accepted as normal and they got there on ability, not quotas. The Indi experiment certainly worked well. It replaced an extremely unpopular local MP with a very good, responsive local member, whose successor is just as good. I am a wee bit concerned about some of Zali Stegall's supporters in Warringah, who look like they are set to clean up big on renewables. It is the same with Voices of Change. Even though Simon Holmes a Court is not going to be personally involved in the selection of candidates, I think he will want something. We also need serious debate on energy, including the safe nuclear option, as well as flood prevention. Our country deserves this.

Edward Fido | 04 March 2022  
Show Responses

I agree with Mr Fido that nuclear power be permissible.

That said, I remain confident that no civil nuclear power station would be built in Australia because they are far and away more expensive than renewable power and storage.

Power prices in Australia are presently decreasing as the proportion of renewable generation increases, so if investors in renewable power are supporting the likes of Ms Steggall then they are also doing the rest of us a favour at the same time.

I do not know enough of Ms Kenneally to agree or disagree with Mr Fido regarding her presence.

David Arthur | 04 March 2022  

Oh Tim, how I enjoyed this. That sentence 'the yearning of the spirit towards community' is what so many of us desire but which seems to be a foreign concept to many in parliament. I too, see the rise of independents as an opportunity to have real representation and hopefully real change. Jorie

Jorie Joan Ryan | 04 March 2022  

Do not ignore the fact that parliament is a place of debate, debased and stifled, as the article states, by the hold parties have over their members. Many people are not public thinkers working by debate, but private thinkers. They work by contributing outside of parliament and so are ignored by it, with little assessment of the value of their contributions. This is also the tragedy of the Public Service in Australia.

Peter Horan | 04 March 2022  

Having had my mind exercised repeatedly over various issues concerning the efficient aggregation of public policy preferences - to summarise the problem complex under discussion as precisely as possible - I do not share Tim's hopeful optimism that the replacement of party politics with independent representation will be the transformative change we all are hoping for.

I consider that, if executed with a modicum of intelligence, integrity and humility, party-internal discussion resulting in the presentation to the voting public of coherent party programs and policy platforms could be a usefully efficient political model.

As against that, I contend that, realistically speaking, the expansion of representation by independents, including competition between several independents for the same electorate, and the inevitable political horse trading amongst large numbers of independents in parliament, will inevitably take the shine off this model of democracy.

Real progress, so I have convinced myself, would require the gradual, but nevertheless deliberate, replacement of the mechanisms of representative democracy - a form of elective heteronomy - with concepts and processes to facilitate true individual and collective self-determination, or autonomy ... - which will, however, impose a hitherto unprecedented demand for integrity and humility on all of us.

Arnd Liebenberg | 07 March 2022  

Consensus is licit on issues of bread but man does not live by bread alone. Consensus on what humans are isn't possible with the theophobia of the Left (including the Christian left).

We'll just have to muddle along with parliamentary blocs within their rigid boundaries while subsisting on the Judeo-Christian patrimony in Western culture, at least until the patrimony runs out. Then, we can all be 'independents', each going her own way or, more likely, stuck in rigid blocs operating to different patrimonies.

roy chen yee | 08 March 2022  

Thanks Tim. I haven't felt so cranky about politics for decades. The truth is not told (or worse, covered up), there is no accountability, everything is served up with marketing spin. Something has to give. I hope independents do hold the balance, but I worry that their first decision will be which major party will they allow to govern?

Paul Cutler | 10 March 2022  

Neither parliamentarians, nor the parties to which they belong, are truly representative of anyone but themselves. The extreme example is Clive Palmer's 'party', but it differs from the others only in degree. Grass-roots party membership is at an all time low and subject to manipulation by factions. The independent party member is powerless. There is no democracy in the parties and so no democracy in Parliament. We can't really expect any improvement in Parliament until we re-democratise the parties but that won't happen while they still succeed in gaining majorities in their current form. We could prevent majorities if we had proportional representation of some form in the Reps, but as that won't happen, the only solution is to use the single-member system that we now have to elect sufficient independents to break the hold of the major parties. And 'sufficient' has to be a lot more than the minimum necessary so that we avoid creating the single manipulative 'balance of power' member.

Ginger Meggs | 10 March 2022  

I think the Australian public are about to take a dose of mental Epsom Salts to cleanse themselves of the current batch of careerist politicians. At state level it appears that the NSW branch of the Liberal Party is attempting to regain both local control of federal candidate selection and the Party's glorious Menziean roots. Australia has great genuine Liberal roots, going back to the superlative Alfred Deakin, who was offered a knighthood if he would relocate to the UK and lead the Liberal Party there. He declined and Australia benefited immensely from his decision. You are right on the bullseye, Tim. Most Australians want far better. The decision of the NSW Nationals not to endorse John Anderson for the Senate shows how rusty, creaky and unresponsive most party machines are. As for 'Comrade Dan' in Victoria; I shudder. The situation in Queensland under 'Our Anastasia' is also ground for some concern. We need to get back to the roots of our Westminster system with a clear separation of powers. We desperately need an independent public service. Hopefully it will all come out in the wash. Australia deserves better. Far, far better.

Edward Fido | 13 March 2022  

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