Four ways to vote for a better democracy in Queensland

Corruption-buster Tony Fitzgerald is urging Queenslanders to lodge a protest vote against the major parties if they want to see real political reform. AAP/Dan Peled

Tony Fitzgerald had a point when he recently urged Queenslanders not to vote for either of the major parties in the January 31 state election.

The 73-year-old, who headed Queensland’s landmark corruption inquiry in the wake of the Bjelke-Petersen era, argued in Brisbane last September that both major parties have failed the voters and are serving only their own interests:

In practical terms, power has been substantially transferred to a small, cynical, political class, mostly professional politicians who represent, and act as directed by, one of the two major political parties which … collectively dominate political discussion and control the political process.

Tony Fitzgerald, who headed an inquiry that revealed deep-rooted political and police corruption in Queensland under the Bjelke-Petersen government. AAP/Steve Gray

It’s not hard to see why Fitzgerald is so disappointed by politics in the Sunshine State. Back in 1989, the Fitzgerald Inquiry report was intended to herald a new era of transparency, innovation and integrity.

Yet as Griffith University professor Tim Prenzler has observed, despite a series of stop-go efforts to implement reform, Queensland’s system of government and justice remains ordinary.

Fitzgerald sought to make Queensland more democratic, but the state has continued to be dominated by a duopoly of the two major parties: Labor and the Liberal National Party. In the absence of any form of proportional representation in parliament, other contestants with support spread across electorates cannot concentrate sufficient votes to win many seats.

Consequently, some constituents may not bother and put a candidate of one of the major parties first in the knowledge that their actual choice won’t get into government anyway.

Needless to say, this only adds to the illusion among those in power that an election victory is the same as a mandate to do whatever you like. Queensland truly is a state where the winner takes it all.

So what’s the alternative? I’d argue there are four good places to start.

Bring back the upper house and spread the power around

The most obvious one would be to reinstate Queensland’s upper house and enhance legislative scrutiny.

Another more radical solution would be to introduce proportional representation to ensure that the composition of parliament better reflects the will of the people. Ideally, this would advance a multi-party system in which power is shared between coalitions of varying composition: real coalitions that don’t necessarily represent the interests of the majority of people, but those of as many people as possible.

A study by Dutch-American political scientist Arend Lijphart found long ago that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, consensus democracies often create more stability and better policy outcomes. An additional benefit: it doesn’t require more pollies. It just means that power is spread more evenly.

The right to choose

While we are at it, we may as well seize the opportunity to get rid of compulsory voting in Queensland, as previously suggested by Attorney-General Jarrod Bleijie.

Bleijie recently demonstrated that he is not afraid to lead the way of change when he introduced the requirement for voters to show proof of identity at the polling booth.

Queensland has led the way on this issue before: when it introduced compulsory voting in 1915, it became the first place in the British Empire to do so.

The rest of Australia gradually copied Queensland’s lead, with compulsory voting introduced federally in 1924, followed by the other states. As this interesting Australian Electoral Commission paper on compulsory voting notes, the Queensland Liberal government of Digby Denham brought in compulsory voting:

apparently concerned that ALP shop stewards were more effective in ‘getting out the vote’, and that compulsory voting would restore a level playing ground (ironically, Denham went on to lose the 1915 election).

Where in the world has compulsory voting. Compulsory Voting in Australia, Australian Electoral Commission, 2006

Just as voter ID laws are commonplace around the globe, so is non-compulsory voting. Only 10 of the 30 nations in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) have compulsory voting, Australia being one of them. The rest recognise that democracy is about choice, including the choice not to vote.

Proponents of compulsory voting argue, among other things, that it prevents disenfranchisement of the socially disadvantaged. While this is a legitimate concern, compulsory voting in a duopoly means that rather than persuade people to vote for them, all the major parties have to do is dissuade people from voting for their opponents.

Compulsory voting offers an easy escape to get away with cheap rhetoric, blame games and mudslinging.

Non-compulsory voting, on the other hand, compels politicians to make a real effort to trigger people’s interest. They have to convince them to come out to vote in the first place.

Government of the people, by the people, for the people

Whatever your opinion of proposals such as bringing back the upper house or scrapping compulsory voting, there can be little doubt that Australian politics is overdue for some change.

To be clear, I’m not a member of any political party; like many Australians, I’m just tired of the two-party status quo continuing unchallenged.

That’s why I hope other Queenslanders going to the polls on January 31 keep Tony Fitzgerald’s words in mind:

Political reform is therefore a task for the community. If Queenslanders want a free, fair, tolerant society, good governance and honest public administration, a sufficient number of voters must make it clear that they will decline to vote for any party which does not first satisfy them that it will exercise power only for the public benefit.


Read more of The Conversation’s Queensland election 2015 coverage.

Found this article useful? A tax-deductible gift of $30/month helps deliver knowledge-based, ethical journalism.