The good, the bad and the ugly of Australian democracy

Preferential voting takes us into more controversial terrain because it disproportionately favours the major parties. Yet it also acts as a consensus builder, another useful safety valve at a time of extreme polarisation.

Proportional representation in the Senate comes both with strengths and vulnerabilities. As a recent report from the Australia Institute highlighted, the upper chamber is more reflective of the country’s diversity than the House of Representatives.

Preferential voting favours the major parties. Yet it also acts as a consensus builder, another useful safety valve at a time of extreme polarisation.Credit:VEC

Its members have included the first two Indigenous members elected to parliament (Neville Bonner and Aden Ridgeway), the first Asian-Australian (Tsebin Tchen), as well as the first openly gay man (Bob Brown) and openly gay woman (Penny Wong). Yet, it can also provide something of a backdoor into parliament for fringe players. Ricky Muir of the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party highlighted this anomaly in 2013, when he reached the Senate with just 0.51 per cent of the primary vote in Victoria.

Three-year parliamentary terms are a weakness, for they encourage short-termism in government decision-making and turn the triennial political cycle into a permanent campaign. The daily Question Time – which always involves the prime minister – fuels an excessively combative political culture. The bush capital has often felt like a partisan garrison town overly consumed by political warfare, although the presence of so many independents has helped.


The present campaign finance laws are a vulnerability because they allow for multi-million dollar undisclosed “dark money” contributions. The threat from China has made Australia something of a pioneer in crafting political interference laws, but they need regularly updating.

The threat from information disorder – highlighted most recently by the role of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News in promoting the Trumpian “big lie” – should be part of the equation. So, too, the often malign influence of big tech.

Australia shares a foundational problem with America. Standing in the way of much-needed renovation is an antique constitution notoriously hard to amend. The last time a referendum produced constitutional change in Australia was 1977.

Democratic resilience should not be looked upon in isolation, purely as a structural and procedural question. The problem is all-encompassing. Over the past 50 years, for example, political polarisation in America has closely tracked income polarisation. Voters who feel like economic castaways are easily alienated from democracy.


Reimagining politics, as the teals have shown, also helps build resilience. An Indigenous Voice to parliament would do so too.

The very words “democratic resilience” could easily conjure up thoughts of a civic version of “fortress Australia”, an impregnable parliamentary bastion. But Australia could be a global leader here, as it renovates its democracy on a hill.

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