David Hamer is one of a small band of politicians who have had experience in both houses of the Australian Parliament. The passage between chambers is best known in the movement from the Senate to the House, and usually occurs when an aspirant for the highest executive office moves to the only house in which a prime minister can now expect to sit. David Hamer’s movement was in the opposite direction, and perhaps it is not surprising that one outcome of such a political experience is this thoughtful and important book on ‘responsible government’, a phrase much used at times of political drama, but not well understood.
The focus of the book, understandably, is on the institution of parliament. But it is worth saying something about the people for whom, by whom and of whom the parliament is constituted-the citizens, or the electorate. It is common to blame parliamentarians for their sins of commission and omission. Since they have all in some sense been elected, however, some responsibility surely lies also with the electors.
What we know of Australian electors, through survey and other evidence, is that they are not schooled in the history or philosophy of responsible government. They do have a strong belief in the virtues of voting, and they see their power as negative in character rather than positive-that is, their job is to put governments in and let them get on with the job; if a government does its job badly they will eventually ‘turf it out’ and put the other lot in. They are practised voters, and believe not only that they themselves should vote, but that all other electors should also vote. Although compulsory voting was instituted by parliamentarians who wanted cheaper elections for their parties, it is undoubtedly supported by the electors themselves and is in no serious danger of being dismantled.
The other plainly important characteristic of electors is that they are partisan: they prefer (and vote for) one party rather than another, and their preference tends to be a continuing one. It is that which is largely responsible for the great stability of the Australian party system, which shows little sign of change, despite wars hot and cold, depressions and recessions, immigration, environmental concerns and the changing balance between the sexes.
Partisanship and frequent elections are the conditions in which the Australian Parliament operates. Australian politics is in every way as good an example as manufacturing of the division of labour that so characterises western societies. The electors rely on the parliamentarians to do the job they have been elected to do. Having followed their partisanship and flexed their electoral muscles, Australian citizens return to their absorbing lives after election day with the satisfaction of those who think they have done a good day’s work. Politics for them is not a matter of daily concern.
In all of this they are not very different from British, American, Swedish or Belgian citizens. The twentieth century did not produce the nineteenth century dream of a lively citizenry continually occupied with the great questions both of the day and of existence. Paradoxically, that makes the task of parliament, and the business of parliamentary reform, even more urgent. David Hamer’s long experience of the Parliament’s two chambers, and his obvious capacities for analysis and reflection have combined to produce a book of great importance, not just to the parliamentarians themselves, but to all of us who care that our society constantly gets better, not just economically, or musically, or gastronomically, but in the way it governs itself.
University of Canberra
Back to top