Political reform in Australia and America: Reversing the Flow of Ideas?
ANU alumnus Phil Thomas puts a question to the panel. Photo: Tony Admana
By Ben Reilly
Australia borrowed liberally from America constitutional ideas when choosing its own governing institutions at federation in 1901. Today, however, this process seems to be reversed, with US reformers increasingly looking to Australia for ideas on how to make government work.
This theme was explored in a ANU seminar held at the Australian Embassy in Washington DC on 12 July. Bringing together Australian and American scholars and practitioners, the seminar discussed the way in which Australian reforms are being actively promoted as solutions to the governance crisis in the US.
ANU Professor Ben Reilly puts a question to Fairvote’s Rob Richie and Brookings’ Thomas Mann. Photo: Tony Admana
The seminar, hosted by Ambassador Kim Beazley, a veteran of many political campaigns, included two prominent American commentators, Thomas Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, authors of the new book It’s Even Worse than it Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided with the New Politics of Extremism, and convened by the ANU Professor Ben Reilly from the Crawford School of Public Policy.
In their proposals for reform, Mann and Ornstein highlighted the promise of specific institutional reforms which could help tackle the deep dysfunctions that have been clearly evident in US politics in recent years – congressional gridlock, extreme partisanship, and an increasingly polarised political process.
Dr Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute makes a point. Photo: Tony Admana
They focussed on the benefits of Australian-style electoral procedures such as preferential voting (often known as IRV in the United States), independent commissions to draw electoral boundaries, and even compulsory voting for the US.
For instance, on the question of the electoral redistributions (or redistricting as it is known in the US), they called for the adoption of independent boundaries commissions, as has long been the practice in Australia, “to draw the lines based on respect for communities’ boundaries” rather than, as is the current practice, to create geographically contorted but politically safe seats for whichever party happens to have a majority.
Ambassador Beazley, a veteran of Australian political reform, is introduced by ANU North America Director, Jane O’Dwyer. Photo: Tony Admana
Similarly, when it came to political polarisation, their proposed cure was for another distinctive aspect of Australian elections, preferential voting. Unlike the ‘first-past-the-post system used in the US, preferential voting produces majority winners, largely eliminates the effect of spoiler candidates, and reduces the “wasted vote” calculation for minor-party candidates, allowing them to participate more fully in the election process.
For this reason, the system has already been introduced for elections in major US cities such as San Francisco, explained Rob Richie of the lobby group FairVote, another speaker at the seminar. Richie has campaigned with some success for the adoption of preferential voting as one of several institutional
The seminar attracted a full house. Photo: Tony Admana
changes which could extend the electoral reach of the major parties and thereby reduce their polarization in the US. However, major hurdles remained to such reforms being adopted on a national level.
A lively area of discussion was on the merits and demerits of compulsory voting. Ambassador Beazley drew on his own political experience to point out not just the strengths but also the many weaknesses of this model. Dr Ornstein was more enthusiastic, arguing that “instead of campaigning on marginal wedge issues, a shift to mandatory voting in the US could eliminate the parties’ incentive to diminish the turnout of their opponents’ supporters and to mobilize the ideological extremes, and help tilt the balance back toward where most Americans actually are: closer to the middle”.
While most would consider the prospect of compulsory voting being introduced in the US as unlikely, this final plea highlights the key appeal of Australia’s political model for US reformers: as Prof Reilly explained Australia’s distinctive political institutions combine to create a highly centrist form of electoral competition, in which elections are a fight for the median voter and the middle ground.
This aspect of Australian politics is not always obvious in Australia itself, given the intense politics and minority governments of recent years. Compared to the US, however, Australian politics is far more a contest for the middle ground than one for the political extremes. In the US, by contrast, politics has become increasingly centrifugal in nature, as both main parties (especially the Republicans) increasingly focus on appealing to an angry and ideological core of supporters.
Whether adopting Australian institutions could help to solve such problems was, in the end, less of a concern than whether any kind of serious reform to US politics is actually possible, given the deep institutional sclerosis in Washington. But events like the ANU Washington seminar leaves no doubt that US reformers are looking to Australia for answers.