Thursday, May 20, 2010

How can we ensure that parliaments are representative and governments are accountable?

‘In a really equal democracy, every or any section would be represented, not disproportionately, but proportionately. A majority of the electors would always have a majority of the representatives; but a minority of the electors would always have a minority of the representatives. Man for man they would be as fully represented as the majority. Unless they are, there is not equal government, but a government of inequality and privilege: one part of the people rule over the rest: there is a part whose fair and equal share of influence in the representation is withheld from them; contrary to all just government, but, above all, contrary to the principle of democracy, which professes equality as its very root and foundation’ (J S Mill, Representative Government, Chapter 7, 1861).


Some famous person has probably written in support of strong executive government which dominates parliament and is held in check only by periodical elections (as well as an independent judiciary etc) but I don’t know where to find an appropriate quote. Those who have commented on such a system have tended to refer to it disparagingly as an elective dictatorship. However, I think it is possible to defend a system that tends to deliver the governing party a substantial majority of seats on the grounds that it results in more accountable government than a proportional system in which no party has a clear majority. A government that dominates parliament cannot claim that it has not implemented its promises to the electorate because of obstruction by other parties. It has to wear the electoral consequences of its own actions.

The point I am trying to make is that while proportional representation might be a desirable characteristic of a parliament, it is undesirable to have a system of government in which parties go to the polls to seek endorsement of their policies and then, after the election, enter into negotiations to decide what policies the temporary coalition of parties forming the government will actually seek to implement. Parties forming such temporary coalitions tend to blame each other for poor outcomes and electors find it hard to tell who is responsible for what.

Various compromises between proportional representation and elective dictatorship are possible. One possibility is the reinforced proportional representation system used in Greece under which the party which wins the largest number of seats in parliament is allocated additional seats so that it more likely to be able to form a majority in its own right. Leaving aside the obvious point that it is difficult to envisage that Greece’s recent economic performance could have been much worse without this reinforcement of proportional representation, an arbitrary adjustment to numbers of seats seems somewhat inelegant (if not undemocratic).

Another possibility is to have a bi-cameral system with the government being formed in the lower house, elected on the basis of a system that usually produces workable majorities for a governing party or stable coalition (e.g. single member electorates) and an upper house, acting as a house of review, elected using proportional representation. As recent events in the UK show, single member electorates cannot always ensure that the party winning the largest number of votes is able to govern by itself (or even to form part of the government for that matter). But single member electorates have a reasonable track record in producing stable and accountable governments. This system has the added advantage of allowing voters to vote for a person to represent their locality rather than for a party (or party list).

Luke Malpass and Oliver Marc Hartwich have recently advocated a bi-cameral system, such as I have just described, to replace the single chamber proportional representation system in New Zealand (CIS Policy Monograph 109). This is also the system that we have in Australia.

So, does the Australian system provide the best possible compromise between a representative parliament and an accountable government? I don’t think so, because it gives too much power to the upper house. The Australian Constitution contains a sensible procedure to resolve a deadlock between the upper and lower houses of parliament – a joint meeting of both houses – but joint sittings can occur only after a double-dissolution election.

I think the requirement for an election to resolve deadlocks between the two houses of parliament tends to work against accountable government because it enables governments to blame obstruction in the Senate for failure to implement policies. Before going down the double-dissolution path governments have to consider the possibility that they will lose such elections or be returned to power with more obstructive upper houses than they had before. Although there are half a dozen occasions in Australian history when governments have brought on double-dissolution elections, they have been defeated on about half those occasions. A joint sitting of both houses of parliament has occurred on only one occasion.

Given the difficulty of amending the Australian Constitution it seems that we will have to continue to live with the adverse consequences for government accountability of the requirement for elections to resolve deadlocks. We can, however, take some solace from the fact that the election requirement has the virtue of providing a test of the extent to which governments have the courage of their convictions. The value of such a test has recently been highlighted by the current government’s decision not to trigger a double-dissolution election on the bill to establish a carbon emissions trading system in Australia.

Postscript 1:
After reading a post by Tim Harford I have been reminded of Kenneth Arrow's impossibility theorem. Rather than wondering where to find a quote from some famous person supporting elective dictatorship I could have quoted Kenneth Arrow to the effect that whatever electoral system you use you will always end up with some form of dictatorship (although some forms of dictatorship are worse than others). The inference that I think should be drawn from Arrow's impossibility theorem is that markets are usually better than politics in producing outcomes that are beneficial for everyone.

Postscript 2:
Joseph Schumpeter qualifies as a famous person who emphasized the value of strong executive government. In Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942) he wrote: 
"It is in fact obvious not only that proportional representation will offer opportunities for all sorts of idiosyncrasies to assert themselves but also that it may prevent democracy from producing efficient governments and thus prove a danger in times of stress. But before concluding that democracy becomes unworkable if its principle is carried out consistently, it is just as well to ask ourselves whether this principle really implies proportional representation. As a matter of fact it does not. If acceptance of leadership is the true function of the electorate's vote, the case for proportional representation collapses because its premises are no longer binding. The principle of democracy then merely means that the reins of government should be handed to those who command more support than do any of the competing individuals or teams".

I wrote more about Schumpeter's views of democracy here.


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