Australia's Two-Party System Has Failed Us, and We Can't "Just Fix It", but There Is a Way


A few days ago a Junkee article by Jane Gilmore of a similar title was posted to /r/Australia, and although Gilmore’s heart was in the right place, the solution to just replace bad politicians with good independent politicians is no solution at all. However, there is still hope, as I shall explain.

Here’s the crux of my argument: replacing party-politicians with independent-politicians will not work well. Without infrastructure to prevent re-party-fication and factionalization there is no reason to believe that independents can provide a long term solution, or will avoid joining new or existing parties, or that they will be any more effective than current representatives. Ignoring the lack of Gilmore’s plan working en mass anywhere else in the world, the problem lies with a common obsession in democracies: “who should rule?” It is a toxic question that leads to faulty reasoning. It is epistemologically analogous to “who is the authoritative source of knowledge?” There is no authoritative source of knowledge, and likewise, there are no permanently good rulers.

There is an additional problem with existing explanations of why democracy works: just as the philosophy of empiricism thought that somehow the laws of nature were ‘written’ on to the mind through observation, some proponents of democracy think that the right rulers are somehow ‘read’ from the minds of voters. But voters are not a magic eight ball, they are just as fallible as politicians, and perfectly capable of making the same mistakes. Without accepting this fallibility how can we design a democratic system that is immune? If we fight with reality we will not be able to keep from fooling ourselves.

We can see the who-should-rule question embedded all over the place:

If all the people that vote Liberal for no other reason than they don’t like Labor, and [vice versa], all voted for Greens and independents instead the problem would solve itself. But that requires voters give more thought to their vote than “A or B”. - /u/Kangalooney (top comment on the original thread)

Imagine if we re-framed this for knowledge: “If everyone who doesn’t like Oracle-1 and Oracle-2 went to Oracle-3 or Oracle-N we’d be okay”. Of course, we could argue that some sort of market for correctness would be set up between the oracles but this is inconsistent with them being oracles. Likewise, expecting competition to prompt parties to somehow create good policy ignores the fact that the origin of good policy must therefore not be the parties.

(Also of note is that Kangalooney criticizes the voters, particularly swing voters, not representatives or the system.)

Or from Jane Gilmore, the author of the original article:

What if every rural seat in the country sent someone to parliament who was prepared to actually fight for the things that matter to rural communities? What if the country people elected MPs who were strongly invested in rural medical facilities, … [many more examples] … infrastructure and education?

Unfortunately, electing a benevolent dictator is not really a solution. Essentially, that is the fictional entity Gilmore imagines, and often what we all imagine, but it is a simplistic and flawed vision. The who-should-rule question has no good answer, especially for communities of our size. There are just too many ideas, people, interests, and motives for one independent to represent them all fairly. It doesn’t matter how much someone wants to do good things, that in no way enables them to. Without an explanation of why results should improve we should not expect them to.

There are also a number of traditional political problems Gilmore’s solution doesn’t solve. For example, minor parties have never been good at working together: factions, ideology, dogma, these are what are expressed when you put minor parties in a room. It’s not a magic recipe for success, and we’ve known that for a long time.

Furthermore, when you do get ‘cooperation’ in diverse coalition governments, a curious phenomenon occurs around the creation of policy. Party A suggests Policy A, which they think solves a problem. Party B suggest Policy B which they think will solve the same problem. After negotiations the resultant policy (AB) is a ‘compromise’ or mish-mash of the two, and curiously nobody thought AB would work in the first place! The solution is not just more proportional representation, we need to go deeper.

If our existing electoral system had the answer within it all along, then it would in itself be the solution to the problems we’ve had, the same problems that were created by that very system! We need new strategy, we need new systems of organization, we need new ways to rally minor parties to help them cooperate instead of bickering. We need something that has never been tried before because everything that has been tried has failed (else we wouldn’t be in the state we are!)

Karl Popper had a useful criterion for determining the quality of a democratic government. First, a democracy is one in which bad policy can be removed without violence. Tick. Second, the quality of a democracy is *how well* it can remove bad policy. (1) Uhhh, we’re probably about a ‘D+’ on that one. I challenge anyone to think of a better method of ranking democracies with such an objective and explicable quality.

I will construct a truism:

The optimum political strategy is not to implement good policy and remove bad policy. (2)

We know this because:

  1. Current political strategies that work do not resemble (2)
  2. People who try (2) face overwhelming odds and rarely succeed beyond the small scale

Without addressing (2) how can we expect the policy we produce to improve? If we don’t change how vulnerable our representatives are to removal, why should we expect any greater control than we have now? In short, to achieve anything resembling (2) requires change to both how power is structured and instantiated in people, furthermore, such a change cannot be obsessed with ‘who should rule’.

I’ll follow now in Gilmore’s footsteps, and give you a few paragraphs of ‘what ifs’, of the requirements, the potential, the promises, and the hardships. Everything from here out can be started tomorrow, if we put the work in.

What if a small proportion of Australians realised we have to step into the unknown? That to solve these problems we must embrace and move past them, and to do so has never been done before; that it will be scary, and difficult – for becoming pioneers has never been easy – that we must abandon our previous ideas about why democracy is good, and look beyond ideology into a scalable future?

What if Australia had an unique entry point for new ideas, a way to experiment, boldly and safely, with out risking our political system? What if our Senate elections involved parties trading preferences so we could introduce elements to help reorganise our political landscape without permanently altering our parliament? What if we could craft a new political party just to house an experiment, an experiment that could give more back to minor parties, allowing them to specialize, and in doing so give each their ability to really help in the areas they know most about? What if this party used their elected candidates only as a proxy, and allowed novel experiments to feed into our real parliament? What if this party could have a candidate elected in every state with only 1% of the primary vote?

What if this political party could house a direct democracy, and allow all voters to participate whenever they felt it necessary? What if leaders were held to account throughout their term, and in the cases they needed removing, what if we could remove them? What if we embrace bold new voting systems, allowing rules and division of power based on issues? What if you could set a delegate like a family member, or friend, or community leader, instead of having to vote all the time? What if this happened through every level of our political system, so that power structures could be quickly rearranged without needing the whole population to vote? What if we could somehow introduce liquid democracy, to ensure that voting can be fast and cheap? What if we used modern cryptography to ensure anonymity, cost effectiveness, and immutable and transparent ballots?

What if this party was already in motion and on the way to gaining 550 members so it can register Federally and run for the next election? What if this party had a solid plan of action and the explanations to back it up? What if your actions today help decide the future of our parliament, and the future of Australia? What if you had the chance to join this party? What if you could be part of the 1% to take back democracy?

I am trying to start a political party to directly address the philosophical issues I explore through this post. It is called the Neutral Voting Bloc, requires ~1% of the primary vote to win 6 Senate seats, and it is novel in strategy, implementation, and philosophy.

The Neutral Voting Bloc is the only solution I know of, which is why I’m building it. Join me?