Yes, I know, we’re all sick of talking about the election. The editorials are awash with theories as to why the ALP wrecked their train last Saturday. Alan Kohler’s explanation of the Keating government economic legacy seemed to resonate the most with me, but there are lots of others to choose from. From me though, just one more blog entry, I promise.
I wanted to write about what Election Issues are, and how they get set. After each election in Australia there is a bit of back-and-forth about what was and wasn’t an election issue. For a government with a minorty in the Senate, it’s often used as an argument as to why the government bills should be passed. The word ‘mandate’ is thrown around, and the Senate is supposed to infer from the fact that the government was recently elected that the Will of The People is served by passing the bills that are associated with this mandate.
The obvious example of this was in the 1998 election, where the GST was clearly set as an Election Issue - almost to the exclusion of all else. After the election, the government claimed (reasonably in my opinion) that The People had spoken on the GST and that it should be passed as-is. The Democrats did themselves, and the Senate itself, no favours by arguing against it. But of course that’s all ancient history.
The point is that in the past the issues, and hence the mandates, are clearly defined during the election campaign. It had always struck me that the process was a little bit laissez-faire and unstructured, but then again I’m a software engineer so I Would Say That Wouldn’t I? However maybe there is a case for a bit more formalism in the setting of Election Issues, as it turns out that some people seem to have got it wrong.
Of particular concern are the people who think that the Iraq war was in any way a significant election issue. Of course it wasn’t - but why is there even an argument about it? This really shouldn’t be a matter of opinion - the major issues of debate should be as well understood by the entire electorate, otherwise you can’t call it a mandate. And if we’re arguing the toss over whether an issue is of significance, then, well, it plainly isn’t.
Here’s a possibly dumb idea. Maybe the parties should nominate, in public, and before election day, a single policy as their ‘mandatory’ (meaning the adjectival form of mandate) proposal. That is, the one policy that they should be assured of safe passage through the senate, should the party be elected into government. When people vote for that party, they would be explicitly endorsing that policy along with the party. This wouldn’t change anything in the current election, of course, but might have helped in 1998.
Of course it’s all subject to abuse, where the policy, says one thing, but the resulting bill says something completely different. But this is always a risk really, and the mandatory policy idea doesn’t make it any worse.