The Australian Federal elections have recently concluded with a bare majority for the Coalition. This brings to light many political power exercises. Although political parties are not exactly business firms, they are, based on our definition, organisations. They are, after all, people who deliberately come together to accomplish some specific purpose. Let’s stretch our views of organisations with this example, and check out how power works.
power: between parties large parties and small parties
people have power to elect
Let’s get cracking…
…refamiliarise yourself with the content of Chapter 5 to arm yourself for this scenario. Particularly, have a look at pages 123-125, which described different forms of power and authority, and pages 129 – 135 which describe common organisational structures. Then, make yourself familiar with the structure of the Liberal party, and on p. 6 of this document you can find a description of the structure of the Australian Labour Party. As you read it, keep in mind the role of organisational structures, and forms of power used within and outside organisations.
Summarising very briefly:
The Australian political system is complex. First, the Australian Constitution is the underlying description of the government’s rules and responsibilities. Then, the Governor General, which is a representative of the Queen (but does not in fact subject to the direction, supervision or veto of the Queen or the British Government) has the power to summon and dissolve the parliament, set up Departments of State and appoint judges. Then, we have the national government, which has two parts: the House of Representatives (also called the Lower House) and the Senate (also called the Upper House). These ‘houses’ are responsible for setting the laws in Australia, and both of the houses have to approve laws before they become active.
Most of the time, The House of Representatives (the Lower House) suggests laws. It has 148 elected members, each representing around 80,000 voters in an area called ‘an electorate’. The political party or parties with the most seats in the House of Representatives forms the Government.
The Senate (the Upper House) is known as the 'house of review' because it reviews the laws suggested by the House of Representatives. It generally goes through proposed laws clause-by-clause and often refer them to committees. One of the Senate's original roles was to ensure that laws were fair to all states. For this reason, each state is represented by 12 elected Senators from each State and two Senators from each of Australia's two Territories. If you are looking for something with a bit of a light-hearted approach, The ABC developed a comedy describing the realities of this structure called ‘The Hollowmen’.
In federal elections, voters select representatives for both houses – Lower and Upper. In the last elections, in July 2016, the outcome was quite interesting in terms of power distribution. If one party had a majority of votes in both houses, things would have been fairly simple: that party would carry out its promises to the voters (as much as possible, considering reality) by proposing laws in the lower house, and approving them in the upper house. But this is not the case this time. No single party secured enough votes to do that, either in the lower or the upper house. Instead, both large parties have to team up with smaller parties to get things.
The smaller, independent parties have hit a record high votes. There is a view that this record is a sign that Australia has joined a global trend of disillusion of the established political order. Other views focus on local issues, like Queensland’s disillusion from its political figures and high unemployment rates in South Australia. Either way, looks like the newly elected Coalition will struggle to pass laws despite their majority in the lower house, because they lack a majority in the upper house. For this reason, the Coalition leader, Malcolm Turnbull, said he will be seeking consensus with the opposite big party, Labour, on legislative issues. What this means, is that the Coalition is not confident that they can pass laws without the agreement of their counterparts.
Governments cannot afford to sit back and not pass any laws: the federal budget, for example, is something that has to be organised and agreed upon every year. To get the budget through, both houses have to approve it. To get houses to approve it, parties often negotiate with other parties. The leading party could, for example, give an independent party something they want, in return for their vote for the budget. And example would be giving a party the “the cyclist party” a budget item to pave more bicycle paths, in return for passing a budget that cuts back on funds for education. Other ways to convince parties to pass laws is to describe to the media what they are doing. For example, the Coalition could tell the media that a party like “One Nation” is refusing to support a budget which will secure the future of the Australian economy, because it includes funding for refugee rehabilitation. This could create pressure on the independent party to pass the budget, because its voters may favour the Australian economy in general.
In traditional democracy, parties negotiate and strike deals based on their own interests, and the public votes for them with the expectation that those interests will be consistent with their pre-election promises. However, with the rise of social media and the internet in general, a different concept has been growing worldwide. Voteflux registered as a party in the last elections, and it offers basically to hold an ‘election’ every time there is a decision to be made. Voters say online how they would like to vote for every single decision, and that way, it is no longer up to politicians to make deals, but up to the voters to find out, vote, and take responsibility for every decision. Who knows, maybe this is the new step in democracy?
Consider the following questions for discussion:
- Several entities are involved in this story – large political parties, small political parties, the Australian voters etc. What sort of a structure do you think each entity would have? How could have their structure supported their operations?
- What forms of power can you identify in this story?
- What kind of power are used by for political actions? What kind of power do you think is the most effective, and why?
- What kind of power do individual citizens have in this case? What is the effect that VoteFlux has on this answer?