The High School Debating Team in Parliament

I have a theory about the cause of the state of political dysfunction – and stick with me on this: school debating teams. Particularly those found in places containing the use of the following words to describe them: exclusive, private, and boys. Having gone to one I’d also add: detached, from, and reality. If the school was a bubble, the debating team was a bubble in a bubble. The cause is the Westminster tradition and the debating techniques adopted with relish by pubescent boys with a simple outlook on life with whom there is only an affirmative and negative. This unfortunately imbues the detached political classes with the same approach through to their seemingly inevitable spells in parliament, which of course are met with a knowing grown from the populous, recognizing that inevitability. They understand the way it works now. Be rich, powerful, well connected and send your boy (hey, I’m addressing the gender ratio of the front bench here) to an institution to foster and ingrain the principles of conflict and cheap debating tricks to confront complex and serious issues.

The good news for the boys of the debating team is that they can go to a good university – one made of sandstone – that continues the tradition of debating via the poisonous, vile vehicle of student politics. Orientation day is fertile recruiting ground for our little debating team, fresh from school and no doubt seeking to do something positive rather than show off their excellent debating skills from their excellent debating team from their excellent private school. So they find their affirmative and negative debating action first amongst themselves with their petty factions, and then when they reach the zenith of their debating talents, publically against the another team.

Exciting stuff! They can now join the party and get involved with Young Laboral (if they were remiss and didn’t apply at age 16) and have even more debates full of false dichotomies! What’s more – they can now pass resolutions and send letters to the important people in the party.

Now we’re making a difference, one debate at a time. Insert visions of debating in parliament. Insert montage. Now you see him (yeah, the gender thing) in Parliament. I don’t need to name anyone, but there are many examples. Far, far too many.

The method of presenting complex issues in three, or now two word slogans I don’t believe to be the fault of the media directly – they lap up simplicity and conflict as good for television, and don’t those high school boys from the debating team sure love the attention. You may as well be blaming the existence of television or capitalism or vanity on this state of affairs. Naturally a media proprietor wishes to make money by attracting audiences, and if you have to show politics, you might as well show a bit of biffo – the punters love it.

Anyway, now I have your attention with all that private school boy stuff (not that I take it back).

The principal problem with all political debates in Australia is the simple fact that there are only two major political blocs that in both houses that manage to gain disproportionate levels of representation in elections at the direct cost of any other party except for, you guessed it, them. Where it suits, the incumbent political classes gang up on newcomers in a move to protect their position of status and power.

And what better way to protect your position than to belong to a major party with a diminishing membership base that is now smaller than the waiting list for the Melbourne Cricket Club. Just setup a system of elections that transfers “wasted” votes to a winner, and just disregard their choices – this is what our Electoral Act does. Well, I say it is impossible to have a plural debate without decent representation.

Take this one bit of objectivity: the difference between the percentage of votes received and the percentage of seats a party obtains is a measure of how representative a parliament is. Run the calculations and Australia historically runs a disproportionality of between 8 and 15%, with an average a little over 9%. The trend, however, is increasing disproportionality; from 1949-1974 the average was 7.5%, while the period 1975-2013 averaged 10.5%.

The cause? Many – unfortunately they cannot be adequately explored in 800 words. Principally I would point to a decline in public debate and the despondency that results. Take examples like the budget, or in a bizarre sighting in the same sentence, gay marriage. The cause of the decline is the rise of the detached political class, the resultant decline in party membership and the display we see daily on the news.

It’s a cycle that we must break before the dysfunction gets any worse – after all, we the public employ them. I think it’s time the parliament truly represented the people by adopting reform of the electoral system. This will break the grip of major parties, drive reform, and provide a voice to those not represented in parliament. And best of all? By nature it would get rid of those pesky high school debating antics. Who knows, they might even end up treating us like adults.

For the record, I was not a member of the school debating team. Ick.