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Australian politics is part of the curriculum of almost all political science courses in Australian universities. It is sometimes seen by students as something that they have to get out of the way in first year before they can move on to more interesting, theoretical and controversial material throughout the rest of their degrees. Some students even think that they have learnt all there is to know about Australian politics already in high school history, social science or civics classes.
The broadest aim of this book is to challenge such prejudices. Researching and studying Australian politics are not atheoretical, descriptive or uncontroversial tasks. This book promotes an understanding of Australian politics as contested ground. While the chapters in this book provide some introductory material on Australian political institutions and practices, they also introduce readers to a range of current academic theories and controversies surrounding aspects of Australian politics. Debate, scepticism and uncertainty are kept to the fore throughout. In some ways, this book may be seen as domestically oriented complement to Richard Devetak, Anthony Burke and Jim George’s An Introduction to International Relations: Australian Perspectives (2007), also published by Cambridge University Press.
Fully appreciating the nature of a political system requires understanding the theories (Part I), political culture (Part II), institutions (Part III), processes and practices of participation (Part IV), as well as the major political institutions (Part V) that are expressed and reflected in that system. But to understand that system fully requires seeing it in action. For the role of political systems is to produce collective responses to issues that confront, and usually divide, members of society, and to do so in ways that do not result in social breakdown. To do this, we move to discussions of various issues addressed, or not addressed, through and by the Australian political system.
All but one of the issues discussed in this chapter have long been acknowledged and addressed through Australia’s political system. The exception is city policy, which Brendan Gleeson and Wendy Steele argue has never been dealt with adequately through the Australian political system (Chapter 28). This does not mean that the issues faced by cities have not confronted policy-makers in Australia; rather, these issues have not been approached in a consistent and systematic way. A lack of concerted interest on the part of successive Commonwealth governments has combined with an absence of processes that would allow urban policy issues to be dealt with consistently and systematically to produce a policy vacuum. A contemporary aspect of this is that now-dominant neo-liberal approaches to governing make a major contribution to maintaining this vacuum.
What happens in elections is arguably less important than what happens between elections when it comes to evaluating Australian claims to democratic politics and government. Periodic fair, free elections are part of the picture (see Part III). Nonetheless, democratic elections leave the potential for government by an ‘elective dictatorship’, to use Quintin Hogg’s famous expression (Hailsham, 1976), in which the duly elected government can use even a slim majority in the parliament as well as its control of other state institutions to act without regard to the range of community views.
One set of potential barriers to elective dictatorship in Australia lies in the operations of a range of formal state institutions, such as courts, public service departments and federalism (see Part V), which reduce the capacity of the government of the day simply to impose its will. Another set of potential barriers lies in mechanisms for public participation and representationbetween elections. At one end of the spectrum, these mechanisms include formally established processes initiated by government, such as government-initiated consultations with the public on policy issues, or the formal submissions to public service departments made by officially recognised interest groups. Such mechanisms are described, following an institutional approach, by Darren Halpin in Chapter 16 and Carolyn Hendriks in Chapter 17. At the other end of the spectrum, they include the informal and largely unregulated mechanisms, such as protests, discussed by Ariadne Vromen in Chapter 18.
Contemporary Politics in Australia provides a lively and wide-ranging introduction to the study of Australian politics. Written by a diverse range of experts, the book offers a comprehensive overview of current theories, debates and research in Australian political science and looks forward to new developments. It encompasses not only formal and institutionally based politics, but also the informal politics of everyday life, including the politics of Australian culture and media. The book is divided into six key sections that cover:political theorypolitics in everyday Australian lifeelectionsparticipation and representationthe Australian statecontemporary political and public policy issuesContemporary Politics in Australia challenges the assumption that the study of Australian politics can be dry, descriptive or uncontroversial. Rather, it encourages an understanding of politics in Australia as contested ground. Featuring a glossary of key terms and a companion website, it is essential reading for students.
Politics is often thought of as something engaged in by others – by the parliamentarians, Cabinet ministers, public servants and judges whose roles comprise the Australian state (see Part V), or perhaps more broadly by leaders of party organisations and pressure groups, lobbyists, pollsters and others who have direct daily contact with figures in formal positions within the state (see Part IV). Moreover, what we know about politics is brought to us by news media organisations dominated by elite opinion leaders and run as large businesses or public sector agencies. Politics is by and about them, not by and about us.
The view that politics is what a special group of others do has already been challenged by a number of the theories discussed in Part I of this book. Democratic theory ultimately rests on the idea that government responds to the views of the populace (Chapter 1). Behaviouralism stresses the connections between actors in the political system and the wider social system in which ordinary people participate (Chapter 3). Critical theories of politics, highlighting the unequal power relationships of class and gender, identify the sources of these inequalities in everyday sites such as workplaces and families (see Chapter 4). Post-structuralism points to the dispersed nature of power throughout societies (Chapter 5). The relationships between domestic and international politics outlined in Chapter 6 suggest an interconnectedness between the power relations found throughout societies and the power exercised between states and other international actors.
Sometimes the study of Australian politics is described as being atheoretical and unreflective about the approaches that underpin analysis (Crozier 2001, p. 17). In this book, we deliberately foreground some of the major theoretical traditions and approaches that exist in and underlie Australian political inquiry. We do this for two reasons: first, we believe that political theory has a rich history and presence in Australia (Stokes, cited in Crozier 2001); and second, by focusing on these approaches we can better understand the diversity and distinctness of Australian political science.
Elsewhere, Gerry Stoker and David Marsh (2010, p. 3) have surveyed the field to show how each different approach to political inquiry ‘combines a set of attitudes, understandings and practices that define a certain way of doing political science’. We have included four of their seven approaches here to foreground the variety of mainstream and critical political science found in Australian scholarship: institutionalism, behaviouralism, critical theories such as feminism and Marxism, and discourse approaches. These approaches can be heuristic devices for students of political science to see and understand how different approaches will often lead to different research topics and questions. For example, taking an institutional approach will produce a focus on political structures, while adopting behaviouralism will concentrate on the agency of political actors.
Elections are times when all Australians feel most immediately affected by politics. Stories about politics lead every radio and television news broadcast and provide front-page stories in newspapers. Political bloggers become more active. Advertisements appear regularly in the electronic and print media. Posters promoting candidates spring up overnight in our neighbourhoods. For those of us who study politics, elections are also some of the most interesting and engaging times. Everyone’s attention starts to turn to politics, whether we like it or not.
One of the most intriguing features of elections for political scientists, casual observers and participants alike is their uncertainty. Every election has the potential to confirm existing political patterns, to open up new political possibilities, or to do a bit of both. This theme of contending electoral possibilities was well captured in the title of the first major Australian study of electoral behaviour, Don Aitkin’s (1982) Stability and Change in Australian Politics. Some 30 years on, this part of our book demonstrates that debates over the extent, character, causes and consequences of electoral stability and change in Australia are very much alive.
The events following the 2010 federal election threw many of the issues raised in this chapter into stark relief. A hung parliament – which meant that a group of Independents became crucial to a formation of a government (or political executive) – made it clear that members of the lower house of parliament select or elect the executive. This has been obscured by strict party discipline, which – as Norman Abjorensen and John Uhr discuss in Chapter 19 – has meant the federal parliament has had limited independence, especially from the political executive. Among the demands presented to the rivals for government by the three Independents were some that were directed towards increasing parliament’s capacity to scrutinise the actions of members of the political executive, and hold them accountable.
The fact that parliamentary leaders have become the focal points of campaigning and party control has shifted power even further. Once the control that the party exerted over parliament was concentrated in the hands of the party leader, the control of parliament – and the executive itself – moved further towards the prime minister. As Paul Strangio suggests in Chapter 20, this has led to the emergence of prime ministerial governance. The reversal of this process after the 2010 election allowed Independents to force a caretaker prime minister and her ministers, an opposition leader and his shadow ministers, and senior public servants to explain and justify the policies and budget that would be introduced by a Labor or Liberal–National Coalition government.