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Tuesday, 9 February 1999
Page: 2259

Mr DANBY (10:38 PM) —I add my condolences to the views expressed by many members in this place on the death of King Hussein. Members from both sides of this House have remarked on his positive role since the murder 50 years ago of his father, King Abdullah.

During the recess I had the opportunity to visit that part of the world. A delegation of the Australia-Israel Parliamentary Friendship Group, led by the honourable member for Sturt, Chris Pyne, and consisting of Senator Marise Payne, Senator-elect Aden Ridgeway and me, visited Israel from 12 to 16 January. The wider issues of the conflict canvassed by the delegation with a spectrum of opinion, both Israeli and Palestinian, were fascinating. All members of the delegation appreciated the thoughtful program organised by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, who hosted us whilst we were in Israel. The wider issues of the impending Israeli election due on 21 May I will leave to another time.

Having just experienced an election campaign in this country, many in this place and many Australian voters will have sympathy for the Israelis who are experiencing a five-month election campaign. This long election period exacerbates what is an already fractured political system. Israel's proportional representation system lacks the cold reality of constituency based politics. The system has been made worse by a recent change to Israeli democracy.

In the Knesset elections before last, for the first time, a direct election of Prime Minister was held at the same time as the parliamentary elections. This change was introduced in order to strengthen the executive. The proportional representation system as it existed was delivering increasingly unstable coalitions. The unintended consequence of this change, however, has a salutary lesson for Australia: the direct election of the Israeli Prime Minister has had exactly the opposite result of its stated purpose.

At the last Israeli election and in opinion polls since, Israelis voted for their main party of choice in the election for Prime Minister, but in the Knesset election, conducted at the same time, voters have felt even freer than before to vote for minor parties. This has led to further atomisation of the political process. It is even possible that, at this next election, the voters will elect a Prime Minister of one view and a coalition of parties of another view—a parliamentary majority who might not support a just elected Prime Minister.

Thankfully, Australia does not select its government by proportional representation. However, if we were to agree to the plans of the Reith-Cleary-Mack axis for a directly elected president, I believe that these developments in Israel might be at least partially replicated in Australia. Like the Leader of the Opposition, and indeed the Prime Minister, I believe that nothing worse could come out of the republic referendum than a fracturing of our current stable political process. As in Israel, a separate ballot for president and parliament would inevitably lead to the weakening of our Westminster system, our parliament and our unique political stability. Our seamless political transition at election time is one of the key reasons millions of people have come to this country. It is adventurous enough for many to have a symbolic change in the arrangement for our head of state. In my view, it would be a disaster to have a fracturing of our electoral process. It might lead to an inevitable conflict of power.

I can understand why Phil Cleary would favour the break-up of the existing system. I find it extraordinary that a senior minister such as the member for Flinders should join him and others like him. Perhaps the employment minister's view is based on a theoretical commitment to ultra democracy. He has obviously not seen the classic comedy on the subject of citizen initiated referenda, The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer. Perhaps it is simply product differentiation from his leadership rival, the Treasurer.

Just before the current convoluted Israeli election campaign, a majority of the members of the Knesset voted to throw out their current split system. Sixty-two members of the Knesset from all parties voted to re-establish the previous relatively workable parliamentary election system. Unfortunately for them, the early calling of this 21 May election means that this cannot be done until the Knesset elections after this. It would be a perilous journey if Australia listened to the sirens of simplicity and went down this populist path.