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Ideas to save our withering democracy

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Distinguished Labor politician, Carmen Lawrence, when WA Premier

This is an extract from a speech given by former WA Premier and federal cabinet minister Carmen Lawrence on August 7, 2003 at a public lecture at the University of WA, entitled "Ideas to save our withering democracy'.

NOT LONG after this speech was delivered, Lawrence was elected as the ALP federal president, a role in which she appears to have been, unfortunately, almost entirely unsuccessful in applying her vision into any significant reform of the Party, which remains as stubbornly undemocratic as ever. Nevertheless, the words she spoke then have a prescient quality today given the rising level of community dissatisfaction with the major political parties as demonstrated in this month's federal election. In this short extract from her speech, she talks about the disengagement of Australian people from the democractic system, the unrepresentative nature of major political parties and their candidates, the rise of Executive power in the Australian system and the dysfunctional and undemocratic nature of our bipolar parliament. Representative Democracy As we contemplate the health of our democracies, we should be reminded that the evolution of modern representative democracies was accompanied by a "powerful distrust of the people", of the poor, the poorly educated and women, who were initially excluded altogether and had to fight to gain suffrage. This distrust - and the practical difficulties of operating direct democracies in large populations and territories - was one of the reasons that representative government gained favour over more direct, Athenian forms of democracy. Even Madison, one of the founding fathers of the U.S. system of government, argued that citizens could not be trusted to identify the "permanent and aggregate interests of the community", a task best left to elected representatives chosen by the people, not the people themselves. Echoes of this view are evident in the nervousness with which the U.S. government has approached the possibility of control by the Shi-ite religious majority in Iraq. It also underlies some of the contemporary reluctance of political parties to allow their members to have a say in forming policy. Initially this representative form of government, which keeps the people at arm's length from the actual work of government, was not even considered a true democracy. In such systems, the work of government is conducted by the "elective aristocracy", to use Jefferson's term, and is mediated by political parties. This classical form of representative democracy is often considered non-participatory and elitist - a "thin democracy", as Barber describes it. In such democracies, citizens are relatively passive. At best, they are monitors - experts and elites do the actual work of government. Political parties are central to the functioning of modern democracies. Indeed, in 1941 the political scientist E.E. Schnattschneider asserted that "modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of political parties", a view which is reflected in most of the academic literature and reinforced by the evidence that no representative democracies appear to operate without them. The received wisdom is that political parties are key institutions for linking the various elements of the democratic process to ensure efficient and effective government. As Dalton and Wattenberg put it: "Political parties have created political identities, framed electoral choices, recruited candidates, organised elections, defined the structure of legislative politics and determined the outputs of government." For better or worse, they are firmly embedded in the political landscape and any assessment of the health of democracies must include an assessment of the health of the political parties, especially of the extent to which they mediate the relationship between the community and their elected representatives. Part of the growing sense of disenfranchisement about politics amongst Australians may lie in the obvious differences between party members and MPs and the wider community. This failure of "mirror" or "descriptive" representation is, of course, most noticeable in the relative absence of women in the senior echelons of the major parties and in the Parliament. What kind of representation is it where the candidates are not even remotely typical of the wider society, even using crude indicators such as age, gender, income and occupation. Voters need to feel that their representatives - at least in aggregate - can understand their circumstances and have sufficient identity with them to press their interests. The greater the distance of representatives from electors, the greater the mistrust. These weaknesses begin with the political parties who determine who will be presented to the community for election and who govern the behaviour of their members in law making. It is not generally appreciated that none of Australia's parties is a mass party with a substantial membership base: at last count only 1.5% of Australians were members of a political party. Nor are the influential party members necessarily typical of the wider community. Too many candidates come from the party organisations and from MP's staff. Many have little experience with anything other than back-room operations and are not active in their communities. Parliament The most visible symbols of our democracy, where decisions are theoretically made, are our parliaments. Once elected, MPs may find that their contribution and that of the parliament as a whole is much more limited than the theories of representative government suggest. It is fair to say that, even with the expanding contribution made by the Senate Committee system, executive domination remains a hallmark of Australian politics. This too may have contributed to the alienation of voters. The author of a Parliamentary Library report compiled as part of the Centenary of Federation celebrations concluded that "the domination of the Parliament by a disciplined bipolar party system meant that the House of Representatives came to be seen at worst as a theatre of meaningless ritual and at best as an institution under the foot of the Executive". (2) Although she politely places her observations beyond contemporary politics, the view is one that is often repeated today. There are many who believe that the Parliament is long overdue for substantial reform to enable it to take greater responsibility for its own affairs and to act independently of the government of the day. Our current system is increasingly based on the "rubber stamp" model of government criticised by the Clerk of the Senate, Harry Evans in his commentary on Howard's proposal to water down the role of the Senate: "The electors elect a party (or a party leader) to govern. The government governs with total power to change the law and virtually do what it likes between elections." In this scenario, the MPs are there for no other purpose than to register the voters' choice. What then is the purpose of having a Parliament at all? If this is the way government is to operate, then there appears to be little justification for all the effort and expense entailed. One of the more disquieting experiences in the Federal Parliament is that most speeches are delivered without an audience, into the void. Speech after carefully prepared speech disappears without a trace having no impact on the fate of the legislation. This, in the House of Representatives, is determined in advance by the simple arithmetic of majority. Even in the Senate, where outcomes are more fluid, deals are done behind closed doors rather than fleshed out in public. This is particularly true of the House of Representatives, where there is almost no opportunity for individual members (or even the opposition en bloc) to introduce or modify legislation. Scrutiny of the Executive is limited to the charade that is Question Time, when no questions are answered. Committees in the Lower House, while they often inquire into matters of great significance, have no capacity to quiz ministers and bureaucrats about budgets and legislation. Some of our brightest and best are effectively excluded from the tasks they were elected to perform.
Carmen Lawrence, as she is now

Question time is often mentioned by voters as one of the most irritating of Parliamentary procedures with its aggressive and insulting language, accusations instead of questions, replies that contain no information and evade the question, and gratuitous attacks on political opponents - all in the atmosphere of an unruly locker room complete with "sin bin". I agree with Coghill's assertion that "the rules for Question Time are so ridiculous it is no surprise that they generate the type of behaviour we see on the nightly news", and his contention that it has "degenerated almost to a farce". As a result, Question Time rarely functions as it was intended - as a means of ensuring accountability of the executive, exposing abuses of power and corruption and challenging the arbitrary exercise of power by the government. While most MPs I have met are conscientious, they are largely unable to influence the legislative or policy agenda except behind the closed doors of the party rooms. Even then, there is often little room to manoeuvre because decisions have already been made by the Executive. Matters which deserve free and open consideration are often submerged because of anxiety about dissent. The media feeds this paranoia by portraying even the most minor disagreements as tests of leadership or signs of party disintegration. The absence of any dissent from the entire Coalition back bench about the attack on Iraq is mute testimony to this stranglehold. Indeed, it is fair to say that the opportunities to speak open openly are becoming more and more constrained. I think the community wants its political leaders to stand for something and to be prepared to publicly stand on the issues. Too often we are driven by the polls or what the media tells us matters and not by conviction. We have a political culture of pandering, of telling people what they want to hear. It is by definition a grey and cautious culture because it removes all the contentious issues and seeks to offend no one. Confected personality politics and theatrical "biff" then substitutes for genuine debate on the values and solutions which are our responsibility to propose. While the Parliament often seeks the views of the community and of experts in various fields, most of this contribution occurs in committees whose deliberations and conclusions are ignored. A treasure trove of thoughtful and meticulously prepared submissions and reports languish in countless bottom drawers. On a broader front, members of the wider community are pressing for greater involvement in decision making while their representatives, especially in government appear to be moving in the opposite direction, involving fewer and fewer people, with less and less public scrutiny of the development of public policy.

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