Our flawed Australian democracy

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Australian politics is controlled by the major political parties for their own purposes, diminishing proper representative democracy. David Donovan outlines the Australian political landscape.
“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.”

(Carmen Lawrence on August 7, 2003 at a public lecture at the University of WA, which was entitled ‘Ideas to save our withering democracy,

THERE IS A general feeling of dissatisfaction in our  society about the state Australian democracy. The feeling, in short, is that it is dysfunctional. Indeed, the perceived need for a so-called “new paradigm” in Australian federal politics confirms that, at least in the eyes of many, our system of party politics is aggressive, obstructionist and undemocratic, and leads to poor standards of governance. This piece will give some background and discuss some of the flaws in the Australian system of democracy, most of which relate to stranglehold held over our system of government by the major political parties.

Fourth US President, James Madison

Like most democracies in the world, Australia has what is known as a “representative democracy”. According to Carmen Lawrence, in the speech referred to above, this form of Government was not even considered a true democracy at all in the early days of the United States republic. James Madison, one of the US founding fathers, said US citizens could not be trusted to identify the “permanent and aggregate interests of the community”[1]. This was a task best left to elected representatives chosen by the people, he said, not the people themselves. Thomas Jefferson described the system as an “elective democracy”[2].

It is now widely agreed that representative democracy is a valid form of democracy, but only where elected representatives truly represent the interests of those who elect them. Where other interests take precedence – their own, or another person’s or entity’s – then the system becomes a “thin democracy”, in the words of Barber[3].

In this century in Australia, political parties have had the most impact on our system of democracy. In 1941, E.E. Schnattschneider asserted that “modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of political parties”[4].

Dalton and Wattenberg put it as follows:
“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.”[5]

Because political parties are central to the way our system works, almost all aspiring Australian politicians will need to join political parties and gain pre-selection to achieve a seat in Parliament. This directly leads to the situation where, for most politicians, their primary loyalties lie not with their constituents, but instead to a corporate entity—their political party.

Political journalist, Michelle Grattan

Leading political journalist Michelle Grattan summarised the situation as follows:
“…it's no good assaulting the TV set, we know how the system works, the importance of unity and the strength of political aspiration. In politics, even the best of men and women would usually sell their grandmother for the chance of office….once you're on the ladder it becomes harder to be outspoken.”[6]

These parties cannot even claim to be widely representative of the wider community or their interests. In 2006, the Australian Bureau of Statistics put the total party membership in Australia at just 1.3 per cent of the adult population[7] and falling.

According to Lawrence again:
“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.”[8]

It is clear that political parties do exercise powerful control over elected representatives and the way they vote. Academic John Power points to “the problem caused by rigid party discipline”[9].

Former WA Premier and Federal Minister, Carmen Larence

Carmen Lawrence deplores the control exercised by the Executive and the party room:
“While most MPs...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.”[10]

Power also identified Executive Control of the legislative process as a weakness in the Australian democratic system.[11]

This is a short outline of the political landscape, and can't hope to describe the situation fully. Nevertheless, it does identity several potential flaws in our system of democracy.

To summarise, in the early days representative democracy was not regarded as a true democracy, but gained validity over time. In this century in Australia, politicial parties have overwhelmingly asserted dominance over the Australian political landscape. This is still the case, even though the party membership is not reflective of the wider community and is close to only 1 per cent of the entire population. Despite this, it is almost essential to be a member of a political party to gain a seat in any Australian parliament. Parties dominate the political system and force their members to represent their interests before constituents and exercise overpowering Executive Control over decision-making to the exclusion of Parliamentary processes.

An unavoidable by-product of this control means is that the parties have, will and will continue to make laws to entrench their continued dominance over the Australian politican scene and eliminate competitors or competing forces.

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