Australia's system of democracy is far from perfect. Managing editor David Donovan details some of its failings and offers some solutions.
Let’s get this straight: our system of representative democracy is far from being a perfect democracy.
As Ronald A. Dahl, the noted political theorist has noted said, the sort of Government we have, similar to most Western states, is really a polyarchy – the rule of the many – as opposed to a true democracy—power to the people.
In our system, we elect people and let them make the decisions for us until the next election. In a perfect democracy, all the people would make the decisions. Switzerland, with its citizen initiated referenda (CIR), is about the closest the world has to a true democracy, since its citizens can initiate and overturn legislation if there is significant enough popular will. But even they don't have all the people making all the decisions—they still have elected representatives making most of the decisions for them. The reason for this, of course, is that having all the people making all the decisions all the time would be frankly impossible and chaotic in our society. It is a simple fact that, in general, most people aren't informed enough, don't have the time, and really don't want to make all the decisions.
In fact, our system is quite ingenious; it is set up so we will select the best representative from each area – the wisest and best representative from the community, a tribal elder type – to represent voters in that electorate and faithfully represent their interests.
Unfortunately, due to the growth of political parties and their slavish adherance to strict party discipline, along with the overtly adversarial nature of our political system, our system of representative democracy has become diminished and perverted. Now, instead of the tribal elder type, the system throws up the same sort of sub-standard candidates almost every time—usually the party operative, the career politician, the machine-man, or the political hack with little real life experience. When the overwhelming majority of people vote for one of the major parties, yet less than 1 per cent of society are party members, it is inevitable that our politicians will not be the pick of the crop, and they're not.
Neither are they the most diverse. If you’re a white-male lawyer, a union representative or a political staffer, you can be pretty satisfied your interests will be represented well by our elected representatives. For everyone else – females, the poor, old, young, infirm, sick, ethnic or the Indigenous – you can be relatively confident that your interests will be under-appreciated or poorly represented by your polity, and will probably suffer as a result.
Which may explain the widespread contempt in which politicians are held within the community; why they usually get lower trustworthiness ratings then used car dealers. The truth is, people are frequently – maybe even generally – dissatisfied by the quality of our elected representatives and their decisions, irrespective of which party happens to be in power at any particular time. Why, then, do we continue to vote for these people? Because our political system can be equated to McDonald and Hungry Jacks—we go there not because we love the food, but because we know more or less what we are going to get. Vote Liberal/vote Labor—it doesn't matter, it's an easy and safe decision.
Even more disturbingly undemocratic is this: because these representatives can’t be removed by the people unless there’s an election, the system is an open door to manipulation and abuse by the powerful, the well-connected and the wealthy. Political parties, lobbyists, special interest groups and big business are all well served by the status quo. Of course, this is probably seldom in the form of outright corruption, but simply in the way clever stakeholders use the available levers of power to gain favourable outcomes for their particular interests. This is the world of the old-boys' networks—the “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” cosy interconnected world. Strictly speaking, much of it may be legal, but for the average powerless individual, it has the stench of the sewer.
So, why don’t we, the people, rise up and change the system?
Well, therein lies the dilemma: since the people currently in power are almost all from political parties, they are not likely to want to change the state of affairs that has served them so well and placed them into a comfortable and powerful position in society. Indeed, they will presumably fight tooth-and-nail against anyone proposing changes to this system. They will back their argument by using the illogical, self-serving, view that simply because something has been done a certain way for a long time, it must be wonderful. Complicating matters further is the media: since virtually all high-saturation media is controlled by those with vested interests in continuing the status quo, any activism is destined to be more difficult to publicise, ignored entirely or even actively discredited.
So, reforming the political system is problematic, but we would be a poor society if we never did what was difficult. Egypt has just demonstrated that popular peaceful movements can create great and positive change.
I suggest three major reforms that will radically improve our system of representative democracy.
First, we need a system of CIR so that the people are the given direct power to initiate and overturn legislation. The people then can serve as a check on the abuses of our elected representatives. CIR is vital in empowering the electorate, since if both sides of politics are as bad as each other, or in cahoots, an election will be of no practical benefit to the community. Only CIR puts the people back in control.
Secondly, the method for the election of senators should be adjusted to make it more representative of the diverse demographics of our society. The system we have, which was designed at Federation as insurance for smaller states to ensure more populous states would not be able to override thei interests, is long out-dated. Effectively the Senate simply divides Australia into a series of large multi-member electorates and results in similar candidates to the Lower House. However, the interests of a youth in Queensland are probably more aligned with that of a youth in Western Australia than an older person in his or her own state. Therefore, I suggest that for the Senate, 50 per cent of representatives must be women, and there be appropriate numbers of representatives commensurate with the age distribution in the wider community. Voters in each age-group would vote for a representative from their own sex and age-group. A proportional number of members from the Indigenous community might also be given included based on the same principles.Let the Lower House be the house of the tribal elder. Let the Upper House, the House of Review, be a body to ensure the interests of the true diversity of Australia are protected—not just those of white, middle-aged, middle-class men and the occasional middle-class, middle-aged, woman.
Bearing in mind that both of the above would require significant constitutional reform, in the immediate term action should be taken to wrest control of the lower house – the House of Representatives – from political party domination—our current system of partiocracy. The problem with achieving this is that the major political parties have highly developed systems and networks, the unqualified support of the mainstream media and extensive funding through donations from their political cronies—big business, unions, special interest groups and powerful and wealthy individuals. They also have overriding control of the political process, which they will undoubtedly happily subvert to make it more difficult for Independents to get elected. Only a popular movement for Independent politicians will enable us to break the iron-grip political parties have on our system. Luckily, people have seen this need and are banding together. The first tentative plans are being put together, which I will lay out in detail in another piece next week.
To sum up, we don’t live in a perfect democracy. In truth, it is probably impossible for a perfect democracy to be achieved, at least at this stage of human technological development. However, we can make our system far better represent the will of the people, and this is what we must do if we don’t wish to see our current system decline even further into the abyss. With a system of CIR along with diverse and talented elected representatives, the true will of the people, not merely that of those with vested interests, will be able to flourish for the benefit of all the people. A better, if not a perfect, democracy.