Winston Churchill’s “finest hour” came in the 1940s, as he stood defiantly for the democratic order in opposition to Hitler’s totalitarianism, but Churchill later described democracy as “the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…”
Democracy is indeed a flawed and imperfect device for running complex modern societies. Elaborate but appropriate arrangements for funding public infrastructure, or allocating resources between areas of a jurisdiction, or rationing healthcare in overstretched hospitals must all be judged by a general public that may have only the faintest – and very inaccurate – perception of how, and why, these decisions are made.
Democracy is a very blunt and inflexible device for determining the direction of a community. Voters in the Australian context generally have a choice in determining who will govern them for the next 3/4 years: Option A or Option B, with no variations or modifications on the standard model allowed. The original British concept of representative democracy emphasised the choosing of candidates whose qualities made them effective voices for local communities, but today that concept has been swamped by the concept of party: voters will generally be unaware of a candidate’s personal qualities, but choose him or her because they want to support the party they represent.
In effect, they vote for the brand, not the particular product offering.
John Madigan’s resignation from the Democratic Labour Party in the last fortnight clouds even that element of our democratic process. One has to feel a certain sympathy for the long-suffering true believers of the DLP, who, having fought for 40 years to restore party representation to the parliament, now have that victory snatched from their grasp by the perfidy of the party’s fickle sole standard-bearer.
(We should feel more sympathy however for the supporters of the Nuclear Disarmament Party. A total of 3 NDP candidates were elected to the Senate in the 1980s; not one served out a full term as a representative of that party.)
The truth is that our system of representative democracy, tailored to the largely illiterate population of Britain in the middle ages, is showing signs of strain in 21st century nations. Voters of these nations seem less willing to accept the Party A/Party B choice offered them at each election, and even more uncomfortable with the idea that governments are given carte blanche for the ensuing 3 or 4 years of their term, with voters’ only sanction for bad decisions/scandals/maladministration being the threat to turn to Party B at the end of that time (assuming it to less prone to these problems than Party A).
One manifestation of this dissatisfaction is the steady growth of the vote share for minor parties and independents over recent decades. The last Federal election in fact was a high-water mark for votes for minor parties; the trend has been linear and upward for some time. And a sign that voters are unhappy with their powerlessness in the face of bad decision-making by governments is reflected in the growth of opinion-polling as a tool used by parties themselves.
Major parties are conscious of how toxic voter frustration and anger can be over perceived mistakes by governments, and continuous polling is essentially a device to take the heat out of this anger by allowing parties to adjust their behaviour to forestall delayed punishment at the ballot box.
What can be done to address this perceived weakness in our system of government? With the size of modern societies, Athenian-style direct democracy is obviously not possible, though an online version of the Athenian Pnyx (meeting place of the Assembly) is quite conceivable.
Another answer might be offered by the American evolution of democracy. Two features stand out: the uses of primaries, where the general citizenship chooses party candidates, not party insiders; and citizens’ initiated referenda (and the related concept of voter recall).
Citizens’ initiated referenda allow some issues to be lifted from the lap of elected politicians and put directly into the hands of voters. There are good and bad examples of CIR in the US and elsewhere (Switzerland offers a better paradigm of how this might work in Australia). If properly constructed, CIR provides a vehicle to share the management of public policy between elected members and voters. Australians have exhibited an inherent conservatism at referenda, making it unlikely that we would see many of the more outlandish propositions get up here that the Americans have experienced.
What is hard to imagine is a system where nothing changes. We value our democracy as a central Australian value, but we could easily love it too much, stifling changes that reflect shifting standards and expectations.