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Facing the flaws in our democratic model

By Gary Humphries Ex MLA - 15 September 2014 10

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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.

What’s Your opinion?


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10 Responses to
Facing the flaws in our democratic model
justin heywood 6:44 pm 16 Sep 14

justsomeaussie said :

I think Steven Bailey touched on a critical point when it comes to the way politics is discussed in the last 15-20 years. The days of the local newspaper and the local television channel are almost gone; in terms of their existence and their viewership.

Technology has allowed individuals to choose their own news media or none at all. I think this problem further exacerbates an already failing system. ….

True. I’m sure that our media has always been partisan, but the idea that journalists would fearlessly and objectively seek the truth are long gone. These days we have ‘activist journalists’ who see their role as promoting their own world view.

The left bemoan the bias of the Murdoch press, the right complain about the ABC and Fairfax. Many on each side don’t even see that they only get half the story, because they share the world view of ‘their’ journalists.

Lefties should be made to read the Australian and conservatives to only watch the ABC. I reckon we’d get some engagement then. At least it would stir both sides out of their smug self-belief.

watto23 12:54 pm 16 Sep 14

My issues with the way our democracy works is it basically is whomever has the money to donate to a political party that shapes the parties policies. This works for both the major political parties so its unlikely to ever change. We are always being told its for the good of the country, yet experts with no financial interest can often refute the suggestion. We then get a lot of reports wasting even more money to support the government of the day, which are little more than propaganda. The faithful believe every word from their chosen political side. The moderates and swinging voters in the middle realise there are good ideas in both parties and effectively have to choose one.

I was thinking that a good change to elections, would be for policy type questions to be included in the election, to get rid of the whole mandate nonsense.

Something like
Do you support the current stop the boat policy?
Do you support the FTTP NBN model?

I chose those two in particular because they con’t really follow party lines that much. Many labor voters support the stop the boats, just like many liberals supported the labor NBN model.

That way people would be able to say which policies they like and don’t like. You’d restrict it to 5 say. Then this whole mandate nonsense could be made go away. Realistically, one day we’ll be in an age where people should be able to vote on policies directly rather than financially funded politicians with ulterior motives.

justsomeaussie 9:26 am 16 Sep 14

I think Steven Bailey touched on a critical point when it comes to the way politics is discussed in the last 15-20 years. The days of the local newspaper and the local television channel are almost gone; in terms of their existence and their viewership.

Technology has allowed individuals to choose their own news media or none at all. I think this problem further exacerbates an already failing system. In Steven Bailey’s case, if he did get his head on television more, would it have made a real difference if not many people were watching it?

I would argue that people aren’t turning away from politics because they are disenfranchised; it’s that it was never that interesting anyway so now they can just consume a gigantic library of news and media specifically chosen to their taste.

The only model I can see that works well in this newer environment is an enlarged federal government, minimized/no state government and enlarged/created community/regional governments.

Leon 11:34 pm 15 Sep 14

Gary, the two-party system is in affect an artefact of the “simple majority rule” system used in most Australian lower houses.

Party A can get absolute control of that system on just over a quarter of the votes, if it gets 51% of the votes in 51% of the seats. To counter that, the remaining candidates form a competing Party B, and attempt to wrest the middle-ground voters from Party A. That leaves no real room for any other parties.

The Senate and Hare-Clarke systems, in which each voter votes for multiple candidates, provide a wider range of representation.

Possibly the best solution to two-party rule involves each appointed Minister losing his/her vote in the Parliament. This allows the Ministers to focus on managing their portfolios rather than on making laws. This system also means that:

* if the Prime Minister appoints too many Ministers from his own party, he/she will lose his/her Parlliamentary majority. To counter this, the Prime Minister can appoint some of the best candidates from the other parties to the Ministry, rather than the dregs from his/her own party.

* a change of Government doesn’t necessarily mean a complete change of Ministry. The new Prime Minister can retain the best-performing Ministers from the previous Government.

I unerstand that this system is used in India and/or the Netherlands.

justin heywood 6:41 pm 15 Sep 14

An excellent article.

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…

Sadly, I think this is true. Modern societies are far too complex and diverse. How many of us, for example, are sufficiently across the various nuances of various foreign policy issues to be able to make an informed and balanced decision? Some, but not many. I don’t think we can put every government decision to a vote.

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

Any system which could improve the quality of our politicians would surely have wide support from everyone except the established parties. I doubt the American system is perfect either, but we have had very few Kennedys or Obamas. We should be electing the best of us, not the best political operatives.

How could it be achieved though Gary? Haven’t the major parties got too much riding on the status quo to allow change?

dungfungus 12:25 pm 15 Sep 14

Steven Bailey said :

I enjoyed reading your article Gary. I agree with your sentiment that voters are generally unaware of a candidate’s personal qualities. During last year’s election I tested the idea of trying to break through the barrier of the ‘brand’ of one’s party.

As Katter’s first preselected Senate candidate, Bob and I did a joint interview with Mark Parton where I wasted no time in expressing my support for marriage equality. The headlines were there for a day, yet of course by the next morning the phone stopped ringing and the solitude set in.

I was myself, I debated well, yet I campaigned poorly because I had no money.

An ABC news presenter came to my house one day to interview me. As there was a public debate on later that evening, I asked him if he and his cameraman would attend. He said he’d love to but the ABC didn’t have the money to pay the overtime.

I found the disengagement disheartening. Not enough people listen to radio, and hardly anyone reads the paper except for radio presenters. Pretty much anything done after 4pm in Canberra won’t be reported.

I tried to break through the brand, but I failed. This didn’t mean that the brand was stronger than the person; it meant that the brand was stronger than the majority of the people’s understanding of politics, and I have no compunction in saying that.

The health of a democracy is determined by many aspects – the media, legal frameworks, and of course the political literacy of the public. How are we to have a healthy democracy if we don’t teach politics in schools? Most people don’t know the difference between the upper and lower houses.

Many people came to me after the election and said that they hoped that I would join one of the major parties so I could really make a difference. My response to them was that I can’t because it is the major parties that stifle free thought and therefor the hopes and aspirations of the community. Do you agree?

I have one other question (you don’t have to answer it if you don’t want to): who did you vote for in last year’s Senate election?

And lastly, I’m sure if you returned to ACT politics, as a true liberal, and cleaned up the Canberra Liberals, the smaller parties and/or independents would be more likely to give you the gong….

Vote 1 for Gary Humphries, ACT Senate Candidate for “True Liberals”.
Give me a break, Steven.

bikhet 11:55 am 15 Sep 14

Why are people disengaged? From a survey in the UK by Sky News’ Stand Up Be Counted platform, these are top words that today’s 16-24 year olds think of when they consider politics: boring, lies, complicated, confusion, corrupt, money, bullshit.

You don’t have to be young, or British, to hold those views either.

Whether these views are true or not is of limited relevance. If that’s the public perception of politics, then that’s what needs to be changed before people might re-engage.

Grail 11:53 am 15 Sep 14

My experience in terms of people voting for candidates versus parties has been entirely different to yours, both Steven and Gary. I know people who have fallen hook line and sinker for the “Vote for Zed” campaign, who then expressed surprise when Zed turned out to be nothing more than a sock puppet for the Liberal Party. “But Zed’s such a nice guy” they say, “why would he support this treatment of refugees?” It’s hard for these people to understand that when you vote for a party candidate, you’re voting for that party.

Changing the system of voting isn’t going to take us away from the current party politics system. What we need to change is to put rules in place that effectively remove any control a party might have over the way a particular representative or senator can vote. No longer will LNP candidate be required to vote for or against a particular issue on party lines: it will be entirely up to the representative for an electorate to vote in the manner that electorate wishes to be represented.

Adding more opportunities (or obligations) to vote will not improve the system, more obligations upon the voters will only further entrench the PR game and turn our democratic government into a popularity contest where the party with the largest advertising budget wins (as PUP have shown).

Remove party votes from the ballot. Remove the ability for extra-governmental bodies to dictate the vote of an elected representative. Remove the requirement to number every box on the ballot: you should only need to number N+1, where N is the number of seats being contested.

And ideally, the candidates themselves should have some connection with the electorate that lasts longer than the election campaign.

Steven Bailey 10:17 am 15 Sep 14

I enjoyed reading your article Gary. I agree with your sentiment that voters are generally unaware of a candidate’s personal qualities. During last year’s election I tested the idea of trying to break through the barrier of the ‘brand’ of one’s party.

As Katter’s first preselected Senate candidate, Bob and I did a joint interview with Mark Parton where I wasted no time in expressing my support for marriage equality. The headlines were there for a day, yet of course by the next morning the phone stopped ringing and the solitude set in.

I was myself, I debated well, yet I campaigned poorly because I had no money.

An ABC news presenter came to my house one day to interview me. As there was a public debate on later that evening, I asked him if he and his cameraman would attend. He said he’d love to but the ABC didn’t have the money to pay the overtime.

I found the disengagement disheartening. Not enough people listen to radio, and hardly anyone reads the paper except for radio presenters. Pretty much anything done after 4pm in Canberra won’t be reported.

I tried to break through the brand, but I failed. This didn’t mean that the brand was stronger than the person; it meant that the brand was stronger than the majority of the people’s understanding of politics, and I have no compunction in saying that.

The health of a democracy is determined by many aspects – the media, legal frameworks, and of course the political literacy of the public. How are we to have a healthy democracy if we don’t teach politics in schools? Most people don’t know the difference between the upper and lower houses.

Many people came to me after the election and said that they hoped that I would join one of the major parties so I could really make a difference. My response to them was that I can’t because it is the major parties that stifle free thought and therefor the hopes and aspirations of the community. Do you agree?

I have one other question (you don’t have to answer it if you don’t want to): who did you vote for in last year’s Senate election?

And lastly, I’m sure if you returned to ACT politics, as a true liberal, and cleaned up the Canberra Liberals, the smaller parties and/or independents would be more likely to give you the gong….

neanderthalsis 10:10 am 15 Sep 14

Did this revelation come to you after your life in politics John?

Democracy is not at fault, it is how we have manufactured our two party system. Party members are tied to the policies of the party with little room to move outside of their boundaries and act in the interest of the party instead of their constituents. Having a conscience, morals and ethics is not a good career move. If you’re holding up the American system of primaries as a way of attracting better candidates, then you’d best have a cup of tea, two Bex and a lie down…

And John, at least the Liberal Party allows members to cross the floor, In Labor is automatic expulsion from the party, how is that for killing democratic process…

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