Being, like many, mostly oblivious to politics, the dismissal of the Whitlam government in November 1975 was a startling event. I remember exactly where I was standing when I heard the news. I was startled! However the incident triggered thoughts about our political life and system. We were aware that there were some Coalition Senators who were not happy about the action being taken by the party leadership, preventing the Senate vote on the Supply Bill. The question arose in the minds of some of us: What would have been the result if the matter had been put to a secret ballot in the Senate?
That question then raised another. Immediately it seemed obvious that all voting in parliaments should be on the basis of the secret ballot; to free Members from being forced to vote in accordance with the dictates of their parties, or other group pressures. Why not? Why not indeed? Could there be a better democracy than the one we are used to? We soon became convinced that there could be - that what we have is not really democracy at all. In that case what we have is not good enough. Could it be that the serious concerns of the people emanate from a basic problem leading to a well-justified disillusionment with our political process - our style of democracy?
The Greeks seemed to have a happy system in which the citizens could be directly involved in the public meetings they held to make their political decisions. To this they gave the name of democracy, based on the two Greek words demos, 'the people' and kratein, 'to rule'[i]. They apparently thrived under their system, enjoying the normal opportunity to take part, as individuals, in the settling of the policies and decisions that shaped their lives. Thus their system enabled them, as a people, to grow in strength, a further sense included in the word kratein.
At the time they said that it was called a democracy because the decisions were 'made by the many rather than the few'. It has been commented (critically, defensively) that slaves got no vote! But that is a red herring. The significant matter for our analysis is that the entire franchise had the right of direct input. That is the relevant comparison. We have no significant input to political decisions. Our 'democracy' is therefore leagues away from the Athenian model and that is where our 'democracy' fails the test - miserably.
Western nations are generally regarded as democracies. But Abraham Lincoln defined democracy as:
· Government BY the people,
· Government FOR the people,
· Government OF the people.
Do we have government BY the people? Do we have the opportunity to enter directly into the political decisions with which we must live? No, we, as individuals, have merely token involvements, only being permitted to elect representatives, not vote on issues. So far so good; that is, if the representatives were to represent us. But the growth of the overwhelming power of the major parties has destroyed representation of the people.
The odds are stacked against us having any part in the political process, let alone exercising a rightful role in self-government. Letters to newspapers mostly find the 'circular file'; and, in any case, how many take notice of them, even if they are printed? Even those who take note of them are, mostly, just isolated individuals. And if a follow up letter is offered the papers regard the persistence as a cheap advertising campaign and print no more. They thus control public discussion and debate. It is said that every letter published equals a hundred voters. However most letters are not printed. Without the confidence that our concerns will be heeded, how can anyone feel that it is worthwhile? There is a considerable sense of ineffectiveness apart from a few brave souls who soldier on – usually to the amusement of others. The whole process greatly discourages hope - and participation.
And what is the effect on the system of talkback programmes? Who listens? Is this type of programme any more than a commercial gimmick to enhance the station's image without conferring any actual democratic benefit - no substance, only shadow. Talkback hosts are good at 'steamrolling' any input with which they disagree. So they also control public debate. Again, petitions to Parliament are routinely ignored - merely recorded. Once again we see tokenism. But perhaps these criticisms are unfair. Perhaps they are real attempts, if largely unsuccessful, to fill the gap in people involvement which our political system is simply incapable of filling.
Parties and pressure groups dominate the political system. There is no forum for the individual. The forum, which the Athenian enjoyed at the inception of the whole idea of democracy, has been stolen from the people, and the people who have stolen it are glad for the people to be led like sheep. For them, our (or rather their) political system is already a democracy - no change is needed.
One TV commentator referred, in an international hook-up, to our 'full-blown' democracy! When a flower is full-blown, the next thing is, of course, for it to fall apart. Perhaps the comment was prophetic!
For the concerned individual, it is an uphill battle against frustration and helplessness. And when one hears from a New South Wales Independent that he suffered from acute frustration for years in his parliament trying to get something done about any problem, we can know that our 'democracy' is far from well. And the Opposition, of whichever, and whatever it may consist, is totally defeated in hoping for agreement by the 'government' on any crucial matter - regardless of how sane it might be. These things ought not to be. We have lost the real advantages that a genuine democracy would give us. We have gone backwards, not forwards, since the days of Greek democracy.
Now, the Communists also claimed that their system was the true democracy. One remembers the Russian officer in Afghanistan when facing a German correspondent. He questioned him: "From the Democratic Republic of Germany?" Karl Marx invented the term, the 'dictatorship of the proletariat', meaning, one may suppose, the rule of the people. It was a reaction to the perceived injustice of the political and industrial climate of his day, when many were suffering at the hands of the 'capitalists'.
What went wrong? Something certainly did. A 'dictatorship of the proletariat' could sound a bit like a democracy. But was it? Clearly it was not - the Communist Party grabbed the power. Revolution is cruel - sudden change. Democracy is change by evolution - measured, considered change - based on participation of the governed.
Groups, which form in society, are free to take charge and act without regard for others. They then take advantage of the lack of political power of the unorganised. It has been said that people should organise - if they don't it's their own fault. But what sort of a people do we want to be? An aggressive society is the antithesis of democracy, which is based on the idea of mutual regard in a unified community, with the opportunity to be involved, but not wanting undue advantage. Democracy is based on the idea of equality, the 'fair go'- a respect and regard for others.
Humankind is often aggressive and there is nothing wrong with that when it is directed toward penetrating the barriers of the unknown and the never conceived. Scientists are aggressive in that sense. So are those who aim to break sporting records, inventors and entrepreneurs in every field. They are leaders. We need that kind of 'aggression' to improve our democracy, breaking new ground, inventing better ways for the people to participate in self-government, without partisanship. We need change in our democracy – an upgrade!
The principle of mutual respect is essential for democracy. Group formation and the pushing for sectional advantage are, on the contrary, based on selfishness, greed and fear. Such attitudes are foreign to real democracy. While 'the people' are the true and ultimate source of power, there is normally a progressive deterioration in the access of people to the 'levers' (Keating's term) through which power is exercised. Should there be these levers? Doesn't that idea suggest political power - the power of the people, stifled after the election - transferred to the 'politicians'?
Parliament should be the 'melting pot', for all ideas to simmer, if necessary, until satisfactory solutions are found. But it has been short circuited by the failure of politicians to do the very thing for which they are elected - to represent the people.
Should we be disturbed? Fresh dangers are looming and without a realistic forum for the people to have their rightful role in the decisions of government we are in a parlous state. The world is a dangerous place; and is worsening rapidly. There may well be happenings over which we will have little, if any control, but for us to come to the place of acceptance of the unavoidable we must, as individuals, at least be able to be involved in the decisions about the serious problems which are going to affect our lives. Without that we are indeed to be pitied - sheep driven to the shearing shed - or the abattoirs.
Democracy was never easy. Freedom from dominion has always been costly. Think about our origins in the 1850s when the people asserted themselves after the miners died in the struggle against an intolerable regime[ii]. Perhaps our state is too tolerable. The danger is that, like Hitler Germany, by the time it becomes intolerable, our responses may be entirely atrophied - just like the frog sitting in a container of cold water on the stove, slowly coming to the boil, but not noticing the growing heat, until too late! What a terrible, sadistic experiment!
Letters to the papers, talk back programmes etc. have their place, but maybe we are just too timid to face our representatives, not with hostility, but with penetrating questions? But will they listen - with real ears? Can even aggressiveness succeed?
Is democracy a hopeless dream? In the East their hopes collapsed in a fireball of fighting and trouble, and we in the West have so many problems that we can hardly spare any useful time or thought for the world, much less to show them a better way. We haven't found it ourselves - despite the fact that we have the British heritage of parliamentary democracy, enhanced by our own unique contribution - the secret ballot for elections.
Perhaps the reality of democracy can only be realised in the pursuit of community objectives, the betterment of society; the never-ending dream. The need is for a structure in which a vibrant people can confidently operate together, at will.
Our democracy is sick. There are many who just don't want positive change. It suits their ambitions the way things are. There are some who want to regress - with voluntary voting for example. For the 'hoi polloi' to 'drop off' will suit them better. Some admit that it is not perfect, but excuse any reluctance for reform, by saying that our system is better than many others. One Left-wing union activist shocked me, saying, "We need leadership, not democracy." Leadership divorced from the people, even if temporarily, is dictatorship.
Since the Christian church can't see eye to eye, is it any wonder that many Christians still support groups of entrenched authority pursuing sectional advantage. Are they interested in a real democracy, with people being recognised as all equal in the sight of God? Even Machiavelli knew that 'the voice of the people is the voice of God'. Democracy is surely the expression of God's will in the area of political life. And Christ washed the disciples' feet to show His views on personal power and status. True Christianity must surely approve and foster enhanced democratic procedures and be in the forefront where democratic reform is needed. Christians led the fight against slavery, child labour and other abuses in the past. Why not again? Where are we who believe in the equality of all before God? Is God unconcerned with ordinary life?
But where is God? Who is He? I am reminded of the story of Lord Shaftesbury, visiting the slums with a minister of religion. The minister: “Why doesn’t God do something?” To which Lord Shaftesbury replied: “He is.” And promptly went and organised a food supply.
Democracy still eludes us. We need leaders to guide us successfully into the complexities of the future, even to exercise a moral authority that we can follow. But our political system causes a remoteness of the people from the leadership, which does not promote total honesty on their part - nor a public spirit in the people. We must cut loose from the institutionalised problems that are against our best interests as a people.
Obviously, the easy way to protect the status quo is to call it democracy. That automatically discredits any suggestion for a better way. There are some who are seeking to tinker with the system at the edges to improve it, but without getting to the root of the problem. Cosmetic change merely defers attention to the real problem. The door is wide open for groups to organise and capture power from the people. Power must belong to the whole, not to parties groups and factions.
The purposelessness of parliament was shown in stark relief when Ian Sinclair stated in an interview on the Channel 2, Seven Thirty Report: 'Parliament's function is politics (i.e. a public stage for the jousting of the major parties - the rival 'management' teams). The Constitutional Convention was different. Why? The reason is plain. The Convention existed to make a decision. Parliament does not. This was made clear in Mr. Sinclair's comments to Kerry O’Brien. The Convention decisions, of course, were made by ballot, not by 'divisions'. Divisions in parliament do not make decisions - they are merely a public declaration of decisions made elsewhere. Sadly enough Ian Sinclair's high reputation, gained as chairman of the Constitutional Convention, plummeted on subsequently taking the Speaker's Chair in the rowdy party politics of Parliament.
Can we be satisfied with anything less than a real democracy? If we had a real one would there be the apathy, the cynicism, and the poor opinion of politicians. Obviously we need a new, a real, democracy.
Do we have government BY the people? We have very little say at all.
we have government FOR the people? Ask the unemployed, the sick.
Do we have government OF the people? Ask the victims of violence.
Trenchant criticism of our political system is quite common, but those directly involved have no desire to change it. Some, comparing our way of life with others, think we have arrived. Why then are we in such a mess? Is there no hope of a better political system, which can help us to resolve our problems in a much calmer, more sensible, and more effective way? If we can't, with all our natural advantages, who can? Or could it be that our comparative wealth is a hindrance to our making progress to a much better democracy? Countries with far less, are putting us to shame in the economic area where we are seriously failing.
On the other hand there are countries that are suffering continually with much worse problems than ours. A major difficulty for such countries, torn by factional strife, is the lack of an example of a real democracy, which could enable them to have some hope of climbing out of their political, social and economic mess. Our system fails miserably to handle the comparatively trifling problems that we face. They, and we, need a much better system.
Democracy has yet to prove itself - to prove itself capable of handling the problems of the present, let alone the future. The clash is between autocratic styles of government, whose only interest in people is their vote, caring little for the unorganised, the weak and the disadvantaged.
Real democracy means the devolution of power to the people. But autocratic systems and more disciplined people are often more successful, while we are in the doldrums. Why? Does it mean that democracy is not up to it? No, it means that we don't yet have the essence of democracy as described above. We have allowed our birthright - the birthright of political freedom - to be stolen from us. We have mistaken laissez faire and abdication of responsibility for freedom. Freedom, at any level, is costly. It does not happen by accident. Political freedom is no different.
Our economy is in deep trouble. We need a new era of very alert and cooperative effort or we will be left far behind. Successful countries are those that have found the secret of cooperation between government, industry and people. But our style of government matches our predilection for conflict, in sport, in our courts, in our parliaments, in our homes, and sometimes, in our streets.
Our political system is a constant battleground; vastly entertaining for a few, no doubt, but little help in the successful resolution of our long-neglected problems. We certainly need a new democracy - to resolve the increasingly difficult problems, and to get us out of the economic inertia and mire into which we have drifted - a new democracy, which can create a new climate of cooperation, people involvement, decisiveness, and openness to innovation. There is a fast-changing world rushing upon us, whether we like it or not. We don't have much time.
Current versions of 'democratic' government throughout the world, whether modelled on the Westminster, or the American presidential systems, have clearly demonstrated that they cannot achieve the democratic ideal of fair and just government, in a climate of reasonable calm. 'Democratic' governments, even in the most stable of societies, are generally seen by their citizens to be inept and/or favouring some groups more than others. The resulting restlessness and distrust often lead to strong dissident action, which may well end in violence and then be met by severe, repressive measures.
We see constituents ignored between elections, and a pandering to the 'hip-pocket nerve' at elections. The way is wide open to abuse, and those with money and media power can override the weak, and unorganised, with relative impunity. Self-interest is at a premium, with the public interest at a discount. The message is loud and clear, and being heeded by more and more groups; organise, grow strong, and exert pressure until demands are met.
There are hard decisions to be made. But the people, especially all those who wish, must be more able to be involved in them. Overruling the people produces a sullen unwillingness to cooperate, manifesting itself in all kinds of evil - tax avoidance, profiteering, poor productivity, absenteeism, excessive wage demands, strikes, pickets, youth unrest, poor education performance, family turmoil, resort to drugs and crime, widespread depression, and suicide; with vandalised public assets, rubbish in our streets, and little pride in our country. Sport alone thrives as a national inspiration. If it means something to be Australian, why is it that no one expects that spirit to pervade political life?
There are many symptoms of a grievance against a society which excludes the vast majority from the basic right and satisfaction of a truly free people - that of participating in the decisions which affect us all - self-government. If democracy means anything at all, it must mean something much nearer an equality of power for all persons, than exists at present, regardless of any lack of wealth and/or organisational clout. Those in power, who claim we are a democracy, should be willing to give realistic attention to political reforms giving promise of devolution of power, to make the political system more accessible and closer to the democratic ideal. But are they? Some people prefer the democracy we have to a real democracy. Self interest and the desire for power quickly demolish principle.
A Russian commentator once made the rueful comment that democracy never comes from the 'Top'. What's new? Democracy has never been, and never will be, produced or improved except by the efforts and sacrifice of ordinary people. Can our 'democracy' guide us through the new challenges of our time? Unless its processes can deal adequately with the increasing problems of the present, and the future, the answer must be an emphatic NO.
Global forces of finance and business have 'cleared the decks for action', and their grapeshot has already been making havoc of the 'rigging'! Let's face it; government is now virtually helpless to stall the economic invasion - like King Canute's attempt to stop the tide. It is rapidly becoming very plain that the old contests, within a much more closed system, have now become an impossible luxury. 'Gladiatorial combat' on the floor of parliament has now become ludicrous in its stupidity.
Economic rationalism is on a roll, and those who love its local application will soon feel its power as the world turns up the economic heat on us. With the tide of global change swamping us, there can only be one answer. We must continue to urge for an objective, cooperative style of government; based on non-party politics - like a wartime government. Now, we are at war as a nation, in a global economic battlefield. We can no longer pretend to ourselves that we are the masters of our fate. We have to play the game with the cards we have, with rules made by others. We are being forced to grow up. Many will suffer. But that could be minimised by a national, cooperative approach. We can do this, if we wake up and face facts as they are, instead of hoping they will change to suit us.
A lady with a UK accent called on 'open line', wanting to know why we are so apathetic - why we are not upset with the actions and standards of politicians, and other people with power over our lives: e.g. the profit-greedy banks? It's a good question. Is it because so many of us have our own homes, families, sport, television and entertainment of all kinds? Are we too well off to be worried? Do we overestimate our security, economic and otherwise? Are we too self-indulgent to care? Or are we completely satisfied with the political life of this country? Do we want a better democracy so that we can register a protest about things that concern us; have some control over our lives, without the confrontation of angry, shouting demonstrations? Is there any other way? Or doesn't it matter? Do we think things will just work out OK, without any protest or other action on our part? Will they?? Really??
Do we have a say? What's gone wrong with us? We seem to have given up. It seems all too hard! Let's satisfy ourselves with sport, entertainment, and a semi-oblivion with alcohol (not to say drugs). So, it seems, many of us think. In the mid 1800's (the time of the Eureka Stockade2, they refused to bow down.
The great Australian apathy no doubt does have its roots in a high degree of economic well being (except for some, especially of late). But that is not to say that there is little or no concern; far from it. The tendency of many to major on self-interest must be seen, at least in part, as a result of not being able to usefully affect the political process. Helplessness redirects attention to personal objectives.
The function of government is to resolve differences in the community, promoting cooperative community effort. The present system however does not lead to consensus but, by default and example, causes and encourages the conflict, the cynicism, and the apathy. Communal harmony and well being depend on the fairness of the decisions made. So, when difficult decisions to be made are controversial, harmony will always depend heavily on the fairness of the process by which they are made.
For a country to mature and prosper there is a serious need to achieve a new unity of purpose for the solution of those stubborn problems that hinder national progress and well being. But this implies a high degree of community cooperation, which is beyond our capacity under the existing political system. Real unity requires the possibility of direct involvement in the political process, for all who wish it, no matter how little that contribution may be. For the 'silent majority', isolated as we are from effective involvement in political decisions, politics is virtually a taboo subject. Such discussion gets us nowhere; it is too frustrating and even painful. People hate politics. It just makes people angry. Why? Because we can only make a noise and get upset - we cannot change anything.
The low regard in which politicians’ are held, is indisputable evidence of the frustration of the community with the conduct of government, which holds at arms-length the very people to whom it should be accountable. There is distrust and hostility toward authority, and a level of concern that does not augur well for future community well being and harmony. And we should also be near to panic with the spate of suicides, murders, child molestation and abuse, assaults and crimes of all sorts, not to mention addiction of so many to drugs, often followed by mental disease.
The present agenda for the pursuit of individual rights reflects fear of government. It stems from a disbelief in the possibility of a truly democratic system of government which can be fair to all, and from which all can benefit by belonging. And this climate of danger from government, or failure of government to protect the well being of its citizens, is associated with the absence of an evident accountability to the people. Such fears plainly indicate a deficiency in our democracy.
The power to throw out the government at election time, and replace it with another, is a power to punish but little power to improve matters. A real democracy must be able to do much better than the see-saw style of governments we now have, with its longer term instability and extreme policy shifts driven by competing ideologies.
It's a pity that politicians are not more aware of the disgust with which the general public views their behaviour. The face-to-face, angry, eyeballing of opponents in the House is a disgrace to democracy. I suspect it is not that way in the British House of Commons - the mother of parliaments - where speeches, always addressed to the Speaker, are more objective and often with entertaining wit.
Following a recent visit to Parliament by primary school children, TV interviews revealed the disgust at the behaviour they witnessed in the House. "If that's the way they behave", they said, "how are we supposed to behave?" When a leading democratic country, such as Australia, so plainly disrespects the principle of democratic government in its icon (the Parliament) how can there be a worldwide respect for democratic practice to influence the unruly political elements in developing countries?
Modern efficiency reduces costs, usually by reducing jobs. But such 'efficiency' breeds many hidden costs in the community. We have made a god of efficiency. Answering machines give us various music, repeated apologies, and the assurance that 'our call is important' - all instead of a quick response from an adequate staff. Taped responses are both a hindrance and insulting. Apparently modern technology cannot even inform us where we stand in the caller queue! The minutes we waste, and the frustration we experience, add to consumer costs, while the profits of the 'efficient provider' are maximised. The losers in the race to be efficient are the small and unimportant – those without a voice, without power.
We have made a god of economic rationalism too. Privatisation is 'in'. But blind trust in privatisation is not faring too well in Russia. We could compare China taking a more pragmatic approach - in progressing to a world-class economy - the Gorbachev approach??
Let's be honest. The enterprise and drive of individuals in every sphere deserves our respect, and sometimes, our admiration. They provide the needed stimulus, the motor, of our economy. But what can make us nervous for our future is the one-track mind politicians in government get, whether 'left' or 'right'. The 'religious' fervour of ideological zealots is the real worry. 'Objective' government is considerably endangered where any group is able to dominate. The people are the only ones who can 'guard the guardians'. That's our responsibility. Are we able to fulfil its demands?
While things are often perceived to be wrong, 'the-powers-that-be' are preoccupied with their own priorities, so many present problems are not resolved - and anxiety for the future, which threatens to engulf us with much more serious problems, is becoming more acute.
Wrong things that happen affect us all in some measure. The trials and problems of a minority, or even one person, do not leave any of us totally untouched. No man is an island. We are interdependent. Knowing of injustice, deprivation and suffering bothers us, and the rubbish scattered on our roadways and public land depresses us - not to mention the behaviour in our parliaments. In a numb sort of way we are used to it, and the temptation is for us to believe that that is the way it must be. Not so, but what can we do?
Noel Hawken, at the time a Melbourne Herald columnist, once aptly expressed the national disappointment with our democracy, our frustration with the concentration on tactics and rivalry, instead of a common attack on the problems. He wondered if there was no way to a more satisfactory system for Australia, to bring about 'revolutionary but peaceful' change. There has to be.
There was a period in early Victoria, (in the 1850s), called the 'Era of Democracy'[iii]. It started with unrest on the gold fields, where many restless and fiercely independent immigrants, who had dreams of great riches, did not strike much gold. The harsh and ill-conceived miners' licence fee - a hefty thirty-shillings-per-month (probably a month's wage, at least) - with a fine of five pounds for failure to produce a licence - proved the last straw.
At Ballarat, Victoria, hundreds of miners took up arms against the government, raising the blue flag with the white cross, now a familiar sight hanging from cranes on city building sites. The British military attacked in an action known as the 'Eureka Stockade'. In the early morning of Sunday, 3rd. December 1854, some twenty miners died in an easily crushed rebellion.
The incident was followed by a period of considerable political activity. Public meetings abounded, with some numbering as many as ten thousand men, and such was the antagonism toward the Colonial authorities and clamour for democratic reform that Juries declared all the captured rebels 'not guilty'.
At least half the population were new immigrants who, being without the qualifying land holding, had no vote. Amongst these must certainly have been the Chartists, a group of political activists who had been agitating for some time in England for improvements to the English political system. Their list of reforms included the requirement that the election of Members of Parliament be conducted by secret ballot. Other reforms being sought included the abolition of the property qualification for Members of Parliament, adult (male at that time) suffrage, and short (term) parliaments.
Following hot public debate the Victorian Parliament reluctantly adopted these reforms. Perhaps the most important to be adopted was the secret ballot for the election of Members of Parliament - against the wishes of the conservative minority in the community, and the (limited franchise) government.
It was noted at the time that the employee would no longer have to look over his shoulder to see if his employer was watching the way he was voting. The shopkeeper and the tenant were likewise now free to cast their votes without fear, from customer or landlord. It would be utterly intolerable for us to return to the situation that existed before this change. Yet it is easy for us to take for granted that which was only achieved by much agitation and loss of life.
At that time the opponents of the secret ballot forecast that its adoption would result in chaos. Such is the reaction of those with an ingrained hostility toward change, regardless of the need. But the record indicates that there was complete calm in the aftermath of the subsequent election, despite the fact that a great many controversial questions were in issue at the time.
This is not really so surprising, as we now know well that the use of the secret ballot ends all argument. It is manifestly the fairest way for differences of opinion to be settled when decisions must be made. Imperfect as our electoral system is, it is clear that there is a far more equal say in elections with the ballot than without. And the calm acceptance of the result of elections by ballot is a repeated phenomenon, no matter how close the winning margin. Its fairness guarantees a universal acceptance on the basis of majority rule. But one problem with a rule by a majority of seats is that it is often not accompanied by an overall majority of votes.
On 3rd. December 1991, the 137th anniversary of the Eureka rebellion, historian Brian Mckinlay was speaking on Australia's Radio National. He commented that the results of Eureka were to make Victoria the leader in the vanguard of the world's modern democracies. In fact it is understood that in America the secret ballot for elections is sometimes referred to as 'the Australian Ballot'!
A Quality of Life.
To live in a country with a government genuinely reflecting the views of an involved and caring community, could only be seen as an altogether new dimension of life. A real quality of life has much deeper roots than a mere quest for material things, but the material and the macho are deeply ingrained in our society, and in this regard our political system has a case to answer.
We need a new basis of ongoing opportunity for the participation of the public. Periodic voting in pork-barrel contests between rival parties is no democracy. This is a 'least-worst' choice which produces our feeling of helplessness, apathy and, sometimes, fury.
To be able to have some say in resolving the problems would, in itself, even without any prospect of immediate material gain, constitute an unimagined improvement in the quality of life of the community. The importance of each of us having an effective opportunity to join in, at will, with discussions on matters of concern, with an actual impact on the decision-making process, cannot be measured. A pipe dream? Perhaps. Utopian? Yes. Idealistic? Of course. Every advance grows from an ideal. Without ideals to pursue we slide backwards. We never just stand still. 'Where there is no vision, the people perish'.
We cannot be proud of our country if justice and fairness are not seen to be the norm. Even where justice is present, but not clearly apparent, peace and harmony will continue to elude. It is therefore not hard to see why minorities are restless, aggressive, and violent, in so many places in the world. Since only justice can create well-being and peace, it is evident that a basis must be found which is seen to be eminently fair and reasonably prompt in resolving community concerns.
To be able to realistically participate - in a modern and complex world - demands a fundamental change, a radical rethink of the democratic process. We need a system that will give a much greater confidence in the processes of government. Such a system must have the least possible hindrance to individual input. Those in the community who are concerned, a flexible, open-ended group, should be able to feel that there is no obstacle to an effective involvement. We cannot afford to be at ease. There has been a sound political sleep foisted on us by the political parties over the years. There was a time when we were the 'lucky country'. That time, (when we had our heads in the sand), is now well past.
Although we live in far different times and circumstances, we have a vital need to recapture some of the Athenian genius for democracy. To them the practice of democratic involvement was an important facet of life. The question is: Is it possible for us, as ordinary people, to have an effective involvement without a political commitment? It is understandable that the desire and capacity of different people to participate in any aspect of the political process will always vary considerably, even should a radical change render the system wide open to the occasional involvement of the uncommitted citizen. However, the usual problem is the severe impediment to any realistic involvement by concerned people, including the frustrations usually suffered by parliamentary Oppositions and Independents. Real democracy is still ahead of us.
A successful individual and national effort demands a cooperative approach in all the various areas of our lives, and it is imperative that that approach be practised and exemplified in our parliaments.
Successful government depends heavily on the goodwill of the people - a goodwill that must be based on the right to participate effectively in the decisions. Decisions are made at present with little real reference to the public, and the psychological damage to the cooperative will of the people is unmeasured and immeasurable. It is known intuitively, but is easily disregarded because real accountability to the people, as under a truly democratic system, does not exist.
Democracy, as defined by Abraham Lincoln, has always been revered as the ideal of political life to be aspired to, hoped for, and reached after. Is the ultimate of pure democracy, with opportunity for involvement, as in Athens, beyond us? Perhaps more use could be made of referenda for example. But it is incumbent on us to positively and energetically seek the political system best able to facilitate self-government. 'The best government is that which teaches us to govern ourselves'. The governed must be able to participate in government.
Our sham democracy is simply not good enough. We need government that has the respect of the people - a political process, which will create government that is seen to be making the right decisions for the right reasons. Men and women with no political attachment or commitment should feel able to have some input of opinion with regard to public matters, if they wish. Democracy cannot survive, let alone become the world norm, unless we undertake the task of updating and improving our political process; to open the way to an ability to handle the new and difficult problems the future will bring. That is the reason we must persist with the dream of a radical change to a cooperative basis of government based on genuine representation.
We need an adequate way for ordinary citizens to be able to participate effectively in political discussion as an integral part of the political decision-making process, but without the need, or any advantage, in being committed to a political organisation. At the same time we need a way for our Representative to relate, and to be really accountable, to the people in the electorate, in a more immediate way between elections. Our representative needs to be freed from the responsibility of defending a party image, to be a genuine representative, building a relationship of trust with constituents through regular public meetings.
There is also a need for a new way for alternative candidates to arise and be seen effectively challenging the representative, in the period between elections, should the representative fail in the duty of representing the constituents in an adequate way. This could only be expected to happen in such meetings.
We need parliaments that can be recognised as non-partisan; fair and just in their decision-making, and clearly operating in the public interest. Such parliaments could have much better backing of the people in making the so-called 'tough decisions'. There would, most certainly, not be the enmity and hostility that the present system creates.
Can these aims be achieved concurrently? Is it a hopeless dream? Homer, the ancient Greek poet, once wrote:
By mutual confidence and by mutual aid,