Political organisations begin as an answer to chaos. The need to crystallise thought and effect the compromises which are required to change conflict and debate into worthwhile decisions, produced unions, factions, lobbies and political parties. But, since all power sources are in conflict one with another, it follows logically that the creation of order through strong groups and leadership eventually ends in bigger conflicts. The formation of such groups creates the very powers that aggravate the problems for other groups. Thus the brainstorming that should work toward beneficial conclusions deteriorates into a hardening of mental positions around ideologies and the self-centered interests they support.
Political parties surfaced in Australia early in the 20th century, as an answer to the unbridled individualism of the Members - chaos in parliament. While politicians each pursue their own agendas the common good is ignored and chaos ensues. Now we are seeing the parties producing their own brand of chaos - more powerfully. Anyone watching the puerile antics of party heavies in parliament and on television, must be entirely revolted and discouraged to the point of despair. The battles of the parties, each for their respective publics, is creating a parliament which is strong to do wrong but very weak to do right, by reason of the close balance of power between Government and Opposition. Thus the important and more difficult problems become intractable.
This editorial speaks plainly of our problem democracy:
There are many echoes of this view. The system is dominated by the special interests of political parties, pressure groups and lobbyists, each with their own mentors, backers and financial supporters. How did all this happen?
In 1904 the arrival of party politics in the new Federal Parliament was 'celebrated' by the Bulletin, with a picture depicting Caliban raping Miranda - and captioned as democracy being raped by the parties. This was the origin of the Labor Party - celebrating fifty years since Eureka. (One can sense Establishment concern in the Bulletin's contribution.)
In 1911, Hillaire Belloc wrote a scathing attack on the party system in England. As he saw it, parliament was actually controlled by the very people who should be under the control of parliament. If that is true for this country also (and who can doubt it?) then the term 'democracy' has little relevance to our political life or systems. Money and organised political 'muscle' are the key elements in the political equation. Those are the effective secrets to the acquisition and the retention of power.
The troubled nature of party government is ruining 'democracy'. It seems that with all our cleverness in all sorts of directions, we have utterly failed to find the reasons for the ineptitude of this style of government to secure peace and prosperity in the countries where it is practised. As Churchill said: 'democracy is the worst form of government - with the exception of all the others'. Is there any good reason why, in this age, so smart at many things, a more effective form of really democratic organisation can't be found? Very often, change occurs when people get desperate, but inevitably the same kind of organisation, or worse, results with the new leaders - often some form of dictatorship. Change by tumult is never good. A heavy price is paid by the people for any benefit gained. Democracy calls for intelligent dissent and rational change.
Political power operates through Parliament, which is the source of power under the Australian Constitution. The problem is that the power of parliament has been subjected to a 'takeover' - a hijack rather. The power accumulated by the winning party gives it a stranglehold over the parliament, which is then at the mercy of that party for its ensuing term of office. The real role of parliament - to govern - is subverted. Parliament does not, indeed cannot, govern. The winning party governs. The fact that this situation does not have popular approval does not in any way dissuade the various ones responsible from continuing in this fashion.
No one seems troubled by the fact that the Constitution makes no provision for the party system. The political parties in the House of Commons were not rigid as in Australia, and crossing the floor was not considered a dishonourable option. Churchill belonged to both the Conservatives and the Liberals during his stormy career, and in World War 2 presided over a 'Grand Coalition' with ministers from both Conservative and Labour Parties. Although it was no doubt expected in 1901 that parties would emerge, they were not considered essential, nor worthy of official recognition in the Constitution.
Parliament has become largely irrelevant to the function of government, real politics being subverted by the process known as 'politics' - party-politics. People put up with it only because they believe that there is no other viable alternative. But there must be!
The major parties' concentration on using their power stultifies the whole process of debate, and prevents a cooperative involvement in the formulation of sound policies; the making of right decisions. No matter how right party decisions may seem to them to be at the time, the fact that they can be made without serious public consultation, or in defiance of public opinion, establishes their violation of democratic principle. Much time is spent in parliament with speeches of set length, with much time wasted in attempting to boost personal reputation and/or protect and enhance party image. The various times for speeches, provided by the relevant parliamentary Standing Order, are often far beyond the requirements of an objective treatment of the matter in hand. So the speeches are padded out with a defence of the party and/or attacks on the rival party to use up the allotted time. As a result, the process of debate is frequently as boring as it could well be, which is, of course, why the regular broadcasts of Parliament are so often ignored.
This, combined with the fact that decisions are not made in parliament, explains why Members desert the Chamber until, often enough, few are left. Some will be talking together, ignoring the speeches, another will be reading papers, and still another, a newspaper. In the circumstances, it is not surprising that we do not have continuous television coverage of parliamentary proceedings. It would be too embarrassing.
Question Time on television, which some may find entertaining, leaves more serious viewers disgusted at the standard of our 'democracy'. As alluded to before, school children visiting parliament at Question Time are disgusted at the behaviour of the politicians. What sort of social message are we sending the children by such visits? They should be discontinued, until radical change has been effected, and sanity and dignity are restored to parliament.
A serious problem under the party system is that, because of the preoccupation with party conflict, far too little time is available for the prompt and fair consideration of community needs and aspirations. Government failure leads to the pursuit of power by community factions in order to achieve factional aims. If weak, their legitimate claims are liable to be ignored. If they are strong, illegitimate claims can be successfully pressed.
Parties and special-interest groups may continue to have some place in a more advanced democracy - for a time. It is natural for people of like mind to meet to consider and propagate their views and concerns. But the problem created by groups and parties with preferential access to political power must be resolved. Many people of standing have criticised the party system. But while it is good for the attention of the public to be repeatedly drawn to the failures of our governmental system, it is not good enough to keep drawing our attention to the problem without offering, or supporting, a real solution. We are in a political bog, and there can be no real progress until this problem at the root of our political life is resolved.
The development of power groups has excluded the possibility of useful involvement for the average person. Politics is in the grip of the parties, which have infiltrated the system like a virus. For the ordinary voter the party system means the passing of political power to the local Member's party, and to the uncertain intervention of a mainly commercial media. In neither case is there any assurance of real representation. There is no doubt that people, as individuals, are divorced from the system, with their only real choice confined to major party candidates, whose prime responsibility is to their parties.
Let's have done with pretence. The function of government is to resolve the various differences in community objectives with the least possible stress. But the party system of government does not lead to consensus. Group conflicts are exacerbated by the system, with serious casualties in the areas of truth, trust, progress and community well being. . The constant recrimination and conflict of party politics causes electoral cynicism and apathy. Organised groups acquire an access to the system not available to ordinary folk, and undemocratic powers lead inexorably to their abuse. It does not take a political scientist to observe that the party system enables this abuse to be perpetrated and perpetuated. While the parties control their members' voting, parliament can be no more than a mere rubber stamp for the decisions of the ruling party and the interests they represent. We are now presented with a new morality; loyalty to the party - and to group backers of a party. It is evident that normal concepts of conscience are not a decisive factor. The remark "Politics has nothing to do with morality" is not rare.
Party hierarchies have no interest in changing the system. They do not want to see parliaments abandoning the open vote in parliament to support the opportunity for real conscience voting by ALL Members in the House. Frustrated opposition parties merely desire to capture the inappropriate power and privileges of the ruling party.
Minor parties and Independents hope to squeeze concessions out of the governing party where they are able to exercise a balance-of-power. Without that, their influence is negligible. With it, their influence distorts democratic government. Their powers and responsibilities are then far too great.
The process of voting is inherited from the British House of Commons. When Members are to vote, they are summoned by the ringing of bells. Arriving in the House they queue up in their parties and vote as required by their party, their names and votes being recorded in the permanent record in Hansard. Woe betide them if they 'cross the floor' to vote in defiance of their party Whips!
This procedure of voting (by 'divisions') is archaic; a relic of the pre-electronic age! The waste of time is one thing, but far worse is the openness of voting which supports the controls of the party system - party discipline and 'toeing the party line'.
It is the open vote in our parliaments that permits the marshalling of Members into opposing teams instead of one cooperative body; one which could give the kind of constructive leadership and progress we need. A comment was heard in a medical waiting room: "They should work together. It's logical". One could hardly argue.
We will have little or no useful grass-roots participation, far too much apathy and cynicism, far too little justice, and far too little progress, until our political system is remodelled on a much sounder, more democratic basis.
We need Homer's 'Mutual aid and mutual confidence', but these are just the very things that the party system of government does not give us.
The deepening problems of our state, our country, and our region, not to mention the world, depend for their solution on our finding a more effective way of decision-making; one that wins the confidence of the people by reason of the effectiveness and justice of its operation; and in a much calmer and much more objective atmosphere.
Party candidates, and Members of Parliament, come and go, and are usually known personally to very few of us. The Member can take up individual matters, but will usually be helpless to initiate substantial necessary change - even though as one Liberal Member (now retired) said: "Philosophically, I agree with you". - in relation to the suggested change to parliamentary voting with the secret ballot!
Thus apathy abounds, despite the fact that real politics concerns the objective issues vital to us all. While real politics is about the issues, the real preoccupation of present ‘politics’ is power, in the pursuit of which the system feeds off the self-interest of the people. Its operation is anti-social.
After an election, constituents receive little significant attention from the Member. A common complaint about politicians is: "They are falling all over you when there is an election, and after the election they don't want to know you."
Firstly, party responsibility takes up a major amount of time and energy, while secondly, as mentioned above, the Member's powers to act positively and effectually on behalf of the electorate are circumscribed by party policies and priorities. So the public sees little point in attending public meetings, which are consequently rarely held by Members of Parliament (except maybe at election times).
Totalitarian societies and Western democracies suffer from a very similar disease - the ready access to power. The abuse of power leads directly to the exclusion of the input and judgment of the people. The kinds of people who are able to capture power are merely different, with different environments and different ways of achieving their purposes.
By tolerating the party system we have sold our democratic birthright, the democratic right and duty of self-government. With the control of voting by the parties in the House we may know how they vote, but that does not mean that we are happy, nor do we have any power to do anything about it. Accountability to the people is negligible.
At present the major policy thrust is by the parties in their private meetings, with policies being held back by Oppositions for purposes of election strategy rather than being brought forward in accordance with public need and real concern. Election platforms are often suspect, reflecting ideological stances and considerations of what will keep or win power for their parties. Party hierarchies have no interest in changing the situation, even claiming to follow democratic principles of representation. Nor do Independents and minor parties, being content to exercise such powers as are open to them under the system. Various ones have clearly demonstrated that this is so by their lack of interest in the need for reform.
The Rev. Fred Nile has stated that he wants a conscience vote on abortion so that he can publish the votes of Members in their electorates. Despite the seriousness of the issue, that seems like political pressure rather than a genuine appeal to conscience. (I understand that he does support the principle of CIR - Direct Democracy. But if the Christian church cannot awaken the public conscience on this issue, party government cannot cure the evil by legislation and force.
Can politics 'purge the system', while genuine politics (the interplay of dialogue and debate, of all sorts, on the issues at all levels of society) is paralysed by the power plays of party politics? The real way is for 'persuasion politics' - where the issues are preeminent, because they are decided by ballot.
Simple democracy demands that party power, (the control of voting), be eliminated from parliament. The Members must be freed from this control, so that they can be direct representatives of their electorates, giving the people renewed hope for just and effective government. One of the notorious effects of party politics in parliament is the time wasted in 'divisions' - the process of summoning the Members into the House (often nearly empty) to vote. They may even enter the House asking what the vote is about and which way they are required to vote. As can be imagined, the process is a substantial waste of time, with nothing whatever to commend it.
Apparently, consideration was given at one time to saving parliamentary time by using electronic voting in parliament; though not secret. It was clear that such a facility would save time. But it was 'scotched' for an interesting reason. It was felt that the Opposition's power to make its presence felt in the House was already severely limited. It would therefore be unwise, it was decided, to remove its remaining power - that of disrupting the progress of opposed legislation by the delaying tactic of calling for a division!
The voting procedures of Parliament must be changed. The system of open voting has entrenched the 'party system', with its consequential 'limpets', the multitude of lobbies and pressure groups. Members of parliament must be freed from the compulsion of party line voting.
This change would also enable Members of Parliament to truly represent their electorates, freed from party control, all being free to exercise their individual talents within the House. And, with parliament thus able to respond freely to the objective argument of any of its Members, the operation of parliament would have a refreshing democratic character.
Public debate, centering on the one or two key issues of the election, highlights the democratic poverty of 'representative' government, in the throes of party politics. How can we have any influence on decisions on the many issues, when we only have a choice as to which of the major parties will win office; nothing else. Party politics has emasculated representative government, authority of Parliament, and the separation of powers, the major components of the Westminster System.
We may be a clever people, but we are so stuck in our ways that we cannot apply our undoubted ability to the simple task of modernising our political system. Meanwhile the rest of the world is falling apart trying to operate under the same stupid fallacy - that party politics is essential to democracy, rather than being, as it is, its executioner.
Under party rule the electorate has limited options for voting. The parties dominate, and steam-roll the electorate with massive, expensive campaigns at each election. As a rule, only the major parties gain seats in the House of Representatives, the primary House of government; and they are not much loved, as they are felt to be self-serving, but the compulsion to fill all squares on the voting paper ensures that the transfer of preferences will all go to one or other of the main parties. Rarely can an Independent succeed. But an occasional Independent is not a real advance toward democracy as government normally has enough voting power under the party system to neutrallise an Independent.
In 'safe' seats, those voting for a losing party are consistently disfranchised. They are politically impotent, especially where issues important to them are decided on the basis of doctrinaire considerations - as is usual. So, many active party members from hopeless seats campaign extensively in marginal seats on behalf of their party. No doubt this is considered appropriate under the party system. But the notion of electorates being invaded by resources of money and personnel from other electorates would be unwelcome, and ineffective.
Elections may be for periods of three, or four years, five in Britain. The extraordinary thing is the pretence of democracy when the blatant wish of governments is to make decisions over longer periods without any reference to the people. And the desire for longer parliamentary terms is bi-partisan! It is claimed that there is a need for time to implement the 'hard' decisions; i.e. not bothering to secure community agreement – or sometimes defying community opinion.
No doubt the parties would relish the chance to dispense with public opinion. Longer terms would enable them to ignore the electorate more than ever. One curly suggestion made, was that parliament should suspend elections, sit 30 days only in the year, and vote secretly - a really totalitarian combination! And by a one time Democrat! Beat that!
It is claimed we need a greater stability. But the only stability offered by the party system is at the expense of real, democratic, representation by Members of Parliament. The whole purpose of longer terms is to be able to make decisions that cannot be hindered by unorganised popular opinion. The silent majority may not like the proposed actions of government, but party power seriously hinders involvement, rendering effective dissent very difficult. Party government thrives on the helplessness and short memory of the public.
The drive for longer terms is evidence of the parties' lack of commitment to democracy. It is ironic that, in the 'Era of Democracy' (1850s), terms were reduced from five years to three, to 'improve democracy'! They even wanted one-year terms. In East Timor at present, such short-term government could speed up progress and development. The axe needs to fall quickly where successful candidates have nothing but their popularity going for them. There’s too much to be done for that.
From a leading newspaper: ‘One of the great strengths of our system over many years has been its transparency.’ Really! If, indeed, the ramifications of government were transparent, then corruption, malpractice, and incompetence, would vanish in the glare of press and public scrutiny. And, there would be no need for Freedom of Information, investigative journalism, Royal Commissions or any other enquiries.
Secrecy reigns in government, with Cabinet secrecy supported by the secrecy provisions of the Public Service. These provisions forbid the disclosure of any matter whatsoever, whether or not the public interest is affected. The only release from the oath of secrecy for the public servant is death.
These draconian provisions ensure that any embarrassing information about the actions or inaction of government and bureaucracy will not be disclosed to parliament, or people, except at very considerable risk to the author of the 'leak'. And we have just seen government treading down the Auditor General's report of disturbing expenditure and financial transactions – just as in Victoria previously. What's the point of audit reports if autocratic government can so cavalierly dismiss them – and the auditors?
The far-too-rigid secrecy provisions owe their very existence to the paranoia that party governments feel about the public and the Opposition knowing what they are up to. And, of course, the Opposition is generally content to have the same control if, and when, it regains power.
We know something of the zeal with which governments pursue the matter of leaks. The case of the Customs officer who stopped a Cabinet Minister with his contraband colour TV illustrates the isolation of the public servant. He was 'crucified' for doing his public duty. One wonders whether the more senior officer(s) who overrode him suffered any adverse consequences.
With the Opposition denied access to the Public Service, and secrecy surrounding all Cabinet operations, it is obvious that Parliament's power has been demolished, and that the cover-up of government activity is aimed at the preservation of the image and power of the party in power.
There is a place where secrecy is right and a place where it is wrong. Debate should not be secret, but the real debate is not in parliament. It should be, but you can't have real debate where there is no chance for it to lead to a decision. Mention has been made already of the contrast between the operation of Parliament and the Constitutional Convention, where debate did lead to decisions - by secret ballot.
For the people to have confidence in government it is essential that the reasons for decisions made are evident. Open debate culminating in the secret ballot is the only way the public can be satisfied that decisions are made for the right reasons and respect the process of government. The people, who must submit to those decisions, are entitled to that assurance. Only then can the people have the necessary confidence in government, and respect for the nation's institutions.
Commenting on the Secret Ballots in Parliament proposal, in the Melbourne Age some time ago, Barry Jones, one-time M.H.R, asked sarcastically, "Do we want secret debate as well?” Not brilliant! It is quite important to realise that what we have now is secret debate - in the party rooms and in Cabinet; where the actual decisions are made. The real, effective debate must occur in the House. Only by cancelling the power parties, to control the votes of their members in the House, can this be done. The wrong place for secrecy is the debate. The right, and vitally necessary place for secrecy is the vote in the House.
It is often assumed that our representatives are sufficiently accountable to us in the electorate at present - through the election process. The vote looms large in the minds of many, as it is the only way we have to make the Member of Parliament accountable. But that is basically no more than a power to punish, not to exercise any influence with regard to our Member's representation on individual issues of concern. We have very little, if any, opportunity to participate in the decisions that are made; only an extremely limited say in who will make the decisions. We are allowed to elect the people dished up to us, but never to decide the issues that trouble us.
We are far too isolated from those whose responsibility it is to represent us. They are much too involved in the power game to be bothered with us as individuals. Some solve the problem by forming more pressure groups, thus accentuating the problem for the rest of us, who have neither the time nor the nature for that kind of aggressive activity - unless we boil over! Scratch any member of the community and you will find repressed anger. No wonder so many are on medication! Where can concerned citizens seek to bring health to the political system by regular, local, issue-based involvement, adding their presence and voices, along with local and other media, to community debate? One cannot form an active pressure group to equally represent the whole community, from 'outside the system'. (The Electoral Council Movement aimed to do that. Possibly it could be done so with all meetings conducted by ballot for all decisions. This could, perhaps, preclude a takeover by specific interests.)
A regular, local, non-partisan, meeting, freely accessible to the whole community, could only originate from the local Representative wanting to keep in regular contact with the constituents. The question is: "Why don't they?" The answer is that they do not depend on the people for reelection. It is the party that enables them to be reelected. In the United States they complain that whereas local Members once kept close and were very assiduous in cultivating the constituents, now they look to the big corporations for the campaign money needed for big television advertising etc., and they don't need the locals much any more! It's much the same here. The political muscle, provided by organisation and advertising money, is only accessible to the parties and groups that have their own axe to grind. Their vested interests predominate; subverting democracy.
Let's face it; advances in democracy never came easily. One can think of the Suffragettes and the Eureka Stockade - examples of the effort and sacrifice such advances can take. An improved democracy will require some solid thinking, and perhaps courageous action.
What then is the answer? The power of the parties lies in the disciplined, obedient behaviour of party politicians, who must do as they are told, to protect and advance their careers; voting consistently along the party line. The open vote enables this discipline and control by party hierarchies, operating with one eye on the funds supplied by their backers.
The introduction of the secret ballot into our parliaments is the only way we could restore truly democratic parliamentary government. But how? Only by public participation.
There are quite a few who would be glad to participate in regular conference meetings with the local Member, to support, query, challenge, even be a rival to the member. That meeting place would be a Mecca to all when controversy arises.
Meanwhile there would be constant low-key surveillance of, and publicity of, the local Member's performance. After all it is not the open vote in parliament that will make the local Member accountable, but the intimate local knowledge of the Member's attitudes, policies, debating in parliament, and above all, efforts and success in working for the electorate's overall interests and views.
The Member can be respected and remain unchallenged only by supplying constituents with unswerving loyalty. Intimate local knowledge of the Member is the real key to continual accountability. A party-line vote is a vote for the party’s interests. It cannot be called representation of the community interest.
Which introduces another question. What party supporter agrees with every solitary thing in the party's forever-changing platform? Whether we like it or not, the party platform (or some unexpected variation) is what the party we vote for (or give our preference to) will feel free to pursue. This is the status quo; our so-called democracy. And unless we find the courage for change, the only changes that will happen are the ones we don't like - originating from dictatorial party government.
Robbie Sefton, a regional communications specialist, from Coonabarabran, N.S.W., says: "People want a level of ownership over politicians; the people who are making the decisions..." There's the rub. They make the decisions but we don’t own, or control, them. The decisions are not the people's decisions. The people don't have a voice in the decisions governing their lives. We don't ‘own’ our representatives.
Party representatives listen with their ears but not with their hearts. Their hearts belong to their parties not to the people. They have sold their parliamentary votes for election finance and support, party endorsement and their leader’s coat tails. No doubt many of them wish it were otherwise but they have no choice. They are not free to follow the conviction of their own hearts. Their true style is often hidden until they retire. Ideally, they should be able to show their true colours and have the public support them for their stand on controversial issues. That is a distant dream until Parliament embraces the democratic voting procedure of the secret ballot.
We, the people, are not free from blame. We weakly acquiesce, because we are too apathetic to join the fight to demolish the party system, which freely creates this corruption of democracy. We have a false democracy. Politics is 'party' politics and decisions are determined by party power, not by free and open debate, in community and parliament.
A party government may stray markedly from its base, its electing constituents. It is apparent that governments, indulging in the idea of a mandate, do as they think fit. The 'Government', is also far from accountable to the Parliament, which is defeated continuously by the ruling party's command of its Members' votes.
The power of the Opposition is emasculated. Debate can be gagged at will by the government; all-party-committee recommendations can be easily ignored in Parliament; legislation can be, and often is, rushed through in the closing session of parliament without opportunity for appropriate debate or consideration. The ruling party appoints the Speaker, who controls the operation of the House, not necessarily impartially.
The more significant influences to bear on the government are a selection of groups - each with its own agenda - the press and TV journalists, the opinion pollsters, and the lobbies and pressure groups; none of which should have the kind of influence they have. Their influence fills the vacuum left by the practical exclusion of accountability of each Member to the people in the electorate – a flawed system.
With a real democracy we would acquire a real accountability of the executive to Parliament, and the accountability of Parliament to the people by virtue of the accountability of each Member to the electorate. None of this happens at present.
A matter that has long concerned political commentators is the dominance of the executive over the parliament itself.
The executive is the inner circle of the Cabinet, the Ministers closest to the Prime Minister or Premier. More-junior ministers have much less influence. The power of those in charge becomes institutionalised, so that their authority is virtually unassailable. Parties will support a leader even when disagreeing with the direction taken, since not doing so will damage the image of the leader and the standing of the party. It has been said that leaders can virtually do as they please so long as they look like winners!
In past days Jeff Kennett (once Premier of Victoria) described the suggestion for a parliament based on the secret ballot for all decisions, as dangerously simplistic! Simply dangerous, rather, to his beloved party system - which so kindly opened the door for him to dictatorial power - for a time. One would think that there could be nothing so dangerously simplistic as the mad rush to privatise all our public assets; in the name of ideology.
Paul Keating in his heyday as Treasurer reached such an impregnable position that while there were severe doubts that his economic policies were soundly based, and not merely some out-of-place economic dogma inherited from an earlier period, he was able to brush off criticism with simplistic reassurances, and be largely untouched when challenged about the errors in past predictions, even though he was obviously floundering at the time. He is not the only one! The leash of accountability needs to be shorter, much shorter.
All ideas, be they of the left or the right side of politics, based on a blind adherence to ideology, are fraught with danger. And the relentless pursuit of the Victorian Auditor General to reduce his office, emasculating his powers, seems to have had much more to do with his criticism of the Kennett government’s activities than economic efficiency.
Much media attention is given to party leaders – much more than to decisions. Little thought is devoted to how politics might produce better decisions in a calmer, more intelligent atmosphere.
The bitter contest between Left and Right in Russia is wrecking the country, showing the manifest failure of the West's free market philosophy to 'save' the country from its ruinous path. The sudden rush to a new ideology was never going to succeed. That's the problem with ideology - it ignores the realities, while trying to make the people fit its ideas. As Latham says, there has been no real attempt to focus on a better basis for making political decisions. The world has sown to the wind of partisan politics, and it is reaping the whirlwind of serious failure in country after country. When punch-ups occur in parliaments and ethnic tensions are often expressed with guns and bombs, there is no doubt democracy is not winning. We need to show a better way.
The claim leaders make for a mandate reminds one of the estate agent whose socks bore the legend 'Trust Me'! We should not be deciding important matters based on who proposes the policy. But party government easily becomes the toy of autocrats.
While the calibre of competing politicians is far from unimportant, without an understanding of the issues at stake, which are many, to be forced to simply vote for one party leader against another, means that the public has no input on the issue at all. There is much more at stake than a leaders' reputation.
A mandate (if any) is a trust, not an endorsement of power. For a leader to assume a mandate for a whole raft of policies, and even more for a difficult one that is little understood, flies in the face of fact. Usually, electoral success says little more than that the new leader is mistrusted less than the opponent. For a clever country, the political process does not make us look too clever at all.
People with high responsibilities must exercise powers of decision that they have been given, or permitted to assume. But this is a trust. All delegated power is thus limited to the delegation intended by the giver of the trust. Such delegation can only be acceptable if parliament (on behalf of the people) has the power to arrest or correct inappropriate executive action, and in an appropriately brief time frame.
The present latitude, i.e. the period until the next election, is far too long. It is too long for the people, as it is important that the joint wisdom of the many be able to impinge readily (and strongly) on the minds of those in power; and too long for the incumbents, who can succumb to the temptations of too great an access to power – with their dreams of a ‘mandate’.
The present system of government, with the Cabinet formed by the ruling party, and accountability solely to the ruling party, even the party hierarchy itself, must go. With the domination of the system by Cabinet, there are several onerous responsibilities in the one body - the functions of vision and policy, decision-making, administration or government, and the 'political' responsibility to the party to retain power. This concentration of responsibility and power is profoundly undemocratic. It is also ridiculous as they manifestly can't cope, and incompetent government struggles to lead a people who are troubled and fed-up.
The members of the executive, to satisfy their own ambition to retain power and the party's demands for action, churn out legislation, often enough unintelligible to the Members, to the public servants who have to administer it, and to the public who must obey it. Nothing else could so guarantee the multiplication of ill-considered legislation on the books, and exclude the real possibility of removing, or simplifying, old legislation.
Bad government breeds lawlessness, which leads to the need for more government. The style of executive government we have with the party system is bad government and bad democracy. We need parliamentary government, real democracy; not presidential style government, which tends always to autocracy, with its access to personal power.
Each Minister should be directly accountable to Parliament as a whole. Instead they are the front-line fighters in the party battles in Parliament - a spectacular sideshow - being blessed by their own party and cursed by the Opposition. They have their hands on the 'levers' of power. For Ministers, overwork and ambition are two powerful corrosives of a real sense of responsibility to put the public interest first.
Bureaucracy is not democratic. It is hierarchical and authoritarian. The complexity of government means that members of the bureaucracy, through their expertise, often have considerable influence over Ministers, whose frequent change is a pronounced feature of the party system.
The isolation of the public service, not only from Ministers, but also from Parliament, is aggravated by the secrecy provisions, which have the official purpose of protecting the public from misuse by officials of confidential information. But, these stringent provisions preclude a public servant from making any disclosure of maladministration (or worse), by the oath demanded on appointment - even if clearly motivated by the public interest. Hatred of disclosure pervades the whole system of government.
The secrecy provisions, complete with penalties under criminal law, shield the public service from government, from parliament, and from the people.
Under the Westminster system of ministerial responsibility, Public Service department surveillance is in the hands of the relevant Minister, the only Opposition access being the Question Time provisions, which are routinely abused by Government. Ministers and senior officials may develop cosy relationships and matters crying out for exposure are unlikely to receive the attention they merit. On the other hand there is growing up within these relationships a denial of ministerial responsibility on the basis that the minister was not properly advised. Where then is the accountability of the Westminster System - with no one accepting full responsibility? Where everyone shares responsibility no one does.
Accountability of the Public Service, or rather the lack of it, is something very familiar since the advent of the television programme Yes Minister. Unfortunately this satire is not without some foundation, and local parallels. The climate created in the Public Service by the lack of accountability results in a lowest common denominator of action. Only those things which are safe, (by-the-book or have a precedent), tend to be done. An appearance of action is a frequent substitute for real action. Once again, secrecy protects those it shouldn't. The combination of secrecy and the preoccupation of the parties with their political in-fighting, enables the bureaucracy to continue in its self-protective isolation; and maladministration and inefficiency can easily escape notice.
The progressive emasculation of the Freedom of Information provisions will, it is feared, further distance the bureaucracy from Parliament and the people it is supposed to serve. With the secrecy provisions properly modified, the expensive and ineffectual FOI provisions would have been (and may in the future become) unnecessary.
Parliament itself is far from accountable. It is a nonentity. Since parties and groups dominate parliament it is not the seat of power it should be. Accountability and responsibility are just not possible. Accountability of parliament can only be realised as, and when, it becomes a true House of Representatives. Two things logically go together - freedom of Members from party control, enabling the parliament to regain control of decision-making, and the Cabinet - and a realistic accountability of the Members to their constituents. Only then can Members influence the decisions made and also be required by their constituents to answer for the effectiveness of their influence in parliament on their behalf.
Direct accountability of the Members to their electorates is an absolute essential. We don't have it. The party Member may be uneasy about the electorate, but cannot win the confidence of the constituents. The Member blames the electorate for being apathetic, but most voters, as already mentioned, just repress their frustrated anger. And that is why politics is a taboo subject - the frustration and pain are not worth it.
The electorate has no time for politicians whose first allegiance is to the party, and whose power to act on its behalf is strangled by the party system. At the same time, to vote for an Independent is seen by most as futile, as Independents cannot compete with party machines; and their chances of election are correspondingly small. And if elected they are in most cases merely 'a voice crying in the wilderness'.
Members are obliged by their endorsement to put party considerations first, before their relations with the electorate, the chain of responsibility, which alone could ensure democratic government, is broken down completely. Accountability of government is therefore spasmodic and weak.
Matters raised with a Member get little further than the promise to 'take it up with the party'. Some may busy themselves with assistance to individual constituents, to enhance their image. They thus try to compensate for their inability to pursue more serious matters to a conclusion. The knowledge that the local Member has so little capacity to affect anything effectively discourages contact with the very one who should be in close touch; as a strong, and single-minded representative in parliament on behalf of the people.
Self-government demands that government be accessible and responsive to the people. It is not. We do not know how they vote. We do not trouble ourselves to find out. It would make no difference if we did. Nothing will change because we think what they do is wrong. Nor will there be an adequate explanation of the reasons for the actions of government. No wonder there is so much frustration. Contrast the quote from Abraham Lincoln: 'Public opinion, in this country, is everything!'
Dr. Ken. Coghill in a speech in Traralgon reported in the Melbourne Age (15/8/90) also noted the undemocratic nature of our democracy. Drawing attention to the excessive power of the executive, he referred to the abuse of Question Time by governments.
This abuse destroys any semblance of accountability of Government to Parliament. The long speeches by Ministers, little devoted to the Opposition question, and ‘Dorothy Dix’ questions by government back-benchers, to give Ministers opportunity to bang the party drum, are ploys by governments to circumvent the purpose of Question Time - to make government accountable to parliament. What a joke! But who is laughing?
At one time the Senate majority, of non-government Senators, decided to limit the time in the Senate for the asking, and answering, of questions to one and two minutes respectively. This tactic scored a point in enabling more questions to be asked, but has probably achieved little in eliciting real answers to real questions. The whole problem reflects, once again, the poverty of the style of ‘democracy’ that is currently practised, and the difficulty faced by those who would hope to achieve something for the well being of our society.
Our political structure consists of pyramids of power. Under the party system there is a continual search by the parties for 'leaders'; those who can attract the necessary support for the party to gain or retain power. Party democracies are vulnerable to the leadership cult and commonly veer in that direction. Sir Michael Somare, of New Guinea, once commented that the Westminster system was no good for New Guinea - it was too much concerned with personalities. Too true!
With the present system, leaders have power and it attracts people who want power; and it is the battle for power which is destroying us. We have party conflict instead of cooperative government, the setting of bad behaviour precedents instead of constructive leadership, and community discouragement instead of a productive calm. Some of the best-talented people refuse to be involved in this type of scene. Thus politics is deprived of their contribution.
People tend to be ambivalent on the subject of leaders. Strong leaders appeal where pressure for selfish interests is wanted. But not if they are in the opposite camp! They are the 'tall poppies' to be eventually cut down.
Democracy is always inconvenient for those who have, or desire, power. As mentioned before, a Left-wing union activist once said, "We need leadership, not democracy." It is particularly unfortunate that there is this view that leadership and real democracy are incompatible concepts. A true leader leads - not by power and manipulation, but by being worth following. An autocrat does not lead. He/she dictates.
The party system does not give promise of providing the best leadership. It provides leaders, but the party battles preclude real leadership. It is certainly difficult for the public to be sure who is worth trusting and following.
Leaders within the party system cannot give of their best to the public interest. The public wants trustworthy, 'good' leaders, but the system inhibits their rise, and destroys those who reach the top. The party system is notorious for discarding leaders who cannot maintain or rebuild party power.
Because of the institutionalisation of power within the party system, the tendency is for significant change to occur through leadership coups, or removal of a governing party through an election. The value of such change is highly debatable. The people do not trust these 'leaders'.
Typically, party-minded people want powerful leaders who can override opposition and put the party policies into action without the agreement of those affected. This implies a significantly dictatorial aspect to the operation of government. If we accept that the governing party should have the power to make the 'tough', unpopular, decisions, we are tacitly accepting minority rule, even though for a limited period. The principle that the governed should participate in government is therefore constantly flouted.
Party government works by tough leadership because of the hostilities and enmity it nurtures. That is why considerable public pressures exist and at times boil over. The view that the ruling party can have a mandate to virtually ignore the electorate does not fit well with the democratic concept of self-government.
The party-system renders the public politically sterile, while leaders act with a high hand. The result is that there is little explanation of policy, much confusion, and failure of public support and cooperation, without which difficult problems can never be resolved.
It is quite apparent that politicians are not gods, and are frequently at a loss to know what to do, or afraid to pursue a right course when they know it. Party politicians' viewpoints are frequently doctrinaire and sometimes merely a reaction to other views, rather than an objective attack on the problems; so constructive, cooperative leadership is a notable casualty.
Democracy demands a much better, more civilised approach. It is quite unacceptable that a party elected on the basis of a party platform, should assume a blank cheque for dictatorial action. Parties are not elected on the basis of a detailed understanding of their platform or programme. The more likely basis is either a blind attachment to an ideology, or more generally, leadership image and lavish promises. Conning the public is the main preoccupation of party politics but such behaviour would be hissed out of a real democracy.
Government, in the hands of leaders who vie for power, and come and go through party turmoil, may have to respond at times to the whims of a self-centered, capricious public, but that is a far cry from democratic self-government. And no country can prosper like that.
We need a new basis of leadership - a basis in which inspiration, ideas and policies can spring from any source, and win their own following; being derived from a process in which all the people who wish to do so have been able to be involved. The community could concur and cooperate, with a steadily growing confidence, in such a process of government.
Stability of decisions is hard to achieve in a climate of confrontation. Fear of defeat generates forcefulness and consequently strong reaction. The lack of accountability of government stands out starkly when we see party governments still in power even though their public approval ratings are low. Claiming a mandate implies considerable opposition to the governing party's planned action. The theory behind this democratic enigma is that to have any stability of government, there must be the freedom to ignore the electorate for a period, and make the tough decisions. Thus, as already noted, the only stability offered by the party system is at the expense of true representation by Members of Parliament. This is the dilemma of democracy - that is, the kind we have!
While the system of parties exists, it will, always and inevitably, permit power to be exercised by organised groups and exclude power from the rest. This imbalance creates instability of policy direction and government.
Government budgets produce public nerves due to the uncertainty of party governments' secretly planned moves. Likewise, Oppositions avoid disclosing their ‘hand’. The imminence of an election, with the possibility of an alternative government and an about-face on many important issues, causes planned business actions to be put on hold - some stability! More like inertia! And in the face of a serious need for prompt action.
Without the resolution of the problem of the system's creation of illegitimate power, government will continue to frustrate and annoy. We may have 'stability of government', but only for the short term and at the expense of our country's real potential and real quality of life. Seesaw government is inevitable under the party system, and that is not the stability we need to enhance the life of the nation.
Without better participatory mechanisms Western political culture has become used to accepting aggressive demonstrations as a necessary part of democracy. Do we want 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?
A few simple rules could improve public understanding of difficult problems, upgrade our democracy, and save some broken heads.
Minorities have a democratic right to be heard, otherwise 'rule by the people' becomes a tyranny by the majority; which is often unthinking, often confused by a lack of real information. Majorities are not right all the time. Democracy is not about force. It is about sharing information and giving others the (inestimable) right to be heard - so that sensible decisions can be made, without regrets.
By characterising the violent confrontation of a One Nation meeting as a 'defence' of tolerance, Pamela Bone10, complicated an already complex issue. Things that disturb people and result in demonstrations are usually those that governments handle badly.
What is so lacking at the top is the willingness to publicly proclaim moral positions. For example it is wrong and, surely un-Australian, to belittle, intimidate or otherwise harass another law-abiding person for any reason whatsoever. A Prime Minister is in the position to say so publicly and to say so strongly. Would that really be so courageous? Racism is very much alive and well in this country needing positive statements of principle from 'the bridge', which could markedly change the rot in our national values of tolerance - our 'fair go' heritage. Making a political battleground out of such issues can only make matters worse. 'Be not overcome of evil but overcome evil with good'. In other words attack the 'message', not 'the messenger'. Anti-social views need to be publicly condemned - from the’top’.
There appears to be considerable confusion regarding this so-called 'right'. It is quite elementary that all freedoms have limits. The concept of unlimited freedom is contrary and offensive to the egalitarian spirit of democracy.
Anything that publicly causes offence to another (e.g. an aboriginal football player) requires a sincere public apology by the offender. And only person able to judge whether the sincerity is genuine, and sufficient to liquidate the affront, is the one offended. No offence can be justified on the ground of freedom of speech. Similarly, in the case of an article in Rabelais11, alleged to contain an incitement to the crime of shoplifting, the defence can not be 'freedom of speech'.
Democracy is mistaken by many to mean absolute freedom. Unless we get our minds straight on this we make a mockery of democracy. Democracy is about the right to live in a society well ordered by self-government. Freedom without order is a myth. We may be free to rob a bank but all our freedom will evaporate with the clang of the steel door! Freedom is the product of good government. Obviously the way to real and lasting freedom can only be found in the persistent pursuit of real democracy. The calls for freedom have a common cause - the lack of real democratic government. To look for freedom elsewhere is a false lead. Other than in the realm of good government, efforts to secure freedom will do more damage to freedom than good. The USA has a Bill of Rights. Does it ensure freedom for them?
Freedom of expression does NOT mean the right to shout others down, to demonstrate aggressively, or otherwise intimidate or threaten the right of others to their freedom of expression, regardless of how passionately we may disagree with their views. Democracy must mean that Pauline Hanson or any one else has a perfect right to call a public meeting, unhindered by contrary opinion. There is a misconception that the principle of democracy endorses demonstrations which confront. It does not.
Representation under the party system is representation of parties, not the people. Many things worry the people but we have no effective say. The problem of demonstrations will inevitably continue until reforms which give concerned people a realistic say in matters of public concern are implemented. Only then can government have the moral authority to protect its citizens' clear entitlement to free speech within a well ordered society, with community peace and harmony.
The party system in parliament has been an obstacle to the entry of the best candidates into the field. As we have noted, the party candidate is quite commonly not even known in the electorate, let alone well known, and, as often as not, a 'good' Member, losing the seat in a swing away from the party, will vanish without trace. There is normally no sign of opposing candidates between elections, as there is no ongoing local forum for them to function. All local action is thus postponed until election time ensuring that there can be no ongoing effective critique of the Member's performance, and the electorate does not have ideal or stable representation by a well known and widely trusted Member.
A serious evil of the party system is the frequency with which the two major parties are so evenly supported that a large number of lobby interests, pressure groups, and minor parties, and/or Independents, are able to exert an influence on government disproportionate to their numbers. While a minor group may have a case that deserves consideration, it is the ability to force favourable decisions against majority opinion that is disturbing - and wrong.
The number of different interests employing this method of political influence has increased markedly over recent years. Many groups, such as doctors and nurses and specialists, have been formed to operate in this way, the members of which would have disdained to do so in days gone by. One writer, so far from decrying such activity, blamed weaker groups for not doing the same thing! Such is the landslide toward the pursuit of power in a society that is rapidly losing all faith in its governing process.
In having no other option than voting for parties, voters are forced to vote against their own wishes on many issues. There is no opportunity for people to have any influence on specific matters. We have no choice. We are not offered, nor can we claim, a say on each issue. At each election for the House of Representatives, we vote in the end, willy nilly, for the major parties and their platforms; like it or not. The options offered are circumscribed by the non-optional preferential voting system, any voting paper not complete with the major party candidates’ names not being counted. Thus the major parties get all the votes. The country is therefore saddled with the winning executive's policies for the duration of the following parliamentary term; while the Opposition, whose ideas on some matters at least could merit majority support, simply pound against the government's defences like the ocean surf on a rocky headland! What political helplessness is theirs, and ours! What hindrances these things are to sound government! What a silly system!
Being forced to vote for parties leaves us no other choice than an odd and unsatisfactory mix of policies and personalities; or to cast an informal vote.
Party-government motives for promotion of referenda are notoriously suspect. Consequently they are usually rejected. Now the idea of Citizen Initiated Referenda (CIR) or Direct Democracy, is gaining attention; i.e. referenda, which it is mandatory for Government to put to the people upon submission of petitions signed by a specified number of voters. See Chapter 4.
There have been moves in some areas for the introduction of Citizen Electoral Councils, to enable community discussion, and to put forward Independent candidates. It is claimed that these Councils would be open to everyone to participate equally. But that is the kind of basis on which the Communist Party was meant to operate in the USSR and China. That the will of the people (the 'dictatorship of the proletariat'?) could not survive in this kind of context has been amply demonstrated.
All political (and other) groups tend to become the preserve of the vocal few - the democratic dilemma. Ordinary folk cannot handle these situations, and even where joining, in community concern and hope, as in the old Australia Party, later the Australian Democrats, they fall away. It is unlikely that such unofficial groups can fulfil their promise of a non-partisan forum, without a well-above-average commitment to the public interest by those directly involved in its set-up and conduct. Such can never be guaranteed.
Member Recall proposals for controlling nominated candidates are clearly designed to make delegates of representatives, requiring a candidate to sign an undated resignation, to be held pending use in the event of an unsatisfactory performance. Held by whom? The point is that the Electoral Council, which would inevitably degenerate into another local power group, would hold the letter of resignation. It has been also described as, 'removal of parliamentarians and public officials by petition for referendum'. It is often said by some of the proponents that the so-called Independent would be no more than a 'messenger'. Exemplary conduct and public responsibility of those active in the Council would be essential to its acceptability. It all sounds decidedly risky, even where the original concept is initiated in good faith.
There has to be a better way to create non-partisan electoral forum. Fortunately there is.