Citizen Initiated Referenda
It is apparent that there is a great deal of unrest in the community. The public dominance of party governments, whether Liberal or Labor is a substantial contributing factor to that unrest; partly . We are far from democracy, and the harmony that one could expect from a really democratic form of government. The disturbing fact is that new movements, whether they be parties or Independents are never capable of expressing the mind of the whole community in the divisive parliaments with which we are so familiar.
Whether progressive or reactionary, we see parties, groups and Independents in continual conflict, pressing hard for their own point of view. Each grasps one aspect of truth only; by itself a distortion of the total. Persuasion and compromise alone can produce sensible decisions (and harmony) with the ballot of the people as the final arbiter, but our political process majors on tedious conflict rather than permitting the public a direct voice.
For democracy to advance, the secret ballot must enter more authoritatively into the political process. One way is for the introduction of Citizen Initiated Referenda.
Very briefly, for those who don't know about CIR - Direct Democracy, or The Initiative (Switzerland, USA), which are basically the same, it is a process whereby the public, as well as the government, can initiate questions to be put to referendum, questions that governments would usually rather avoid.
To 'trigger' the process, a petition by a set percentage of voters is required, upon receipt of which government must refer the matter to the people by referendum within a certain time. If the matter is agreed by the people in the referendum then the proposal automatically becomes law.
Obviously true democrats like it. Equally obviously, party governments, and other political parties hoping to win power in parliament, are less than enthusiastic! The adoption of CIR in the Constitution would itself require a referendum, of course. However, while party governments determine referendum questions, the problem of successful implementation is obvious.
The far from ideal presentation of the referendum question on the republic, and its failure, is a typical example of the public confusion and frustration resulting from the the total control of the referendum process by governments. Citizen Initiated Referenda would certainly hinder any dominant political power going too far from public opinion on any issue.
The One Nation party's policy on Citizen Initiated Referenda could have substantial ramifications, if the party revives significantly. Western Australian, ex Labor politician, Graeme Campbell, linking with One Nation, could reinforce this party's policy on CIR.
We know that party politicians are forced to choose career before democratic principle, but it is interesting that Peter Reith has been a strong advocate of Citizen Initiated Referenda in the past, hosting an intensive seminar in Canberra on the proposal. So also was Bronwyn Bishop.That shows where the heart lies. But political considerations dictate review. With Peter Reith now resigning from parliament, who knows what next. It seems increasingly that retiring members are showing a new independence of outlook and, possibly in some cases, a new direction of political involvement.
There was a time when John Halverson also gave indication of philosophical agreement with the secret ballot in parliament. His path to the speakership, and then resignation from parliament, indicates the conflict that real people have with the party system. Similarly Senator Chaney after retirement was quite critical of 'party politics', and gives support to Independents' campaigns. Again Sir Paul Hasluck could have been Prime Minister had he had the necessary authoritarian, anti-democratic spirit. The democratic principle is deeply rooted in some - but for not others! In politics, practice does not make perfect.
New Zealand has adopted a limited version of Citizen Initiated Referenda, the implementation of a result being at the discretion of parliament. While this may seem like emasculation, parliament could not ignore community opinion so solidly expressed. No doubt it was limited to have the principle more readily adopted. It may be successful. On one view its mere existence is a healthy brake on government even if rarely used!
Some may worry over the potential for populist issues to carry the day under CIR, but the population at large cannot be so easily fooled. In any case the elimination of the uncertainty, frustration and turmoil created by the exclusion of controversial matters from democratic reference to the people, could be well worth the risk. And the more people involved in deciding an issue, the better is the decision.
Important decisions need to be made calmly and rationally with a substantial avenue for real public input. The election-policy 'bunfight' is a disgrace to democracy.
Our real need is for a far better process which will enable concerned citizens to have some effective input, without the election process and the politicians having it all their own way.
The CIR proposal could answer the purpose.
Terry Gygar, Northern Territory MLA, travelled to Switzerland to investigate the Popular Initiative and Referendum in practice. His report:
If 100,000 people (2.2% of the voters) petition for a Bill to be introduced it must be put to Referendum. This is fairly popular with the Swiss people.
The formulated initiative is an actual draft bill, and, if carried, immediately becomes law An unformulated initiative is initially only a statement of principles. If it is carried the Parliament must pass a Bill incorporating those principles. When a petition has been presented the Parliament and Government may express an opinion concerning the proposal, or, if it supports the principles, but not the actual draft, may put forward a counter proposal which is voted on at the same time. The voters may support either of the proposals or reject them both.
Initiatives are frequently used as a means of applying pressure to the Government and over half never get to the vote - the Government brings in the requested legislation of its own volition and the petition is then withdrawn. Of the over 130 initiatives supported by petition, over half have been, within 6 months, reflected in legislation by the government itself, and the petition consequently withdrawn.
The Swiss initiative and referendum provisions seem to be a magnificent example of the benefits where the population have a say in the laws that govern them. Intangible results of this appear to be the high level of commitment and interest which the Swiss people have in good government and the confidence they have in their political system. Elections in Switzerland are very quiet, gentlemanly affairs; and everyone knows that a 'middle of the road' Government is virtually guaranteed.
The Swiss Initiative and Referendum System commends itself.
Since the notion of getting the parties out of parliament (e.g. with the electronic secret ballot) has not yet grabbed the public imagination, we need to see CIR adopted throughout the country, to enable the people to bring certainty and stability to government.