There is generally a very real attachment to the principle of democracy, even though it may mean different things to different people. But Abraham Lincoln's oft-quoted definition has a theoretical accuracy that cannot be ignored. True democratic government must:
This ideal looks for an immediacy of effectual public participation in the processes of government, on the basis that the involvement of the people will produce, over time, the best answers to the problems we face, for two reasons:
And nothing could be more important for us than cooperation at all levels of government and society to promote the kind of progress which we need at this juncture in our history, with all the growing pressures of diplomacy, immigration, trade, international finance, and technological, agricultural, and environmental challenges, not to mention the mounting social problems brought on by unemployment and drugs. Unresolved conflicts in all these areas can only hinder, even destroy, this country's chances of a well-ordered, productive and happy society.
The crux of the problem in Western democracies is that it is assumed that we have democracy. The danger (and the tragedy) is that people engrossed in the existing political system, see it as the ultimate, and cannot, or will not; see that its faults demand action. While a pure democracy, in the sense of an equality of personal political involvement in a large society, is out of the question, the evident shortcomings should be a matter of real concern to us all.
Whereas power belongs to the people, our 'democracy' is almost ludicrous in the puerile struggles for personal power we see in our politicians. It is good to laugh sometimes, but 'happiness is no laughing matter', and our need for a real democracy is serious. Our happiness, our well being depends very much on the degree of freedom we enjoy from unjust treatment by government, or by others from whom it is government's job to protect us. Good government is foundational to society; when that fails what can the people do?
Democracy is the government of choice for those who long to be free. Any diminution in its quality represents (and is caused by) losses of legitimate freedoms. Our well being, individually and as a nation, is at stake.
It is evident that for democracy to be successful there has to be a democratic attitude in its conduct, which means the abandonment of force and aggression in favour of reason and mutual respect. There must be a willingness to rely on the processes of public persuasion - true politics - which requires the patience that only comes from goodwill - a 'fair go' for all in other words. Politics is the art of synthesising the needs and aspirations of the whole community into policies and action that produce the maximum overall benefit. It comprises the channeling of public opinions, perceptions and demands through representatives to their assembly for their deliberation in the manner indicated above. It also includes the downward communication of alternative and contrary views to the public. Herein lies a key (and difficult) responsibility of Representatives. Between parliament and people the best answers must be thrashed out. The media is prominent in these functions but it is regrettable that face-to-face discussion between Representatives and constituents has been substantially thus replaced. Is there a better answer?
Where the system does not give full and free scope for the process of rational discussion, the goodwill of those overruled or ignored can be stretched to breaking point. Some of the challenges of politics result from the lack of care for minorities by the majority. The wants of the majority tend to crowd out the woes of minorities. Do those well off consider the poor? Do the concerns of those who are fit leave room for the needs of the sick? Do freeways have priorities over hospitals? Does the current passion for economic efficiency allow room for understanding the high pressure on nurses and teachers, whose dedication to the sick and the young is overtaxed to the point of desperation by staff reductions? Arrogant self-interest has no place in a democracy worthy of the name. It destroys the very cooperation which, if anything, can reap the rewards which we would all like to see; both materially and socially.
The work of politics is to resolve the problems of united action in a community divided by differing interests and needs. Where the political system can do that, in a reasonably calm manner, great benefit accrues to the community. Politics must be an ongoing, non-stop function, involving as many as can, and wish to, be involved. It should never be viewed as an occasional opportunity to indulge in the frenetic activity of the committed at election times - i.e.'politics'.
The people, according to the changing circumstances and needs of the community, should regard all issues as under the possibility of review. The suggestion that old laws, bad laws, are still 'on the books' means that they are acceptable to the people is quite false. Whereas politics must beneficially involve the people, as of democratic right, 'politics' excludes the people and serves the interests that dominate the political process, as Belloc and Chesterton clearly saw,n their book: 'The Party System' (London, 1911.) The people must legitimately feel confidence in the political system; that they can participate in real self-government.
There is a certain strain of thinking abroad that democracy is too weak and clumsy for the effective operation of government. We are quite familiar with the occasional sour comment that what we need is a dictator. We Australians display little liking for leaders, who are often inclined to think and act autocratically. But we do need leadership. How can we get one without the other - strong leadership without the improper use of powers won under our system of election? Can the abuse of power be prevented? Is there a way?
Often a new direction will be all-important. To see and promote answers to new problems and opportunities is the true quality of leadership, not necessarily evident in those with the power to implement. We must learn how each Member of Parliament can exercise the function of leadership, if able to be freed from party constraints. Political power and political leadership must not be regarded as the same thing. Party 'politics' confuses the two. Political power belongs to the whole Parliament. Initiative must not be excluded from the Members, as distinct from the executive, or from the people; according to Belloc and Chesterton. Only a parliament composed independent, truly accountable representatives can promote among its Members the real function of non-partisan, issue-based leadership, while retaining the power of decision for itself.
Parliament must acquire the integrity, the credibility, the flexibility, and the strength, to be able to respond promptly to any situation in the right manner. Machiavelli was to point out that government must be able to operate with the people as sovereign in peace but must quickly reclaim sovereignty in emergency. That demands a dynamic democracy.
Democracy today is representative government. Hillaire Belloc and Cecil Chesterton spelled out in 19112 the following requirements for government by democratic representation:
It unfortunately needs to be said that a representative's function is to represent the people to Parliament - not special interests or ideologies. Sometimes it will be necessary for a Representative to reason with constituents where convictions would indicate that the people's views are astray - in other words to represent Parliament (e.g. the national interest) to the people!
The essence of representative government is the close relationship of the Member with the community. If there is no liaison with the public, representation is a myth. It is essential to have contact with all opinion and needs in the community to be able to act representatively in parliament. Minorities must not feel ignored. Democratic government is FOR (ALL) the people. Even if they cannot have all their wishes met, they must feel that pursuit of legitimate aims is not hopeless. There is a lot of discouragement and, indeed, hopelessness about these days, because of the party system. Representatives need to be delivered from the bondage of party politics.
A Representative, if freed from party control and pressure group interference at the parliamentary level, would have a high calling indeed, but there could be 'storms' for individual Members to ride out at the local level. This is an inescapable corollary and challenge of a truly democratic process of self-government.
The revival of the idea of a representative as a 'delegate', is no doubt a reaction to frustration with party politics and its interference with direct representation, concerns about the plight of the country, fears for the future, and a felt need to have a more positive say in the political scene. The delegate view regards the Representative as a mere 'messenger'.
While the electorate's views will undoubtedly, and must, preoccupy the Member's mind, to be a mere messenger is far below the needs of the country, and of ourselves, as our long-term well-being is integral with that of our country, and also, ultimately, that of our world. In a representative democracy, therefore, a representative is both a listener and a leader in policy formulation on behalf of the electorate, enhancing the prospects for the realisation of the best community aspirations. People should be able to feel that nothing is impossible, so never give up, even though majority opinion may temporarily defeat sensible, but personal, aspirations. We need representatives who are 'statesmen'. Mere delegates - 'messengers' - cannot be statesmen.
The question of an individual right must be weighed against the rights of others - the well being of the whole. Community life requires unity - in the basic and essential attitudes and practices of life, including language. Government is an essential factor in our community life. Without government we are not a people. But without good government we are a troubled people.
The question of individual rights requires a refinement of judgment, on the part of government, which can avoid misapplication of principles and laws to cases for which such are inappropriate. We must tread gently, lest we tread on 'dreams'! Simplistic, legalistic answers to problems need to be avoided if we would see real justice prevail. Good judgment requires that there be real goodwill toward our fellows, ensuring their dignity and well being. Unless our concept rests in this framework, the freedom of one will be at the expense of another. . Where restraints must be imposed, that can be acceptable if the decisions can be seen to be fairly derived.
In the community, the vital need is that self-restraint be exercised willingly for the benefit of the whole
We do not want to see a system of rights which has the effect of supporting an individualism which is damaging to other people, or to truly accountable government; in other words, wide-ranging legal restraints, which may prevent good government from carrying out the majority will of a caring people. The vital need is that we exercise self-restraint voluntarily for the benefit of the whole. We are already plagued by excessive minority power. The power to achieve undue personal or minority advantage creates enemies.
The genius of real democracy is to limit the use of political power to that which the people approve. For the system to permit power beyond that is to see peaks of power and entrenched conflict. Limiting the power of the powerful is a leveling process, which opens the way for the civilised and civilising function of genuine politics to cooperatively pursue the cause of justice. Limiting power excludes tyrants and promotes democratic leadership. Democracy requires a system that can engender confidence in all individuals, especially in weak and depressed minorities, that their reasonable interests will be heard and regarded, while excluding any undue political leverage. Government must control the strong and by responsiveness give confidence to the weak.
'Multiculturalism', means different things to different people - acceptance of difference with goodwill for some; or, it may be an ideological drive, with an enthusiastic embrace of the different for its own sake? People generally have 'absorbed' cultural diversity, - which is obviously supportable in enriching our community life; even if it were only for the diversity of food styles that immigrants have brought with them!
But governments granting differential benefits stir the pot. There is a world of difference between 'allowing', and (governments) 'helping', people to be different. Culture is a matter for each individual, not for which governments should undertake responsibility. Australia's welcome to migrants is as individuals not as members of groups - of any kind.
Multiculturalism, as a policy, cannot be taken to mean special privileges; although in our culture special needs do attract appropriate help, hopefully, independently of cultural considerations. Surely that should be our aim.Multiculturalism is fine if it means that we have many different people with various cultural backgrounds, which do not actively threaten existing values, and especially if they move toward Australian citizenship, not making Australia a stage for playing out imported antagonisms. Government obligation is to see that nobody is harassed because of cultural differences. Some differences may be anti-social; e.g. in South Africa; the Zulu insistence on carrying 'traditional weapons' in publicly organised fashion. Intimidatory habits brought from less-ordered communities, must be outlawed. Some non-intimidatory habits may be considered to be a threat to our Australian cultural values. But if our cultural values are in danger, then we might reflect how our culture has deteriorated by our own neglect - our own weakness - not by the immigrant minority. The remedy lies with us.
Some think that democracy is merely majority rule. The Greeks explained their 'democracy' as 'rule by the many rather than rule by the few'; 'the many' being the entire franchise, in public forum.
The term, democracy, the way they understood it, (and they invented it), is best seen as a contrast to the norm - rule by dictators, oligarchs, parties, elites, bureaucrats etc., none of which is acceptable as democracy. Any political system that excludes people from an active participation in the making of the decisions that govern their lives has turned aside from democratic principles. Public apathy in no way excuses the exclusion of those wanting a greater degree of participation – government BY the people.
No true democrat wants to dominate the lives of other people. Viewed in this light, Lincoln's third point - ‘government FOR the people' comes into clear focus. New governments usually claim that they will govern for all the people. This is not to ridicule such claims but to remind us that to give less than due regard to minority concerns inevitably exacerbates community tensions through isolation and discouragement.
In seeking to understand the nature of democracy we must bear in mind that the people, the majority, must rule. Otherwise there is minority rule - with the majority held to ransom. There needs to be a balance. Each Representative must uphold the minority view where justice so demands, but resist those demands where it does not. Sometimes the majority view may be unwise or unaware of minority problems, and leadership will be required to support a minority view. A democratic system should be able to facilitate the persuasion of a majority to embrace a minority view; wherever justice leads; without undue difficulty.
Having the real power, the majority must be sensitive to the needs and fears of its minorities, and certainly of the individual as well. Only where there is effectual opportunity for all concerns to be aired in public face-to-face contacts can this be. The people must accept responsibility for decisions that may adversely affect a minority. Without face-to-face contact in regular public meetings it is difficult to see this occurring. Such facilities work well if convened by Representatives.
Parliament must be able to protect the people from the political muscle of privileged individuals, or minorities, over the will of the majority; or, vice versa, of the majority over the legitimate interests of individuals or minorities. Such is government FOR the people; such is the nature of real democracy.
The Society of Friends, called the Quakers, follow the practice of unanimity in their decision-making, not wishing that any member should be overridden. But it is clear that this, as a rigid practice, would effectively overturn the principle of majority rule, and thus be quite untenable for the purpose of politics, as a few could hold the many to ransom. A balance, or compromise, is essential in weighing the needs and interests of all, because, in government, decisions cannot be avoided until complete unanimity is reached.
A question remains about the acceptability of decisions made on a bare majority. Can such decisions be stable? War is such a case. Since retreat may well be quite impractical and unacceptable, very substantial agreement must exist at the outset. (The Vietnam War was a case in point.)
Prior to the implementation of any serious, far-reaching policies it would seem wise to require a majority which is substantial, and has increased over a period of discussion and debate; possibly lengthy in controversial cases. There is nothing to suggest that such a process could not accelerate whenever the need for decision is urgent. But in many cases we see an autocratic attitude acting on a so-called mandate and forcing decisions through without heeding the need for adequate public debate. It happens. It should not.
Mr. Sarkis, when President of Lebanon, said that the problem of his country was the problem of minorities. It is equally true of any country, in varying degrees. In many cases, especially developing nations, their confusion and sufferings are beyond words. Which must prevail; majority will, minority demand; or conscience?
The question arises in these considerations, as to the nature of the issue refused by a majority or about which a minority refuses to be overruled. Sometimes a majority will yield for political reasons when the minority should be resisted, and sometimes the minority view that should, in all conscience, prevail.
The minority case may be for a felt need. On the other hand, it may be a matter of ideology or principle, in which case it may be either right or wrong that it should prevail. One cannot generalise. However, in a real democracy, a minority will always have the right to pursue the agreement of the majority, or, on a question of principle, to eventually become the majority. It is only the reality of such a right that makes membership of the whole tenable for the part.
The dictatorial rule over minorities by majority groups within countries, and the rule over weak majorities by powerful minorities, are the most pressing problems facing the world today. Violent conflict is unfortunately still seen, in so many countries, as the only means of resolving political problems.
The sense of past and present injustice, the hope of freedom from tyranny, increased facility for communication between dissident groups throughout the world, increased literacy and education, the pressures of economic change, are all raising tensions which require the dynamics of a new democracy to resolve, without the necessity or excuse for resort to violence.
It is true that a minority must defer to the will of the majority. That is the practical necessity imposed on democracy by society's need for government to rule. But, for democracy to be successful, the majority must always be willing to consider the real needs of minorities. Otherwise government cannot be claimed to be FOR the people. Where that does not happen a minority loses confidence in the system, and often with some justification, resorts to a range of actions, from protest to naked violence. And no matter how undesirable this may be, there is certain logic in such a response that cannot be denied. Everywhere there are movements for independence.
If things that cannot be cured, nor endured, can happen to us, then we are not free. We can only be free when we are self-governing; i.e. when we have the same privilege of political input to the decisions affecting us as anyone else. People are not free when they must make a choice that is merely the least of two possible evils. A least-worst choice has been equated with slavery. A least-worst choice is what we have with the party system.
The desire for freedom is a cry for justice. Where justice reigns, there is no cry for freedom. But a serious error is the rampant individualism which can destroys freedom. The other fellow's 'freedom' can be dangerous.
'Pluralism' and 'multiculturalism' stand for the recognition, and even the support, of individuality. So defined they are unquestionable rights - to be readily granted. Individuality is creative; it adds colour to the life of our society. But individualism, the improper assertion of selfish rights can, and often does, ruin the rights and freedoms of others. Nor does self-assertion, at the expense of the well being of others, lead to personal freedom. The genius, and task, of a true democracy is to lead us to the necessary balance of well being between all contesting interests.
Removal of anti-democratic aspects of government is essential so that submission to legitimate authority can lead to greater freedom - paradoxical! Strange but true! A society controlled by law is a free society - when the lawmakers are 'owned' by the people.
Freedom includes the need to build individual 'potential', even economic potential. That is the background to compulsory and assisted education. Escape from reality does not lead to freedom. Life and freedom demand action, often costly action. Self-indulgence and neglect lead to restraints, restricted opportunities, and straitened circumstances. This is precisely the personal damage sustained by addiction to drugs of every sort - including gluttony! The casualty is personal freedom.
Neglect may well lead to the loss of freedom and the regrets and remorse for what might have been. But by rejecting indulgence and shouldering our own burdens of responsibility we can each help to produce the long-term benefits of a well-ordered society, and real freedom. We can be part of the solution instead of the problem.
Because freedom needs real democracy, we would do well to watch, and nip in the bud, any suggestion to follow the presidential style of 'democracy', in which conflict with a diminished parliament would be pervasive. We would do much better to design our own style of government, if there is to be a change from the Monarchy. (See Chapter 8).
While we need leadership, leaders (as distinct from leadership) are usually our problem as we have seen. The door must not be left open for a leader to corner political power. For the people to have too little control over a leader is a lapse of democracy, and therefore a situation of acute danger. We, the people, must not let go of the reins. Government by the people is our responsibility and must not be left in jeopardy. The protection of democracy, in the end, depends on us.
The whole government process should be open for all to see and hear. Only that way can confidence in the political process be restored. Truth and justice can only flourish in the open. Decisions should not be made behind closed doors. The public needs to be assured that there is nothing beyond the public eye, affecting the decisions. An open system of representation is essential. There is no room for the private meeting with the Member of Parliament. All contact should be open, to public knowledge, even public scrutiny.
The Athenians believed that their democracy was uplifting to their society through the opportunity that all voters had to participate. (The exclusion of slaves is irrelevant to this discussion). The evidence of the history of Western nations surely tends to support this. If then, genuine democracy does help to build a better society by expanding and uplifting the individual well-being, any improvements in the democratic system, to make it more just, more worthy of the name of democracy, and of the respect of the people, cannot be seen as optional.
Since Victoria was the first to adopt the secret ballot for the conduct of elections, should we supinely respond to the challenge of necessary change to our political system with such a weak question as, 'Is it done anywhere else?’. The world has a crying need for an example of a real governmental system, which can operate with truth and justice. But where can it look for an example to follow?
Since there are serious faults in our democracy, political reform is a responsibility we should shoulder, for our own benefit and ultimately, by the creation of an 'exportable' democracy, for the benefit of the world at large. It is up to us to show the world a simple and good democracy, which will provoke them to emulation.
Decision-making by individuals, or groups, or whole communities is an important part of life. Our well being is very much dependent on how we handle this. Our personal decisions must be in harmony with our whole inner being. In making our decisions we can suppress our true feelings only at our peril. Rather than resulting from failure to suppress feeling, bad decisions stem from bad thinking. Good decisions depend on our being open to all relevant facts, including the opinion of others (and the wisdom of the ages). It is truth alone that can set us free to an enhanced life. In our social or corporate life, repression or discouragement of truth - always somewhere there, resident, in individual opinion - cannot occur without harm to the whole.
(And this is true, right down to the family forum - the family council. And we may wonder to what extent that is practised in our communities. Many of us have failed in this area, with serious hurt and regrettable consequences. Possibly the many homeless today are victims of decisions which affected them seriously but to which their possible reactions were neither considered nor sought.)
Within our communities, what organisation is free of the kind of person who attains to a position in the organisation, and proceeds to make decisions without reference to, or regard for, the membership? There is probably no group in the community in which excessive power is not wielded by some over others. Forcefulness in meetings cowers opposition and precludes objective and logical debate. A non-executive director of a large public company once remarked that balloting in the boardroom would be a great idea. The implication was that the executive directors were exercising an undue influence over the decisions of the company. Similarly, a member of a cricket-umpiring association mentioned that, in a meeting of that organisation, a request for a debate on an issue was promptly overruled by the Chair, on the basis that the committee had already decided the matter! Disagreement with leadership proposals and decisions is never popular with leaders and their close followers. Dissidents will always experience some form of pressure. Realistic discussion and debate are stifled. Disagreement often causes offence.
Again, in how many churches would the management committee, or equivalent body, be glad to submit their decisions to a ballot of members? Decision-making in the various organisations in our communities often generates heat, and less forceful people retreat into silence and a dissatisfied acquiescence. They have then given up the right to disagree; and eventually, to even think. The question arises, whether this is really a democratic society at all.
While the ballot is the fairest way to arrive at the decisions that an organisation must resolve, an extension of its use from elections to ordinary decision-making is rare. Decisions reached in meetings, without any chance of a ballot, are never truly representative of the membership view. The ballot could defuse the undue power of forceful people, diffuse emotional heat, and restore a highly desirable calm to any contentious meeting. But since a ballot is usually not available there is generally a meek raising of the hand in assent, or avoiding the meeting altogether. Who of us has not done these things? We either put up with it and grumble, or just 'vote with our feet'. A much greater use should be made of the ballot. It should be the norm for the ballot to be frequently requested by members in meeting, and agreed to by those presiding, without any demur whatsoever.
Many leaders have no time for ballots, or any real desire to seek consensus. Even if, initially, their motives are good, power will corrupt them. The best leaders can quickly become the worst, because of their early and ready access to power. Once elected, without the ballot for decisions, leaders can get 'the bit between their teeth'. A firm control over the access to power is only available with the use of the ballot for decisions as well as elections. There is a certain logic in our habit of cutting down the 'tall poppies'. They can be a danger, although the public is generally looking for 'good' leaders on whom they can rely. But here is a problem. The fear of 'good' leaders getting too much power tends to deny us the benefits of good leadership. Only when the public can make its presence felt, with immediate effect, can that fear be allayed, and leadership from any source be welcomed and effective.
Some years ago the use of the ballot to control the up front people in a meeting was clearly demonstrated. In a program on Hungarian television (under Communist control at the time, mind) all participants had on their seats a secret ballot switch. The whole tenor of the article in Time3 magazine was that the meeting could not be muzzled by the platform because of the continuous available of the ballot facility to the meeting. A countrywoman routed a visiting official. She would not sit down until the official had agreed to import black rubber boots! Available boots, all red and yellow, did not suit. The black ones were soon imported!
Just as the English barons cut back the authority of the kings with Magna Carta, political parties grew up as a defence against the rise of autocrats in a way that could not have been available to the people generally. But in due course the barons gave way to the popular franchise and faded from the scene. Or did they? Perhaps we still have them, but in disguise! Belloc, were he still with us, would probably say that they are the ones who still control our Parliaments - through the party system.
Kay Holt also, has correctly noticed4 , even government ministers. Too few have noticed the fallacy of local representation by party politicians and have left us in bondage to the party system. Choosing party candidates you merely get what parties can give, if they win! We need the levelling effect that would result in parliament if MPs' votes were all cast by secret ballot. All MPs would then be on the same level as Independents - all effective representatives, and parliamentarians - and no dictators!
Bob Hawke, speaking in the 1979 Boyer Lectures ABC Series on 'The Resolution of Conflict' went on to say:
There are many critics of our system of government but no serious attempts appear to have been made to remedy the situation. Meanwhile we lumber on. We need a much more effective way, and a greater capacity, to handle well the problems of the future. True 'democrats' want everyone to have an equal say - just a 'fair go'. And that is not possible in meetings where a ballot cannot be called - no matter in what social or political context. The secret ballot is the democratic way to reach a decision on any controversial question. It is the answer for every form of social organisation, because it deals with the endemic problem of the abuse of power.
The degree of quiet acceptance of the results of an election by ballot underline the value of this basic right to share in the making of a decision, and it is up to us, ordinary folk, to press for this practice to become widely accepted. As the Russian said, "democracy never comes from the 'Top'". It is up to all of us.
The Secret Ballot IN Parliament is the missing element in our 'democracy'. And it is the absence of this important feature that would ensure that party politics would immediately take over parliament again, if (hypothetically) all the Members elected were Independents.
It is plain that any worthwhile revision of our political system will have to deal conclusively with the problem of the access to power which the various parties, lobbies, and pressure groups have. The procedure of voting by 'divisions' is archaic; and ridiculous. The waste of time is one thing, but far worse is the openness of voting, which supports the controls of the party system. The secret ballot must be used in its place. Only this change will give all Members the freedom which will enable them to vote by conscience on all decisions, and so demolish the control now exercised by party leaders and Whips, and the power of the various interest groups to exercise political pressure, by threatening the parties' election hopes.
The parties' concentration on power stultifies the whole process of debate, and prevents a cooperative involvement in the formulation of sound policies, and the making of right decisions. The real political power must become the prerogative of parliament itself, instead of a coterie of party politicians manipulating parliament at their own will and pleasure, for their own ends. No real progress to a genuine and effective democracy can be achieved until this advance in parliamentary practice is realised.
The Secret Ballot In Parliament is the vital step which must be taken to: