'The Battle for Democracy'

The Secret Ballot vs The Party System


The Athenians took pride and pleasure in the process by which they arrived at the decisions that had to be made. Their system gave them confidence, and hence, strength. However democracy means different things to different people.

However democracy means different things to different people, e.g. Emerson exclaims in his Journals, 1846: 'Democracy becomes a government of.' 1 There are many opinions.

We have noted already that democracy is not a static concept. If that seems a bit aggressive, perhaps a journey might be a better metaphor. However that may be, our constant aim, as a people who claim to be a democracy, must be to improve the processes of government by which we pursue our aims for a better life for all. If we are to be a strong and prosperous people we must be able to advance cooperatively, resolving the tensions of business and society with a minimal of turmoil and angst, while pursuing the cause of justice and freedom for all.

Abraham Lincoln's oft-quoted definition has a comprehensive accuracy that we cannot ignore. A truly democratic government must be government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Now that America has installed an interim government with an appointed president in Iraq, we may recall a telling comment from a less than happy French President, Jacques Chirac, who said recently: 'democracy is not a method; it is a culture...'2 Absolutely. It is a product of an underlying social attitude a culture.

The democratic ideal is a grassroots movement looking for an effectual public participation in the processes of government. The involvement of the people will produce the best answers to the problems we face, for three reasons:

Comparing modern democratic models with the Athenian, there is a difference that stands out very starkly-participation. The Athenian form of government, by participation of the entire franchise, was indeed government by the people. By that participation it had clearly legitimate authority to be government of the people. Dissident voices were not excluded and there was public confidence that it was government for the people.

The failure of modern representative government is its inability to encompass anything like a satisfactory process of public participation in the decision-making processes. Democratic government falls down on all three of the Lincoln criteria for a democracy; flopping heavily, of course, when compared to the original; the Athenian model. The curse of modern representative government is the refusal of those who could reform our democracy, but don't, when the first principle of democracy is so clearly to involve the people to the fullest degree possible. This modern division, between people and government destroys its legitimacy, its acceptability and its authority, and its ability to project acceptable ethical standards.

Nothing could be more important for us, at this juncture in our history, than cooperation at all levels of society and government, to find good answers to the maturing problems of the age. The pressures are all on us, as a nation: pressures of diplomacy, immigration, trade, and international finance, together with technological, agricultural, and environmental challenges. Added to these are the accompanying social problems of unemployment and drugs; and lastly, the mounting tensions of religious fundamentalism. Unresolved conflicts in all these areas can only hinder, perhaps even destroy, the chance of becoming an ideally well-ordered and productive nation; let alone a peaceful, prosperous world.

Our borders are crumbling under the impact of world problems.

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 radical change is essential for the future wellbeing of the nation. While an equality of personal political involvement for everyone is not essential, the starting point must be at least the facility for effectual input of concerned individuals, whenever they wish to take part. There isn't, and it is reflected in the very evident shortcomings of our political system. This is the focus for our real concern.

It is good to laugh sometimes, but happiness is no laughing matter, and our need for a real democracy is serious. Our happiness, our wellbeing, depends very much on good government, which is foundational to society. When the foundation fails what can the people do?

Good government alone can provide us with the justice and freedom that are the essential source of our wellbeing, our strength, individually and as a nation. Democracy is self-government, the government of choice for those who long to be free; but freedom is not free; it costs.


It is evident that for democracy to be successful there must be an attitude of goodwill in its conduct; which means the abandonment of force and aggressive behaviour in favour of reason and, to repeat, 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; the genuine desire that all should have a 'fair go'. Politics is the art of synthesising the needs and aspirations of the whole community into policies and actions that produce the maximum overall benefit. The basis of representation must include an improved process of channelling public opinion, perceptions and demands, through our representatives, integrated with a genuine process of objective discussion/debate, moving to its logical conclusion in our parliaments, to enable them to reach the decisions that are plainly in the best interests of the community. This cannot be without a considerable improvement in public access to the system. Where the system does not give full and free scope for the process of rational public discussion, the goodwill of those overruled or ignored can be stretched to breaking point.

Our politics must include the downward communication of alternative and contrary views-representatives liaising between government and public, a vital responsibility for each representative. A normal face-to-face discussion between representatives and constituents, and between constituents themselves in public forum, is an important target. Between parliament and people the best answers can then be thrashed out. The media, especially the print media and Internet, will have an increasingly important role in an evolving democracy. It could assist the education system in an even more effective role in the political education of the community.

A challenge of politics is to ensure that the majority does not lack care for our minorities. The view of the majority can sometimes crowd out their woes. Do those well off consider the poor? Do the concerns of those who are fit leave room for the needs of the sick? Does big business, in taking over areas of the health system, care for the sick? Which is it to be: good care, or minimal care maximum profit? Does the passion for economic efficiency allow room for understanding the high pressure on nurses and teachers, whose dedication to the sick and the young can be overtaxed to the point of desperation by staff reductions? Elizabeth Kubler-Ross became famous (and eminently successful with difficult mental cases) insisting on the importance of compassion in health care. When professionals feel the pressure of efficiency biting into the quality of care they deem important, we have a nasty conflict of interest going on in our hospitals and schools. Powerful people can gain at the expense of the many who are not organised; and therefore weak. Competition is good if it stimulates individual effort, but it can degenerate into pressures that produce fear, 'sharp elbows' and destructive stress. Determined, grasping self-interest has no place in a democracy. It destroys the very cooperation that can reap the material and social rewards we need. The nation is really an organism that can be vibrantly healthy, or sick, apathetic and full of problems. Its up to us to seek the best way.

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 wish to be involved. It should never be merely an occasional opportunity to indulge in the frenetic activity of the committed at election times, while the rest of the community hovers between apathy and despair.

All matters, according to the changing circumstances and needs of the community, should be seen as under the possibility of imminent review if necessary. The people must not feel helpless in the face of troubling situations, or inappropriate laws. Politics must beneficially involve the people as of democratic right, not serve the interests that have so long dominated the political process, as Belloc and Chesterton clearly saw.3

Authority, or leadership?

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 whose tendency to think and act autocratically escalates when in power. We do not need leadership of that kind. How can we get one without the other-strong leadership without the improper clinging to powers improperly won under our political system? Can the abuse of power be prevented? Is there a way?

It will often be important for the community to find a new direction, to be able to understand new problems and new opportunities. Promoting appropriate answers is the kind of leadership that will always be valuable. Those qualities are not always evident in those with political power. People with power and authority usually fail to welcome the ideas of others, no matter how good, fearing competition. It is strange how some don't want the competition that they seek to impose on others. We need the freedom for leadership to emanate from many sources; and the withdrawal of monopoly power from those who presently wield it.

Competition in 'society' leadership must replace 'political' leadership to restore our democracy. We must find a way for each Member of Parliament to be free to exercise the function of leadership, confident of winning the support of parliament where and when it is justified. Political power and political leadership are presently packaged together. That's where the trouble starts. Political power belongs to the whole parliament, not 'leaders'. Parliament will only belong to the people when all its members are free to exercise, and respond to, non-partisan, issue-based leadership. Then only will they be true representatives and accountable as servants of the people.

Then parliament will have the integrity, the credibility, the flexibility, the strength and the ability to respond promptly to any situation in the best manner. That is the dynamic path to the democracy we need.

Representative government

The vast aggregation of societies into modern nations has forced democracy into the mould of representative government, the essentials of which Hillaire Belloc and Cecil Chesterton spelled out in 1911:

  1. An absolute freedom (of the public) in the selection of Representatives;
  2. The Representatives must be strictly responsible to their constituents and to no one else;
  3. The Representatives must deliberate in perfect freedom; and
  4. Especially must be absolutely independent of the 'Executive'. 4
However: 'Instead of the Executive being controlled by the assembly, it [the Executive] controls it [the House of Commons]'. One could not get a more accurate description of House of Representatives' malpractice today.

On the other hand, the ideal of representative government so presented certainly seems to be a reasonable statement of aims for any democracy; the only question being 'is it feasible?' It is a good question, and we must find the answer.

The essence of truly representative government is the close relationship of the representative with the community. In a democracy each vote of the representative must be the conscious exercise in parliament of the political power of the constituents, being their contribution to each actual decision of the parliament.

Sometimes it will be necessary for a representative to reason with constituents where a maturing personal conviction suggests that the views of the people are astray; in other words to represent parliament (and the national interest) locally. Without close liaison with the constituents true representation simply cannot exist.

To act representatively in parliament, it is essential to have contact with all opinion and needs in the community. Minorities must not feel ignored and powerless. Democratic government is for all the people. Even if they cannot have all their wishes met, they must feel that the pursuit of reasonable aims is not hopeless. This way discouragement will not set in.

A representative who is free to represent the constituents has a high calling indeed, although greater challenges are likely to be inescapable.

The revival of the idea of making a representative a 'delegate' is a clear reaction to the emasculation of real representation by party politics. There is much public concern about the plight of the country, fears for the future, and a felt need to have a more positive say in the political scene, but the delegate view regards the representative as a mere 'messenger'. While the electorate's views must preoccupy a member's mind, to be a mere messenger is far below our needs, and the needs of the country.

Our long-term wellbeing 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, along with others, in policy formulation on behalf of the electorate, enhancing the prospects for the realisation of community aspirations. People should be able to feel that nothing is impossible if they persist in a just cause, even though majority opinion may temporarily defeat sensible aspirations. We need representatives who are 'statesmen'. Mere delegates cannot be statesmen.

Rights vs. unity

Good government is the essential factor in establishing community justice. Community unity demands justice. Through better democratic government individual justice and community unity can be better achieved. Without government we are a rabble-not a people; but without good government we are a troubled people.

Pressures for the establishment of legal rights for individuals diverts attention from the pursuit of improvement to democratic government to establish justice for all. The pursuit of rights is a blind alley. In the community, the vital need is that self-restraint be exercised willingly, avoiding disadvantage to others. This is the spirit of democracy. It is also the way of self-government.

Real democracy will continually aim at improvements to the system to 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 some might seek to have. Democratic assembly is required to enhance government responsibility and responsiveness, giving confidence to those less able to fulfil their reasonable aspirations.

Democracy is able to be flexible and evolve in the interests of the people, but imposed rigidities such as entrenched rights, will not create justice for all. Real democracy, which we must continually aim for, will divert power from the powerful by a levelling process. That process must enable the people, by opening the way for them to be involved in a civilised and civilising community participation, cooperatively pursuing the cause of justice for all. The establishment of legal or constitutional special rights will subvert, not help, that process.

Multiculturalism, or cultural diversity?

'Multiculturalism' means different things to different people. For some it will mean acceptance of difference with goodwill. For others, it may be an ideological drive on behalf of others, enthusiastically embracing cultural difference for its own sake.

People generally have 'absorbed' cultural diversity that is clearly supportable in enriching our community life; even if it were only for the diversity of food styles that immigrants have brought with them. On the other hand, the differential benefits of affirmative action on behalf of selected groups stir resentment. There is a world of difference between allowing and helping people to be different. Cultural difference is a matter for each individual, not a matter for which government should undertake responsibility. Australia welcomes migrants as individuals, not as members of groups; of any kind. Multiculturalism, as a policy, cannot be taken to mean special privileges for groups, although in our culture special needs do (hopefully, always will) attract appropriate help based on needs. Democracy cannot guarantee equal outcomes, but should be sure not to muzzle reasonable aspirations.

Multiculturalism is fine if it means different people with various cultural backgrounds nurturing cultural differences that do not threaten acceptable community values, especially if moving towards Australian citizenship.

We cannot allow Australia to be a stage for playing out imported antagonisms. Some differences may be anti-social; for example, in South Africa the Zulu insistence on warlike groups carrying 'traditional weapons' in a public place. Intimidatory habits brought from less-ordered communities must be outlawed. There is no place for them here.

On the other hand, some unfamiliar religions and cultural habits have come to stay. If they are a threat to our cultural traditions, the reason may be that our culture has deteriorated by our own neglect, by our own moral weakness. Are our values strong enough to persuade others to adopt our ways? We may first have to earn the respect of those nationalities whose views differ from hours.

Government must see that nobody is harassed because of cultural differences that pose no threat to other individuals or to society. Discouragement and oppression will be damaging, not only to affected individuals and minorities but also, in the end, to the whole of society. The French attempt to exclude personal religious symbols is understandable as a policy to avert community fragmentation; but only success, without coercion, will prove the point.

Majority rule

Some think that democracy is merely majority rule. However, majorities, like leaders, can be arrogant, irresponsible and wrong. Being careless of the woes of weak minorities is not democracy, but a 'tyranny of the majority'.

As we have seen, the Greeks explained democracy as government being in the hands, not of the (influential) few, but of the many. On the other hand, minority views were listened to in their forums. The majority must accept responsibility for decisions that adversely affect a minority. Face-to-face contact in regular public meetings is essential for this to be realised with majority responsibility.

In seeking to understand the nature of democratic government, we need to bear in mind that the majority must prevail, or there is minority rule; with the majority being held to ransom. There must be a balance. Each representative must uphold a minority view where justice so demands, but resist those demands where it does not. Sometimes the majority may be unwise, or unaware of minority problems, so leadership will be required to support a minority view. A democratic system must be able to permit the persuasion of a majority to embrace a minority view wherever justice requires, without undue difficulty.

A common problem of democracy is the reactive fear of minority power. Only with the power of the majority clearly established in parliament could the majority be sufficiently sensitive to the needs and fears of minorities, and even individuals, where needed, without fear or favour.

Parliaments must be able to counter the political power of privileged individuals or minorities over the will of the majority or, vice versa, the will of the majority over the legitimate interests of individuals or minorities. That is government of, by and for the people; the essential marks of a 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. As a rigid practice, this 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 government cannot avoid decisions until complete unanimity is reached.

A narrow majority

There is still a question. Can decisions made by a bare majority be entirely acceptable: and stable? War is an example. Since retreat may be unacceptable, very substantial agreement must exist at the outset. The Vietnam War was a case in point. So is the decision to attack Iraq. Loose talk of attacking Syria and Iran is the same. Decisions by the executive, buoyed by majority views in opinion polls conjured up by leader and media spin are essentially unstable and ultimately indefensible. They take too long, but eventually the chickens do come home to roost.

Prior to the implementation of any serious, far-reaching policies it seems only wise that at least a large, non-partisan parliamentary majority be required, a majority that has preferably increased over a period of discussion and debate; possibly lengthy in controversial cases. This requires something quite different to the compulsory majorities of party politics. Too often we see the practical exclusion of mature public input, and an automatic assumption of a mandate forcing decisions through without heeding the need for serious public debate and agreement. A liberal process that will ensure adequate public input through the people's representatives is an important need. This process could easily accelerate whenever the need for decision is urgent.


Minority movements seeking independence are to be seen everywhere. In many countries, especially in developing nations, minorities' confusion and sufferings are beyond words. Which must prevail, the cries of the minority, the will of the majority, or the conscience of the majority? The nature of an issue refused by a majority and about which a minority refuses to be overruled can pose serious questions. Sometimes a weak majority will yield when the (unduly influential) minority should be resisted; but sometimes the minority view is resisted when it should, in all conscience, prevail.

A 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. 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. Where that does not happen, a minority loses confidence in the system and often, with some justification, resorts to a range of actions from peaceful protest to violence.

The cases of dictatorial rule over minorities by majority groups within countries, and 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 minority problems. No matter how undesirable this may be, there is a certain logic in such responses that cannot be easily denied.

Injustice, past or present, and hopes of freedom from tyranny, raise tensions which lead to violence. With the increased facility for communication between dissident groups throughout the world, increased literacy and education, and the pressures of economic change, these tensions require the dynamics of a new democracy to resolve, without the necessity or excuse for resort to violence.


Unfortunately, militant leadership raises religious and ethnic issues going back centuries, which have encouraged brutal cruelty, sometimes by peoples previously living in harmony together; in the Balkans for example. Northern Ireland is another case where ancient enmities are stirred up annually by celebrating, in the midst of the Catholic residential area, the ancient Protestant victory at the Battle of the Boyne; a non-Christian and undemocratic way to behave. Fear, not faith is at the core of these attitudes.

Tolerance of difference within society is essential for community harmony and individual liberty. Where that is missing, individuality within vulnerable groups can be crushed, leading to cries for self-determination and political autonomy.

While, on the one hand, we need to advance under the UN to world democracy, the cries for self-determination are leading to further world fragmentation, leaving enmity and conflict unresolved. Clearly the world needs a lot more of the democratic attitude; goodwill, and a lot more democracy.

Democracy and freedom

If things can happen to us that cannot be readily cured or happily endured, then we are not free. To belong to a well ordered society is the best freedom, and the safest freedoms exist in a society that is well ordered by democratic self-government. Self-government can only exist 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. The secret of freedom is good government, which alone can provide the space that enables individuality to flourish. 'Pluralism' and 'multiculturalism', regarded properly, stand for the recognition and protection of individuality. So defined, these policies are unquestionable. Individuality is creative; it adds colour to the life of individuals and society.

The pursuit of freedom can fail in its objective if it becomes a preoccupation, an end in itself. Individualism, the assertion of self, ruins the rights and freedoms of others. Self-assertion, at the expense of the wellbeing of others, does not lead to personal freedom. The genius and task of a true democracy is to lead us to the government that finds a just balance between conflicting interests, and, in finding that balance, the process promotes community understanding and goodwill; and freedom. Removal of anti-democratic aspects of government is essential so that submission to legitimate authority can lead us to a greater freedom. 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. 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. The basis is self-indulgence and the result, the crippling loss of personal freedom, with the regrets and remorse for what might have been. We can be part of the solution, or part of the problem. By rejecting indulgence and shouldering our own burden of personal responsibility we can each claim our own free space and help to produce the long-term benefits of a well-ordered society, and real freedom for all.

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 if there is to be a change to a republic. In such republics, there is institutionalised conflict with parliament. We must design our own style of government in which communication and cooperation are the ruling principles.

The protection of democracy depends, in the end, on us insisting on government by the people. While we need leadership, leaders who corner political power, may talk about democracy, but their words are lies. For the people not to have parliamentary control over a leader is to lapse into autocracy, the end of freedom. We must reclaim 'the reins', and never let go. Government by the people is the people's responsibility. Trusting in leaders is the road to dictatorship.

Open government

The whole government process should be open for all to see and hear. Only then can confidence in the political process be restored. Truth and justice can only flourish in the open, so real representation is essential to assure us that there is nothing beyond the public eye that could affect the making of decisions. There must be no closed doors in the political process; no room for private meetings.

The release of official documents, held under the thirty-year embargo, often reveals all sorts of inappropriate conduct, improperly hidden from public knowledge. We must not put up with this kind of concealment. Until each member of the executive and all MPs fully accept the importance to democracy of public scrutiny and understanding of the motives behind decisions of parliament, we won't have open government, or public peace of mind.

An ethical society

The Athenians believed that their democracy was uplifting to their society through the opportunity that all voters had to participate. The evidence of the history of Western nations (with at least some democracy) tends to support this. If then, democracy does help to build a better society by improving our wellbeing, any improvement 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.

An exportable democracy

Since Victoria was the first to adopt the secret ballot, for the conduct of elections, should we supinely respond to the challenge of necessary improvement to our political system with such a pathetic question as: 'Is it done anywhere else?' The world has a crying need for an example of a system of governance that can operate with truth and justice to strengthen and enrich society. Where can it find 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 rest of the world. In view of our heritage, it is up to us to show the world a simple and good democracy that will provoke them to emulation.

A democratic Society

Decision-making by individuals, or groups, or whole communities, is an important part of life. Our wellbeing is very much dependent on how we handle it. Our personal decisions must be in harmony with our whole inner being. In making our decisions we can suppress our true feelings; but only at our peril. Feelings originate in the mind. Bad thinking is the cause of the bad feelings that make bad decisions. Thus good decisions depend on our being open to all relevant facts, including (some attention to) the opinion of others, and to 'the wisdom of the ages'. Only truth can enhance life. Repression or discouragement of truth only brings harm to our individual, social and corporate life.

This is true, right down to the family forum; the family council. 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, many who are homeless today are victims of decisions that affected them seriously, but to which their possible reactions were neither sought nor considered.

Within our communities, what organisation is free of the kind of person who attains to a high position in the organisation and proceeds to make decisions without reference to, or regard for, the membership? Wherever groups meet in the community there will be some who will wield their excessive power 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 hindering non-executive directors from having an appropriate influence in the decisions of the company. Similarly, a member of a cricket-umpires' association once remarked 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 leaders' proposals and decisions is never popular with leaders and their close followers. Dissidents will always experience some form of pressure not to 'rock the boat', even though they may be right in objecting. Disagreement with those presiding often causes offence, and so realistic discussion and debate are stifled.

Again, in how many churches do management committees, or equivalent bodies, submit decisions to a ballot of the 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 their right to disagree and, eventually, to even think. That is what happens. The question arises whether this really is, as yet, a democratic society.

Many leaders have no time for ballots, or any desire to seek consensus. Even if, initially, their motives are good, power will most likely corrupt them. Once elected, the best leaders can quickly become the worst, because of their early and greater popularity and access to power. Without the practice of the ballot prevailing 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.

While the ballot is the fairest way to arrive at the decisions that an organisation must make, an extension of its use from elections to decision-making itself is extremely rare. Decisions reached in meetings without any chance of a ballot cannot be truly representative of the membership view. Only the ballot can defuse the undue power of forceful people, diffuse emotional heat, and restore a highly desirable calm to any contentious meeting. Without the ballot, there is usually a meek raising of hands in assent or avoidance of the meetings altogether. Who has not done these things? We either put up with it and grumble, or just 'vote with our feet'. A much greater use must be made of the ballot. It should be normal for a ballot to be frequently requested by members in meeting, and agreed to by those presiding without demur.

There is a certain logic in our habit of cutting down 'tall poppies'. They can be a danger, although the public is generally looking for strong leaders on whom they can rely; but strong leaders gather power to themselves. Only when the people can make their viewpoint register effectively, without delay, can that fear be allayed. Strong leadership on neglected issues is a vital need, but the power of decision must belong unarguably to parliament.

Some years ago the value of the ballot was clearly demonstrated in a public meeting with government officials. In a Hungarian television program (under Communist control at the time, by the way), all participants had a secret ballot switch on the arms of their seats. The whole tenor of the magazine article8 was that neither the presiding officials nor visiting members of government could silence the participants in the meeting, because they could vote against them without fear, freely using their secret ballot switches. For example, a countrywoman effectively routed a visiting official. She refused to sit down until he agreed to import black rubber boots. Available boots, all red and yellow, did not suit. The black ones were soon imported. The ballot facility gave power to the meeting, defeating the normal 'authority of the platform'. There's a lesson here for us. If we are to be a genuine democratic society, we need to reflect on President Chirac's comment, in effect, that we first need a democratic culture; a culture of genuine goodwill.

Democracy, the long running battle

In the early days the English barons cut back the authority of the kings with Magna Carta. Then 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 Holt9, also, has correctly noticed the fallacy of party politicians' 'representation'. Too few have spoken of this before and we have been left in bondage to the party system. Bob Gourley10 also notes the levelling effect that would result in parliament if MP's votes were all cast by secret ballot. All MPs would then be on the same level as independents; all genuine representatives and effective parliamentarians; on a level playing field.

It is quite clear that any worthwhile revision of our political system will have to deal conclusively with the problem of the excessive access to power which the various parties, lobbies, and pressure groups have.

The parties' near monopoly of 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 leader and a coterie of party politicians manipulating parliament at their own will and pleasure, for their own ends.

There are many critics of our system of government but no serious attempts appear to have been made to remedy the situation. Academics frequently refer to the problem, but retreat into the view that it can't be helped; there is no other way. Meanwhile we lumber on. We need a much more effective way, and a greater capacity, to efficiently handle the problems of the future. True democrats want everyone to at least have a 'fair go'.

Real democracy must be an ongoing aim. The Russian comment is true: 'Democracy never comes from the 'Top'.

Bob Hawke also comments: 'If the party system has reduced the effectiveness of parliament in its traditional role of the monitor of the executive, then good sense demands that we should ... seek methods to renew its authority in the interests of the people'.11

It is time for the political parties, and their executives, (and the 'limpet' lobby groups) to be deprived of their dominance of our parliaments. Responsible parliamentary government and real representation must be reintroduced as the basis of our political system. How can we achieve this? We shall see.

Citizen Initiated Referenda

Could this be the way? There are many who thinks we should.

It is apparent that there is a great deal of unrest in the community, the dominance of party governments being largely to blame. The disturbing fact is that the public interest is the permanent loser 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, which by itself is not the truth. Persuasion and compromise alone can produce sensible decisions (and harmony), with the ballot of the people as the final arbiter, but our political process centres on tedious conflict rather than permitting the public an ongoing voice. For democracy to advance, the secret ballot must enter more comprehensibly and authoritatively into the political process. One way could be the introduction of Citizen Initiated Referenda (CIR).

Very briefly, for those who don't understand CIR, which is also called 'Direct Democracy' (or 'The Initiative' in Switzerland and some states in the USA), it is a process whereby the public, as well as government, can initiate questions to be put to a referendum; questions that governments would usually rather avoid.

To 'trigger' the process, a petition by a specified percentage of voters is required, upon receipt of which government must refer the matter to the people by referendum within a certain time. It may be a piece of prepared legislation or something less precise. If the referendum relates to a prepared bill, and is passed, the bill automatically becomes law. In the latter case the government would be required to implement the people's decision.

Obviously, true democrats favour the idea. Equally obviously, political parties having, (or hoping to win), power in parliament, are less than enthusiastic. Since the right to choose referendum questions is the preserve of party government and there can be no CIR without an amendment of the Constitution by referendum, the problem 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 total control of the referendum process by government. Citizen Initiated Referenda would certainly deter executive government from ignoring or manipulating public opinion on any issue.

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 of the power of the process, parliament could not easily ignore community opinion so solidly expressed. It was doubtless limited so that the principle might be more readily adopted. It may be successful, even if rarely used, as its mere existence is likely to be a healthy brake on government when required.

Some may worry over the potential for populist issues to carry the day under CIR, but the population at large, through active participation, cannot be so easily fooled. In any case, the elimination of the uncertainty and frustration created by the exclusion of controversial matters from democratic reference to the people could be well worthwhile. As we have already noted, the more people involved in deciding an issue, the better is the decision.

The wheels of our 'democratic' process are creaking. It does not encourage and facilitate an intelligent, objective involvement by the public. An example of better involvement is the Swiss practice of the Popular Initiative. This process tends to urge the people to more constructive thinking, which is badly needed since the national task of decision-making is becoming more complex, rather than less, while the need for national coherence will only increase as the future rushes upon us.

Perhaps CIR is the way for us, to a better democracy. Important decisions could then be made calmly and rationally with this opportunity for real and substantial public input. This appears to be the Swiss experience. A report on The Swiss model by Terry Gear, Northern Territory MLA, together with details of an Australian proposal, can be found at Appendix B.


The High Court