'The Battle for Democracy'

The Secret Ballot vs The Party System

The Party System.


The Australian Constitution governs our federal parliament's operation and powers. Political power was designed to operate through our parliament, its power being entrusted to it by the people, at each election.

Parliament's function is to implement community objectives, resolving conflicting interests with a minimum of stress. The party system of government does not lead to consensus. It exacerbates conflict rather than resolving it.

The problem is that the power of parliament as servant of the people, has been hijacked. The winning party has a stranglehold over parliament, with the opposition routinely outvoted and powerless. Parliament does not, indeed cannot, govern. The winning party governs-from the party room. This situation does not have popular approval but there is no move afoot to rectify this collapse of democracy.

This Age editorial speaks plainly of our problem democracy:
The Australian political system is one of the best in the world, but it has its drawbacks. It proves too often to be a less-than-ideal place in which to sensibly debate issues of complexity and moment. It is prone to favour the loudest and most rhetorical, and encourages factionalism, with its attendant arm-twisting and brutishness.22
The power of the parties lies in the disciplined, obedient behaviour of party politicians who, to protect and advance their careers, must vote consistently in parliament along the party line. The open vote enables, indeed encourages this discipline. Party hierarchies operate with one eye on the funds supplied by their supporters. A party-line vote is a vote for the party's interests, to which truth and individual MP's constituent interest must defer.

It is evident that some party MPs are quite troubled by this pressure to conform. On one occasion, Brigadier Jim Wallace AM, SAS retd, Executive Chairman of the Australian Christian Lobby, related how one MP friend actually broke down while confiding to him how he had felt when forced by his party to go against his conscience on a critical issue. 23 With a good man of conscience in tears, there has to be something radically wrong with our politics.

Parliament has become largely irrelevant to the function of government, real politics being submerged under the process known as 'party politics'-the real being buried under the false. People put up with it only because of the (false) belief that there is no viable alternative. Now there is - the electronioc ballot, within and able to rule, each parliament

The opposition has no substantive power; its function being limited to harassing the government, with some help (hopefully unbiassed) from the media. With parliamentary debate gagged at will by the government the opposition is continually frustrated, while, at the same time, it strives continually to destroy the government.

Party government can easily ignore the recommendations of all-party committees; and legislation is often rushed through in the closing session of parliament without the opportunity for appropriate debate or consideration. Parliamentary debate is a speechifying formality, changing nothing.
The ruling party appoints the Speaker, who controls the operation of the House-not necessarily impartially.
This is the status quo. Our parliamentary democracy is, in fact, dictatorial party government.

The open vote-by 'divisions'

How did all this come about?
Since our constitution was adopted in 1901, a serious flaw has appeared in its practical implementation. There is, at present, no way to prevent the development of party controls over the members' voting. This lack has caused the destruction of representative government. Members have lost their authority in parliament as individual representatives, having become beholden to their parties instead of to their constituents.

The process of voting was inherited from the British House of Commons. When members are required to vote, they are summoned by the ringing of bells. Arriving in the House, they queue up separately according to party membership, and their party-line votes are entered in Hansard, the permanent record of parliamentary proceedings. Woe to Australian politicians if they 'cross the floor' to vote in defiance of their party whips. After all, their election is often due entirely to their party membership and support.

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; having to toe 'the party line'.

Consideration was apparently once given to saving parliamentary time by using electronic voting in parliament, though not secret. It was clear that such a facility could save much valuable time. 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 so limited, that it would be unwise to remove its remaining power-that of disrupting the progress of opposed legislation by the delaying tactic of calling for a division!

So we have a parliament of opposed teams, instead of one cooperative body that could give the kind of constructive, non-partisan leadership and progress we need. A comment was once heard in a medical waiting room: 'Politicians should work together. It's logical.' Enough said.

The system of open voting has entrenched the powerful party system, with its consequential 'limpets', the multitude of lobbies and pressure groups, all with their own objectives. They each occupy a position, outside parliament, akin to the balance of power of a minor party in parliament. Adversarial government is vulnerable to the leverage power of these minority interests.

Parliament could overcome this anomaly if members were free from the compulsion of party line voting, but party hierarchies have no interest in surrendering the control that the system gives them through the open vote.

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 making decisions in a much calmer and more objective political climate. To face the future with a confident unity we need parliaments with members who are all directly answerable to the people at large, not to pressure from sectional interests.

Political parties

Political organisations began in order to overcome the chaos of independent voices. It is natural for people of like mind to meet to consider and propagate their views and concerns.

Unions and their factions, lobbies, interest groups of all kinds all result from their need to crystallise ideas and policies, and seek to negotiate with political parties which can represent them in parliament.

However, party government is too self-focussed to spare time for other viewpoints. This has led community groups and factions to pursue power by acting as lobby groups. If they are weak, their legitimate claims are liable to be ignored. If they are strong, less legitimate claims can be pressed too successfully.

Different sources of power are naturally in conflict, so the formation of stronger and stronger groups leads inevitably to greater conflict. Instead of political debate working toward decisions acceptable to the whole, it hardens around the views of dogmatic ideologies and the related interests they support.

The real interest of party executives in the people is normally weak until the lead up to the election. Money and organised political 'muscle', not 'the people', are the key elements in the political equation. These are the effective secrets of the acquisition and retention of power.

Conservatives see the need for economic success, and the need to pass laws to deal with people who hinder 'progress'. They thus emphasise government of the people. Labor emphasises more the support of the needy, with less regard, sometimes, for the hard facts of economics. Thus Labor, in general, could perhaps be said to think more of government for the people; but Labor is now tending, albeit reluctantly (especially the 'Left'), to recognise the electoral importance of economic stability and progress. These contesting ideologies cause seesaw government.

Before federation in 1901 labour interests were unorganised and weak. The Labor Party (note the American spelling) was formed and, in 1904, the arrival of party politics in the new federal parliament was 'celebrated' by the Bulletin, with a sketch depicting Caliban raping Miranda-captioned: 'Democracy being raped by the parties'.

In 1911 Belloc and Chesterton made a scathing attack on the party system in England. As they saw it: 'Instead of the executive being controlled by the representative assembly, it (the executive) controls it (the parliament).'24 This has always been the inescapable result of the formation of political parties-the common experience of all democracies.

Our constitution made no provision for the party system. Parties may have been anticipated in 1901, but not considered essential, or worthy of official recognition in the constitution. Based on the English House of Commons practice, it was doubtless thought that the operation of parliament was best left to parliament itself. The Australian trend to rigid party discipline, so different from that of the House of Commons model, was not anticipated. Had it been, the founding fathers might well have entrenched in the constitution a right of members to vote without interference. Such a clause would have no doubt seemed insulting to members at that time. Attitudes then were much more independent. While politicians pursued their private agendas with wheeling and dealing, the common good suffered and chaos prevailed. Now we see the parties producing chaos-only more powerfully.

The party system has so derailed our understanding of democracy that we have even had a Member of Parliament claim that the constitution must be changed; to reflect (and, presumably to endorse), the way the system actually operates!

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 that has freely created this corrupt democracy. Politics is 'party' politics and decisions are determined by party power, not by free and open debate in community and parliament.

We may be a clever people, but there is little will to apply our undoubted ability to the task of modernising our political system. Advances in democracy have never come easily. We can think of the Suffragettes and the Eureka Stockade-examples of the courage and sacrifice such advances have taken in the past.

Meanwhile the rest of the world is falling apart trying to operate under the same stupid fallacy-that party-politics is essential to democracy, when it is really its straitjacket.

The Westminster system

This is the British political system, consisting of executive government with ministerial responsibility to parliament, the system that has been basically adopted by Australia, with some aspects of the American federal system added. Our system has therefore been described as a 'Washminster system'.
The English system of parliamentary government evolved in the spiritual, social, and legal fabric of Great Britain over a long period. One can see in these factors the reason that the British system has worked tolerably well, with its much looser party system, exemplified notably in the 'three-line whip'. Thus matters of critical party importance have a treble underlining, indicating that the party member must toe the line, while, in other cases, more flexibility is tolerable. With many members in the House (and insufficient seats for all!), there has been a greater informality and independence of spirit. Members do sometimes follow personal opinion and conscience. While the likelihood of war with Iraq was hanging in the balance, Tony Blair was getting quite a lot of 'stick', even from his own backbench.

The comment was once made in England that: 'we can afford to bicker because we are so united'. Perhaps the emotional ties centred on the monarchy have contributed to their sense of unity and somewhat greater freedom. Still, no country is immune from some degree of social unrest. So, what will the future reveal as old allegiances falter?

The Westminster system has had its problems with party-based government. These were highlighted in the House of Commons in 1938 when Churchill, as a private member, had been exercising 'genuine leadership'. Seeing the trend of German rearmament, he was calling for a restoration of strength in the British armed forces but, not being in government, he was ignored while Hitler was encouraged by Chamberlain's vacillation. However it is noteworthy that a change of executive government in the English Commons can occur through loss of member support, without an election. So, months after the commencement of World War II Chamberlain finally quit.

Churchill records how when the King called for him, saying: 'I suppose you know what I wanted you for?' Churchill replied airily: 'No, no idea!' He was invited to form a new government. In his memoirs, Churchill said that he went to bed that night with a 'profound sense of relief'. He was then able to set to work to rally the nation with an all-party Grand Coalition.

War may have been prevented had Britain had strong government by 1938. Would the Holocaust have happened? Would the millions have died? Would Japan have been encouraged by Hitler's successes to attack America? Who knows? We can blame the bankrupt confusion of party government for the mess that claimed so many millions of lives.

The Westminster system with its adversarial emphasis, but without the stability of the English socio/political history which matured over centuries, has been quite unsuccessful in establishing a satisfactory degree of democracy in ex-colonial countries. Sir Michael Somare, now Prime Minister of New Guinea again, once commented that the Westminster system was no good for New Guinea-it was too much concerned with personalities. Concern with personalities means that while the players 'play the man' they are not 'playing the ball'.

Competition is a popular concept, but it is clear that in different spheres its success is quite different. In sport it is clearly a winner as rising performances attest. In business there are the side effects of work and social stress, and in party politics it brings out the worst in its participants.
Some think that the monarchy is a hindrance to our progress as a nation, and so a republic could lead to a better democracy. Years ago, in a 'Couchman over Australia' program on the question of a republic for Australia, Gregory Craven then constitutional lawyer, Melbourne University (now Professor of Law, Notre Dame University, WA), noted the domination of the parliament by the executive as a much more important issue to be faced. That problem is still with us.

The doctrine of the 'separation of powers' prescribes independence between parliament, executive and the High Court, to be a safeguard against the domination by either arm of government over the others. The question is whether the separation of powers exists. We have seen an elected Prime Minister sacked by an unelected Governor-General (the head of the Federal Executive Council, representing the Crown) and parliamentary legislation vetoed by the High Court. The separation of powers, although thought to be crucial to democracy, appears to exist only in theory and to be of no use when most needed. However, the idea of three independent heads of power, none of which is close to the people, appears to be no solution to the principle of government by the people. With parliament in the toils of party controls and loyalties, the consequent barrier between party representatives and people, the Queen's representative with reserve powers, and court decisions often a mystery of technicalities, people are confused and frustrated, and the prospect of coherent democratic government by the people is an elusive dream.

It seems an extreme anomaly that an elected leader of the people can be vilified and lampooned without mercy; while any judge is accorded perfect respect, even fear. This disparity of respect amongst the separate heads of power should alert anyone to the fact that our Westminster system is well out of kilter with democracy. Our Westminster system has degenerated into the 'party system'.

Ironically enough, the concentration of power into the hands of the two more or less evenly balanced major parties means that neither can have enough confidence in its public support to tackle many of the sticky problems properly when in power. Power and weakness are associated features of our democracy-power to ignore the people (or lead them by the nose!), but weakness against lobbies and pressure groups.

The irrelevance of parliament under the party system was amply demonstrated in the two-day debate on the Persian Gulf crisis on 21st and 22nd January 1990, after the decision had been made, not by parliament, but by the party cabinet. This is a regular pattern.

Representative government is a substantial step away from pure, or direct, democracy; but party government is one long jump from representative government. It has sometimes, with some justification, been referred to as a system of elected dictatorships. That is our party system, a travesty of democracy; that so much abused word.

It is not the politicians, as such, nor the people, who are to blame for the failure of the political system to achieve the respect of the people in solving the country's problems. It is the manufactured conflict of the party system. The ones to blame are those, whoever they may be, who resolutely refuse to see that democracy and the party system are not compatible, and that radical change is necessary before any claim can be made to democracy.

The hypocrisy of party government is starkly evident when Prime Minister Howard claimed-when in opposition, with a Senate majority-that the Senate was 'the most representative chamber', and later, in government, claimed that the Senate is not representative-not like the House of Representatives-'and therefore must be changed.' The key to his change of heart is, of course, the pragmatism of political advantage.
We call ourselves a democracy but there is little commitment to its key principles. Democracy requires goodwill-a sincere attachment to the principle of a fair go for all; but we see greed for money and power, and for others, defeat and apathy. We are a morally weak people. While personal debt escalates, the country's 'too-hard basket' is overflowing. We are demoralised. Perhaps we do get the government we deserve.

The system is dominated by the special interests of political parties, pressure groups and lobbyists, each with its own mentors, backers and financial supporters. But an American, Shirley Chisholm, in her book Unbought and Unbossed, declares her frustration. Ordinary people have no lobby! 25

The troubled nature of party government ruins democracy. It seems that with all our cleverness in many fields, we have utterly failed to notice the reason for the inability of this style of government to reduce conflict and advance the country's peace and prosperity, despite the claims of government spin doctors. It is indeed 'the worst form of government, except for all the others'. Now that we are so advanced in many ways, is there any good reason why we cannot discover a more effective form of democracy?

Changes in political systems mainly occur when many people become desperate but following revolution a similar organisation, or worse, often results. The world does not need change by tumult, for the people pay a heavy price for any benefit gained. Democracy calls for government by a parliament of members genuinely free to represent their constituents, freely debating and voting in parliament on their behalf.

The debate

The executive monopoly of power stultifies the whole process of parliamentary debate, precluding a cooperative involvement in the formulation of sound policies and the making of right decisions. Party government intentions may sometimes seem right enough, on the surface, but unilateral decisions are based on ideology and sectional interest, violating democratic principle. The lack of free, public debate forbids sensible, acceptable decisions, free of extraneous 'political' objectives.
The process of parliamentary debate is usually boring. 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 speeches are designed to boost personal reputation, defend the party, or attack the rival party. The debate is pointless-it changes nothing. This explains why members desert the chamber until a few only are left. Some will be talking together while others will be reading papers, or maybe a newspaper to fill in time.
Parliament has become boring, disgusting and embarrassing, with the consequence that the broadcasts of parliamentary proceedings are not closely followed and parliament has become irrelevant. Since the people can have no effective connection to parliamentary decisions we have also become irrelevant, to parliament.
School children have been reported to be disgusted on seeing how the members behave in parliament. This clearly demonstrates the powerlessness of parliament to rein in the misbehaviour of the members. These visits should be discontinued until radical change has been effected, restoring sanity and dignity to parliament.

Question time

Some might find it entertaining, but parliamentary question time leaves more serious television viewers disgusted at the standard of our democracy.
Dr. Ken Coghill, speaking in Traralgon, Victoria,26 noted the undemocratic nature of our democracy. Drawing attention to the excessive power of the executive, he referred to the abuse of question time in parliament.
Long speeches by ministers, little devoted to opposition questions, and 'Dorothy Dix' questions by government back-benchers, to give ministers the opportunity to bang the party drum, are ploys by governments to circumvent the real purpose of question time-to make government accountable to parliament. What a joke! Is anyone laughing?
At one time a non-government majority in the Senate decided to limit the time allowed for the asking, and answering of questions to one and two minutes respectively. This tactic enabled more questions to be asked, but has probably achieved little in eliciting real answers to questions. The whole problem reflects, once again, the poverty of our conflict-style democracy and the hurdles facing public input to policy.
Many have criticised the party system but, while it is good to draw the attention of the public to the failures of our system, failing to seek or support a solution to the problem is not good enough.
While the parties control their members' voting, parliament can be no more than a mere rubber stamp for the decisions of the ruling party, the interests they represent, and those factions and lobbies successfully pressuring executive government.

Our representatives

Party candidates, and members of parliament, come and go, being personally known to very few of us. The member can take up individual matters, but will usually be helpless to initiate action on any serious matter, merely referring any suggestion to 'the party'.

Apathy abounds, despite the fact that real politics concerns the objective issues vital to us all. The major preoccupation of present politics is power, in the pursuit of which this anti-social system feeds off the self-interest of the people.
After an election, constituents receive little significant attention from their 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.'
There are reasons for this. Firstly, party responsibility takes up a major amount of the representative's time and energy. Secondly, the member's power to act positively and effectively on behalf of the electorate is neutralised by party policies and priorities. Consequently the public sees little point in attending public meetings, which are rarely held by members anyway; nor do the members always show up to 'meet the candidates' meetings. The flagging interest of the public suits the interests of party politicians very well. While, the mice are away the cats can play.

By tolerating the party system we have sold our democratic birthright, the right and duty of self-government. With the control of voting by the parties in the House we may know how they vote, but we don't have any power to do anything about it.

Abuse of power

All governments suffer from the same disease-the far too-ready access to power that is available to those who are hungry for it. The isolation of the people and their exclusion from judgment and input, leads directly to the abuse of power. In different political systems those who are able to capture power are merely different, with different environments and different ways of achieving their purposes.

Without the free interplay of dialogue and debate on the issues at all levels of society, politics cannot 'purge the system'. Genuine politics is paralysed by the power plays of party politics.

One may ask why do they do these things? The answer is simple. Because they can. We have no power to stop them.


At each election for our House of Representatives, the parties steam-roll the electorate with massive, expensive campaigns. We vote in the end, willy-nilly, for one of the major parties and their platforms. As a rule, only the major parties gain seats in the House of Representatives, the primary house of government. They are not much loved, as they are felt to be self-serving, but the legal requirement to fill all squares on the voting paper is a party government ploy to ensure that all third etc preferences will be transferred to one or other of the main contenders. While the theory is that the winner will then have over fifty per cent of the vote and so be legitimised to govern, it effectively sidelines independents from success. In the rare event that an independent or minor party comes second in the primary vote, the third-placed candidate's preferences would be distributed, with a chance of the seat falling to the independent - a result abhorred by the major parties. The trend has therefore been for independents and minor parties to divert to the Senate, steadily increasing numbers on the Senate voting sheet to ridiculous lengths - e.g seventy recently - a manifestly stupid outcome of the party system.

Thus an occasional independent or minor party candidate is not a real advance toward democracy as government normally has enough voting power to neutralise such. If not, government is at the mercy of their personal objectives, whether they are in the public interest or not - not that the public interest is ever guaranteed by a major party's success!

Marginal seats are the backbone of the problem of the party system. It is these few seats that enable one party to defeat the other and assume government. The marginal seats alone create the possibility of a change in government.

Many active party members in 'safe' seats may not be needed, so they are free to campaign extensively in marginal seats on behalf of their party. This has not been unacceptable under the party system. In a democracy liberated from party politics the invasion of electorates by resources of personnel and money from other electorates would be unwelcome to say the least.

'Safe' seats are those in which the election result is not in doubt. Those voting for the losing party in those seats are consistently disenfranchised. They are politically impotent, especially where issues important to them are decided on the basis of doctrinaire considerations-as is common.

With the demise of the party system there will be no 'safe' seats, although experienced, well performing candidates - that is, making 'good' independents - may well be safe.

Election platforms

Election debate, often centring on just one or two key issues, highlights the democratic poverty of our sham representative government. How can we have any influence on decisions made on the many issues, when we have nothing but a choice as to which of the major parties will win office.

The parties' major policy thrust is in their private meetings, while the release of policies is determined by election strategy rather than public need and real concern. Election platforms reflect ideological stances and party interest rather than the public interest.

What party supporter agrees with every solitary thing in the party's forever-changing platform? The country is saddled with the winning executive's policies for the duration of the following parliamentary term, even though some opposition policies, could merit majority support. What a hindrance to sound government! 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.

The party-system renders the public politically sterile with less than the willing cooperation that could enable the most difficult problems to be quickly 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 often merely doctrinaire, and sometimes merely a reaction to other views, rather than an objective attack on the problems.

Democracy demands a much better, more civilised approach. It is quite unacceptable that a government once elected should be entirely free to pursue its policies unhindered. Parties are not elected on the basis of a detailed understanding of their platform or program. The more likely basis is a blind attachment to an ideology, or perhaps leadership image, or lavish promises. Conning the public is the main preoccupation of party politics, but such behaviour will be hissed out of a real democracy; which we have yet to see.



An Age comment once suggested our political system is transparent.27 However, if the ramifications of government were indeed transparent, then corruption, malpractice, and incompetence could not remain in the glare of press and public scrutiny. Freedom of Information provisions, investigative journalism, royal commissions, or any other inquiries would be unnecessary. The plethora of Royal Commissions and inquiries of all kinds speaks for itself. What is even more evil perhaps is that the leaders of such inquiries frequently suffer harassment, and loss of acceptance among their peers, for their efforts to cleanse the system.

Secrecy reigns in all arms of government. The secrecy provisions of the public service support cabinet secrecy by forbidding disclosure by a public servant of any matter whatsoever, whether in the public interest or not. Death is the only release from a public servant's oath of secrecy.

These pervasive provisions invoke criminal sanctions, ensuring that embarrassing information about the actions or inaction of government or bureaucracy will not be disclosed to parliament, or people; except at very considerable personal risk. The self-righteous zeal with which the origin of a leak is pursued, illustrates the firm conviction of those in power that they have a right to avoid public scrutiny.

These provisions owe their very existence to the paranoia of party governments about the public and the opposition knowing what they are up to; while any opposition is, of course, reluctant to relinquish this protection, should it regain power.

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 ruling party.

Debate and secrecy

When leaders hide the basis of their decisions, they cannot be trusted. There is a place where secrecy is right and a place where it is wrong. Barry Jones, well known, quiz wizard, and alternative Labor party president, once ridiculed the notion of a secret ballot for members in parliament: 'Next you'll want secret debate'. Across the newspaper cutting a friend scrawled 'That's what we've got'. Yes, the real debate is secret. It is in the party rooms, not in parliament. The decisions made in the executive party room are not subject to change through debate in the House because the parties will not permit that to happen.

For the people to have confidence in government it is essential that the reasons for decisions made are apparent, in public debate, in parliament. That cannot happen while parties continue to control voting in the House.

Freedom of information

Progressive government emasculation of the Freedom of Information (FOI) provisions will further distance the bureaucracy from parliament and the people it is supposed to serve. Peter Lewis, new independent, and Speaker in the South Australian Legislative Assembly, has created a stir with his demand for worthwhile FOI provisions, amongst other reforms, in exchange for his support of the Labor government.

The only need for the expensive and partially ineffectual FOI provisions results from the secrecy blanket that covers so much of the operation of government.

Longer terms

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 bipartisan. It is claimed that there is a need for more time to implement the 'hard' decisions; that is, to act without community agreement.

Parties doubtless relish the chance to dispense with public opinion whenever they can. The real purpose of longer terms is to enable government to defer the involvement with the electorate that elections demand. Let's not forget that the attention to the electorate at election times is quite disingenuous due to the parties' rivalry for power. Party government thrives on the helplessness of the electorate between elections and the short memory of the public. The silent majority may not like the actions of government, but party power excludes or seriously hinders public involvement, rendering effective dissent on specific issues extremely difficult.

The drive for longer terms is evidence of the parties' lack of commitment to democracy. It is ironic that, in the 'Era of Democracy' (in the 1850s)28, terms were reduced from five years to three, to 'improve democracy'. The Chartists even wanted one-year terms.

In East Timor at present, there's a lot to be done in a hurry so short-term government could keep speedy progress and development on track. The axe needs to fall quickly where successful candidates do not fulfil expectations of necessary action.

The executive

Much media attention is given to party leaders, illustrating the drift of political power away from parliament and people.

Under the Westminster system, ministers are responsible to parliament for their ministries, but frustration of parliamentary access to information at question time ensures the defeat of that responsibility. The executive is far from being accountable to parliament, which is defeated continuously by the government's command of its party-members' votes. The dominance of the executive over parliament has long troubled many people as well as constitutional lawyers. Hatred of disclosure pervades the whole system of government.

Executive government thrives on secrecy and, pleading the 'national interest', can even exclude public disclosure of sensitive matters for up to thirty years-power without responsibility. Ministers should be directly accountable to parliament as a whole. They are not. They have their hands on the 'levers of power'. Party responsibilities and ambition are powerful corrosives of their primary responsibility: to put the public interest first-in fact not just rhetoric.

With the domination of the system by the executive, there are several onerous responsibilities in the one body: the functions of vision and policy, decision-making, government administration, and the 'political' responsibility to the party, to retain power. This concentration of responsibility and power is ridiculous, as they are manifestly overburdened, and government struggles with democratic incompetence to lead a people who are troubled and fed-up.

The members of the executive, to satisfy their own ambitions for power and their party's demands for action, churn out masses of 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, and exclude the real possibility of removing, or simplifying the old, or the bad.

Bad government breeds the lawlessness that creates the need for more government. The style of executive government we have with the party system is bad government and a failure of democracy. Democratic action is needed to restore parliamentary government, instead of the drift to presidential-style government-which tends to autocracy with its access to personal power.

Under the party system, government is accountable only to the ruling party, even the party hierarchy itself-not to parliament, nor to the people.

Influences that might come to bear on government to improve accountability are limited to a selection of groups, each with its own agenda-the press, radio and TV journalists, the opinion pollsters, the lobbyists and pressure groups, none of which should have the kind of influence some have. Their influence fills the vacuum left by the practical exclusion of accountability of each member to the people in the electorate.

The 'president's men'

In a letter to the Age, entitled 'Proliferation of the yes-men', Kevin Steele, Frankston, drew attention to the view of the respected Lennox Hewitt (respected top public servant under John Gorton) and others: 'of the dire consequences to democracy in allowing government ministers the freedom to directly appoint departmental permanent heads from among their mates outside the Australian public service.'29

There has been a pronounced abandonment of the secure Westminster principle of an apolitical public service with appointments by an independent public service board. Senior positions in the bureaucracy are no longer permanent, having been made subject to contract. Impermanent tenure obviously jeopardises continuity of expertise and the total objectivity of advice of the erstwhile public servant. Such appointees are not public servants-they are the servants of their ministers.

We have thus veered towards the American style of presidential appointments, making the executive even more a power unto itself. One final American step remains, to have a Prime Minister appoint unelected friends as ministers!

Quite plainly there is a very grey area where politically appointed officials are hesitant to bring forward facts and views that our leaders might not want to hear. They are the fall guys, enabling the minister to deny responsibility. They are clearly vulnerable when troubles arise. When a minister declares a position publicly, their tenuous employment will certainly not encourage them to persist with divergent advice.

Now, 'Not knowing', or 'Not being told' appears to be a sufficient defence for a (less than responsible) minister. Where then is the accountability-with no one accepting full responsibility? Where responsibility is shared, no one is responsible.

However in the case of the 'children (allegedly) thrown overboard' from an asylum seekers' boat, defence officers at a Senate hearing were able to refute ministerial claims that they had not been given the facts. Where would we be without an independent Senate?

The government's determination to silence the defence personnel was revealed plainly by Senator Hill's anger and the Prime Minister's declared intention to replace some of the coalition members at the ongoing inquiry.30His subsequent disparaging comments about the Senate, claiming it is not democratic or representative shows his hatred of any opposition to the will of his government.

In a repeat performance, we see the determined refusal by the Prime Minister, and his ministers to take responsibility for their unawareness of prisoner abuse by US military personnel (and private contractors!) in the Abu Ghraib prison in Bagdad. It is now quite obvious why America completely rejects any notion of submitting US citizens to an International (war crimes) Court.

The claim is made that our personnel were not involved, but Australia's influence was a significant early encouragement to George Bush to invade Iraq without UN authority in the beginning means that Australia incurs some responsibility for whatever happens in the course of this unfortunate war. This is clear from the close involvement of army lawyers as early as October and November 2003, in contacts with the prison, the Red Cross and Iraqi Human Rights Minister, Abdel Bassat Turki.31 Without the Senate power to investigate, none of this would have come to the light, but Australia would nonetheless, not be seen as free from blame.

That the government refuses to allow the army lawyers involved to be called to clear the confusion is emblematic of the government's determined rear-guard attempt to absolve itself of blame. 'Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive.32

The same disregard for truth appears to have caused President Bush's pre-emptive attack on Iraq. There is certainly a very strong view that our Prime Minister's support for the Bush attack on Iraq was more willing than wise. Where false assumptions suit policy, truth is not welcome.

With Coalition leaders now reluctantly ordering inquiries into the decision to attack Iraq, each in his own way is seeking to divert blame onto the intelligence agencies. There is considerable doubt that the truth will be permitted to emerge, especially before the three leaders' imminent elections. It is obvious that in the absence of independent investigation, the 'presidents men' will always be required wear the blame rather than the leaders who are to face an election shortly. After all that's what they are hired for, to serve their masters. Meanwhile the principle of ministerial responsibility disappears down a murky drain.

This pattern of executive government avoidance of responsibility is both prevalent and evil. Responsible government does not exist if those elected by the people can escape responsibility by placing the blame on their servants.

The 'mandate'

Some leaders believe that their election implies a right to take unilateral action; that they have a mandate. This assumption reminds one of the estate agent whose socks bore the legend 'Trust me.' We cannot give carte blanche to party leaders. Party government, and parliaments, too easily becomes the toy of autocrats.

While the calibre of competing politicians is far from unimportant, we are forced to simply vote for one party leader against another. This degrades the significance of individual representatives in their electorates. They are even sometimes rudely referred to as 'party hacks'. The emphasis on the leader diverts public attention from the multitude of issues we face. Without an opportunity to have an in-depth understanding of the issues, in local forums, we are kept in the dark and successfully divorced from any role in the decisions that affect us. No wonder anger often boils over.

Then again, for a leader to claim that an election is a referendum on one controversial issue is in contempt of the people. What government does should be vastly more important than who does it. A mandate (if there ever is one in fact) is a trust, not a free rein. In fact, if there ever is a real mandate, it is unlikely that the word will be even heard.

No leader can claim a mandate for a whole raft of policies. 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 clever at all.

Between elections a leader may create serious change-even going to war-without the real backing of the people who have been selectively (mis)informed. Furthermore, the outcome will often be impossible to reverse. Again and again, arrogance eventually reaps its just reward; but unfortunately, it comes after the arrogant leader has done his, or her, damage. The leash of executive accountability needs to be much shorter.

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 course 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, to their followers.

People with high responsibilities may be entrusted with powers of decision, but all delegated power is limited to the delegation intended by those who give it.

Paul Keating, in his heyday as Treasurer, reached such an impregnable position that, while there were doubts about his economic policies, he was able to brush off criticism with simplistic reassurances, even though obviously floundering at the time. He is not the only one. Peter Costello is constantly telling us that the economy is in good shape. Is it? Can we trust a party government to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth when its chief interest is in preserving personal and party power?

Undoubtedly, Jeff Kennett's relentless pursuit of the Victorian Auditor-General had much more to do with his criticism of the government's activities than a government drive for greater efficiency. What is the point of having auditors if the executive can attack them for doing their constitutional duty to parliament?

We need our parliaments (on behalf of the people) to have the power to arrest or correct inappropriate executive action, and in an appropriately brief time frame. The present latitude (that is, 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 leaders. It is also too long for the incumbents, who can succumb to the temptation to assume a mandate when there is none.

The bureaucracy

The complexity of modern government has often meant that senior members of the bureaucracy, through their expertise, have had considerable influence over ministers, whose frequent changes are a pronounced feature of the party system.

On the other hand, ministers and senior officials can develop cosy relationships, and matters crying out for exposure can be isolated from appropriate scrutiny. The only ones to know are silenced by the secrecy provisions.

These provisions, which have the legitimate purpose of protecting the public from misuse of their confidential information by officials, have caused an isolation of the public service from ministers, parliament and people. These whole-of-life provisions effectively preclude a public servant from making any disclosure of maladministration (or worse) by the oath demanded on appointment, even if disclosure is clearly motivated by a concern for the public interest. The question of accountability of the public service, or rather the lack of it, is very familiar since the advent of the television program 'Yes, Minister'. Unfortunately this satire is not without foundation, and local parallels.

The climate created in the public service has resulted in the past in a lowest common denominator of action. Only those things that are safe (by-the-book or have a precedent) tend to be done. An appearance of action has often been a substitute for real action. Once again, secrecy protects those it should not. The combination of secrecy and the preoccupation of the parties with their political infighting can allow the bureaucracy to continue in its self-protective isolation, and maladministration and inefficiency can easily, and do, escape notice. The secrecy provisions, complete with penalties under criminal law, shield the public service from government, from parliament, and from the people

We have seen an Assistant Commissioner of Taxation smugly telling a TV journalist that he cannot comment on individual cases; the 'case' in question being the harassment of a taxpayer over a long period by an abusive, out-of-control tax officer. Were the secrecy provisions intended for that?

The representatives

Robbie Sefton, a regional communications specialist from Coonabarabran, N.S.W., was heard on radio to say 'People want a level of ownership over politicians; the people who are making the decisions.' There is the rub. They make the decisions. We do not own, or control, them. We have no part in the decisions. We do not 'own' our representatives.

It is often assumed that representatives are accountable to us by knowing how they vote in parliament. They are not. Party representatives are immersed in party objectives and not at their constituents' beck and call. An election gives us no power to influence a party candidate's policies at the election nor an elected member's vote in parliament. We have no opportunity to participate in the decisions that are made, nor will most party representatives have a significant role in decisions in the party room anyway.

Party representatives listen with their ears but not with their hearts. Their hearts belong to their parties, not to the people. They have contracted their parliamentary votes to their party for endorsement, election finance and support, and the clout of their leader. Many of them may wish it were otherwise, but they have to live with the consequences of their choice to be a party candidate. They are not free to follow the conviction of their own hearts and often their true style is 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. The party system has made serious, independent candidature prohibitively expensive and almost always fruitless.

We are allowed to elect the candidates the parties present but never to help decide the issues that trouble us; while an opposition representative, has no power other than to attempt to discredit the government.

We are far too isolated from those whose responsibility it is to represent us. Some solve the problem by forming 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. Just scratching the surface will reveal, in any member of the community, a real frustration and repressed anger. No wonder there is so much depression, especially among the young.

Where can concerned citizens seek to bring health to the political system, participating in community with issue-based debate?

Pressure groups cannot represent the whole community. We need regular, local, non-partisan meetings, freely accessible to the whole community as and when desired. A local representative who wants to keep in regular contact with the constituents could easily create this. Why don't they do that? The answer is that they do not depend on the people for re-election. It is the party that enables them to be re-elected. Public involvement only adds to their problems. In the United States they complain that, whereas the local member once kept close and was very assiduous in cultivating the constituents, now politicians look to the big corporations for campaign funds for the expensive television advertising they need. They don't need the locals any more! It is no different here, in Australia. The big funds needed for campaign organisation and advertising are only accessible by the parties and groups that have their own axe to grind. Vested interests predominate, subverting democracy.

Direct accountability of the members to their electorates is an absolute essential for a working democracy. We don't have it. A party member may be uneasy about the electorate relationship, 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 frustration; which is why politics is a taboo subject: that eases the frustration and the pain. Many in the electorate have no time for politicians whose first allegiance is to the party, and whose power to act on the electorate's behalf is strangled by the party system. At the same time, to vote for an independent is seen by many as futile since, if elected, they are in most cases merely 'a voice, crying in the wilderness.' Again, independents cannot compete with party machines and their chances of election are abysmally small since our fully preferential voting system transfers all the preference votes of minor candidates to the 'two-party-preferred' votes of the major parties. It is interesting that Peter Lewis has included 'optional-preferential voting' in his demands for reform in South Australia.

Since party members are obliged by their endorsement to put party considerations before their relations with the electorate, the chain of accountability, which alone could ensure democratic government, is broken down completely.

Matters raised with a member get little further than a promise to 'take it up with the party'. Some may busy themselves with assistance to individual constituents to enhance their image, compensating 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 constituents from contact with the very one who should be in close touch as their strong representative in parliament.

The principle of self-government demands that government be accessible and responsive to the people. It is not. Knowing how they vote makes no difference. 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 and angst.

Local member competition

The party system in parliament has been an obstacle to the entry of independent candidates, which handicaps democracy. 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 party member, losing the seat in a swing away from the party, will vanish without trace. There is little or no sign of opposing candidates between elections, as a focus for dissidence. Without ongoing local forums they have no effective function.

All local action is thus postponed until election time, ensuring that there can be no ongoing and effective mid-term critique of the member's performance. Nor is there the opportunity for early assessment of possible alternative candidates by the people.

Lobbies and pressure groups

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, minor parties, and independents are able to exert an influence on government disproportionate to their numbers. While a minor group may have a case that deserves consideration, the anomaly is the ability for groups to manipulate the system for an undue advantage.

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 now specialists, have been formed to operate in this way, groups which have disdained to do so in days gone by. One writer, 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.


We need to make a clear distinction between 'leaders' and 'leadership'. Western democracy cannot resolve this problem. Too often we have either the dominance of a too-powerful leader, which enfeebles the rest, or less able leaders keeping power from others more suitable. Democracy is always inconvenient for those who have, or desire, power. We have already noted the left-wing activist's comment: 'We need leadership, not democracy.' It is particularly unfortunate that there is this misunderstanding that leadership and real democracy are incompatible concepts. The error lies in the misconception of the real nature of leadership. A leader is one who depends on the support of others-a team person. One, who can make unilateral decisions, requiring only obedience, is an autocrat: a weed in the garden of democracy. The lack of a basis of decision-making that can involve the many, equally, leaves the door wide open to the ambitious and autocratic.

We tend to be ambivalent on the subject of leaders. We want strong leaders-but not if they are in the opposite camp! The endemic conflict breeds the 'tall poppies' to be cut down eventually by a capricious public. Understandably, some of the best people refuse to be involved in politics due to the roller-coaster ride of those involved in the struggles for power. Many good candidates have been attracted to the candle of service but, burnt in the flame of party politics, have departed, disillusioned and dejected.

The party system creates a continual search for 'leaders'-those who can gain or retain power. Party democracies are vulnerable to this leadership cult. They attract people who want power, and it is their battles for power that destroy parliamentary government. 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. The institutionalisation of power means that significant change is dependent on the power and character of leaders. Parties want powerful leaders who can override opposition with unilateral action. Their changes are usually ideologically driven, and can often be disruptive and of doubtful value. If we accept that the governing party should have the power to make these 'tough' (unpopular) decisions, we are tacitly accepting a limited dictatorship. Party government works by tough leadership because of the hostilities and enmity it nurtures. That is why considerable public pressures exist and boil over at times, before necessary change can occur. Is there really no better way?

Was it Machiavelli who said something to the effect that the art of government is to gather power in time of war but to disperse power in time of peace? In times of crisis the strength of a people is realised with a decisive leader. That is perhaps the most critical choice that faces a democracy-to get the best leader in time of danger; but the rigid protocols of party government inhibit the rise of brilliant leadership to meet the demands of the hour. For example, World War II would have been lost without Winston Churchill. However, the war situation had been considerably worsened by the Westminster government ignoring his warnings before and in the early stage of in the war. The English system hindered the rise of his needed leadership, and the people lost the opportunity to hinder Hitler from wielding his destructive power. This case may be extreme, but it illustrates the central problem of democracy.

Institutionalised power hampers the rise of the leadership demanded by the hour. Leaders may be weak and incompetent or 'too big for their boots' and have to be removed-generally after the damage has been done. Australia shares this dilemma. We depend too much on leaders and allow them to acquire undue power. This grasping for the power to ignore or con the people is not leadership. Hitler probably started as a good leader but finished a tyrant. Without an adequate mechanism of democratic control, leaders easily become tyrants, unless motivated by an exceptionally genuine democratic character. In fact the stronger they are the greater is the risk.

Again, leaders within the party system are constrained by party objectives and cannot give their best to the public interest. The public wants trustworthy, 'good' leaders, but the system inhibits the rise of the best, and destroys those who reach the top. The party system is notorious for discarding leaders for failing to maintain or build party power.

We know that many dangers are looming in the future. We need a new basis of leadership. How can we achieve the cooperative leadership that can lead us into effective flexible government in a fast-changing world, without constantly falling into the clutches of minority interests and the autocracy of the ambitious? Autocrats do not lead. They dictate, usurping the role of parliament. The party system opens the way to the false legitimacy of autocratic power, subverting the power of the people.

We are a confused people; but we are not sheep, and should be able to do a lot more than just blindly follow, or be driven.

Do we really want democracy? Do we prefer the existing transfer of people power to the leaders of political parties? Do we want to be relieved of all the burden of responsibility for the decisions that the future is thrusting at us? Is the satisfaction of our materialist ambitions all we want? There are many problems that governments cannot solve without the active support of a committed, participating public, which is willing to give to non-materialist issues the priorities necessary for their resolution.

We have two choices.

We can stay politically immature as a people, leaving the power and the responsibility to 'leaders' to do what they want, and punish them when they fail to give us all we want, or we can grow up into a revitalised, participatory democracy.


Stability of decisions is hard to achieve in a climate of confrontation engendered by the party system. Fear of defeat generates forcefulness and consequent reaction.

The danger of instability in 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 a 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. This is called being robust-a favourite term in recent times.

The stability offered by the party system is at the expense of people participation and real representation by members of parliament. This is the dilemma in our experience of democracy. While the system of party government persists 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, to the frustration and annoyance of the people. 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! We can pity America with its lengthy period of uncertainty surrounding their unwieldy presidential-election process.

Seesaw government is inevitable with the leadership provided by the party system, and that does not give the in depth social stability we need to enhance the life of the nation.

Demonstrations and violence

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 and violence will inevitably continue until reforms are implemented, which will give concerned people realistic access to the decision-making system.

Without sufficient participatory mechanisms, Western political culture has become used to aggressive demonstrations having a 'legitimate' role. This is diabolical, especially when truckies can intimidate with their semi trailers. We need real democracy to enable effective protest about community concerns without organisation and without violence. The people must have effective input to worrying situations, without any need for the confrontation of angry, shouting demonstrations.

There is a misconception that democracy endorses demonstrations that confront. It does not. Freedom of expression does not mean the right to shout others down, to demonstrate aggressively, or otherwise intimidate or threaten them, regardless of how passionately we may disagree with their views. Such behaviour destroys others' rights to freedom of expression and movement.

Democracy must mean that anyone has a perfect right to call a public meeting, without threat from contrary opinion. By characterising the violent confrontation of a One Nation meeting as a 'defence' of tolerance, Pamela Bone 33 complicated an already complex issue.

A few simple rules could improve public understanding of difficult problems, upgrade our democracy, and save some broken heads:

  1. No demonstration should ever be permitted near a 'target' person or location.
  2. Upon application, any minority should have reasonable access to a public venue, with equal opportunity for antagonists and protagonists to be heard under conditions of controlled debate.
  3. The debate should be given adequate time, and appropriate television coverage.
If government underwrites the cost, there will be substantial savings in government by avoiding rowdy protests, and the community costs caused by disruption of services and supplies will be reduced.

Minorities have a democratic right to be heard; otherwise rule by the people becomes a tyranny by the majority; which is often unthinking, and 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. Only then can government enable freedom of speech together with a growing community peace and harmony, in a well-ordered society.

Things that disturb people, and result in demonstrations, are usually those that governments neglect. The willingness to publicly proclaim moral positions is often lacking in leaders. 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. He did well enough after Canberra's bad bushfire when he said: 'Now is not the time for looking for someone to blame.'

Racism is very much alive and well in this country, needing positive statements of principle 'from the bridge'. That could help to change the rot in our national value of tolerance-our 'fair go' heritage. Anti-social views need to be publicly condemned-from the top. The best option is to attack the 'message', not 'the messenger'.

Freedom of speech

There appears to be considerable confusion regarding this so-called 'right'. It is quite elementary that all freedoms have limits. Freedom without limits destroys freedom. Anything that publicly causes offence to another (for example, derogatory words based on race to an aboriginal football player) requires a sincere public apology by the offender. An insincere apology is an aggravation of the original insult. The only person able to judge whether the sincerity is genuine, and acceptable is the one offended-without any pressure to accept.

The Rotarians have a motto that is a guide to their speech: 'Is it kind; is it true; is it necessary.' That is a good rule-no court cases.

No offence can be justified on the ground of freedom of speech. Similarly, in a court case concerning an article in a student magazine alleged to contain an incitement to the crime of shoplifting, 'freedom of speech' was not a legitimate defence. A crime is a crime, and clever argument cannot change its nature.

It is a mistake to believe democracy means absolute individual 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 responsible, parliamentary 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 by-product of good government.

The way to real and lasting freedom can only be found in the pursuit of a real democracy-the only reliable way to good government. The cries for freedom; have a common cause-the lack of real democratic government. To look for freedom elsewhere is a false lead. The USA has a bill of rights. Does it ensure freedom for them all?


Party-governments' referenda, and the motives for their promotion, are notoriously suspect. So the electorate usually rejects them. If referenda presentation can become non-partisan, important issues could be decisively settled, and other matters will then become routine management, with much less party conflict.

Now the idea of Citizen Initiated Referenda (CIR), or Direct Democracy, is gaining attention; that is, referenda which government must (or optionally in New Zealand) put to the people upon submission of petitions signed by a specified number of voters.34

Citizen electoral councils

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 will be open to everyone to participate equally.

However, all groups tend to become the preserve of the vocal few-the usual democratic dilemma. Ordinary folk cannot handle these pressures and, even where joining an organisation in community concern and hope, they soon fall away.

It is unlikely that Citizen Electoral Councils 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 has been suggested in this context, proposing that nominated candidates lodge an undated resignation with the Council, to be effective if a successful candidate's performance in parliament fails to satisfy. 'Removal of parliamentarians and public officials by petition for referendum' ('Recall') has also been proposed. Some proponents have said that a 'so-called independent' would be no more than a 'messenger'.

If participants in the Council did not show exemplary conduct and public responsibility, democratic viability would be lost. It sounds decidedly risky, even where the original concept might be initiated in good faith. Without some way of preventing dominance by an executive or other small community minority, no worthwhile outcome can be envisaged.

There has to be a far better way in the future to create a non-partisan electoral forum.

Proportional representation

Where proportional representation (PR) has been introduced, electorates are reduced in number but made larger to each contain several seats. This means a seat can be won with a much smaller 'quota' of votes. The Droop method, for example, divides the number of valid votes cast by the number of seats plus one, and then adds 1, ensuring the filling of all vacant seats; e.g. 70000 divided by (6 + 1) = 10001. Once the candidate's quota has been reached surplus votes are transferred, each at a reduced value to the next qualifying candidate.

Whereas, in a single-seat electorate fifty plus one percent of the total votes cast (in the smaller area) is required to gain a seat, with PR, each candidate gathers votes from a larger area and much larger total of more widely dispersed votes. With multiple seats the percentage of votes required to gain a seat in the enlarged electorate is much smaller. PR's purpose is to enhance representation of diverse, scattered groups in the community by increasing the possibility of seats in parliament for independents and candidates of the smaller parties, to match more closely their support in the larger area of the community.

Where PR operates in a lower house of parliament, the need for a majority to form government normally requires a coalition. These arrangements naturally require some policy compromises. This can create instability in maintaining government, especially where many parties are involved. For example, Israel is treated as one electorate and has many parties in its Knesset36-The Israeli Parliament. In Australia, each state is a separate electorate for Senate elections.

PR's improved representation creates competition in the electorate between elected members-even between members belonging to the same party. In the absence of non-partisan local forums, this competition can be of value to the community. In the Tasmanian lower House, the Hare-Clarke system and smaller geographical area means MPs are able to be well known locally, and give electors access to alternative members of the same party between elections. Introduction of the 'Robson Rotation' has also lessened party emphasis by a varied printing of ballot papers so that each candidate's name will appear in equal numbers in each position within the total print of ballot papers which are distributed to the polling stations. For example, with five candidates, each one-fifth of the voting papers will show the candidates in a different order, recycled so that each name will appear in each of the five positions in one-fifth of the papers. The different printed versions are then distributed equally amongst the polling stations. This destroys the utility of party voting tickets, encouraging an earlier and closer examination of candidates by voters.

It seems clear that major parties could derive no benefit from PR. A recent move by the Tasmanian government to reduce the number of politicians had the unashamed purpose of reducing the incidence of independents and minor party members, notably the 'Greens'. With electorates of five members instead of seven, the quota required to be successful will, of course, be higher. Tasmania's Premier Rundle said that minorities have no right to dominate the majority by having the balance of power; but an absence of smaller players leaves the field to the seesaw politics of the major parties-the two 'management teams' competing for office. The power of minorities in parliament only exists, in fact, because of the confrontation between 'left' and 'right'. Nevertheless, a coalition of opposed parties with the necessary numbers is obviously a legitimate majority. On the other hand, the legitimacy of the majority might reasonably be questioned if a party to the coalition is merely engaged in obstruction. PR has proved of particular value in the Australian Senate as a restraint on executive-government dominance. The Greens, Australian Democrats and independents have at times joined with opposition senators, creating a temporary coalition to block legislation deemed unsatisfactory.

In Senate elections there has been a drift to the list system of voting, which means voters merely vote for a party instead of voting for individual candidates. Public competition between members of the same party is eliminated by this system.

A bill of rights?

Frustration with executive subversion of parliamentary government has produced a new trend in thinking that a bill of rights should be created-either by legislation, by referendum, or by the processes of the High Court.

George Williams, Sydney barrister, seeks a bill of rights for Australia. Clearly concerned with Aboriginal problems, but troubled by international attention (and local inattention) to our civil rights record, he feels that with a 'bill of rights' we could more readily solve these problems. He is concerned that the courts are enfeebled by the absence of a bill of rights and is critical of the founders of the Constitution for 'avoiding' establishing such protection, thus 'impoverishing our democracy'. He claims that we are behind other countries that do have a bill of rights. (Ask the Inuits in Canada, the Maori in New Zealand, the blacks in the UK, or the Hispanics in the USA, if they find justice with their bills of rights.)

Happily, George Williams nevertheless insists: 'The real answer lies with our Parliaments [the members of which] in consultation with the community, must assert their leadership. They, and not the Courts, are the appropriate forums in which to develop the rights attaching to Australian citizenship'.37

Clearly he agrees with our ancestors, despite his concern for a bill of rights. Derived as our politics is from the English system, it has long been considered that 'rights' have been better protected by the responsibility of parliaments to the people (such as it is), than through legal means.

In a comparison of the English and Australian constitutional positions with the American, Justice Toohey (of the High Court) noted the effect of the historical origins of each. Whereas the English parliament was the agent of freedom from the monarch, the American freedom was gained by revolution against an English parliament. Thus America was cautious about parliamentary power and chose to include a bill of rights in its system. Looking into their differing approaches to the protection of individual rights, Justice Toohey draws attention to the distinction between rights being protected and rights being enjoyed. He suggests that we in Australia may be better off with our 'enjoyment of rights' than other countries in which protection of individual freedoms has had to be formally provided by a bill of rights. The distinction is important, because it suggests that a healthy parliamentary process is better able to secure fundamental freedoms than a less democratic system, which is dependant on enforcement through the courts-a cumbersome process at best. Litigation to secure an individual's rights can be costly, and involve extensive delays. In the words of William Gladstone: 'Justice delayed is justice denied'.38

There is a widespread lack of confidence in the legal system. There is some concern that we might drift in the direction of the American disease of litigation-with little confidence in the availability of better justice. Special interests are the ones most likely to feature in litigation before the courts. Many others may feel comparable or worse injustice without relief.

Peter Costello, when federal Liberal shadow attorney general, noted that the 'International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights' includes the right of equality before the law; but dependence on court action for protection of rights offers little hope for the average individual. In a truly democratic system we should be able to see a more even-handed and prompt justice through the political process, including the ombudsmen and various tribunals and appeal processes. We live in the hope of a further real reform of the parliamentary system, which will vastly improve the access to justice for all.

People today are more educated and more concerned with the importance of egalitarian, racial and environmental issues. There is an increased impatience with partisan government. Participatory access is inadequate, and members of parliament are too preoccupied with party politics and power. The push for a bill of rights clearly reflects the dissatisfaction of the public with party-style, executive government, which can arrogantly reject the public condemnation of forty three high-ranking retired service officers and officials.39

Is a bill of rights the answer? There is the danger in pursuing a bill of rights that having obtained that, there might be a sense of 'mission accomplished', which could discourage us from seeking a more substantial political reform, with much better outcomes in the end.


Our political system is in the grip of powerful competing ideologies.:

The ownership of industrial production promoted the polarisation of ideology and its attendant political conflict. Questions of governance in this [last] century have focused on little else.40

Political power, be it of the left or the right, isolates competing political forces, encouraging a blind adherence to ideology, with unfortunate choices, and a stubbornness in judgement.


Here the bitter contest between left and right showed up in the failure of a sudden turn to a new ideology to 'save' the country. That is the problem with ideology-it ignores the realities, while trying to make the facts fit the dogma. Western democracies are bugged with the same disease. As Latham says: 'There has been no real attempt to focus on a better basis for making political decisions'.

Worldwide, the relationship between executives and parliaments is in crisis. 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, democracy is not winning. We need to show a better way.


Martin Gilbert quotes a passage from Winston Churchill's biography of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, published in 1905:
In this book, Churchill referred, in a clear reference to his own thinking, to an England 'of wise men' who gaze without self deception at the failings and follies of both political parties; of brave and earnest men who find in neither faction, fair scope for the effort that is in them; of 'poor men' who increasingly doubt the sincerity of party philosophy.41
The flippant and fractious nature of party politics that frustrated his father was to be his acute frustration too. Only the crisis of war rescued Churchill from the bankruptcy of party politics, inspiring him to lead Britain to victory.
After the war, party politics regained the ascendancy, and his rejection.

Dr. Carmen Lawrence MHR

Sydney Institute Speech.17th August 2000. Extract by permission.

While there are good reasons to advocate reform, and while women, as outsiders and newcomers, may well be in the best position to see what is needed, I doubt whether the mere presence of women will prove sufficient. We need to articulate a detailed agenda for reform based on an analysis of the deficiencies in our system.

Can we improve our democracy?

Whatever its origin, or its validity, the perception that more women will make a difference reflects a conviction that our political system needs to change; that the fundamentals of the democratic contract have been corrupted. Many Australians I talk to are disgruntled by a system which does not appear to respond to their needs and seems, increasingly, to be in the hands of elites more interested in their own advancement than the general good. As a result, our political system has less and less legitimacy.

Others have characterised this as a crisis, which ranges across many of our democratic institutions and processes.
  • Our outdated constitution.
  • The Byzantine, power-focused behaviour of our major political parties.
  • The disquieting alliance of our political parties with corporations and large organisations.
  • The control of our political parties by privileged minorities.
  • The seeming irrelevance of much parliamentary debate and political discourse in the media.
  • The permanent state of vitriolic antagonism between the major parties.
  • The elevation of executive secrecy above public disclosure.
  • The winner takes all outcomes of elections which preclude the input of minority opinion, and
  • The failure to enunciate and plan for the long-term challenges we face as a community.
To nominate just a few! Fortunately, there are optimists who believe it is possible to redesign our institutions.

Whether or not the greater involvement of women in our political system will drive improvements in our political system, it is clear that they are needed.

Representation: One vote, one value? The minimum requirement of any representative democracy is that governments should be elected and that all adults should have an equal right to vote. This minimum is indeed very little. As Rousseau acerbically observed:
The English people believes itself to be free; it is gravely mistaken; it is free only during the election of Members of Parliament; as soon as the members are elected, the people is enslaved.
We might well ask what kind of accountability it is that operates only once every three or four years and which depends on assessments of performance which are inevitably based on information which the government of the day chooses to make available. I believe it is time to rein in the exponential growth of corporate donations and to curtail the proliferation of content-free, coercive media advertising that passes for policy debate during elections.

A Question

Can our kind of democracy stand up to the strains that will be imposed on us by the problems of the 21st century? Do any of us realise the decisions we will have to face in the next few decades as an increasing world population competes for scarce land and other resources? Concern for the planet's limited resources is on the increase, with some scientists estimating it will take the resources of three planets like ours to raise the rest of the world to our standard of living. While governments ignore the signs, thinking only of current economic growth and the popular vote, it is quite clear that our standard of living will soon have to shift progressively away from material values or simply decline. Are we worried? We should be. Can our democracy give us confidence to face a difficult future, making us united and strong by the validity of our decision-making processes?

We have become used to the dominance of party leaders who like to ignore us between elections, claiming a mandate for their every action. In the future it will be increasingly important, as problems multiply, to have leadership and people integrated through a new process of intelligent public participation.

Can only danger unite a people? Where is the political framework and leadership that can unite us in the bond of common values?

It was inspiring, on the night of September 7th 2001, to hear a choir of Scouts and Guides singing 'I am, you are, we are Australian'-and to also see the sincerity of the singing of the National Anthem at sports venues. This sincerity of the young, whose hopes for the future are at stake, demands that that sincerity be translated to every field of our national life-without exception.

It is essential that we escape from the party system, which has institutionalised division and conflict in our parliaments, preventing governments from having the respect and support of the people necessary to tackle the more difficult problems fairly and squarely. As we face the dangers of the future, the politics of the aloof party leader could easily degenerate into dictatorship, unless we set our course for real democracy. We need to restore genuine, continuous local representation, with the authority of parliament replacing the dominance of the executive.

Why do parties fail? Why do Prime Ministers fail, and weep at the acceptance of defeat? Why do parties languish in opposition? Why are they content to do so, only borne up with the hope of doing the same to their opponents when the wheel turns? Where is the 'Golden Rule'? The reason is simple. Governments gain too much power, thinking the people will accept anything they do. So they become foolish. Healthy politics needs a much wider, and increasing, participation of the people. We do not need the destructive clamour of ideological jealousy. Ideology is the enemy of all, because it constrains the mind from thinking objectively and clearly about the issues on which we need straight, uncomplicated and fair thinking. Power makes good men and women go off the rails. As we well know, 'Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.'42

In the Victorian parliament foyer we see the proverb: 'In the multitude of counsellors there is safety.'43 Set in a circle in the floor with tessellated tiles, it is an injunction that expressed the sentiments of the people in the 'Era of Democracy'. It says it all. They believed these things when the Victorian parliament was built -- beautifully, and very quickly, after the Eureka Stockade.

We should never forget it. Do we believe? Real democracy means just that-a multitude of counsellors.

We need to give serious thought to the root cause of the uncertainty and the moral poverty of the way political decisions are made, and rouse ourselves to the challenge of healing the 'disease' in our problem democracy.