It is only the most naive among us who equate democracy with majoritarianism. The ‘Brexit’ plebiscite certainly returned a majority in favour of Britain leaving the European Union, but the distress caused by the decision shows that the plan is far from the ideals of democracy. Democracies behave moderately. They demand a degree of consensus. Realising that there may be large numbers adversely affected by majority decisions, democracies ensure that minorities remain part of considerations. The implementation of Brexit threatens to create impacts that will be felt deeply by some sections of society, and in many cases, these sections saw the dangers and voted ‘no’.
Plebiscites are not the epitome of democracy. Indeed, the resort to a final vote can produce problems for democratic processes. The Scottish independence plebiscite was thwarted by southerners promising further devolution. The British democratic process did not deliver on those promises and it is doubtful whether it can cope with the challenges of an exit from Europe.
In Australia we have just had a clear demonstration of the danger of majoritarian madness. The processes of testing the popular will always require some institutional setting. Decisions regarded as being more serious require special majorities such as the requirement that four states approve Constitutional referenda. The assumption that 51% approval gives a question absolute validity is spurious. The naive majority is fine for trivial questions but not for considerations of life and death, or for changes which permanently entrench majorities and disadvantage minorities. Majorities are transient and as reactions to the Brexit poll suggest, not necessarily based on accurate information.
Australian elections use various methods for counting votes and testing the will of the people. There is continual debate about which is more instrinsically democratic – the system used for the House of Representatives or that used for the Senate. Lower house elections privilege numerical majorities while the upper house returns proportionally. Given that the two major parties, Labor and the Coalition can between them secure a much higher percentage of lower house seats than their first preference vote demands, there seems to be a problem with the representation provided by the House.
As the election results unfolded major party figures made statements suggesting that they neither understand nor value the democratic process. A man close to the Labor Party leadership threatened refusal to co-operate with any parliamentarian not of his party. A man from the caretaker Liberal government spoke of chaos and in criticising the campaign tactics of the Labor Opposition, indirectly attacked the people for daring to deny the Liberal party the majority it requires to govern. Clearly, these sentiments show a gross ignorance of the requirements of democracy. The Liberal position especially suggests that the election was meant to deliver power into Liberal hands. Should the Liberal Party have secured a majority, then there may as well have been a dictatorship for the next three years. It is possible that men are more prone to confuse majoritarianism and democracy and to assume that elections exist primarily to give them power.
New parliamentarians showed a much more thorough understanding of the requirements of democracy. Humbled by their return, they pledged to represent all of their constituents – not just the majorities who supported them directly – and to discuss issues responsibly in the parliament. Of course compromises might have to be made and consensus sought but this is the ideal of democracy. If the major party power brokers understood this then they would relish the opportunity to work in the new parliament to secure the best outcomes for all Australians.
Those who suffer from majoritarian mania are threats to the democratic process. They would take immoderate decisions hastily. There was enough of that ideological arrogance in the previous parliament and the chaos surrounding the budgets for example, show that men who suffer from this mania are incapable of engaging the democratic processes. In fact, they are a threat to democracy. Unless they learn moderation and respect for the will of the people, those suffering majoritarian mania should get out of parliament and leave the task of government to those who see democratic deliberation as an important responsibility.
Plebiscites no substitute for leadership. Marriage legislation requires leadership. Democracy demands that marriage equality, which is an ethical necessity, be implemented sensitively. There will be no losers when laws are changed so that we can all marry whom we please.
Tony Smith is a former academic and regular contributor to Eureka Street, Australian Review of Public Affairs and the Australian Quarterly.