KIM WINGEREI. Democracy is not just about elections!

Jul 16, 2018

A flood (by my modest standards) of social media comments to my recent post – We have to talk (about) Turkey – was a poignant reminder that so many believe that democracy is mainly about free elections. The way many local commentators (and politicians) respond to President Trump’s actions also indicate the same misapprehension among those that should know better. Democracy is a system of government designed to protect and uphold the rights of the people. And to protect the people from government. In that sense, the case of the ‘Canberra Two’ is both scary and illuminating.

As Andrew Wilkie pointed out in Parliament, our democratically elected government is preparing to prosecute two individuals whose only ‘crime’ was revealing dirty foreign policy negotiating tactics during John Howard’s tenure (in East Timor in 2004). In this case the government cannot even invoke the ‘national security’ defence – the transgressions happened during commercial negotiations about oil exploration rights.

And as Wilkie and others have highlighted, subsequent governments have been complicit by endeavouring to cover it up, flouting international law in the process.

All in the name of democracy, yet not in adherence to its principles.

The fundamental issue here, of course, is the protection of free speech. In this case related to the right of a citizen to speak out about a perceived wrong, regardless of who. Free speech is the foundation on which democracy is based. And the most important function of a true democracy is to protect the freedom of it’s inhabitants. And as we have yet to figure out how to do this on a global scale, this responsibility falls on the nation state.

In addition to free speech, democracy is supposed to guarantee our right to freedom of religion (or to have none), freedom of association (even with Mark Latham), equal treatment before the law and the presumption of innocence (including for terrorists), the right to and protection of privacy (also for those in the public eye), the right to education and freedom of (almost all…) movement.

Many more rights can be inferred from these, such as non-discrimination on grounds of race, gender or opinion – and the right to partake in free elections.

In short, true democracy is about the protection of human rights. And properly implemented it is quite an ingenious system, despite what misgiving Churchill and others may have had about it. Firmly planted on a foundation of free speech, it consists of ‘The Three Pillars” – as first hinted at by John Locke in the 17th century, his theory later refined by Baron de Montesquie in ‘De l,esprit des lois’ (The Spirit of the Laws) some 60 years later:

  • The People, laying down the laws of the land – normally through an elected representative body such as a parliament or congress.
  • The Government – beholden to the people’s representatives – tasked with governing according to the laws.
  • The Judiciary – the adjudicator of disputes between people and between people and the government, the judge when laws are broken, and the interpreter of laws.

For it to work as intended, each pillar has to be absolutely independent. And aye, there’s the rub.

In the Westminster system of traditions and conventions that Australia generally adheres to, there are blurred lines between parliament and government. In the Republican system of the United States the lines between the elected representatives and the President are, at least in theory, clearer, and they are separately elected. But their politicised judiciary is where the Founding Fathers got it very wrong.

In Turkey, the (freely elected) President has become all powerful, no longer beholden to Parliament, with the executive branch of his Government as his servants and with the power to appoint and sack judges at will.

Back home, in the absence of a bill-of-rights and a (comprehensive) constitution of our own, politicians have had a free reign to take over the first two pillars of government and joined them at the hip. People now elect party delegates, not representatives. Parties control Parliament and parties appoint not just the Prime Minister but the whole of Executive Government, currently forty-two ministerial positions of power answerable in reality to their party, not to Parliament.

Parties propose laws and parties dominate Parliament. ‘Independent member’s bills’ are a rarity and the ‘conscience vote’ a novelty – both reserved for issues of lesser import. All major bills are predetermined by Government and presented to the party room in Parliament as decrees, enforced by the party whip. Debate in Parliament is perfunctory, always adversarial and nobody never changes their mind – except in backroom deals between parties.

Our judicial system, albeit not without flaws, remains largely independent, and we can only hope that it throws out the spurious allegations against the ‘Canberra Two’, but this is by no means guaranteed. Judges can (and should) only make their determinations on the laws as they have been enacted, and in this case the laws to be interpreted were designed to protect the Government, not the People.

And therein lays the challenge. A ‘Gordian knot’ that no election will solve, only a thorough reform of our democracy can do that.

 Kim Wingerei is a former business man, turned blogger and author. His first non-fiction book: “Why Democracy is Failing – A Blueprint for Change’’ is now available @

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4 thoughts on “KIM WINGEREI. Democracy is not just about elections!

  1. Indeed democracy is a work in progress and there are several variants beyond the ‘Westminster’ system. The Swiss have a system whereby local government spends a big percentage ion the national budget and popular referenda are commonplace. Here, local government existed only under the patronage of the States with expenditure severely limited.
    In China the system has been called, ‘centralised democracy’ for whilst their provinces may be as democratic as we are – see – they have an authoritarian central government though that central government has been reported as only spending 4% of the national budget.
    In the UK and other old countries, local government could be said to be the progenitor of central government but our version of the Westminster system has not this heritage; central govenrment arrived here and the population are still not comfortable with the idea of comuniies having a big say in their own affairs. See another piece of mine at

    1. Good points, Colin, I currently live part time in Ubud, Bali, and Indonesia is also a country where the local government has significant influence over their own destiny.

  2. Kim I disagree with your assertion that ” Judges can (and should) only make their determinations on the laws as they have been enacted, and in this case the laws to be interpreted were designed to protect the Government, not the People.

    And therein lays the challenge. A ‘Gordian knot’ that no election will solve, only a thorough reform of our democracy can do that.”

    The problematic laws were created by elected individuals and they can be annulled by elected individuals. It is up to we, the voters to get up of our recumbent arses and do something about it. As Craig Garland, independent candidate for Braddon states in his only printed election material so far, “Stand up and fight or bend over and take it. The choice is yours.”

    There is a ground swell of dissatisfaction with party politics. Garland got 2000 votes at the state election in Tasmania in March on the strength of a single Youtube rant and his posts on facebook. That was more then Jackie Lambie and the Greens combined with “proper” campaign material.

    Imagine what would be possible if there was an organisation promoting the value of real representation by independent non compromised people over the party delegate model to prompt the great mass of voters to consider alternatives to the party delegate option. Imagine what our parliament could deliver if we had over 50% of its membership comprised of people prepared to ask intelligent questions, demand proper answers, and spend our blood and treasure wisely, for everyones benefit. Hell, imagine what would happen if even 10% of parliamentarians had the fire of a Wilkie, or a McGowan.

    If we aren’t demanding that, we certainly will not be getting it any time soon. The best, and most certain way to demand it effectively is to start telling each other that is what we want. If we do that then those prepared to deliver it will step forward, knowing they have support. If we don’t they won’t know they have the support and they will stay silent and grumble in the corners, unknown to those who would support them. It’s a chicken/egg thing and as voters we do have the ability to strain the wrinkle and pop out an egg or two. Best we get on with it before the delegates masquerading as representatives take that off us as well.

    1. Thanks Simon, and although you say we disagree, it sounds to me we do agree. I’d love for you to read my book “Why Democracy is Broken – A Blueprint for Change”, and also Richard Walsh’ Reboot: A Democracy Makeover to Empower Australia’s Voters. We have to believe a change is possible – as Oscar Wilde said: Progress is merely the realisation of Utopia.

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