VIC ROWLANDS. Reclaiming democracy

Democracy across the world is under siege and facing its biggest challenge. Despite different interpretations of democracy in terms of process, – voting age, optional or compulsory, the new world is creating fundamental strains which threaten at least its current status, if not viability.

The system has found it difficult to evolve organically and stay relevant. and increasingly has had to contend with strategies consistently eroding the philosophical base and the spirit on which it was founded.

The system and the politics of means justifying ends has increasingly frustrated individuals and groups. The rise of populism, the growth of single issue groups and extreme factions within the major parties has spawned changes fracturing the (largely) two party construct of parliament. Concessions made to small parties or individuals not related to the legislation being negotiated is often the antithesis of democracy. Outside parliament the increasing power and influence of lobbyists has compounded the difficulties.

While many of these have existed to a degree in the past the advent of the communication revolution and particularly social media, has created a perfect storm. What now seems like an orderly past where complex issues could be worked through the community and parliament, especially if accompanied by strong leadership, now become regularly paralysed. The news cycle is getting shorter, and the twenty four hour cycle has morphed into an almost instant real time cycle in places like Trump’s America.

The major problem this has created is that while information can be disseminated at increasingly rapid speed, the time for people to take in, assimilate and comprehend the detail has remained the same. This gives the information disseminated, sometimes not true and sometimes deliberately false, a powerful capacity to cause damage and misunderstanding. It is said that addresses to the National Press Club for example are regularly sabotaged or undermined across social media and news outlets before the address has even been completed.

All this has conspired to make legislation in parliament much easier to oppose and obstruct than to enact. Politicians are feeling the brunt of public wrath, some of it because of their inability to escape the bubble of their existence or the constraints on them to escape it, but some also because the big political game seems always in play. Whatever it takes.

Politicians are by and large decent people who go into politics with public service at the front of their intentions. Most of them, particularly nationally, work hard with long hours of travel and dislocation from their families. A change in approach may be resisted by them but also has a chance to be of considerable help to them, both in enabling legislation and in doing so reducing the public disdain and rancour with which they are now often regarded. It is true that much legislation still passes, often co-operatively, through the work of joint parliamentary committees, but this is lost in the shadow of the odious confrontation and filibustering in parliament on contentious issues which is basically what the public sees, and which has alienated them so much.

Assumptions about what influences the way people vote are changing. They have probably never  been as simple as assumed, but the slogan argument, doorstop message or tweet should not be the vehicle to persuade the public on major complex issues. The data from the Australian Election Study run by the Australian National University and reviewed by by Lachlan Harris and Andrew Charlton, (Age 4/3) shows the polarisation of Australian politics over the last twenty years with voters moving in significant numbers from the moderate centre, left and right to the extremes, and in doing so compounding the difficulty in finding consensus ground on policy.

It’s time to reclaim democracy.

Re-engaging with the people

This is a suggestion for a process which would be carried out by a University or another qualified independent organisation where information would be gathered from across the country and from which up to four  questions or issues which have the potential to attract majority voter support across the electorate would be identified and voters asked to respond “Yes” or “No” to them on a separate sheet on election day. No matter what side won government any question or statement receiving 55%+ support would be be expected to be followed up by an all party committee developing enabling legislation in relation to that issue, or a process to act as a precursor leading to legislation.

It could look like this.

  1. In the year before the election the information would be circulated outlining the process and invite media outlets to support it by providing relevant programs and information.
  2. Comprehensive polling across the country would be carried out using any means the commission believes will validly provide the information needed. The survey would ask voters for the three most important national issues needing action facing Australia, and one additional issue from a personal perspective.
  3. Year 12 students across the country (or a significant sample of them) would be asked to respond to the survey on a specified day, (“Democracy Day -Your Country, Your Future”) either on line or by mail. Engaging with young people is a critical part of any revival of democracy. For this cohort for most of their lives the democratic process has modelled dysfunction.
  4. A conference, (“Supporting Democracy”) would be held in Canberra composed of representatives from national umbrella groups,( for example ACTU, Business Council, Farmers Federation), plus a panel of people with expert knowledge able to assist in the consideration of the data gathered, and identify from the data up to three areas warranting a question for the electorate to respond to at the next election. The conference could add one further question or issue it believes needs national attention but which hasn’t been raised.
  5. A cross party panel drawn from the federal parliament would formulate a question for each issue recommended by the Supporting Democracy conference.The Supporting Democracy Conference and the cross party panel must have at least 45% men and women.
  6. If any of the questions receive 55%+ support on election day they would be referred to the new government for action where a cross party sub committee either develops legislation responding to the issue or a process to enable this to happen.

In the end the government will decide the fate of the process. No consequences for failing to act should be needed. A government wilfully ignoring the responses from such a substantial base would be viewed very negatively by the electorate. In addition the government could act on any issue emerging as part of the process. In fact this is what a strong leader would do. The country needs a leader with the capacity to articulate a future vision for the country and the respect, ability and courage to take the people with them.

This process has the capacity to help resolve important issues in ways the system now obstructs or limits options. Politicians should recognise that they have helped bring this situation to bear.

Examples like Marriage Equality, which had 55%+ public support for more than a decade, still needed parliament to be dragged kicking and screaming,(and expensively), to act on it.

The value in this would come from the public actively engaging in the process. If they choose not to be involved or interested then a chance to revive democratic participation would be lost. This would further encourage extremism and populism and further threaten democracy. We need to believe that given genuine trust people will take the responsibility seriously and allow politicians the opportunity to rebuild some faith in the system and the people.

What if, for example, the Federal Parliament had reliable information available to it on these questions now? How might it alter political behaviour and leadership?

  1. Australia should consider the peaceful use of Nuclear energy.
  2. Australia should have a four year fixed term government.
  3. Australian law must be the supreme law in the country.
  4. Indigenous Australian should be recognised in the constitution.
  5. The government must not commit troops to war without the endorsement of the Parliament.
  6. Indigenous Australians should be given a voice to Parliament.
  7. Federal members of Parliament can be dual citizens.
  8. Australia should introduce universal pre school education.
  9. The voting age in Australia should lowered to 17.
  10. Australia should become a Republic.

Vic Rowlands is a former teacher and school principal








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5 Responses to VIC ROWLANDS. Reclaiming democracy

  1. Kaylene Emery says:

    Really lovely piece Vic, as I read I felt quite emotional for some reason… might be because I have a fear that our Government believe that they already know, what is good for us?
    If you believe you know…what is left to learn?
    Its a state of mind I used to live in thankfully long gone now so perhaps there are several reasons why I had an emotional response to your article.

    Thank you for your glass half full mind it helps me to remember that cynicism can lead to a sense of hopelessness .

    • Laurie Mayne says:

      The problem, it seems to me, Kaylene, isn’t so much that the government knows what’s good for us, but that we have no definite idea of what is good for us. God knows we’ve had such little preparation for the task. They fill the vacuum we’ve created, that’s all. They’re not bright enough or responsible enough to do anything more. Government is a booty to be won. That explains the election result partying. In a politician’s eyes, they’ve won power, not the opportunity to do good on behalf of the people who delegated their power. We’ve voted for governments who, by their cynicism, have created the hopelessness you mentioned. It takes two to tango. We have too few intellectuals and artists with the talent or the guts to confront this head on. That’s why we’re learning nothing as the good ship Australia heads for the rocks. Shame.

  2. Malcolm Crout says:

    “Politicians are by and large decent people who go into politics with public service at the front of their intentions.” Is this supported by the evidence or is this a statement of hope in the human spirit? The evidence before us it that the reverse is actually the fact. Consider for a moment the politicians like Andrew Robb who undertake lucrative private employment immediately after leaving politics in their areas of ministry. How they fail to see this potential conflict of the public interest is staggering.

    Even if policy direction is directly informed by the public at the ballot, the policies will be drafted by political party ideology rather than the real intent of the public, so this solution seems simple minded. Consider the draft policy for political donations which has been used to take the big stick to groups like GetUp whereas the IPA gets a free hit. Good intentions rarely find their way into public policy without some ideological sting in the tail and this is the problem the public are railing against.

    I don’t like the term populism because it trivialises the key issue that people are forced into voting with vengeance in mind rather than for good policy. I think the term seeks to blame the public for what is an issue created by the neoliberal attitudes of the polity and adopted by both major parties who have trapped themselves into the same ideology of free trade, trickle down economics, balanced budgets and austerity. The public are rightly concerned that these policies do not improve their lives or that of the planet.

    To be candid, the polity are the problem and not the public. Let’s put the cart before the horse and perhaps real solution to the current demise of democracy world wide will be resolved.

    • Greg Hamilton says:

      Vic Rowlands said: “To be candid, the polity are the problem and not the public. Let’s put the cart before the horse and perhaps real solution to the current demise of democracy world wide will be resolved.”

      To make a bold statement like that, Vic, you need some pretty convincing proofs if you want to convince people like me. I got it personally from a Hawke Minister that the new boss directed the Party Room to abandon the naivety of the Whitlam approach to adopt the tactics of the Libs – aiming at the hip pocket nerve of the electorate. The formula proved so miraculously successful in the way a new PM replaced the incumbent in 1975. As we saw, it paid off–for the pollies, not the public or the country. This Minister said that the public had conditioned politicians to follow them, not the other way around, as true leadership demands. Pollies get punished when they lead, and rewarded when they follow. If we want to understand why Labor died in order to become a second Conservative Party, we need look no further than this. The fact is we’re not an idealistic people like our American cousins. We’re petit bourgeois in the main, with petit bourgeois habits and aspirations. Shabby and paltry rule, okay! Charles Darwin wrote in his journal on 22 January 1836 about the colony of New South Wales he was visiting:

      ‘The whole population, poor or rich, are bent on acquiring wealth: amongst the higher orders, wool and sheep grazing form the constant subject of conversation … with such habits, and without intellectual pursuits, it can hardly fail to deteriorate.’ Had we been well-led in those days, and ever since, things might not have deteriorated they way they have. We’d be out enjoying our status as a self-respecting nation instead of wringing our hands over the absurdities of the fake democracy oligarchy we’ve had since 1852.

      A real Laborite, Barry Jones, laments the fact that we’ve become a mean and selfish people. It’s a chicken or egg question to which my answer is that if the people didn’t cause the problem, we’re a nation of sheep led by wolves. Our pollies turn into wolves very quickly when they realise there’s no changing what Jones saw in us. I have no respect for my state and federal Reps. So imagine what that makes me think of the people who vote like zombies so they can lord it over us. It explains why our democracy HAS to be fake. I’ll quote Dilbert’s take on it the problem you’ve raised, Vic:

      “My favourite conspiracy theory is the one that says the world is being run by a handful of ultra-rich capitalists, and that our elected governments are mere puppets. I sure hope it’s true. Otherwise my survival depends on hordes of clueless goobers electing competent leaders. That’s about as likely as a dog pissing the Mona Lisa into a snow bank.”

      My own findings over many decades is that most people (well, all, really) I asked had no clue of what democracy was. The French teach their kids what it is, and what their responsibilities are as participants in self-government (democracy). We don’t give a damn about any of that, and we’re reaping the consequences of a litany of bad judgments like it. For that, I agree, the pollies are to blame in good measure. I know of no instance where our pollies have voted for a diminution of the power they hold over us. That fault is OURS, not theirs. We’re constantly asleep at the wheel, and we all–pollies and public–prefer it that way. Hence Sir Geoffrey Robertson’s claim rings true:

      “One of the key things about any law is that it’s got to be founded in a system which has inherent in it the principle that the citizen can defeat the government if necessary. We now have a system of law in which the citizen can’t defeat the government; in which the system has been rigged to ensure that the citizen can’t beat the government.” Not only that, recent Australian governments have engaged in a process of further reducing dissent that would make Il Duce proud. Mussolini said ‘Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.’ What have we been observing since 1980? Nothing, because, as I said, we were all blissfully asleep at the wheel. And we’re stuck there. In social and political Limbo.

  3. David Maxwell Gray says:

    Vic Rowlands: you have expressed some very worthwhile ideas.

    My great concerns about the way Australian democracy works at the moment are:

    First, it is tending towards the worst aspects of majoritarian democracy. Under this, small minorities have their legitimate interests trashed by the majority they can never become. They can never aspire to have appropriate representation in the formal executive system. The plight of Australian indigenous people reveals this aspect of our majoritarian system. But it applies to many minorities – think Australians of non-European origin, who are grossly under-represented in parliaments of all types around Australia. The convention that governments govern for all Australians seems only remembered for public relations purposes when a new Prime Minister gives his first speech once newly elected: it is mostly forgotten otherwise. Dubious claims of “mandates” abound, despite thin majorities.

    Second, our historical tendency to give undue reverence to the Westminster system of government. In truth, the UK system has a very poor record, not only in terms of inefficiency, poor decision-making (as in current Brexit negotiations) and corruption (remember those false expenses claims by Commons members?) but also its failure to abolish hereditary privilege in the House of Lords. Historically speaking, much of our legislation has been modelled on English Acts, despite many social differences between Australia and England. The flip side of this tendency reflects a lack of confidence to innovate new forms of government. New Zealand contrasts with this: they introduced a few decades ago a new voting system to elect their government, which changed things away from a two-party rule. In Australia, despite the total vote of both Liberal and Labor declining, they still get most seats under our current system. In New Zealand, parliamentary seats obtained are more or less proportionate with the various parties’ proportion of votes obtained.

    The measure of any particular form of democracy is its capacity for positive change, in the face of demonstrable social change.

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