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Aug 19, 2010

Rundle: you call this democracy? It's time to start again

What if a government is formed without majority support? It could be the chance for renewal, writes Guy Rundle.

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There’s two interesting results that this election might throw up. The first is a hung parliament, as discussed by other contributors to this august wossname. Bring it on, I say, even if it means crazy Bob Katter is holding the reins.

But perhaps even more interesting would be a repeat of 1990 and 1998: an overall majority vote for one party, who nevertheless fail to gain a majority of seats. Perhaps we might get the quinella — a parliament that is hung even though either Labor or the Coalition gained an overall 50%+1 against all other parties, but were still denied the automatic first go at forming government.

Would that finally make people wake up and take this democratic deficit seriously?

Nothing exposes more clearly the desiccated and purely formal nature of the Australian political system than the hypocrisy and apathy with which we treat this disjuncture. We prate to school children about Australia’s role as a democratic nation, secret ballot, blahblah. When that system delivers a result that means the will of the majority is thwarted, we simply shrug our shoulders and carry on as if nothing happened.

There’s no rational defence for this. It’s not as if we’re deliberately weighting certain seats to have more sway; it’s a purely the random effect of equally weighted seats. It’s travesty pure and simple.

Moreover, it’s a travesty which has had momentous consequences. In 1996, the Australian public threw out Paul Keating and Labor with a resounding thud. In 1998, Labor having installed a more modest and everyday figure, and Howard having launched the GST, a majority of people came back to Labor.

Had that majority wish been expressed in parliament, Kim Beazley would have been prime minister during the period of higher boat arrivals and 9/11, and Peter Costello would have been leader of the opposition. Beazley’s foreign policy credentials and philo-Americanism would have stood him in good stead to consolidate a majority in the 2001 elections, and the contempt in which Costello has always been held by a majority of sensible people would have condemned the Coalition to further wanderings.

Howard’s single term, an interruption in a generation dominated by Labor, would have been seen as an embarrassing error, and Howard himself the Liberal Party’s great mistake; their Latham. Mark would be an education minister or ex-minister, seen as erratic but valued for his determination to give Labor a kick up the arse on its core mission.

History has determined otherwise. Howard consolidated himself both personally and politically in his second term. Anyone who thinks the ‘man of steel’ was born with iron in his soul should take a look at his shambolic musings on the night of the ’98 election, when he thought he’d lost and began muttering about “reconciliation”, etc. And he won clear mandates in 01 and 04. But he did so from the position of authority bequeathed him by the illegitimate result of ’98.

The 1990 election, which Andrew Peacock won by 50,000 votes, might have changed subsequent political cycles so greatly that neither Keating nor Howard would have been prime minister. Whether that would be better or worse than what transpired is open for debate, but it would have been different.

What I find truly bizarre about this issue is that people who believe this system is democratic can be so blasé about the results it throws up. I don’t think it’s remotely democratic, and it makes me wild. People who actually believe this parliamentary system has some legitimacy should be in the streets demanding change.

Is it possible that any such result on Saturday will not be treated with the equanimity of earlier times? After all, from 1966 to 1996 we had a political culture that was bipartisan on a general notion of liberal progressivism. Whatever the differences, we were moving forward as a pluralist, liberal democratic society with a progressively more tolerant and humane public sphere.

Howard’s victory coincided with, and was in part a product of, the destruction of such a polity by the rapid advance of globalised capitalism. As social connection and solidarity was clobbered and fractured at the base economic level, conservatives presented a counterfeit social unity, based on formulaic patriotism and an unending series of enemies: the ‘politically correct’, the ‘elites’, and of course Muslims.

Thus a lot of the divisions between the party’s social bases are entirely imaginary — based around phantom fears of people in boats, the ‘fragility’ of Western civilisation, the godlessness of the elites, etc. But they are nevertheless more deeply felt as divisions of identity than were the real class divisions of an earlier era.

So, how will Labor’s core supporters, both working-class and ‘cultural producer’ class, feel if Tony Abbott has a free-ish hand (subject to Senate composition) to impose his vision on an Australian people, when he’d been rejected by a clear majority of them? And how will the Coalition base feel if they’re being ruled by an atheist, childless, shacked-up, etc w-w-w-woman, when a majority of Australians chose the most personally conservative prime ministerial candidate in our recent history?

I’m sure that collectively the power elite across the major parties, the media, and monopoly capital, would do their best to dampen down any public protest against a result that reveals the Australian system as a process of turn-taking by two major parties that are quasi-state apparatuses, maintained by compulsory voting, exhaustive preferences and public electoral funding matched to voting numbers.

But a ‘thwarted-majority’ vote would give Australians its best opportunity for years to outflank them, and start a genuine popular movement that puts the structure and content of the Australian political system on the table.

Such a movement could found itself on the cornerstone of the government’s lack of legitimacy. Instead of campaigning on a specific programme of change, it could campaign on the proposal for a process of public conversations similar to the 1890s movement that led to federation, and the particular constitutional form it took.

Such conventions — the genuine form of public debate for which Rudd and Gillard’s 2020s and ‘citizens assemblies’ are the elite counterfeit — could take in everything from the future of the federal system to voting systems in both houses, compulsory voting, different public funding models or none at all, separation of the executive from the legislative (and a consequent republic), media funding to ensure a pluralism of information sources, and a redrafting of the constitution.

The important point about such a campaign would be to emphasise the process of re-opening the Australian political system to conscious and reflective reconstruction, not to specify any specific formulation for change. That would create the opportunity to build a larger movement bridging people on left and right who believe the whole system to be desperately in need of change even if they worked in separate groups.

It’s vital to pop this pathetic Australian self-delusion that we are somehow good at democracy now, because we were at the forefront of it once. We’ve traded on that complacency for so long that it has become a fatal barrier to seeing the truth: the lower-house triple lock (compulsion, preferences, public funding), state powers and oligopolistic media power gives us one of the least effective manifestations of actually existing democracy in the West.

If you doubt this, imagine it elsewhere. Imagine, say, in the 1970s, a canny East European country had decided to channel dissident demands by creating a two-party state, instead of one. Thus, the Communist Party would be opposed by the Workers Party, both sharing the same economic philosophy, with some variations of emphasis and technique, the same foreign policy, and entertaining some differences on cultural policies, etc. Voting was compulsory, only those parties appear on the ballot, and each party then receives an allocation of funds for maintaining itself based on what split of the vote it got every three years. The media consists of a state broadcaster, and two quasi-state combines, whose minor differences mirror those of the official parties.

Yes, it is not the same as our system. But nor is it that different either in terms of outcome, and in terms of its ability to legitimate itself. “Look,” the oligarchs would say, “we combine political contestation with stability. We simply require that citizens fulfil their obligations and vote for one of the two parties, whose ongoing popularity surely suggests that they be supported by the public.”

Should the opportunity to throw this system, East Germany of the Pacific, into question at this poll maybe, just maybe, the mass of largely directionless left-liberals, Monthlyites, blogging libertarian hobbyists, ARM refugees, nu-skool ex-Eurocommunist social democrats, rural populists and the like will bestir themselves to a concerted politics that has a chance of real change.

For anyone interested in an Australia that is not only less undemocratic, but where energy flows between the political and social realm more effectively, there is now no other recourse, but to a civic politics focused on the system itself, rather than expressed through the parties (aside from the Greens, which remain the only genuine political movement standing).

But I can’t see this happening without some critical event that throws the legitimacy of the system into question for many people as a top-down movement. Like the ARM, it wouldn’t work. Nor could it be based merely within left-liberalism. It would have to make a genuine common cause with sections of the right, or simply with angry mass groups who see themselves as battlers, ordinary Aussies, blahblahblah, who (quite accurately) feel they are in no meaningful sense enfranchised.

As has become clear to most people in this dog of an election, the problem now lies not with the policies and intent of either party, but with the deep structural problems that disconnect social energy from political process and thus transform that energy into cynical anti-politics. The best result will be no clear result, and the possibility for new directions that may create.

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle


Guy Rundle is Crikey's correspondent-at-large. He was co-editor of Arena Magazine for 15 years, and has written four hit stage shows for Max Gillies, two musicals, numerous books and produced TV shows including Comedy Inc and Backberner.

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30 thoughts on “Rundle: you call this democracy? It’s time to start again

  1. S1lverdrg0n

    Hear, hear, Guy!!! It is SO refreshing to hear a call for a debate on the very fabric of how our democracy operates!

    The Liberal/Labor duopoly, with a side of Greens is rotten to the core and does nothing for good policy, only serving to get one side or the other back into power, following opaque back-room preference deals and weeks of puerile mud-slinging that masquerades as an election campaign.

    I, for one, am utterly sick to death of this election and the fraudulent “choice” I am offered between two middle-of-the-road, fence-sitting behemoths (aka the major parties) whose policy offerings are “we’re going to do what they’re doing, only more of it”.

    When will we have the option of a multi-party democracy, where the votes are counted (without “preferences”) and THEN the coalitions are formed? Already two state governments (Tassie and the ACT) have in recent times included members from other parties in their govenments and the sky doesn’t seem to have fallen in.

    However, I tend to believe that Australians have the political system they “deserve” due largely to the apathy to which you refer in your article. The majority of voters, faced with almost a non-choice, almost don’t care who they vote for, short of falling out on vaguely conservative/left-ish lines as a default position.

    Please, bring on a national debate about the state of our democracy, because it is driving me crazy, watching this overblown playground turf-war that is supposed to pass for governance of our great land.

  2. Michael R James

    Rundle and many Posters here have forgotten Keane’s J’accuse treatise. I mean have you not watched those so-called townhall meetings (yeah, town halls with bars, 1000 Pokies and big screen tvs tuned to bingo/footie/horses/dogs) or listened to talkback radio. It is hopeless. Rundle is right that the only thing that could possibly change anything is an extreme event, a disaster. Guess what, I reckon that could well be an Abbott Prime Minister, a Hockey treasury, a Julie B foreign ministry, Scot Morrison …………..but it ain’t going to happen, despite my fellow idiot Queenslanders.

    There is a small chance for minor reform in the scenario of Greens senate balance of power, and independents + Greens holding ditto in HoReps. Those independents would powerfully support a Hare-Clark system [see abc.net.au/unleashed/stories/s2907567.htm] but combined Lib+Labs would never allow it. It only happened in Tasmania because of one man’s persistence and the fact that it was very early in their history (1896 I think), and the Lib+Lab managed to seriously pervert it a few years ago.

    A real disaster just isn’t going to happen in Australia for the same reason most people are so complacent, we are going to be relatively prosperous no matter what. The only realistic disturbance would be a deep and long world recession that afflicted Asia, and if that happened I suspect we would be worrying about other things. The only examples in the post-war Anglo world are NZ in 1984 and this year in the UK. Remarkably the UK looks like riding out their political disaffection, though the idiots might feasibly end up with …..our preferential system!

  3. Philip Amos

    What a load of horse-shit!

    The reason there is no clamouring for tearing down our democratic system (outside this page) is that is works pretty bloody well. Your rage that a 49.9% of the vote might deliver a slim parliamentary majority = vast injustice/broken system is WAAAY out of proportion.

    The system was designed to be representative – i.e. we get a ‘local member’ who represents their constituents in parliament. Sure, go proportional representation, but a pure PR just sacrifices local members for long lists of candidates (makes candidates even less relevant to the campaign, if possible). A tassie style half-arse PR you get the same problem % of vote = seats issues you moan about above.

    The people don’t give a shit about 0.1% of the vote. And rightly so, near enough is good enough. All the counter-factuals in the world might keep you awake at night, but most of us get on with life post-election because the un-utterable fact about our system is that the politicians actually do a pretty good job.

    The big fault I see in your argument rundle is that you lament the political outcomes, i.e. 12 years of Howard – not the systemic outcomes i.e. a stable, decent enough political system that has made Australia pretty damn prosperous, healthy, and well educated. Get out and have a look around – life ain’t that bad. Better still, remember your recent sojourn in the UK and know that life could be much much worse.

    I suggest the improvements to our country will come from more political competition. A more vibrant system not a different system. That is, using modern communication tools, organising opportunities, and decentralised campaigning through the net and social networks to either get more independent candidates up or launch new parties. Copy the Get Up template. A bottom up – not top down revolution.

  4. Broggly

    Philip, apparently in Tasmania’s Robson-Hare-Clark system the candidates are actually a lot more involved in campaigning, since they have to campaign for votes individually instead of relying on the party handing them the preselection and coasting in on a safe seat. Of course with Australia’s population as it is we’d end up having electorates covering multiple states, which I don’t see as an issue (are the voters of Barker, Mallee and Wannon so different? The ones in Lingari, Grey and Durack?). One of the big problems in this case is the Senate. With PR in the lower house, the senate essentially becomes the “unrepresentative swill” Keating thought it was rather than a necessary check against Government majorities. I don’t really see the States as being that important, though, which are the main reason for the Senate.

    I for one am hoping Adam Brant gets in, ushering in an era where Greens candidates are viable in several seats and we start getting proper three-way races. Analogous to the rise of the Labor party here (frightening the Free Traders and Protectionists with the prospect of a conservative split vote), and the Lib-Dem surge in the UK, that could lead to electoral reform coming onto the agenda. Of course those both lead to the Preferential Vote (it looks like that’s as far as the Tories will be willing to go, I was disappointed we didn’t get a Labour/Lib-dem coalition instead). Anyone know much about the circumstances in which a single-member system was changed to PR?

    Of course, the big issue is voter apathy/ignorance of the system. The Greens are at the front line of fighting this (since we have the most to win), but an electorate that understands they can always send whichever party gets their vote the message that they’re only doing it under sufferance, and give financial support to a minor/independent candidate, would be a very good thing. I am in favour of letting people legally exhaust their vote (without gaming the system with the 10% margin of error which risks a tired scrutineer discarding your vote), too.

  5. Gavin R. Putland

    Guy Rundle is much exercised by the ability of incumbent governments to retain a majority of seats with slightly less than a majority of the two-party-preferred vote, but misses the two biggest faults with our so-called democracy, namely (1) the voters are rationally ignorant, and (ii) their limited attention span is bought with advertising budgets and bypassed with lobbying budgets.

    Common cause of both faults is UNIVERSAL SUFFRAGE.

    By maximizing the number of electors to whom candidates must present their messages, universal suffrage maximizes the cost of successful candidacy and therefore maximizes the influence of money on the selection of our legislators. Those who would be our masters if the franchise were restricted to the landed gentry, or subject to payment of an exorbitant poll tax, are still our masters, and are the more firmly entrenched because the extension of the franchise gives them the appearance of legitimacy.

    Furthermore, by maximizing the number of voters, universal suffrage MINIMIZES the influence of each voter on the outcome, and thereby makes it rational to be ignorant. If you are one of (say) 100,000 voters in one of 100 electorates, your probability of influencing the outcome is so small that it is not rational to invest any time to become a well-informed voter. Even if your interest in the outcome is purely altruistic, there are more efficient ways to exercise your altruism than studying the issues to inform your vote. You may of course have other reasons, altruistic or otherwise, for studying some of the same issues, and the knowledge thus acquired may influence your vote; but it is not rational to seek such knowledge for the sole purpose of voting. Hence most voters, on most issues, will not seek such knowledge at all, and their ignorance will leave them maximally susceptible to well-funded propaganda.

    The gatekeepers of public debate — the mainstream media — do not counter the influence of money but rather reinforce it, because they are moneyed interests and are beholden to other moneyed interests, namely advertisers, who want a big audience for their ads, especially among people with money to spend. And the media try to retain such audiences by telling them what they want to hear. Note the vicious circles within vicious circles. Public funding of election campaigns is just another vicious circle: funding depends on electoral success which depends on funding.

    If we want democracy instead of plutocracy, we must eliminate the cost of taking the message to the voters. How? By bringing the voters to the message! For each election, in each electorate, invite a random sample of the enrolled voters to gather in one place (or one video conference). Pay them generously for their time, so that they can easily accept the invitation. Let them listen to the candidates and cross-examine the candidates over a period of several days. Then let them vote as an electoral college — choosing the candidate(s) that the entire enrolled electorate would have chosen if it had heard the same arguments.

    This arrangement, which one might call CONVENED-SAMPLE SUFFRAGE, not only bypasses the gatekeepers but also ensures that ignorance among the chosen voters is no longer rational. If you are selected as one of (say) 100 members of the college in your electorate, giving you the chance not only to vote in the college but also to question the candidates in the hearing of all 100 members, your chances of influencing the result in your electorate are significant, and your chances of influencing the overall result are not negligible, especially in a close contest. So you’ll pay attention.

    On balance, convened-sample suffrage would INCREASE each citizen’s chances of influencing the outcome. The reduction in your chances of voting would be exactly compensated by the increase in your chances of being the marginal voter if you do actually vote; and the opportunity to speak and ask questions in the electoral college would be an additional avenue of influence.

    Of course, being informed would not prevent members of the college from voting for their individual interests rather than for what is right. But it would improve their ability to discern their individual interests, and hence improve the chances that their collective decision would reflect the REAL interests of the majority, as opposed to their imagined interests.

    Convened-sample suffrage is compatible with any voting system (e.g. first-past-the-post, preferential, or proportional). Whatever voting system is presently used under universal suffrage can be retained by the electoral college under convened-sample suffrage. Reform of the voting system can be another debate for another time.

    Paying the delegates to the electoral college would probably be cheaper than paying the army of officials needed to set up and conduct a universal-suffrage election and to count the votes — to say nothing of the campaign costs.

    The only downside is that the selection of the delegates would introduce a random sampling error. But that’s better than a systematic bias caused by vested interests pandering to ignorance.

    Of course the vested interests that benefit from the existing system will not want to change it. But there are three reasons for believing that they are not invincible. First, their must be some vested interests whose causes, on balance, would be better served by an informed electorate. Second, as disinformation becomes more pervasive, more and disinformers believe their own BS, and consequently believe that they would be better served by an informed electorate, whether they really would nor not. Third (and partly as a consequence of the first two), while opponents of the status quo are divided into innumerable irreconcilable factions, they all seem to have one thing in common, namely the belief that they would prevail if only they could get a fair hearing. Convened-sample suffrage would give them a fair hearing. It is therefore a cause that should unite all opponents of the existing order, even if they agree on nothing else.

    So, may an unholy alliance of mercenaries, missionaries and misfits manage to change the rules of the game. And then may the best team win.

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