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Federal

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.

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.

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30 comments

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

  1. mattsui

    Well done, Rundle. The first time anyone’s mentioned Beazley throughout the whole campaign! Once accused of lacking “Ticker”. What wouldn’t Labor supporters give to have the Abassador to the U.S. on the hustings this week?

  2. seanbedlam@gmail.com

    Fuck yes.

  3. aashbolt@uow.edu.au

    Guy,
    I am puzzled that you do not mention multi-member constituencies as a means of democratisation. Indeed, I am slightly puzzled by the early focus on the voting system as if that lies at the heart of why Australia is a formal but not substantive democracy. And compulsory voting is a positive feature of our formal democracy – it reminds us of our obligations as citizens. Sadly, of course, we have become consumers not citizens, power has become concentrated increasingly at the executive level (and only a few therein), politics has been corrupted more and more by corporate power and and servile support for American imperial policies and war crimes. The list could, of course, go on – the education policies (particularly with regard to school funding) of both major parties secure the entrenchment of privilege while operating behind an ideological screen of choice. It is these sorts of public policies that strip away whatever layers of democracy existed before and leave us with a politics that is completely without soul or even purpose, save the purpose of perpetuating the power elite.
    warm regards
    Anthony Ashbolt

  4. Jim Wright

    Guy Rundle and Bernard Keane are absolute treasures. It has taken a really nasty and messy election to bring back the trenchant and incisive journalism that us older guys remember from earlier years (much earlier years, perhaps!). I personally believe that the current political model is that our MPs do not represent us, but are the local representatives of management groups that pitch for the job of running the country for the next few years. This being so, it would seem reasonable (and following normal commercial practice) for our president, when we get round to having one, to take on the role of trustee. He/she would have access to all government documentation and the reportsof all ombudsmen and so forth. The president would report to the people several times a year, and would opine as to whether the government was doing a satisfactory job or not. This would get around a lot of this “commercial-in-confidence” rubbish that taints so much government procedure. The President could also sack the government (in keeping with tradition!), but unlike Her Majesty, he/she would put their own job on the line and rely on public acceptance of the action to be re-elected.

  5. Meski

    Or rather than a quinella, one party might get a genitalia of seats: Enough to have the other parties by the short and curlies.

  6. 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.

  7. Alister

    I concur with the argument about multi-member electorates. I think one of the biggest problems is that the election’s being run as if it was all about a handful of marginal NSW + QLD seats. We should try a new approach – no safe seats. Anywhere. Even if we had a single seat with five members in Tasmania, and the remaining 145 seats divided into 29 5-seat electorates, this means anyone only needs to poll about 16.6% of the vote to be elected. Each subsequent quota gets you one more position, so that even in the most locked in of major party electorates, they’re still compelled to fight for that third (or possibly fourth) member. And reasonably popular minor parties or independents can still be elected. This is more likely to lead to hung parliaments as a matter of course, which – contrary to received wisdom – would reasonably be expected to lead to better government.

  8. S1lverdrg0n

    Alister, I like your thinking. Could you explain more about how the 5-seat electorates would work? Is it something like there are five seats in each electorate and the parties can run up to five candidates in each seat, but you vote for the party, rather than the candidate?

  9. Peter Evans

    I’m not convinced there’s much yearning for a more enlightened democracy, beyond a tiny portion of the population. You want to talk about democracy, then how about democracy in the work place, democracy in the rewards of effort and sweat and brains. Any representative democratic system that’s only about who gets to raise money from whom and how to spend it is never going to achieve any lasting justice and fairness in society. If that’s not your aim then banging on about tweedle-dee versus tweedle-dum in this election is pointless, gutless, and brainless. I don’t think most people give two shits about a more just society.

    The practical reality of democracy and how it can be in people’s lives has not progressed beyond ideas over 100 years old.

  10. seanbedlam@gmail.com

    “I don’t think most people give two shits about a more just society”. Peter, what you’ve just said is a logical impossibility. People are obsessed with justice. Always have been, always will be.

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