Australia – a deficient democracy

Posted by on July 31, 2018 in Editorial, Home page feature

Australia – a deficient democracy

Australia: a deficient democracy

The governance of Australia’s institutions is frayed and failing with disquiet about the functioning of public and private institutions. Public institutions include executive government, parliament, courts, the Reserve Bank, universities and myriad public agencies such as the ABC and the Murray River Basin Authority.  They govern with a political charter through regulation and administration. The private institutions such as banks, media and entertainment, corporations and large not-for-profits are agencies of the market with a shareholders’ charter.

The doubts are, to use a phrase of consumer protection law, whether they are ‘fit for purpose’. Or as the NSW Fair Trading states, that ‘the goods will do the job the consumer was told they would’. Though, of course, that begs both what the purposes are and who defines them. Parliament, for example, may be functioning well for politicians even though deeply disappointing to electors. Banks may be returning very satisfactory returns to shareholders but be a disaster for borrowers and account holders.

Jürgen Habermas wrote about ‘crises of legitimacy’ in the 1970s when economies were simultaneously afflicted by inflation and unemployment and were not responding to Keynesian policies. He linked economic and political crises; the economic was a loss of rationality – the inability of the standard explanations and policies to work. The political crisis was a loss of trust in the state. As Graham Scambler puts it, ‘a legitimation crisis occurs when the citizenry experiences a democratic shortfall: in other words, when people feel under-represented’.


Mainstream reporters are documenting a loss of trust in current Australia governance. For example, Peter Hatcher wrote recently that there is ‘a gathering climax of accountability’ in which

One institution after another, one elite after another, is brought under a searching scrutiny. No one - cardinal, cricket captain or capitalist - is immune.

 Similarly, a Ross Gittins’ article on the 2018 Budget had the headline is ‘How we arrived at budgets we can't trust’. The article says,

The resort to misleading practices in the budget is reaching the point where the public’s disrespect and distrust of politicians are spreading to the formerly authoritative budget papers.

 Banks and corporations have lost credibility. The Federal Court has held Westpac guilty of unconscionable conduct. An APRA report on the Commonwealth Bank’s failure to stop money laundering through its ATMs says there was ‘a common refrain’; the bank's "continued financial success dulled the senses of the institution".

Repairing the loss of trust in governance should start with giving electors more charge of our democracy. Implementing the 'Uluru Statement from the Heart' is one essential part. Another is addressing the disqualification of Federal Parliamentarians under s44 of the Australian Constitution.


The citizenship debacle

The dominant feature of this Parliament is that 15 members have fallen foul to the citizenship issues of section 44a of the Constitution. It has been a slow and unedifying drip with a sense of the ludicrous. According to the High Court, the constitutional provision requires that at the time of nomination for election, an elected parliamentarian either held no citizenship other than Australian or, if they did hold another citizenship, they had taken all reasonable efforts to give up that citizenship.

Part of the ludicrousness is that the provision was adopted before there was Australian citizenship; Australians who were not Aboriginal or Asian were British. Yet ironically a large portion of those disqualified from Parliament are in strife over renunciation of either British citizenship or that of a former white British colony. Our opinion is that the High Court has taken an antiquated approach. It upholds the white 1890s not the multicultural 2010s.

Furthermore, the determination of whether ‘all reasonable efforts’ have been attempted to relinquish non-Australian citizenship seems very arbitrary. It also sets up a situation in which electors and political parties will be at the will and whim (for good and ill) of authorities in other countries. Such authorities decide the type and form of evidence they require such as whether original documents must be provided. They also control how long the process of renunciation will take.


The impact on our democracy

The citizenship question is very major.  The Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters reported in May that more than half of all Australians would have to reorder some aspect of their affairs if they wanted to nominate for parliament – and that some might never be able to overcome the barriers. So much for our ‘proud multiculturalism’. So much for self-congratulations about being one the best democracies in the world.

We are allowing accidents of history to deny more than half the current population from being elected to Federal Parliament. It adds to the ludicrousness and fundamental unfairness that they could be elected to State and Territory legislatures if they hold Australian citizenship whether or not in combination with another nation.

The accidents of history include place of birth – even if parents were clearly Australian citizens. More acutely, people who have become Australian citizens, by birth or naturalization, are potentially at risk if they have a parent or grandparent who was not ‘Australian’. The risk is not because they actively seek citizenship of another nation but because the rules of another place passively and even unknowingly, give them such citizenship. The accidents of history may well be those of geo-politics rather than of the family. The grandparents of many of today’s Australian citizens were citizens of places that went through the massive upheavals of the 1940s and 1950s. Consider, for example, the impact of the partition of India (and more recently the separation of Bangladesh); the expulsion of the Palestinians and the redrawing of the boundaries of Eastern Europe.

The disquiet with parties

Australian representative politics is based on parties. The function is to coalesce interests so making differences manageable. There is little heroic about it. Labor and non-Labor have formed two broad churches with sufficient ideological differences to enliven their remaining passionate members. The core differences are where the balance is drawn between individuals and collectivities and between market and state. For six or so decades elections have been won and lost by a shift of few percentage of voters - presumed to be in the centre.

Labor and the non-Labor Coalition still control the House of Representatives and hence the formation of executive government. However, an increasing proportion of votes have been for ‘third’ parties. In the 1969 & 1972 elections 90 per cent of first preference votes went to the ALP and Coalition; in the last two elections it was 75 per cent. The decline in the vote of the main parties is most evident in the Senate. Since 1977, the only government to win a majority at a Senate election was the Howard Government in 2004.

Nonetheless, ‘third’ parties in Australia have not yet obliterated either Labor or Liberal. There has been no Pasokification nor a wipe-out like that of the Canadian Liberals in 2011.  One Nation can claim a level of electoral support akin to the True Finns, Alternative für Deutschland or the Sweden Democrats but has not become either the third party by seats or a coalition partner in government. There has not been the emergence of a non-party politician like Macron in France or the Five-Star Movement in Italy. Also, the Liberals seem immunised from internal takeover – there is no obvious Trump; nor a Brexit-like force. Even the ALP seems immune (sadly) from a Sanders or a Corbyn.

The third parties seem unstable; One Nation in 2018 might be fracturing like it did in the Queensland Parliament in 1998-2001. Indeed in recent State elections in Queensland, Tasmania and South Australia third party influence (whether One Nation, Greens, Lambie or Xenophon) was much less than many observers predicted. Numerous third party senators appointed as replacements have jumped party.

The Electoral Process

The electoral process is about parties. Proportional representation in the Senate means that those elected better mirror the votes of electors than in the House. However, proportional representation is a party based– electors vote for parties (even technically speaking for the occasional non-party independent). Parties select candidates and determine the order of candidates on the ballot (in a half-Senate election number 3 on the ALP or LNP list is risky, number 4 has little chance and number 5 and 6 none). Parties negotiate preferences with other parties (even with the amended Senate voting method). Parties get public funding according to the number of votes received. Perhaps even more significantly, parties nominate replacement senators – to such an extent that 14 out of 76 of the current Senate were appointed to ‘casual vacancies’.

Standing for democracy

Much of Australian politics is dysfunction and open to demagoguery. As Finan O’Toole notes ‘The articulation of rage is better box office than the business of morality’. Electoral reform does not attract large numbers to rallies. Even so, there is an imperative to restate the fundamentals of citizenship and democracy. These are the right to be heard, the right to vote and the right to stand for election. They are not being provided in Australia.

Urgent action is needed to make Australia democratic. Guaranteeing a political voice for Aboriginal people and guaranteeing the right for all citizens to stand for election should be the first actions. The Prime Minister callously rejected the former. He has also rejected the unanimous recommendation of an all-party committee for a referendum on the ‘citizenship’ clause.

Neither a political voice for Aboriginal people or ensuring a universal right to stand for parliament is extraordinary. Both are decent; both are urgent. Without them the reality is that white bread politics will continue in Australia.


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