When you see Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, Joe Bullock elected in front of Louise Pratt, Bronwyn Bishop as Speaker, Tim Wilson given a job as a Human Rights Commissioner, Sophie Mirabella building submarines, and Alexander Downer showered with gifts from every direction, you know democracy is ailing if not already dead. It’s time for change.
As things stand politics in Australia is now the province of a political class that now offers a lifetime career path in federal and state parliaments, the public services and quangos. Entrance to this world often involves nepotism and cronyism. There can be few other legitimate jobs with salary packages over $300,000 that can often be obtained with virtually no experience and qualifications and little restrictions on second jobs or holidays.
Equating integrity with paying more money, flies in the face of history. By paying politicians starting salary packages of over $300,000, more people are attracted who could not get that salary level elsewhere. In fact people pursuing material gain should be discouraged from entering politics.
There is certainly no evidence that the massive increases of salary packages in recent years has increased benefits to the public or improved the quality of members or ministers compared to governments of the past. Far from paying peanuts and getting monkeys, paying more peanuts seems to attract gorillas.
Our system of government is an archaic farce. It was developed in the 18th century and did not anticipate the corruption of process that the two party system and the various factions, lobby groups and donors have produced.
An enormous amount of time and money is wasted on useless bickering and out-dated ceremony. This is an organisation entrusted with the role of running our country. It’s important. But our system has led to many professional politicians with little or no general life experience and unscrupulous opportunists, unburdened by ethics, who obsessively pursue power, money or both. Parties gift electorates to family connections, malleable party hacks and mediocre apparatchiks.
The money spent on spin doctors and advertising and polling and campaigning and jetting around for photo opportunities is outrageous and to what end? Why should parliament be adversarial? Do we really need an Opposition? Why can’t it be a collection of men and women whose experience and expertise make them suited for this most important responsibility?
If the 150 federal seats were awarded by the percentage of first preference votes received, the two major parties would have 118 seats rather than the 145 they currently occupy, the Greens would have 13, PUP 8, with 11 “others”. This would actually represent the “will of the people”.
Switzerland has been described as the closest thing to a true democracy. Parliamentary elections are organised around a proportional multi-party voting system and executive elections are organized around a popular vote directly for individuals, where the individual with the most votes wins. The third type of election, referendums, concern policy issues.
Parliament, known as the Federal Assembly, is made up of the Council of States (46 seats – members serve four-year terms) and the National Council (200 seats – members serve four-year terms and are elected by popular vote on a basis of proportional representation).
The two chambers of Switzerland’s national parliament meet several times annually for sessions of several weeks and in between, conduct meetings in numerous commissions. But being a member of parliament is not a full time job in Switzerland, contrary to most other countries today. This means that members of parliament have to practise an ordinary profession to earn their living – thereby they are closer to the everyday life of their electorate.
The government is a seven-member executive council, elected for a four year term, that heads the federal administration, operating as a combination cabinet and collective presidency. It is a Coalition of the four major parties, each party having a number of seats that roughly reflects its share of electorate and representation in the federal parliament. The President, elected for a one-year term, has almost no powers over and above his or her six colleagues, but undertakes representative functions normally performed by a president or prime minister in single-executive systems. They share the role around.
The Swiss executive is one of the most stable governments worldwide. Since 1848, it has never been renewed entirely at the same time, providing a long-term continuity. Changes in the council occur typically only if one of the members resigns (only four incumbent members were voted out of the office in over 150 years); this member is almost always replaced by someone from the same party. Most members retire after two or three terms. Since 1990 Switzerland has had some 22 ministers in federal government. In the same time we have had a kaleidoscope of around 300 ministers.
The really remarkable thing about Switzerland’s political system is Direct Democracy – the extraordinary amount of participation in the political process that is granted to ordinary citizens.
Any citizen may challenge a law that has been passed by parliament. If that person is able to gather 50,000 signatures (out of 5.1 million voters) against the law within 100 days, a national vote has to be scheduled where voters decide by a simple majority of the voters whether to accept or reject the law.
Also, any citizen may seek a decision on an amendment they want to make to the constitution. For such a federal popular initiative to be organised, the signatures of 100,000 voters must be collected within 18 months.
The parliament will discuss the proposals, probably set up an alternative and afterwards all citizens may decide in a referendum whether to accept the original initiative, the alternate parliamentary proposal or to leave the constitution unchanged. Initiatives that are of constitutional level have to be accepted by a double majority of both the popular votes and a majority of the cantons, while counter-proposals may be of legislative level and hence require only simple majority.
The frequent use of referenda is not only encouraged by Switzerland’s Constitution, but practised with enthusiasm by the citizens. Approximately four times a year, voting occurs over various issues; these include both Referendums, where policies are directly voted on by people, and elections, where the populace votes for officials. Federal, cantonal and municipal issues are polled simultaneously, and the majority of people cast their votes by mail. Between January 1995 and June 2005, Swiss citizens voted 31 times, to answer 103 questions. Several cantons have developed test projects to allow citizens to vote via the Internet or by SMS.
The threat of a referendum called by a party defeated in parliament on an issue causes the parties to be more willing to negotiate and compromise. As extreme laws will mercilessly be blocked by the electorate in referenda, parties are less inclined to radical changes in laws and voters are less inclined to call for fundamental changes in elections. There is no need to dismiss the government after a lost referendum, because the referendum solves the problem – preventing an extreme law – more efficiently. On the very same day, three new laws may be accepted and two others rejected.
Most people today believe they should have a right to have their say in all decisions that affect them. Yet the usual position of politicians is to say “we were elected to make the decisions and if you don’t like it vote against us at the next election”. This view is totally unsatisfactory. It is the decision people are interested in, not revenge some time later. In addition general elections provide only a mandate to govern – they do not provide a mandate for all or any future decisions except in rare circumstances.
Serious reform in Australia is perhaps many years into the future and the obstacles and enemies of democratic reform are many. The political parties and their partisan supporters’ overwhelming interest is in gaining power and preserving the political duopoly. Big business is implacably opposed to more democracy. It wants more centralisation of power. It currently employs more than 600 registered lobbyists in Canberra and spends millions of dollars to subvert democracy. Big media is always constrained by its owners’ interests. Since the Second World War there has been a growth of corporate propaganda to protect corporate power against democracy.
With the possibility of a Republic back in the front of mind thanks to Tony’s knights and dames folly, it is time to reignite the discussion about just what sort of a democracy we want.