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Towards a true democracy

By David Donovan - posted Wednesday, 9 June 2010

A recent Newspoll indicated that many people in Australia are turning away from supporting the two major parties. This is, one may hope, a small but positive sign about the health of our democracy. I believe in fairness and democracy. Unfortunately, I do not believe that we live in a fair society, nor yet a true democracy.

Every age of man is modern in its own time. Each thinks it is the apogee of civilisation, but all we can really say is that, perhaps, we are more evolved than those that have come before. In truth, we are still rather a primitive species: avaricious, selfish and brutal. I can see a time when people would look back upon the way we are today and denounce us as being barbarians for the way we celebrate tribalism over individualism, might over right, and contention and disputation over harmony and conciliation.

In Australia, for instance, our justice system is largely based on the archaic practice of adversarial justice. In this system, legal advocates for each party battle each other in and out of court, using every means at their disposal to try to attain a favourable outcome for their client. This practice is not far removed from that which occurred in the dark ages, where a complaint may have been settled by two champions meeting in actual, mortal combat. Either way, the party with the best champion, by law or sword, will invariably win: and the already powerful have the mightiest champions. Those with less money, power or influence are only be able to afford a lesser champion, or none at all, and so will lose against a powerful opponent, regardless of whether right may be on their side. Justice is not for all.


Our political system is also adversarial, though by design the system is essentially fair. If a democracy may be defined as government of the people, for the people and by the people, then Australia has a system that could, in theory, satisfy that definition. The job of elected members in a democracy is for them to represent the interests of their constituents when they vote in their respective assemblies and, the Australian Constitution does lay down a structure in which this should occur. Members of Parliament (MPs) represent the constituents from distinct areas, or electorates. Similarly, in the Senate, those elected (Senators) represent the constituents of even larger areas: states and territories.

Unfortunately, in practice, for most politicians their primary loyalty is not to their constituents, but to a corporate political structure called a party.

In Australia, despite less than 1 per cent of the population being members of a political party, nearly all parliamentarians belong to one or another, mostly the major two. Because of the two-party preferential voting system, and the fact that about 85 per cent of people uniformly vote for the same party at each election, these two major parties dominate Australian politics. These parties defeat democracy by enforcing strict party discipline. This is where decisions are made behind the scenes in the party room and all party members are compelled by the party to vote this way in Parliament. If the interests of an MP’s constituents clash with the will of the party-room, a politician will almost always ignore their constituents and follow the party line. This is because politics is a career, and those rare politicians who vote against this line are destined to have extremely short careers.

Leading political commentator Michelle Grattan describes the situation thus: “… it's no good assaulting the TV set, we know how the system works, the importance of unity and the strength of political aspiration. In politics, even the best of men and women would usually sell their grandmother for the chance of office … once you're on the ladder it becomes harder to be outspoken.”

In short, being a member of a political party is essential for a political career and a career politician’s first loyalty will not be to their constituents, but instead to the party that endorses them.

Every election we elect one party or the other to govern us for a three-year term. During each of these terms, the two parties will battle each other in parliament, each trying to score points against the other at every opportunity and seldom agreeing on any issue. For three years, the party in power in the lower house will ensure, through party discipline, that only legislation it supports has any chance of passing into law.


Some say that when the Senate is not controlled by the government, as is the case at present, then this is the sign of a healthy democracy. This is false.

What it usually signals is a time of legislative stalemate. The upper house will block all, or nearly all, of the bills put forward by the government: and the government, in the lower house, will similarly block anything put forward by the upper. This is occurring in Australia right now. In the current term, the Labor Government is being blocked at almost every move by a recalcitrant Senate. It is a regular feature of Australia politics.

In extreme circumstances the Senate has been known to block appropriations bills and cut off the supply of money to the government, potentially leading to the government not being able to pay its bills including the entire public service payroll. In 1975, this situation led to the Whitlam government’s dismissal by the Governor-General, something that caused a national uproar and almost broke the Constitution.

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About the Author

David Donovan, 40, is the editor of the online journal of Australian identity and democracy,, and a vice chair of the Australian Republican Movement.

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