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Lesson From 2010: more direct democracy, not more representative democracy

By Steven Spadijer - posted Thursday, 30 December 2010

If opinion polls are anything to go by, the ALP should be wiped out in the forthcoming 2011 election. But will this actually change anything, or will it simply gives us more politicians? One mob is replaced with another. Even on a Federal level, with a hung Parliament, Question Time still involves divisive politicking, rather than serious policy deliberation or consultation.

As Rousseau noted “if [people in Westminster systems] believe themselves to be free; they are seriously mistaken, for they are free only during elections of Members of Parliament, and in the time between those elections the people are in slavery … In the brief moments of their freedom, the English-speaking world use it in such a way that they deserve to lose it.”

Then there is Switzerland.


Unlike oil-rich Norway and Qatar or resource-abundant Australia, it is wealthier than we are and gives the other two countries a run for their money. Indeed, its success, despite lacking these natural endowments, is thanks to the genius of its people, who can write their own laws and overrule their own Parliament via a citizen-mandated referendum at anytime (provided the necessary numbers of signatures are met).

They don’t need to wait for their politicians to change things, whether on low tax policies which makes them as competitive as Singapore, or high-speed rail. They do it themselves.

But when I recently suggested that Australia should adopt, or at least import, large portions of the Swiss system of government to deal with our wallowing infrastructure and general voter apathy, I was scoffed at.

Detractors claim CIR, that is, citizen initiated referenda, is anathema to our Westminster tradition whilst also claiming most Australians do not possess the cognitive or critical thinking skills needed to know what is best for them, or for that matter, to cast an informed vote. Equally, I was told that CIR is a “right-wing” idea, leading to domination by “corporate interests” and contradictions (higher spending, lower taxes). I will address all these matters in turn.

The Elitist Arguments against CIR

First, the fact that CIR has no support and is alien to our history would also surprise several ALP members from the 1900s till the 1960s: CIR was in their platform for 65 years and one of the founding principles of the party itself.

It would have also been a surprise to our progressive founding fathers like Charles Kingston, who in his 1891 draft Constitution, included provisions for CIR along with the progressivist movement in the 1890s and 1920s for it to be labelled “alien” to our history.


Alfred Deakin even conceded in the 1890s Convention Debates:

… There are many like myself, who would be perfectly prepared, if we were bound to change our present constitutions altogether, to adopt the Swiss system, with its co-ordinate houses, its elective ministry, and its referendum, by which the electors themselves were made masters of the situation.

It would also come as a surprised to the “daddy” of independents, Ted Mack as well as Professor Patrick O’Brien, Prof. Leslie Zines, A.V. Dicey, Geoffrey de Q Walker and Martyn Webb, all of whom have advocated the mechanism. These academics are hardly “right-wing” nutters. It would come as a surprise to a survey of 1,000 people where 85 per cent of the population support CIR, while a mere 5 per cent opposed it.

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About the Author

Steven Spadijer is a Barrister at Law, having been called to the Sydney Bar in May 2014. In 2013, he was admitted as a solicitor in the ACT. In 2012, he graduated with First Class Honours in Law and Arts from the Australian National University. He specializes and practices in Administrative, Commercial, Constitutional and Public Law, and has been published several law review articles in these areas. From early July 2015, he will be pursuing postgraduate studies in the United States. He has a keen interest in economic history, theories of constitutional interpretation (advocating originalism as the least bad method of interpretation) and legal debates over a bill of rights (which he is vigorously opposed to).

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