The Commonwealth Electoral Amendment (Democratic Plebiscites) Bill 2007 (“the Plebiscites Bill”) will represent a milestone for Australian political historians. The people of Australia regularly express their democratic will through elections, and on rarer occasions through constitutional referenda, but for the first time in its 106-year history the federal government is supporting direct democracy initiated by the people.
The Bill allows for plebiscites - the direct vote of qualified electors to some important public question - to occur under the aegis of the Australian Electoral Commission, and no state or territory law can gainsay it.
While the purpose of the Bill is to allow the AEC “to undertake any plebiscite on the amalgamation of any local government in any part of Australia”, the Plebiscites Bill appears to be open-ended in that it is for “the purposes of conducting an activity (such as a plebiscite) under an arrangement”. Who knows what that could imply for future questions considered important by groups of citizens. After all, direct democracy means “initiated by the people”, and their initiatives could surprise many.
That the conservative Howard Government should be so democratically innovative is a surprise to most. Long term it matters not a jot that the Coalition’s motive is immediate and self-interested. They seek to make mischief between Labor leaders, Beattie and Rudd, over the Queensland Premier’s poorly-timed desire to force through large-scale local council amalgamations. The resistance to this state Labor move threatens federal Labor’s campaign to win Coalition seats in that state.
No, what matters long term is that the precedent and process for the formal direct expression of popular will has arrived in Australia.
In common language, many Australians use “plebiscite” and “referendum” interchangeably, but legally and constitutionally they are not. Referenda in Australia are initiated by governments. The easiest way to distinguish them here is to describe plebiscites as non-binding and referenda as binding.
If members of the Liberal and National parties’ conservative coalition had ever had any real interest in direct democracy, as members of the Conservative Party in the UK do, then they would have supported the Australian Democrats’ decades-long initiatives to introduce Citizen Initiated Referenda (CIR) in defined circumstances. Or at least they would have pursued versions of it.
Since inception the Democrats have, as part of their policy platform, championed the concept of direct democracy. In 1980 Democrat Senator Colin Mason introduced The Constitution Alteration (Electors’ Initiative) Bill 1980, which was a bill for an act to alter the Constitution so as to vest in the electors’ power to propose laws and to approve or disapprove such proposed laws. This bill lapsed with the dissolution of that Parliament, but was reintroduced several times over the years in an altered and improved form. These initiatives failed to gain the support of the major parties and did not proceed.
The relevant aspects of that and preceding bills are now included in my own omnibus Private Senator’s Bill - the Constitution Alteration (Electors’ Initiative, Fixed Term Parliaments and Qualifications of Members) Bill 2000. Don’t be surprised that this bill currently languishes on the Notice Paper. In the 106 years since Federation only 17 private bills have passed. These are seven PMBs (Private Member's Bills) and ten PSBs (Private Senator's Bills) including last year's two - the first time Parliament has passed two in the same year. That doesn’t include the five parliament-related Acts introduced by Speakers and Presidents, which might be considered a separate category of their own, non-government, but not exactly private.
The Democrats have always supported direct democracy because it is obvious many people feel disconnected from the democratic process. Not just here, but everywhere. As a result Canada, Italy, New Zealand, Switzerland, 27 states in the USA, Venezuela and Poland all have versions of direct democracy.
It is clear from over 90 submissions to the Senate Finance and Public Administration Committee inquiry on this Plebiscites Bill that many people feel strongly that they should have the right to “have their say”. Although the Queensland Government conducted two inquiries into council amalgamations, many of the submissions indicated that communities felt they had not been consulted, that their wishes had not been taken into account by the State Government, and that they had not been accorded due democratic respect.
They particularly resented the Queensland State Government foolishly trying to muzzle them by legally prohibiting local plebiscites. Although the Beattie Government has scuttled back from that decision, it has had the unexpected bonus of producing the federal Plebiscites Bill.
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