20/02/2008 - 22:00

Labor's talkfest to achieve little

20/02/2008 - 22:00


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Canberra hoteliers and restaurateurs are undoubtedly looking forward to Kevin Rudd’s Australia 2020 Summit in late April, but State Scene certainly isn’t

Labor's talkfest to achieve little

Canberra hoteliers and restaurateurs are undoubtedly looking forward to Kevin Rudd’s Australia 2020 Summit in late April, but State Scene certainly isn’t.

No doubt the 1,000 hand-picked ‘summiteers’ will help fill the capital’s hotels and restaurants to overflowing. That, of course, will be when they’re taking a break from helping to shape a long-term strategy for the nation’s future.

For the purposes of the talkfest, those at the summit will break-up into groups of up to 100 each, to consider 10 broad areas.

1) Future directions for the Australian economy – including education, skills, training, science and innovation, as part of the nation’s productivity agenda.

2) Economic infrastructure, the digital economy and the future of our cities.

3) Population, sustainability, climate change, and water.

4) Future directions for rural industries and rural communities.

5) A long-term national health strategy – including the challenges of preventative health, workforce planning and the ageing population.

6) Strengthening communities, supporting families and social inclusion.

7) Options for the future of indigenous Australia.

8) Towards a creative Australia: the future of the arts, film and design.

9) The future of Australian governance: renewed democracy, a more open government (including the role of the media), the structure of the Federation and the rights and responsibilities of citizens.

10) Australia’s future security and prosperity in a rapidly changing region and world.

All items are undoubtedly significant but State Scene will be particularly interested in the outcomes of number nine, more specifically “renewed democracy”.

And State Scene does not hold out much hope for change on this count.

If Labor had stuck to its early, clear-minded and principled democratic guns by implementing a plank it adopted both at state and national levels at the turn of the 19th-20th centuries, there would be no need for an Australia 2020 Summit.

In 1900 Labor adopted “The Initiative and Referendum (I&R) for the alteration of the Constitution” as part of its national platform.

“Initiative” refers to power for the people – the citizenry, the voters – as opposed to just elected representatives to launch referendums for new laws or defeat unpopular laws passed by politicians.

Underpinning such real or direct democratic practice is the view that neither politicians nor party machines, nor, as Mr Rudd would have us believe “Australia’s best and brightest brains”, is the font of all wisdom.

I&R accepts that voluntary associations of people should have the constitutional right to go out and collect designated numbers of signatures – in practice it can be anywhere between 3 per cent and 8 per cent of all electors – and, once gathered, the signatures are presented to parliament. Referendums then must be held and parliament must give effect to whatever the majority decides.

What we have in Australia is representative democracy, which is, in fact, a contradiction in terms since democracy literally means governance or rule by the people, not by representatives.

Mr Rudd’s Australia 2020 Summit is neither of these because 1,000 people will be chosen (not elected) to a talkfest by an unelected committee; and whatever is decided may or may not see the light of day.

Quite frankly, it’s a strange way of governing.

Summits or talkfests are basically an excuse for not adopting direct or real democracy, I&R.

During the 1890s, three of the colonial Labor parties adopted an I&R plank, which appear to have inspired by the I&R initiatives put forward by the Swiss democratic practices and the enormously far-sighted American Progressive Movement.

The Progressives revamped, literally democratised, America between 1900 and 1920 by ensuring that at least some of the states constitutionally enshrined the right of citizens to either block legislation enacted by politicians, or could initiate legislation their politicians hadn’t thought of enacting or simply refused to do so.

Swiss democratic practices were introduced into America by New Yorker, James Sullivan, who visited Switzerland in 1888 to study and emulate their governance.

Crucially, Sullivan, author of Direct Legislation by the Citizenship Through the Initiative and Referendum, was a friend of the great Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor – like Australia’s ACTU – which actively promoted direct democracy via its offices.

David Schmidt, author of a history of I&R (Citizen Lawmakers – The Ballot Initiative Revolution) says: “In I&R the Progressives created a perpetual reform machine that not only continues to be a vehicle for political change, but is increasing in its usefulness more than three-quarters of a century after it first gained widespread acceptance.”

The Progressives bequeathed real democracy to many American states – though not its national government – by ensuring I&R was enshrined in state constitutions.

Citizens in some of those states (not just those who someone decides are the “best and brightest brains”) can initiate change democratically at any time, not undemocratically as the Rudd summit has been designed to do.

The I&R movement in Australia became strong enough to ensure many of Labor’s first national platforms included a commitment to it.

Even though that commitment remained on the books until 1963, the year of Labor’s 25th national conference in Perth, and Labor’s chiefs never implemented it, some heroic MPs, such as Melbourne MHR Dr William Maloney, doggedly fought for it to be honored.

There are several reasons for the dishonoring, including the fact that, after 1908, Labor moved from being Australia’s third and smallest party to one of the big two, thus a duopoly with Australia’s ever anti-democratic conservative politicians set in.

This gave Labor’s MPs the confidence to believe I&R was no longer necessary to give voters the power to initiate laws in order to achieve reform and change.

The democratic infant – I&R – thus went out with the bath water.

So, as time passed, Labor MPs were increasingly pleased with the view of their conservative counterparts, namely that I&R was a threat to MPs’ monopoly power to make laws.

According to this view, MPs should be the masters, not servants, of the people; a view held by virtually all Australian MPs.

Interestingly, the person who finally moved to scrap Labor’s I&R commitment was Don Dunstan, then an Adelaide lawyer but soon to be the premier of South Australia.

Here’s his view.

“Rarely have these [I&R] devices worked to introduce reforms, but they have very often worked to prevent desirable social reforms,” he said.

“They have been the effective weapons of the reactionaries and the irresponsibles, and in the Committee’s view we would be giving a dangerous weapon to our enemies were we to provide for direct legislation in the Commonwealth Constitution.

“There has been no significant interest in or agitation for this part of the [Labor Party’s] platform for the past 50 years, and the proposal runs counter to the development of the party system and the established traditions of Australian politics.”

Dunstan thus contended Australian political life should be monopolised by party machines not its citizens as voters.

Today, 45 years later, Mr Rudd, rather than turning to Labor’s 1900 plank to embed “a perpetual reform machine” into the Australian Constitution has instead convened an undemocratic talkfest of doubtful worth.

Rather than convening a talkfest, Mr Rudd should return to Labor’s I&R plank so that Australians can democratically propose and institute reforms on an ongoing, not an ad hoc, basis.

Unfortunately, very few drops of genuine democratic blood flow through the veins of Australia’s politicians – Labor, Liberal, National or Greens.

That more than anything explains why Australians, since Federation, have been locked out of contributing to better meaning, truly democratic governance of their country.

Elitist talkfests are not substitutes for the real, the democratic, thing – I&R.

They are just excuses for not instituting “a perpetual reform machine”.


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