07/08/2007 - 22:00

No diluting Mack's message

07/08/2007 - 22:00


Save articles for future reference.

With the survival of the Howard-Costello government looking shaky, Australians face the prospect of whizz-bang Kevin Rudd as prime minister.

With the survival of the Howard-Costello government looking shaky, Australians face the prospect of whizz-bang Kevin Rudd as prime minister.

Two thoughts that immediately come to mind are – surely Australians deserve better, and why do unimpressive politicians gain Australia’s top post?

In the 1970s we had Gough Whitlam, undoubtedly our worst PM.

Successor Malcolm Fraser, who lacked vision, is second worst, followed by Paul Keating, who had the biggest chip on his shoulder of anyone in that job.

And now bouncy, whizz-bang Mr Rudd seems set to come in.

Why not someone of the calibre of onetime independent Ted Mack, arguably Australia’s finest MP?

The answer is because he’s an individualist, so therefore couldn’t stand to be a cog in a party machine.

He’s wasn’t a bandwagon politician like all others in Canberra, where political power and promotion come via those machines since they form dominating majorities.

But what of a non-machine man Mr Mack?

State Scene began compiling background information on him in April, while preparing for a recent talk on direct democracy to an audience in New Zealand.

Mr Mack was considered as suitable subject matter because he’s one in a tiny band of federal MPs – former Howard government minister, Peter Reith, is another – who backed direct or real democracy, something neither Australia nor any state has been able to institute because the party machines oppose it.

We’re instead locked into ballotocracies – a vote on election day after which voters have to cop whatever politicians and their party machines offer without possible recourse to amendment or rejection at citizen-called referendums.

While compiling that information I encountered the following incisive comment by Mr Mack that’s worth keeping in mind as the election campaign descends upon us.

“A dispassionate observer of the Australian political system today could hardly be blamed for seeing it as essentially a struggle by two mafia-like groups to control the national treasury to distribute funds for themselves, their supporters, the special interest groups who fund them and to buy votes for the next election,” Mr Mack said.

That’s certainly an insightful remark.

But there were more.

“Party infighting, electoral rorts, ever-increasing junketing, pre-selection wars, branch stacking, jobs for the boys and girls, parliamentary abuse and bad behaviour, endless pork-barreling, blatant partisan behaviour and disregard for the truth, all destroy public confidence,” he continued.

“The spectacle of party leaders attempting to project images of integrity while twisting and diving for years on such issues as parliamentary pensions or campaign donations continually reinforces the self-serving and hypocritical nature of the system – as does the continuing trend towards funding political parties out of the public purse.

“Add to this the increasing nepotism and development of a political class restricting entry to parliament.

“In the case of the Labor Party, the union movement from its shrinking base seems often to be largely a vehicle to achieve parliamentary sinecures and pensions.”

And finally he again considered those “two mafia-like groups”.

“The winner-take-all, two-party system that has caused a political convergence of policies (the Tweedledum and Tweedledee syndrome) and a mutual interest in preserving a self-serving duopoly often leaves the public powerless and frustrated,” he said.

“While ever ‘representative government’ restricts public political participation to a manipulated vote every three or four years and remains largely self-regulating, public disillusionment and frustration with government will continue.”

Mr Mack’s most admirable attribute is his support for direct democracy, in other words what Switzerland and about half America’s states have – where voters are empowered to block laws if a set proportion of them sign initiative petitions for referendums whose outcomes are binding on politicians.

In other words, real democracy in action, unlike what Australia and its states where “two mafia-like groups” legislatively dominate us via pliant politicians.

How did Mr Mack arrive at the real democratic governance approach when party machine-selected MPs can’t?

It began in the 1970s after the North Sydney Council decided to allow a 17-storey office tower to be built against his back fence.

This angered him, since he believes that “people have a right to be involved in every decision that affects them”.

So he turned his attention to processes of government, and in 1974 was elected to the North Sydney Council, serving as mayor from 1980 to 1988.

“He immediately sold the mayoral Mercedes and bought community busses with the proceeds,” says one report.

“With the support of others, he instituted the mechanisms to make open government possible.

“This led to the creation of numerous residents’ committees and the use of referendums.

“Four thousand meetings later, the council became the most open in Australia and remains that way to this day.”

Between 1981 and 1988 he was MLA for the state North Shore seat and was North Sydney’s MHR from 1990 to 1996, toppling Liberal John Spender; so he’s often referred to as the “father of the independents”.

He often reminded voters that citizen initiated referendums narrowly missed being included in Australia’s Constitution. Unfortunately Australia’s Tory toff founding fathers couldn’t stomach real democracy, so they killed it.

South Australian democrat, Charles Cameron Kingston, later a premier, incorporated the Swiss-style referendums into his 1891 draft constitution.

The Labor Party added citizen initiated referendums to its platform in 1908 but scrapped it at its 1963 national conference, held in Perth, on a motion of South Australian socialist Don Dunstan, later a premier.

Gough Whitlam attended that conference, which voted unanimously for removal of this democratic plank.

“They [the ALP] hate it now because the Labor Party has become totally elitist,” Mr Mack says.

While North Sydney’s MHR, Mr Mack twice attempted to have citizen initiated referendums adopted as Kingston had done in 1891, but the Liberal, Nationals and Labor machines brought in their whips to pull everyone into line, so it was lost.

A telling article in the Australian Journal of Political Science, vol 35, no. 27, (2000) titled – ‘The Failure of Citizens’ Initiated Referenda Proposals in Australia: New Directions for Popular Participation’, refers to Mr Mack’s efforts to combat the “two mafia-like groups”.

The authors are Professor George Williams and Geraldine Chin.

Their article describes the 29 efforts for citizen initiated referendums to be introduced at national and state levels.

In WA, John ‘Happy Jack’ Scaddan’s Labor government tried to have it adopted in 1913 but the conservative-dominated toffs in the upper house wouldn’t countenance democracy.

Liberal Barry MacKinnon, from the opposition, attempted to do likewise in 1987-88, but this time leftie toffs of the Burke Labor government ensured it was strangled.

“In 1990, Ted Mack, an Independent MHR and formerly a proponent of CIR on the North Sydney Council, introduced the Constitutional Alteration (Alterations of the Constitution on the Initiative of the Electors) Bill, which provided for a direct constitutional initiative by enabling citizens to petition for a referendum on legislation that they had drafted or on a statement that an alteration to the Constitution needed to be made in a given area,” Williams and Chin wrote.

“The bill was introduced as a new bill in 1993 but was taken off the Notice Paper in 1994 and has not been introduced again.

“Mr Mack also introduced the Constitution Alteration (Making of Laws on the Initiative of the Electors) Bill 1990, which provided for a direct legislative initiative.

“This bill was removed from the Notice Paper in 1991 and was not reintroduced.”

What the authors don’t spell out is why the Mack bills never became acts, that is, the law of the land.

Put simply, it’s because Liberal and Labor toff senators teamed-up to ensure the bills were never debated since initiatives by electors would transform Australia into a real democracy, something neither of the “two mafia-like groups” want, as they would have their power severely diluted.


Subscription Options