10/12/2008 - 22:00

Pollies vote down people power

10/12/2008 - 22:00


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LAST week, State Scene outlined how Australia would have become a true democracy if the 1891 draft constitution of South Australia's democratic-minded premier, Charles Kingston, was adopted.

Pollies vote down people power

LAST week, State Scene outlined how Australia would have become a true democracy if the 1891 draft constitution of South Australia's democratic-minded premier, Charles Kingston, was adopted.

Unfortunately anti-democrats ensured Kingston's democratic constitution, which gave voters the power to initiate binding referendums, was scrubbed.

This meant Australia is now a country where politicians monopolise the entire legislative process.

Kingston wanted to ensure a set numbers of voters could initiate binding referendums on bills that may be unpopular, unwise or unnecessary, as existed then and now in democratic Switzerland.

Whenever 50,000 Swiss voters sign a petition within 100 days of a bill's passage through parliament, a nationwide referendum must be held.

Not widely known is that the Australian Labor Party and some of its colonial predecessors wanted Kingston's blueprint adopted nationally and by states.

During the 1890s - after the founding fathers canned Kingston's democratic constitution - several colonial pre-Labor parties included people's 'initiative and referendum' (I&R) in their platforms.

The precursor of Victoria's Labor Party, the Progressive Political League of Victoria, in 1891 backed a federation of the colonies on a democratic basis, suggesting something other than undemocratic representative government.

There was no ambiguity in the 1908 Victorian Labor platform, which proposed I&R in its constitutional reform agenda.

Although the 1890 platform adopted by Queensland's Australian Labor Federation didn't include an I&R clause, its 1892 platform did.

A section titled, 'Referendum', says, "The submission of measures for the approval or rejection by the people."

Queensland's 1907 Labor Platform contained I&R under a section titled, 'General Programme - Constitutional Reforms'.

The 1897 federal Labor convention that adopted a joint platform for NSW and Tasmania included the following plank: "Direct initiation of legislation by the people, and the Referendum."

In 1909, NSW Labor incorporated a clause titled, 'Details of Fighting Platform', and under the heading, 'Constitutional Reform', it said: "Abolition of the Legislative Council and the substitution therefore (sic) of the I&R."

Despite Kingston hailing from SA, his state's Labor party was late in opting for true democracy since it wasn't embraced until 1908, the year he died.

SA's United Labor Party's general platform of 1908 carried the words 'initiative and referendum'.

A plank of the Western Australian Labor Party's 1908 platform included the same wording as Tasmania's 1909 platform, "Abolition of the Upper House; provision of initiative and referendum".

At the national level, I&R featured prominently in the first federal Labor platform adopted at its Interstate Conference held on January 24 1900.

The second section, under the heading 'Constitutional Reform', reads: "The [Australian] Federal Constitution to be amended to provide for: the Initiative and Referendum for the alteration of the Constitution; and substitution of the National Referendum for the double dissolution for the settlement of deadlocks between the two Houses."

Labor platforms of the early post-federation years refer simply to "initiative and referendum'. But this policy was never implemented at state or federal levels.

This was due in part to non-Labor MPs' domination of state upper houses, and it was scrapped from the federal platform in 1963.

In his book, The Australian Federal Labor Party 1901-51, Finlay Crisp, canvasses why I&R initially appealed to Laborites and subsequently didn't.

"In the first place, (I&R) appeared to be the very last word in democracy - and Labor had proclaimed itself the champion of democracy," Professor Crisp writes. "But Labor's interest in the I&R was by no means entirely theoretical.

"In every colony Labor was a third party without immediate prospect of a majority; if the I&R were in operation Labor might be able to bypass the legislature and put its main plans to the people direct.

"Moreover, not only Labor, but the Liberals and Radicals were constantly being thwarted by legislative councils (appointed in NSW and Queensland: elected elsewhere on narrow property franchises); these groups might be enlisted as allies for somehow introducing I&R as a means for bypassing the reactionary opposition of upper houses.

"When Federation was decided on, Labor still saw itself as a third (minority) party - which in fact it was until 1909."

Most Laborites therefore backed true democracy to thwart Labor's opponents rather than for a principled belief in true democracy.

But not all Labor MPs felt this way.

Stand-out Victorian Federal MP William Maloney ardently backed true, Swiss-style, democracy.

However, his anti-democratic Labor MP colleagues, like Australia's anti-democratic founding fathers, ensured he couldn't ensure Australians gained the rights and powers of the Swiss.

The Labor story is thus as unprincipled and anti-democratic as that of its conservative rivals and of the founders of Australia's Constitution who ensured Australia would be an undemocratic entity.

This is well demonstrated with what happened at Labor's 25th national conference in Perth in 1963.

On the agenda was a motion for Labor to drop its longstanding but never implemented I&R plank to democratise Australia. It was moved by (then) future South Australian premier Don Dunstan, who won unanimous support since it was carried 36 votes to nil.

Dunstan drafted the conference's official report that urged delegates to back dropping Labor's longstanding but never implemented commitment to truly democratise Australia with I&R.

His report included a three-and-a-half page statement supporting his motion, which led to Labor finally expunging its 1900 commitment to true democracy.

Dunstan claimed if I&R had been introduced by Labor then the people would have opposed what Labor so passionately sought - greater centralisation of Australia.

"Labor would therefore have to put the [centralising] proposals to a referendum, which would be complicated and not easy to explain to the man in the street," his statement said.

"The history of referenda in Australia shows clearly that where the people do not understand either the proposals or the implications, they seek safety by voting 'no'."

In short, Dunstan's explanation for dropping I&R boiled down to ensuring the ALP's over-riding intention was to centralise legislative power in Canberra so tiny handfuls of politicians could have all the power.

"In the original fight over the Federal Constitution, Labor feared that the new Constitution [of 1901] would be so written as to entrench the forces of conservatism and set at nought the gains Labor was already making for the workers through state parliaments," he said.

"Labor men urged the incorporation in the Constitution of provisions for direct legislation by the people, as a safeguard against what they feared would happen.

"In fact, Labor has made great gains through the federal parliament and in the [Dunstan] committee's view, if Labor had been successful and written the initiative, referendum and recall into the Federal Constitution, those devices would have hindered Labor governments far more than Conservative ones."

And that's been Labor's stance ever since.

With all Labor plus all non-Labor politicians agreeing that voters must be locked-out of the legislative process, Australia cannot become a true democracy.


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