18/01/2005 - 21:00

State Scene: Doing a deal on direct democracy

18/01/2005 - 21:00


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WITH a State election imminent letterboxes will be increasingly stuffed with more unwelcome advertising bumph from parties to convince voters they and their candidates are working for their electorates.

WITH a State election imminent letterboxes will be increasingly stuffed with more unwelcome advertising bumph from parties to convince voters they and their candidates are working for their electorates.

I’ve already had a Liberal candidate’s “I’ve been here” card under my front door and two propaganda sheets from the sitting Labor member.

Neither altered my outlook, so it was money wasted.

Thankfully, after the election there’ll be no more such pointless flyers until the 2007 Federal and 2009 State campaigns.

Except for elections and occasional functions like end-of-year school wind-up nights, voters have little formal contact with politicians.

Under our system of governance – called representative democracy (RD), since only elected representative, politicians, not the people, decide what will be laws – MPs can isolate themselves from voters during the legislative processes.

It’s rare indeed for voters to be consulted or even advised about forthcoming legislation, which emanates from bureaucrats or party committees, not from public or voter demand.

The question is why there’s so little consultation, since it’s voters who must live under ever-mounting laws and regulations.

Can this undemocratic state of affairs be reformed so voters, rather than party hacks and bureaucrats have precedence?

Under RD politicians of both political persuasion for the good of their own careers – most aspire to become ministers – tend to be more loyal to their parties than to constituents.

If it’s a choice between backing legislation parties favour but many voters disapprove of, the party’s wishes invariably prevail.

That’s why when MPs sometimes encounter controversial issues they send voters standard explanatory letters written for them by ministerial staffers and/or bureaucrats rather than vote against that legislation, that is, cross the floor.

Only under most extreme circum-stances – when there’s real danger of an MP losing their seat – will they confront party bosses and ministers.

What’s worse is that voters are generally never told such legislation is even being considered.

Put bluntly, RD means voters are treated like mushrooms.

The only reason RD is able to pro-mote itself as a democratic form of governance is because politicians confront elections every three or so years.

These events threaten to put those in government into opposition, or even worse remove sitting members from parliament.

Both such eventualities tend to keep those in power marginally, not constantly, responsive to voter desires especially as elections draw closer but not necessarily during the two years immediately after elections.

But once oppositions displace governments and candidates displace sitting members, the newly elected ones behave exactly like their predecessors had, with voters again becoming mushrooms.

The crucial question for those who value real democracy is whether the anti-democratic aspects of RD can be reformed to make it truly democratic so voters get a say. And, if yes, how.

Thankfully the answer is a resounding yes.

And the way to give the people – the demos, to use the classical Greek term – real power over elected representatives is to introduce one simple change to parliamentary practice most politicians would deeply dislike because it limits their power.

Interestingly, three upper house MPs – John Fischer, Frank Hough and Paddy Embry, all former One Nation members – plan doing precisely that if re-elected and they gain the balance of power, presently held by the non-democratic Greens.

The three are presently campaigning on a platform of dramatically democratising Western Australia and, if they succeed, it will make WA the most democratic State in the federation.

If one, two or all three of them are re-elected and they displace the Greens by gaining the balance of power, they intend making the refashioning of WA into a direct democracy (DD) the first non-negotiable condition of support to whoever – Labor or Coalition – wins the lower house majority.

State Scene has spoken to each and they’ve stressed transforming WA from an RD to a DD is their prime aim, their mission.

Mr Fischer said their 2005-09 democratising plan would fundamentally alter WA governance by, at long last, putting voters ahead of their 91 politicians.

He said the Gallop Government won power with just 37 per cent of the vote, but because it gained more than half the lower house seats it has called the legislative shots for four years.

“The only real check or balance voters have is when going to the polls,” Mr Fischer said.

 “Government during their terms of governing can play havoc with oppositions and voters are simply powerless.

“Representative democracy gives parties that win most lower house seats virtual carte blanche for four years, which is outrageous, unfair and undemocratic.

 “To ensure this doesn’t continue I and my colleagues will move to provide WA electors a final commanding say over all legislation through community initiated referendums (CIR).”

What this means is that once parliament adopts any bill, voters will be able to challenge that bill gaining royal assent for a 100-day period.

Mr Fischer said during those 100-days all anyone or any group objecting to the already passed legislation will need to do is collect a set number of voter signatures to stop it becoming law until a statewide CIR has been held.

He said that, initially, there would probably be a flurry of such citizen-initiated referendums, perhaps half a dozen or so that would be voted upon at the 2009 election.

 “But after that politicians would gradually become accustomed to this direct democracy and they would begin undertaking extensive voter consultation in a bid to ensure proposed legislation wasn’t challenged at referendums,” Mr Fischer said.

 “And the only way politicians could ensure referendums weren’t initiated by voters would be to consult and compromise with interested voters and groups.

“Giving voters power, CIR power, would force politicians to consult electors extensively to ensure months of work on legislation wasn’t challenged.”

He said the idea wasn’t new, since WA’s Scaddan Labor Government tried to adopt DD in 1913, but was blocked by the conservative-dominated upper house.

“It has been successfully used in Switzerland for over a century and Australian founding father and Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin, tried to include it into our national constitution, but failed by one vote,” Mr Fischer said.

“During our WA Inc days the Liberals drew up a DD bill but promptly forgot it after regaining power.

 “If my colleagues and I gain the balance of power it’ll be a case of success third time around and WA politics will never be the same again.”


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