23/09/2003 - 22:00

State Scene - Joe Poprzeczny: Democracy’ ignores voters

23/09/2003 - 22:00


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ASK any West Aussie if they’re living in a democracy and, Sydney-to-a-brick they’ll say, yes.


ASK any West Aussie if they’re living in a democracy and, Sydney-to-a-brick they’ll say, yes.

Keep asking.

Ask for evidence and they’ll probably say: “We elect our politicians, don’t we?”

Yes, we do.

However, does that mean we’re a democracy or are we kidding ourselves?

Electing politicians is called representative democracy or representative government, with the people – the demos, to use the ancient Greek term – electing others to represent them in a parliament.

Democracy literally means rule by the people, whereas representative government is rule by others – politicians – ostensibly for the people.

Wouldn’t it therefore be more accurate to describe representative government as politicians’ rule?

That’s why some political scientists call it ‘thin democracy’, rather than rule by the people.

Interestingly, in Adelaide last month, 320 randomly selected citizens considered South Australia’s representative governance with an eye to reshaping it towards a direct or people-ruling democracy.

That’s not as radical as South Australia’s first steps towards enhancing its representative governance may seem since one country, Switzerland, has practised direct democracy for more than a century.

And Switzerland is Europe’s, indeed the world’s, richest nation, the country where corporations – ever seeking political stability – attempt to base themselves.

Recently Swiss political scientists Gebhard Kirchgässner, Lars P Feld and Marcel R Savioz released a book titled Direct Democracy: Modern, Successful, Adaptable and Exportable, which outlines the effects of direct democracy, including how it benefits the Swiss.

They’ve summarised research by economists and other social scientists over recent decades.

Their book – unfortunately only available in German – sets out direct democracy’s tangible benefits, often in dollar and cents terms that are hardly known of beyond Switzerland.

Under representative governments, such as WA’s, party loyalty displaces commitment to voters, with politicians rarely consulting the people on laws.

In practise it’s quite undemocratic, generally paternalistic, and too often downright authoritarian, as the Gallop Government’s premium property tax plan demonstrated.

Wherever representative government exists it leads politicians to ignore voters, except at elections, when promises are made which, if honoured, voters end up paying for through higher taxes.

Sceptics should ask when State politicians last asked for their views on how WA should be governed. Most will say never. But that’s incorrect.

I qualified to be a voter in 1966 and so have been asked for my view three times.

But, strangely, the question was the same each time – daylight saving.

The first was in 1975 by Liberal Premier Sir Charles Court. Nine years later Labor’s Brian Burke asked, followed in 1992 by Labor’s Carmen Lawrence.

There were six earlier instances of WA practising direct democracy, meaning it’s not entirely alien here.

In 1900: Did WA wish to join Australia’s Federation.

In 1911 and 1921: Did people want local option on alcohol sales.

In 1925 and 1950: Did people favour prohibition of alcohol, as in 1920s US.

In 1933: Should WA secede from the Federation.

Apart from these nine referendums, our politicians haven’t consulted the people by allowing direct voting on laws.

Federation, booze and sunshine were exceptions.

What about taxation (including stamp duties), public borrowing, civil rights, trading hours and hosts of others, including MPs’ salaries?

That power our politicians clutch tightly, never allowing voters a direct democratic say, let alone giving people the power to spark referendums, as occurs in Switzerland.

So matters are far worse than WA’s nine referendums suggest because MPs have ensured only they call referendums, never the people.

WA’s politicians jealously guard their monopoly power to rule so only the 91 of them can make laws.

They see themselves as an exclusive power fraternity, which is quite undemocratic.

In 1913, the Scaddan Labor Government attempted to introduce direct democracy to empower citizens to call referendums, but the upper house blocked the bill.

And, in 1987, the Barry MacKinnonled Liberals followed suit.

That Swiss-style rejective bill was drawn-up by the late Andrew Mensaros and is currently being resurrected by Mr MacKinnon’s then research officer, Dan Sullivan, now deputy Liberal leader.

Politicians, bureaucrats and politically correct academics worldwide generally detest direct democracy because the demos limit politicians’ powers.

But what’s the situation in Switzerland, the country Australia’s Federal founding fathers borrowed the referendum idea from (although they were careful to ensure only politicians called them – not the people)?

There, voters can gather petitions to require referendums to change their constitution and to reject new laws or decrees of parliament.

This applies in varying degrees at the national, cantonal (State) and municipal levels.

For example, Federally, 50,000 signatures gathered within 100 days automatically puts laws on ice until a referendum is held.

Statistically 7 per cent of laws are subjected to rejective referendums, with half actually going down.

This compels Swiss politicians to draft laws acceptable across a community that’s linguistically split three-ways, religiously Protestant-Catholic, and with a significant city-rural cleavage.

The people’s ability to force citizen-initiated referendums forces politicians to carefully draw-up laws that are acceptable to almost everyone.

That’s why it’s often said Switzerland doesn’t actually have a government, just an administration.

Unlike in WA the people, not the politicians, rule.

Next week’s State Scene considers how Swiss-style direct democracy limits government spending, reduces tax avoidance, lowers public debt and other beneficial outcomes WA could well do with.


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