The death throes of our ‘democracy’

02/04/2008 - 22:00


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A question the Liberal Party’s national leadership – Brendan Nelson and Julie Bishop, primarily – should promptly ask is, what they hope to accomplish by merging with the Nationals, as some have suggested.

The death throes of our ‘democracy’

A question the Liberal Party’s national leadership – Brendan Nelson and Julie Bishop, primarily – should promptly ask is, what they hope to accomplish by merging with the Nationals, as some have suggested.

The answer, State Scene suspects, is possibly a slightly, but only slightly, larger party.

But they could find themselves heading up an even smaller combined non-democratic political entity.

Merging long-standing entities can be an extremely tricky operation, one that doesn’t necessarily lead to the same outcomes arithmetical assumptions may suggest.

The last time major and longstanding non-financial institutions merged was in 1977, with the Uniting Church being created from the Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian Churches.

Dr Nelson, Ms Bishop, and aspiring Liberal leader, Malcolm Turnbull, would be wise to consider that historic ecclesiastical amalgamation because it may well provide some valuable insights into what could happen if they bring their 64-year-old party and the rural-based National Party together to form a National Liberal Party.

Questions worth considering include: •Did that Presbyterian-Methodist- Congregational merger lift church attendance? •Did it boost numbers to the fold? •Did that merger lead to greater participation by a younger membership? •What was the initial response by those in the three folds towards the merger idea and process? Thirty years on, the Uniting Church is Australia’s third largest Christian denomination, with about 2,800 congregations, 51 presbyteries and seven synods, and a membership of 300,000, with 1.3 million Australians said to be ‘claiming an association’.

And it is a sizeable welfare delivery agency.

Whether that merger boosted active membership numbers, or if these would have been larger without it, State Scene doesn’t know.

But we can be confident someone at the upper Liberal Party ranks could easily find out the truth.

Such questions are certainly pertinent to the Liberals now, since Dr Nelson and Ms Bishop have embarked on burying the Liberal Party and creating a National Liberal Party, which they, presumably, assume would be larger and more successful than the two parties would be without merging.

We wouldn’t wish to see the Liberal Party’s leadership troika remembered as their party’s undertakers.

According to a report in The Australian (March 8, 2008) by journalists George Megalogenis and Sarah Elks: “The Nationals are the only party to go backwards in the lower house in each of the past four federal elections.

“Half the 18 seats they held in 1996 [the year John Howard became PM] have been lost over the period, while just one seat has been clawed back from the independents, leaving a total of 10 members last year.

“The risk of merging with the Liberals is that Labor and independents might sweep up a further five seats at the next election, based on an analysis by The Australian.

“This would leave a lower house rump of five.

“It may already be too late to save the Nationals.

“The 87-year-old party is in long-term decline as two separate population shifts undermine its traditional voter heartlands in the bush and in the Queensland and NSW sunbelts.

“Labor is rising in its place on the coast as interstate migration swamps the locals who have been wedded to the Nationals for generations.

“And the Liberal Party and independents are encroaching inland as people move from rural communities to country towns where the Nationals are less favoured.

“The population pincer means that the Nationals are in danger either way – whether they merge with the Liberals or remain as a separate entity.” In light of this, it’s not surprising one-time Nationals leader, John Anderson, is undertaking an inquiry into his party’s prospects.

Is it coincidental that Dr Nelson and Ms Bishop have moved on a possible merger with the Nationals? That said, several other considerations are worth highlighting for the Nelson-Bishop- Turnbull troika’s possible benefit.

Firstly, they should realise things aren’t rosier in the Labor Party.

That 108-year-old party also has a dwindling membership base.

Labor’s numbers have been falling since its mid-1950s split; and the elitist Paul Keating and erratic Mark Latham never reversed matters.

Furthermore, Labor strategists fear encroachment by the Greens.

Former Queensland Labor senator, John Black, in a paper released by his Australian Development Strategies marketing group that assessed last year’s election sees the Greens as a threat to Labor’s hold on several inner metropolitan seats that still look safe, at least on paper.

Labor, like the Liberals and Nationals, is largely afloat financially because it also receives money compulsorily from taxpayers.

The public funding of parties is done on the basis of the number of votes each gains at elections, where voting is compulsory.

Currently, each vote means party coffers receive $2.10, with Labor receiving from the last election, or $22.03 million, the Liberals $18.13 million, Greens $4.37 million, and Nationals $3.24 million.

All up, funding to seven parties and 15 independent candidates cost taxpayers a whopping $49 million.

Policy is made at the top in all three parties – by senior politicians, especially factional chiefs, well-paid spin doctors and advertising agency buffs, plus senior Canberra-based bureaucrats - not by rank and file members.

Those who join parties quickly discover the only reason they’re welcomed is to hand out how-to-vote cards at elections.

The rank-and-file of Australia’s three main declining parties are basically foot soldiers who are expected to be mushrooms, at all times.

One would need the memory of an ageing mammoth to recall the last time any of the major parties responded positively to a policy idea from within their branch ranks.

It’s this institutional ignoring of the common man and woman, common to all the major party machines, that lies at the heart of their failure to be vibrant, popular entities.

Until they confront this crucial question, they won’t find a remedy for their endemic woes.

If they did the smart thing, if they objectively assessed their performance, their membership numbers would almost certainly rise.

But because the leadership of all three taxpayer-funded declining entities won’t stoop to listen to their dwindling members, they’ll continue down their sorry paths.

How can this be reversed? Simple.

The leadership of each party should immediately transform them into democratic organisations, not elitist top-down entities, which is what they presently are.

And the best way of doing that is to embrace direct democracy, as practiced in Switzerland and most American states.

This would mean ordinary citizens would acquire the constitutional right to lobby for direct referendum votes, to block legislation, to initiate bills, and to even move for changes to state and federal constitutions.

The natural agencies to play the central role in the gathering of petitions for such democratic referendums would be the major parties – Liberal, Labor and National.

It would also be these and other parties that would fight for the various cases and causes being voted on by electors.

Suddenly, the parties would begin attracting people to their ranks because citizen-initiated issues would emerge for serious community-wide debate, which could take place within branches and party conferences.

Parties would find they begin meaning something to the people, not just to party and factional bosses.

Direct democracy would revolutionise and democratise Australian political life, which is presently heading for the fossil phase.

No amount of dabbling with mergers, public funding, or similar ploys can save the major political parties.

It’s democratisation or slow death, and taxpayers subsiding these outdated entities.

So the best way of breathing life back into them is to give Australians a constitutionally guaranteed place in the law-making process.

That means one thing, and one thing only; direct democracy, not dulling representative government as we’ve had for too long.


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