03/12/2008 - 22:00

The democracy that really isn’t

03/12/2008 - 22:00


Save articles for future reference.

SOME time during our schooling we learned how the six British colonies on the island continent Matthew Flinders named Australia formed a federated Commonwealth.

The democracy that really isn’t

SOME time during our schooling we learned how the six British colonies on the island continent Matthew Flinders named Australia formed a federated Commonwealth.

The great day, January 1 1901, marked the birth of a new nation, inspired somewhat by late 19th century Prussian-led Germany and Italy and modelled on the governing arrangements in Washington and London.

Not highlighted is the fact that the new Australia could have been markedly different and that the blueprint for the new federation would have been unlike what now exists.

There were at least two other blueprints that could have been realised.

Both are ignored, not only in school curriculums but also at university level politics and history courses.

State Scene therefore highlights two ignored proposals from the 1890s - the Dibbs and the Kingston Swiss democratic options.

The first gets its name from NSW politician, George Dibbs (1843-1904), premier in 1885, 1889, and 1891-94.

There's just one sentence in the Australian Dictionary of Biography's George Dibbs entry alluding to it: "After long disdain of the federal question Dibbs suddenly [in 1894] appealed directly to the Victorian premier [James Patterson] to begin a unification of New South Wales and Victoria into which the smaller colonies would eventually be drawn, but the idea fell flat."

Until then, the dictionary says, "Dibbs had never looked generously on other Australian colonies and his coolness to [Sir Henry] Parkes's revival of the federal question in 1889 was no surprise."

What he wanted was for NSW and Victoria to reunite - until 1851, they were one - and thereafter this new larger entity could wait for Queensland, Tasmania, South and Western Australia to negotiate joining.

This would have placed outer colonies into weaker negotiating positions and have meant greater power for Sydney, which Dibbs believed should be Australia's capital.

Clearly the way Australia federated was therefore far from inevitable.

However, even less well known is the fact that another man, Charles Kingston (1850-1908), South Australia's premier 1893-99, had earlier envisaged an Australia quite different to all others.

His blueprint was for Australia to become a true democracy, like Switzerland, on which many of America's states modelled themselves after 1898.

Kingston's Swiss democratic option is by far the most interesting since, if realised, it would have meant Australians would now have a far greater say in the laws they live under.

Instead, our colonial politicians conspired to monopolise lawmaking by locking Australians out of having a say in the legislative process, except in the electing of politicians and constitutional referendums.

Without being too blunt, if Kingston's blueprint had been adopted Australia would have become a true democracy rather than the present quite undemocratic entity, where tiny handfuls of politicians monopolise the legislative process irrespective of which party governs.

And we've all been dumbed down about the Kingston option because it's extremely difficult to find anything written about it.

Virtually nothing has been recorded. Fortunately, State Scene found John M Williams' The Australian Constitution: A Documentary History, which carries Kingston's democratic vision.

From pages 117-133, he's reproduced the entire Kingston draft constitution, draw-up for the first - March-April 1891 - constitutional convention held in Sydney.

Clause IX, on page 126, of Kingston's Swiss-style democratic constitution reads: "No Bill passed by both Houses of the Federal Parliament shall be assented to by the Governor-General until after a referendum, if a referendum shall be duly demanded before assent declared. A referendum may be demanded in respect of any Bill passed by both Houses of the Federal Parliament at any time within three calendar months after the passing thereof.

"A referendum may be demanded by:

- one-third of the total number of members of either House of the Federal Parliament; or

- resolution of both Houses of any two local [State] Legislatures; or

- twenty thousand persons entitled to vote at the election of members to serve in the National Assembly [Senate and House of Representatives]."

Clearly, if the founding fathers had embraced Kingston's democratic clause it would have placed a huge brake upon the growth of central, Canberra power, since a third of all federal MPs of a national parliament - not simply a prime minister and/or cabinet - could have triggered binding nationwide referendums on any bill enacted by majority parties.

Referendums could also be triggered whenever any two state parliaments resolved.

And last but not least, 20,000 voters could have brought on binding referendums.

Since the colonies together had about 3.5 million people in the 1890s, the 20,000 would now stand at around 150,000.

If any of these triggers was activated it would stop bills becoming law until a referendum was held and Australians - not just a handful of politicians - would decide matters democratically.

The existence of a Kingston clause would have prevented politicians, or more correctly those few in cabinets, from monopolising control of the entire legislative process.

Such controls would have been shared with the states and secondly with all electors, who, after all, must live under enacted laws.

In Switzerland today, whenever 50,000 voters petition, within 100 days of any bill passing their parliament, binding referendums must be held.

Politicians can only stop referendums being democratically called by making amends to proposed bills in accordance with what people pressuring for change desire, otherwise a binding referendum is triggered.

Unfortunately Australia's Constitution doesn't have such a democratic clause, so Canberra's cabinets monopolise the legislative process - from drafting bills to arranging debating them, to the final vote that makes them laws, which all Australian must obey, but are denied a say in.

It's a like it or lump it approach to legislative imposition. And that's undemocratic.

Australians, unlike Swiss voters, cannot block bills by initiating binding referendums.

This means that, unlike Switzerland, we're not a democracy, since voters do not have the power that Kingston so wanted - to bring on a final say at binding referendums on what will or won't be the law.

Instead, we have elections every three years to vote for politicians who, after being elected, gain total control over what the laws will be.

Ours is a crude, anti-democratic like-it-or-lump-it formula.

Imagine if it had existed during the life the Howard government.

A binding referendum on the WorkChoices Bills could have been initiated by 150,000 voters signing referendum petitions collected by active citizens.

Instead, the Howard government took the anti-democratic approach, and for several years Australians had to lump WorkChoices even though it was unpopular.

The reason we acquired the undemocratic federal arrangement was because our undemocratic founding father politicians (apart from Kingston) ensured they - and all future politicians - gained monopoly power over the entire legislative process.

That's authoritarian, not democratic.

Unfortunately, Kingston was the only true democrat attending Sydney's 1891 constitutional convention, so was outnumbered by the anti-democratic founding father politicians who created the undemocratic centralising federation Australia now has.

Next week, State Scene considers how the early Labor Party set about implementing Kingston's democratic option but quickly reneged


Subscription Options