Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Democracy at work?

The cynicism of Winston Churchill in relation to democracy is legend: “The best argument against democracy is five minutes with the average voter,” being one comment reflecting his dissatisfaction with the process. Churchillian cynicism now appears more widespread in Australia in the wake of the results emerging from Saturday’s Senate elections. In a bizarre twist it seems that at least one candidate could find themselves sitting on the Senate cross-benches on the back of having won so few first preference votes that their deposit is might well have been at risk. The major parties are up in arms at the preference deals which are about to deliver a handful of seats – and the balance of power – to a group of people whose policy focus, if one has been developed at all, is narrower than the ballot paper which bore their name. Should we be concerned?

The instinctive reaction by the major parties to review the voting system ignores the fact that this is a system which has historically served to keep minor party representation to a minimum. If there is a lesson to be learned from the outcome, it is that the micro parties have learned how to use the system to their advantage, and the big kids aren’t enjoying having the sand kicked in their face. With the possible exception of New South Wales, where one in 12 voters clearly aren’t savvy enough to tell the difference between the Liberal Democrats and the Liberal National Party Coalition (maybe Churchill was right!), the large vote for micro parties is a clear statement against the parties which have long populated the parliamentary benches. Stitching up tight preference deals across this group has resulted in an aggregation of protest vote to bring an outcome no one predicted. While we might wring our hands at the election of people we know little about (and care little about), the outcome does represent a desire on the part of the electorate to turn its collective back on the Coalition and the ALP.

The new Senate brings with it an element of uncertainty not seen in the national parliament since, well, the last election. The difference this time is that the uncertainty has moved across the building from the green chamber to the Senate. Theoretically at least, it has made the job of legislating more complicated, evidenced by the media scrutiny of the position of these potential senators on such matters as paid parental leave and the carbon and mining taxes, amongst others. More telling, perhaps, is the unwillingness to ask whether these candidates will have the capacity to fulfil the community expectations of a Senator (roo-poo fights notwithstanding).

But there appears to be a consistency of message from the people to the parties in the parliament, one which expresses a deep discontent with their behaviour and policies. While the Coalition settles in to the seats of power, comforted by the expression of confidence in them to form government, a look to the red chairs of the Senate ought to provide as much food for thought them as does the warming of the opposition benches to the ALP.

Looking from the outside then, we could well ask whether we have we confected a problem which doesn’t exist? Is a system which results in the election people from outside the major parties to the Senate a point of concern, or something to celebrate? Are independents, even politically naïve views, not welcome on the floor of the Senate, let alone the corridors of power? An early scan of the policy statements of these potential Senators exposes views and ideas which I would oppose on many points, but isn’t that what the health of democracy is founded upon – the clash of ideas? Even if a Senator is elected on the back of 0.2% of the primary vote, to does reflect that our system of election is designed for exhaustive selection at the whim of the people. We do well to remember that it is not long ago that one of the major parties subverted the will of the people by replacing Senators who left the parliament with representatives from the opposition parties, which provided the platform for the dismissal of the elected government. To hear them now complaining that the system works against them (or, more expediently, against democracy) is ironic.

The Australian people have elected a Senate – perhaps unwittingly, even though intentionally – which reflects their unwillingness to trust the responsibilities of the Senate to the government of the day. Whilst there may be a case to examine the system of election, they would do well to examine the reasons why the electorate deliberately turned their backs on the major parties in the first place. Democracy has fired a warning shot across their collective bow.

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