A vacuum is not ‘democracy’

Tuesday, 31 August 2010 

I’ve wielded power before. I come from a family that’s had a lot of power for about five generations in Australia. I’m used to power. Feel comfortable with it.

Bob Katter 24 August 2010

The Australian reports that the ongoing count has given the 2PP lead to the Coalition, denying Gillard a key reason for forming a government. As Mumble notes, this is a bit technical until the AEC returns to the count eight seats it took out, which is likely to favour Labor.

The Australian may be making a technical point, but then Gillard’s use of it to claim government was fairly technical anyway. In as much as neither side sought any sort of effective mandate during the campaign, neither side can claim a mandate for government no matter how the numbers stack up.

This why current calls for Parliamentary reform are so hollow. It might mean something if Parliament was restricting the representative will of the people in some way. Reforms like universal franchise of the late 19th century were meant to allow the democratic wishes of social groups such as organised labour and women to be expressed.

In fact, current reforms are almost about the opposite. They are about giving more power to independents who are unclear as to how they even represent their electorates let alone anyone else. The press has been trying to analyse the votes of the independents electorates to work out who they should support. But such analysis is pretty meaningless since the whole reason the independents won was presumably because enough voters didn’t want either party. Preferential voting might force a choice, but it doesn’t mean it is a positive one. Furthermore, the very fact that all three independents could just as feasibly support either side would suggest it’s not only the major parties that don’t stand for very much.

What the independents do stand for is undermining the major parties. The seven demands they put forward are essentially about being treated on a more equal footing with the major parties. Quite why independents voted by a few thousand Australians should be placed on a more equal footing with political parties voted for by millions of Australians is unclear. It used to be fashionable to decry the disproportionate influence rural parties would have on government policy, in some cases such as SA, WA and Queensland, backed up by outrageous gerrymanders. On the surface this seems if anything to be even worse.

In reality, however, such democratic points are fairly moot. In those days such rural gerrymanders would have been partly to protect against organised labour representation in metropolitan seats. There’s hardly much issue of that these days. Now it is more about rubbing the major parties’ faces in it, something only possible because neither party represents either organised labour, or those who have an interest in opposing it.

Any Parliamentary reform is likely to merely reflect the weakness of the major parties rather than the unleashing of wishes from a disenfranchised section of society. Indeed, if anything, it will try to legitimise the weakness of parliament and the parties that make it up. This is most clearly seen in the advancement of one of the independents’ demands that seems to get so much support these days in the name of democracy – funding reform.

One of the ways that the inability of parties to represent any real interests in society comes out is through their constant funding problems. This works two ways. On one hand, without a social base, political parties are increasingly reliant on costly media and advertising to mobilise support. On the other hand, traditional backers like business and unions are increasingly reluctant to back parties that no longer are necessary for their interests.

Given this political reality, it is hard for this blogger to understand why the state should step in with funds to fill the gap. It is traditional for those on the left to support this idea against interests who have greater access to financial resources. But this used to be less of a problem for those parties that could make up for the lack of finances by being able to directly appeal to the interests of a much greater majority of the electorate. In this blogger’s view, finance reform usually aims to conceal such democratic niceties. Ironically, while both parties are reluctant to make a full break with their traditional backers, there may come a time when they fully embrace such ‘reforms’ for their survival.

While the independents are unlikely to do much for us, they probably won’t do much for the major parties either. The independents cannot solve the problem of legitimacy that affects both the major parties and underpins the election result. It will likely try and make ‘workable’ a Parliament that has become unworkable because it has never before so poorly reflected what Australian society thinks or wants – the very antithesis of democracy.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 31 August 2010.

Filed under The Australian state

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28 responses to “A vacuum is not ‘democracy’”

  1. Dr_Tad on 31st August 2010 7:41 am

    It seems to me that campaign finance reform as it is being posed these days (even by the Left in the Greens) could well end up being antithetical to democracy in any sense of mass popular participation in influencing the political process. I blogged about it the other day:


  2. The Piping Shrike on 31st August 2010 8:04 am

    I agree with much being written in that post but I would go even further. To me campaign funding reform obscures the real democratic questions and turns them upside down.

    The issue is not whether particular organisations can influence a political party, indeed that’s why parties were formed, to represent particular interests. Now they have become so detached from social interests that now any connection is called ‘undue influence’.

    Financing reforms seek to make a virtue out of this detachment and flatters it as a more pure politics, when in reality it is just hollowed out.

    In the end by making particular interests illegitimate it justifies a greater role for the state to monitor who can or cannot wield political influence. While claiming to separate more clearly civil society from the state, in reality it does the opposite.

  3. Tweets that mention A vacuum is not ‘democracy’ :The Piping Shrike -- Topsy.com on 31st August 2010 8:58 am

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by David Jackmanson, The Piping Shrike. The Piping Shrike said: The independents can do little to improve democracy http://bit.ly/apbZzk […]

  4. James on 31st August 2010 12:22 pm

    It’s a broken situation that we have a Parliamentary result that, more than ever, so poorly reflects what Australians think or want. I think we need to go back to the polls, as I’m sure the result would be definitive.

  5. Graeme on 31st August 2010 1:50 pm

    Why would parliamentary reform (leave aside political funding) ‘legitimise the weakness of parliament’?

    And whatever we think of them or their notion of ‘representation’, the 3 Amigos + Bandt (and Wilkie if we treat him as a Green substitute) can point to positive mandates, either of trust or ideology. They do not just represent a protest vote against the lameness of the major parties.

  6. The Piping Shrike on 31st August 2010 4:49 pm

    Because it makes a virtue of the decline of the two party system. Take for example, the call for “less adversarial” politics. It could be argued that the last election showed the problem was not that it was too adversarial as such, but there was no content to it. Calls for a ‘kinder gentler’ Parliament are trying to make a virtue out of there being little to argue about.

    Similarly, for calls for greater freedom for private members’ bills. In the past the priority would have been given to the bills of the majority party that would be looking to an implement in the limited time they have a program they had been elected on. This is less of a consideration now.

    I agree the individual members do stand for things that could be seen as positive and this may play a part in voters supporting them. But they generally can also be found in the major parties where they would have a better chance of being implemented. I would argue that such policies would be less of an issue in voting for independents with limited opportunity to exercise power. That is why this rare opportunity to do so presents a dilemma for them. Whichever side they support they will be doing what many of their supporters did not want.

  7. Riccardo on 31st August 2010 5:03 pm

    TPS, you’re good on the theory. That’s what my Politics 101 taught me, that parties are there to represent interests.

    What’s changed is that representing interests has become too naked for a moral public.

    Our electoral system is obviously limited by geographic constituencies (for which there is no public call), by 50+1 claiming of victory, by branch membership preselecting rather than primaries, and these things favour parties.

    You could build it other ways, for example, a 75%+1 vote in each seat (requiring coalitions to be formed), by primaries (to eliminate stacking and non-representative candidates, and proportional or at least non-geographic constituency (so that at least Oakshott would be getting 0.5% of all our votes, rather than 60% of a small geographic region of people we probably don’t know.

    As for finance, I suspect it just appears in more creative ways eg the think tanks, get-up and so on.

  8. The Piping Shrike on 31st August 2010 5:40 pm

    I don’t think people have any problem with seeing their interests represented, naked or otherwise. The trouble is they aren’t. So anybody else getting a look in is a problem.

    Changing the way we vote doesn’t change who there is to vote for. There is not at the moment a disenfranchised representation that would be helped by electoral reform.

    On financing I agree, there are always ways around – if they can be bothered these days.

  9. Douglas Hynd on 31st August 2010 9:59 pm

    I would support the reforms to the extent that they deal with n issues that seems to be missing form the discussion the migration of power to the Executive within Parliament.

    Given that parties are now becoming more and more vehicles simply to gain access to the privileges that go with executive power I am quite happy for mechanisms that make what is going on in the executive a bit more visible and less automatic.

  10. Aunt Julia finds a stronger voice « The Happy Pessimist on 31st August 2010 10:46 pm

    […] This goes to the questions I made a weak attempt at articulating for a first time in my last post – questions to be revisited. They are also well discussed here – http://www.pipingshrike.com/2010/08/a-vacuum-is-not-%e2%80%98democracy%e2%80%99.html […]

  11. Riccardo on 1st September 2010 2:37 pm
  12. The Piping Shrike on 1st September 2010 8:06 pm

    Good take on it.

    Nice to see with this Green ‘pact’ that Labor’s tactics are as sharp as ever.

  13. Cavitation on 2nd September 2010 9:31 am

    This also shines a light on the character of the people we elect to Parliament. When was the last time the public got to know something about a backbencher, apart from when one was in the midst of a scandal.

    The main parties get away with selecting very inappropriate people to represent them. The Liberals had Bill Heffernan re-elected at position #2 of their senate ticket, yet he is someone who thinks it funny to make scary crank calls to children of his opponents. Searching his past record makes it difficult for anyone to consider that he is suitable for a responsible position. Is he one of the best people in NSW that the Liberals can find to represent them in the nation’s most important forum? Is he truly among the best that the Liberals can find in all of NSW?

    And look at Labor, especially in the NSW parliament. Talk about dredging the bottom of the swamp for low life creatures!

    Yet the independents all seem sensible and responsible – even Bob Katter, who admits to his shortcomings, and they all seem as people I’d be happy to sit next to at dinner. Every time one of the independents gets time on TV, another nail goes into the coffin of the major parties, who select people who should not be permitted to operate heavy machinery, let alone sit in parliament on our behalf.

  14. Riccardo on 2nd September 2010 11:23 am

    I wonder if Heff has his ‘working with children’ clearance?

  15. Riccardo on 2nd September 2010 11:42 am

    Also keep in mind O’Farrells ‘mistaken’ tweet that NSWLibs having trouble preselecting good candidates in time…well they only had 3 years notice of the Federal election, how hard could it be?

    And it’s not as if they had no notice that formally safe ALP seats would be in play, hence a need to find credible candidates for them.

  16. Graeme on 3rd September 2010 10:32 am

    At least two perennially disgruntled groups do feel their ‘interests’ are now getting a hearing. One is inner city progressives (who feign to have more symbolic/other-regarding/internationalist interests than self-interest). The other are the sprawling rural interests.

    Both have long felt dealt out by the vacuous chasing of suburban, apolitical focus groups.

    Neither however come close to forming a majority, even if they weren’t in many ways opposed to each other.

    I can see how people see the present moment as a fresh democratic bud; but to tweak your ‘vacuum’ metaphor, it’s hard to see how those buds could fill the dead heart of the garden.

  17. john on 3rd September 2010 10:43 am

    It’s strange. We’ve got left economics in Katter, and left social policies in the Greens, and they hate each other. It’s like the Cold War never ended.

  18. nick on 3rd September 2010 2:50 pm

    nick gruens written some interesting stuff about the alp and the unions in the afr and club troppo much along the same lines as you’ve been putting forward piping. Well worth a read and would be interested in yours and others thoughts?

  19. john Willoughby on 4th September 2010 5:03 pm

    a joh beijke petersen disciple holding the balance
    of power in a government lead by a bob santmaria
    clone… i’d like to see that

  20. Riccardo on 4th September 2010 5:29 pm

    But you can’t go back to Bjelke:

    -the railways are being sold off
    -the councils have been amalgamated
    -the rural cooperatives have been disbanded
    -sugar is more and more owned by corporates

    and the whiteshoes give their money to labor if it gets them their GC tower blocks and golf courses.

    Bjelkeism was a grass roots patronage machine, held together with jobs on Country Party-controlled quangos, with ample thumping of Roman and Protestant bibles, thousands of small land holdings, plenty of guns and bribes to go round.

    People wonder how the AWP/ALP transitition to Bjelkeism but in hindsight it was all too easy.

    Graeme – why the ‘feign’? At the end of the day all interest is self-interest. You’re given the franchise yourself to exercise.

    The AEC won’t let you send your ballot paper to some Kenyan refugee camp for someone else to complete – that would be non-self-interest. Otherwise, you will always be voting the way you see best fit. Whether you altruism is enlightened self-interest is impossible for someone else to know.

  21. Riccardo on 4th September 2010 5:35 pm

    Could the time be upon us to start a movement for the middle class, to remove the power of bogans over the politicians. Strip the Green label off and just be honest – the control of the political system by the establishment using the lower middle class and working class as the flank, needs to stop.

    If the Dems hadn’t soiled their nest, who knows? Are the middle class any better at holding the show together than the Irish Bruvvers or the Mediterranean spivs or the Anglo born-to-rule set?

  22. john on 4th September 2010 6:17 pm

    I’m pretty sure Menzies already did that one, mate. You’re wrong about the working class having any influence on the process. Both parties are going to screw them, it’s just a matter of degrees.

  23. john Willoughby on 4th September 2010 11:06 pm

    the amnesiacs….

  24. Riccardo on 6th September 2010 11:33 am

    TPS – we’re still looking forward to your ‘media’ post.

  25. Riccardo on 6th September 2010 11:39 am

    Remember the ‘working class’ doesn’t mean the old machine operators or garbos or cleaners any more. They are the ‘working poor’. I mean the cashed-up-bogans, the ones who make money without any degree of education or access to capital, but because they work in blue collar trades that are overpriced due to supply shortage and growing demand.

    Add to them the lower middle class, the junior clerks and ‘paper trades’ like real estate selling. These are the ones who are given supersized mortgages by banks for unnecessarily large houses in the burbs, and then vote Coalition to protect their overleveraged positions.

    We know the lower orders feel most exposed to the immigrant pool, and that many Anglos have been ‘left behind’ by a globalising world, and will make any protest, no matter how futile, against it. And the Coalition stands ready to collect their votes.

  26. john Willoughby on 6th September 2010 1:30 pm

    the boganvillas are a problem for those who financed
    them,at the moment they are managing to tip toe through the tulips ……

  27. The Piping Shrike on 6th September 2010 11:21 pm

    nick, is there any particular post of Gruen’s you meant? His stuff is well written although the one I read recently mainly seem to suggest it was a problem of tactics.

    The media post is waiting for the right time … (again).

    I’m not sure precisely what ‘interests’ inner city progressives are getting represented other than a dissatisfaction with the major parties, Graeme. As for rural interests I don’t see their interests getting represented at all. As Katter showed on Q&A, what we will see is a lot of therapy and air time but no real action. These negotiations is not the Country Party arm twisting of their golden years.

  28. nick on 7th September 2010 12:48 pm

    see club troppo ‘my take on the debacle’ and comments within piping ….

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