Lucky Citizens

By Julian Ninio
Published June 30th 2004 in The Age

I became an Australian citizen a month ago. In the US, I will vote for Kerry holding my nose, knowing that Kerry won't fix the deep problems of which George Bush is a symptom, such as the trailer parks where America's social policies force one family in thirteen. In Australia, I will vote knowing that a single election can produce change.

Australian citizens share at least one problem with American citizens. This problem afflicts many democracies. Citizens feel that governments do not obey them. In Australia, John Howard didn't ask the people if they wanted to invade Iraq. John Howard didn't ask Australians if they wanted to raise the price of university education by 25 per cent. John Howard didn't ask Australians if they wanted to ban gay marriages. John Howard didn't ask Australians if they wanted a tax cut instead of social services.

But compared with US citizens, Australians are in a far better position to change their society. First, more Australians are aware that their democracy doesn't truly work. (It helps that Australia, unlike the US, does not see itself as the cradle of democracy.) One cannot fix a problem unless one knows about it. By and large, Australians know there's a problem.

Second, Australian citizens have powerful democratic tools on their side, tools US citizens lack. Think of democracy as having two aspects: government 'by the people' and 'for the people'.

Australia's special tools do not lie on the 'for the people' side of democracy. 'For the people' means that people can force government to serve the public interest. This piece of democracy is broken nearly everywhere.

Australia's democratic strength lies on the 'by the people' side of democracy. 'By the people' means that people choose who represents them. Australia has mandatory voting; in the US, half of the people vote and they vote in proportion to income and education. Australia has proportional representation; in the US, if ten per cent of people vote for the Greens, their vote gets thrown out. Australia has preferential voting; in the US, if five per cent of people vote for Ralph Nader, that's fewer votes for Al Gore or John Kerry, and George Bush gets elected.

If Australians re-elect John Howard, at least they will know they voted for him. Australia has these tools: mandatory voting, preferential voting, proportional representation. This means that if Australians produce a critical mass of concerned citizens before an election, they can change society.

For instance, look at the Iraq War. Many people feel that last year's massive protests were useless, that they changed nothing -- yet things are changing. The Sydney suburb of Leichhardt (where I live) just had local elections, and now has four Green councillors. Australians have tools to express their anger at the ruling parties. And if Australians organise again, they can actually solve the war problem, make sure it never happens again.

Let’s call this a democracy problem. The problem: Most Australians opposed the war, Howard went to war anyway. Clue: The constitution sets no process for the country to declare war. The problem has at least one obvious solution. Australians need a law that forbids government from committing troops to a war of aggression without the approval of parliament, or of citizens. By the way, make that approval by a 'super majority' -- a majority by two-thirds or three-quarters.

So the message before the election should not just be 'We want troops out'. It should also be: 'We want laws to restrict the power to go to war'. The Democrats introduced such a bill last year, but without major party support, parliament has not discussed it.

If hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets with that message in the weeks before the election, it will work. Labor will have to pick it up. These are the mass dynamics that worked in Spain's last election.

The Iraq War is one of many 'democracy problems'. Australians could solve many other problems in one go. Today, Australian citizens have no power to initiate a referendum. Suppose Australians changed that. Suppose Australians changed the Referendum Act so the signatures of 300 000 voters could force an issue on the ballot.

That's the scale of last year's No War protests. People wouldn't feel disillusioned about protests if they knew that protests could force government to submit important questions to a popular vote. People would protest more. And government would take greater care not to upset the popular will, if they knew that citizens could organise and reverse their policies.

If citizens could initiate a referendum, they would be far closer to having government 'for people'. People would have the power to force reforms that seem doomed today, in all areas: the environment, work, education, health, trade, and more.

True, a people's referendum would need careful design to ensure people do not have to vote every week, and that they vote on meaningful questions, not blind tosses between bitter and acid. Those disgruntled with the 1999 referendum can help discuss how to design a process that works.

Australian democracy almost works. This may sound like a harsh assessment, but it's more than one can say about most societies that also call themselves democratic. It would take little to make Australian democracy truly work.

In the weeks before the next election, we should ask for 'Troops Out'. But we should also ask for a People's War Control Act. And, I argue, we should ask for a People's Referendum Act.

As we spend energy treating symptoms such as the Iraq War, we might as well treat the causes too. Let's start making these banners now. By next year, we may be on our way to becoming the lucky citizens of a fully functional democracy.