June 30, 2004
Summary: Julian Ninio discusses the benefits of Australian democracy
and the assets of proportional voting system which they use.
By Julian Ninio
June 30, 2004
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’Äôs 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
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
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.