THE AUSTRALIAN REPUBLIC
A citizen-centred alternative
- "We consider the whole issue of the President unimportant in the quality of government and level of democracy that we wish to improve. It is an issue of symbols and cosmetic change, while the Ratifiers is a fundamental reform concerned with the substance of good governance, and a democracy that functions by involving us in an intrinsically healthy and democratically energetic way."
by Ratifiers for Democracy
- In Ancient Athens, the "Cradle of Democracy", they were not content to elect their representatives to form a government to rule as a quasi dictatorship for up to four years as we do now. They had a strong sense of direct democracy with the Citizen (this did not, however, include slaves, women, or ethnic minorities) attending and voting at the Assembly, which was the final voice on anything and everything. They used a system of election by lot (random election from all Citizens) to fill almost all government posts. Where they needed an official based on skill requirements (an admiral or architect, for instance), they elected him, but selected a jury by lot to oversee him.
- Athens was defeated and democracy was no more until much later, when it started to appear in Europe. Two things had changed in the meantime that precluded direct democracy. One was the demise of slavery, which meant that every day the Citizen had to hoe his own field to make a living, and the other was that, instead of a compact City-State of only a few square kilometres, there were countries with comparatively vast distances to the Assembly or Parliament in the national capital. Representative democracy, or the election of a fellow citizen from a district to go to the nation's capitol to vote on the behalf of all the Citizens in the district was the only feasible alternative.
- The Australian Citizen of today still has to "hoe his own field", but has many new mechanical and electronic "slaves" to give him the leisure and education to take more of a direct role in government. Another, more important change, is the electronic and communication revolution that has made it easier for the modern Australian Citizen, wherever he may be in this vast country, to "travel" to Canberra than it was for the Ancient Athenian to walk the kilometre or two to the Assembly.
Direct vs. Representative Democracy:
- Strengths and Weaknesses
Direct democracy makes government ours. We are no longer government by our governors and we (or a majority of us) decide where and how fast we want to go. Our money becomes our money again, as we decide how much we want to pay (in taxes) and what we want it spent on. No one can pass a law or make us live in some manner that does not meet majority approval.
- On the negative side, without leadership, we could often be, as the old saying goes, "A mob of bloody minded sheep". Also, with unfettered direct democracy, a minority (and that includes all of us in any number of ways, including our sex, age, beliefs, occupation or interests) could have our concerns overruled by the majority.
Representative democracy.... strong leadership from a position of quasi-dictatorship
- Representative democracy is what we have now. It provides strong leadership from a position of quasi-dictatorship for four years. Our representatives take care of the mechanics of government for us. They have the party structure and organisation to develop a coherent set of interrelating policies and priorities, and to arrange the budget to fund them.
- In the representative democracy system where the swing voter is everything, the dedicated minority interests are very well looked after. So well looked after, in fact, that the majority is often a significant loser. The only thing that can overcome dedicated minority interests is the dedicated interests of a larger or richer minority group.
Ideally we should combine the strengths of both direct and representative democracy while reducing or balancing the weaknesses of each system.That way we could get both increased democracy and better quality government
d) Inverse Proportional Voting
A bill that received the support of both major Parties and say, 95% of the Parliamentary vote, should not be able to be stopped by a simple majority of Ratifier votes against. This would stop our Parliamentarians from leading us.
Conversely, a bill that just squeaked past Parliament with 51% for and 49% against should not require an arbitrary preset supermajority (such as two-thirds) of "No's" from the Ratifiers to fail.
The answer to this dilemma is Inverse Proportional Voting where the majority of Ratifiers against a bill to fail it is proportional to its Parliamentary support. In other words, the first bill with 95% Parliamentary support, would take 95% Ratifiers against, to overturn it. In our second example with only 51% of Parliament's support, the bill would fail if 51% of Ratifiers were against it.
Courage and Leadership, or Arrogance?A bill that received enough votes to pass with the Inverse Proportional Voting but with less than a simple majority, would go back to Parliament for their "political reality check". Do they think that this is so right or needed that they would enact it against the wishes of the majority of the electorate? If they do, and vote accordingly, then the bill passes and the President signs it into law. A government that does this too often or is not perceived to be right over time, will be in opposition after the next election; but one that is perceived as having been right, will be credited with vision, strength and leadership.e) Test drive before you buy
The citizen also could have doubts. Would the Ratifiers improve our quality of government? Could fellow Australians understand and then make good decisions on the sometime complex bills that would be put to them? Australians have been, in the various referendums over the years, very careful about change; not purely negative, as propagandists often paint us. Australians have passed controversial (at the time) referendums that we felt to be fair and in the public interest. But whenever there is a feeling of a critical lack of information as to the substance and possible implications of a proposed change, or that we could be trapped with possible undesirable long-term effects, the NO vote results.
The Ratifiers should therefore be set up initially without powers for a trial period, being merely an advisory body to Parliament. This would be a low-risk option, as the Body of Ratifiers would not be able to overturn any parliamentary legislation. Its sole influence would be, that for the first time, both Parliament and the public would know what the considered opinion of Australia was on legislation passed. This contrasts with the present "public view" as portrayed by small off-the-cuff polls or what the leader of a political party or special interest pressure group claims it to be.
Politicians on both sides would have to present the reasons for their positions much more clearly and fully. To be fair, they have never had a medium such as the Ratifiers' on-line information repository site. Their access to us is through the print, radio and TV media, controlled by editors and host personalities whose goal is to stir, but not to inform, and thus, have no interest or incentive to allow politicians to explain themselves clearly and fully.
Citizen Initiated Referendums (C.I.R.) have often been proposed in Australia but never enacted. A major reason for this is that a large number of our elite both in and out of Parliament believe in their right to rule without interference from the sweaty masses, except (reluctantly) for the occasional election.
There are, however, a number of more legitimate concerns that need to be addressed:
- 1) Initiatives that are written at the kitchen table, get the required signatures to be placed on a ballot, and then go directly to the electorate for their vote, have sometimes been found, after being passed, to be flawed. They may not say legally what was intended to say, have effects on other law that was not intended, or be unconstitutional. Often, these initiatives are challenged successfully in the courts, with the result being that a law that the People agreed with in spirit, and therefore passed, is not allowed to be enacted.
- 2) An initiative can be written to deliberately deceive the electorate with hidden effects, or appear to say one thing but legally say another.
- 3) The electorate does not have the ability, as does a legislature, to debate and perhaps amend an initiative.
- 4) The electorate gets most of its information from the media and can be unduly and adversely influenced, particularly by 10 second TV bites.
- 5) The vote of the whole People on an initiative is so "hard" and "final" that legislatures have difficulty repealing or amending such legislation as needed when times change.
- 6) There is a delicate balance in the proportion of voters' signatures required to the number on the voters roll. Too high, and it becomes very difficult if not practically impossible to mount an initiative, too low and the poor voter is faced with hoards of complex and sometimes conflicting questions at election time.
- OREGON voters had 22 Questions to vote on at their November 1996 election, and that was just at the State level! There were many more on the County and local level, all presented at the same election.
- In SWITZERLAND, authorities are concerned that the high number of initiatives and frequent voting involved in their system has both decreased the proportion of the electorate voting, and skewed the voting away from the national demographic picture. The most heavily-represented voter today is German speaking, male, middle class, middle age, and city-dwelling.
- 7) Another often quoted problem that is fortunately groundless is that the "extreme right", the "radical left",or "big business" will "take over" the C.I.R. process and "push through" their legislation. Statistically, in none of the countries or states that have C.I.R., has that proved to be the case. Non-public-interest initiatives lose more times than they win and the more extreme or self-serving the proposal, the more likely it is to fail. Money spent sometimes appears to win, but other times when even more is spent it fails.
- With all these problems (and any critic worth his salt could probably think up a few more) why do we bother with CIR? The answer is that we wouldn't HAVE to if our politicians could act for us in our best interest.
- But unfortunately, this is where the Law of Politics comes in, which goes something like this:"Don't act for the common good if you will alienate one group, only to get the praise of a smaller, less powerful group."An admittedly petty case that illustrates the importance of initiatives when the Law of Politics has frustrated the common good, comes from Washington State. For years if you wanted to get dentures or even denture repairs you had to go to a dentist who would then sub-contract to a dental technician who would do the work. The dental technicians tried to lobby the politicians to allow the public to come directly to them but the Law of Politics didn't permit; there were more dentists (and they were organised and powerful) than dental technicians. End of Story. The dental technicians finally banded together, gathered the signatures for an initiative and put it to the voters with the proviso that the technicians had to attend an extra course on the skills of fitting dentures. The initiative passed with a very resounding YES! Having cut out the expensive, protected middleman, the hassle and expense of dentures plummeted.
Well, this seemed to be the case to us when we wrote this, but we have since been informed that this was yet another case of a group seeking to benefit itself against the public interest, as a ex-denturist from Washington has informed us. If you take a look at the Association today, with its high dues and its own lobbyist, you can make up your own mind.
- One can easily see examples in Australia similar in their politically protected status to the Washington dentists: lawyers, doctors perhaps, some trade unions and a few businesses or groups of businesses. There is also the ideological or moral positions of sometimes very small groups that get political consideration totally out of proportion to their numbers, and to the detriment of the rest of society.
- In order to solve some of the problems with C.I.R. already mentioned, a number of states and countries only allow initiatives in the form of petitions to their legislatures. Sometimes this works well and is just the little nudge needed to get lawmakers to debate particular issues and pass legislation that they would not otherwise have considered.
- On other occasions, if they can only see themselves losing politically, or if the petition doesn't fit in with the ruling party's priorities, legislators can just sit on petitioned initiatives and procrastinate, for years if necessary, until this humble form of the initiative dies a frustrated death. No one has yet devised a viable method of compelling a legislature to face an issue if it doesn't want to.
- Citizens wishing to introduce an Initiative would first register and pay a fee. This fee would go towards the cost of a mandatory consultation with a Constitutional lawyer appointed by and accountable to the High Court. His purpose would not be to dictate what was allowed but to point out Constitutional or legal problems and suggest ways or wordings to overcome them. The final decision would be with the Initiator but the legal opinion would be attached to the Initiative.
- After gathering the required number of signatures, the Initiative is presented to the Ratifiers. They would not be asked to pass the Initiative into law but rather: Do they want Parliament to look at the issue covered by the Initiative or not? If not, then that's the end of it, although, of course Parliament can look at any issue it wants to whenever it wants to. This screening of Parliament by the Ratifiers from Initiatives that are frivolous or don't have broad voter support could allow easing in the difficulty of introducing an Initiative, by reducing significantly the number of signatures required.
- If the majority of Ratifiers want Parliament to look at the issue covered by the initiative, then Parliament has a statutory period, of perhaps six months, to do so, during which time they may:1)Endorse the Initiative, which would then go to the Ratifiers, to be passed into law if an inverse proportion of Ratifiers voted in favour.
2) Vote against the Initiative, which could only pass if an inverse proportion (a "super majority") of Ratifiers were subsequently in favour.
3) Pass their own bill on the issue, in which case the Ratifiers would have a choice in preference from one to three:1) The original initiative4) Parliament can also table the initiative and "lose" it (an already common fate for bills without powerful sponsors, or issues that are too sticky, like CIR!), in which case, when Parliament's allotted time for consideration has elapsed, the initiative would automatically go to the Ratifiers, for them to pass into law or reject, by a simple majority.
2) Parliament's bill
The choice with the least support would be eliminated, and the votes for the last two are counted. Because of the inverse proportion, (a minority of Ratifiers in favour could pass legislation previously passed by Parliament), it is possible for both final choices to pass. If this happens, the whole matter would go back to Parliament for a further statutory period for reconsideration and voting.
- The constitutional initiative would be similar to the legislative initiative, but with significant differences.
- A constitutional initiative should demonstrate a larger support base, and it should not be too easy to introduce.
- Therefore, significantly more voter signatures should be required. The Ratifiers could still be used as a screen, and Parliament should still have a chance to debate and perhaps put forward their own constitutional amendment. The Ratifiers, because of the method of their selection, are an accurate mirror of the People, but they are not the People of Australia, who are the only ones who do have and should have the right to change the Constitution.
- Therefore, the constitutional initiative (and competing parliamentary constitutional amendment, if any) should go to the voters at the next election, for them to pass or reject by a simple majority.
The NO's won the day, and the wide support for direct presidential election is thought to have been the reason that the minimalist model was sunk.
A clear majority of voters, it seems, say that, yes , it would be more appropriate to be a republic; and while we are about it, we would like more say in government.
The only option that the electorate has been exposed to via the media and lobby groups to have this say is to elect the President, so it's hardly surprising that this has been a preoccupation of the "Republic debate".
But if we directly elect the President as Head of State, we would just be "empowering" another politician, while gaining no increased say in our laws whatsoever.
We want to empower the People instead of the President, so we consider the whole issue of the President unimportant in the quality of government and level of democracy that we wish to improve. It is an issue of symbols and cosmetic change, while the Ratifiers is a fundamental reform concerned with the substance of good governance, and a democracy that functions by involving us in an intrinsically healthy and democratically energetic way.
and needs regular flexion to stay strong and healthy.
Written by Australian Ratifiers for Democracy
Ratifiers for Democracy is a non-politically-affiliated international organisation dedicated to promoting better government through greater citizen participation.
WEB LINKS WE RECOMMEND.
-Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address
Over a hundred years later, are these words STILL too radical?
Affiliated Ratifiers' sites
UK Ratifiers for Democracy
Malcolm Farnsworth's VCE Politics Pages For both Australian, US, and British politics. One of the best politics compendiums on the web, as it is both comprehensive, and always topical.
Australia-World Wide Web Virtual Library Over 700 links that are constantly updated. A joint work of the ANU and Dr. Frank Poyas of the Australia-New Zealand Studies Center at Pennsylvania State University.
The Australian Republic: A Guide The definitive site for many different approaches to the Republic. Compiled and maintained by Stephen Souter in a way that is as easy to use as it is complete (an unusual combination for a Web page!). You can find the Ratifiers in the section called "Radical Revisions" in Other Blueprints.
Australia the Republic? The Republic debate, with relevant links followed from overseas by Dr. Frank Poyas (see above entry), taking a "detached and impartial view".