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Democracy or bureaucracy

By Susan Wight - posted Monday, 29 May 2017


Politicians represent us in making laws so that we don't all have to trot down to the town square daily to vote on everything.

If a proposed law is objectionable, we can lobby MPs about it. Historically, this system has served us tolerably well. However, our democratic rights are gradually being eaten away.

Public 'servants' write legislation and, increasingly, they defer much of the detail to regulations. Unlike legislation, regulations are not automatically debated in parliament. Instead, they are simply tabled and require a disallowance motion to defeat them. This makes them much harder for citizens to influence.

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Worse still, in designing regulations, the public service defers detail to policy which is routinely changed by bureaucrats without reference to parliament.

In this way, bureaucrats are gradually writing themselves more power even though they represent no one and can never be voted out. They are eroding democracy.

In theory, there are 'checks and balances'. In practice, when bureaucrats have spent up to two years developing legislation or regulation, they are extremely reluctant to change it.

There are guidelines that must be followed, but bureaucrats are adept at meeting requirements in a minimal way e.g. meeting with stakeholders ticks the consultation box, but does not necessarily mean stakeholders have real input.

Public submissions are taken but if submissions are heavily against the proposal, departments can report that there was good public engagement and dismiss objections as 'unrepresentative'. Likewise, Regulatory Impact Statements can cherry-pick research and data to favour the outcome chosen by the bureaucracy. Submissions are then 'considered' before final (usually minor) adjustments are made and the regulations are tabled in parliament.

To illustrate how this works, here is an example from my own community:

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Up until 2006, Victorian law required home schoolers to be able to prove, in a court of law, that they were educating their children. This balanced a parent's right to choose an education against the state's obligation to ensure the child was educated.

With the passage of the Education and Training Reform Act 2006, this changed to an obligation to register and comply with regulations. Home educators saw this as problematic and lobbied hard. We were all prepared to demonstrate that we were educating our children, what we didn't want was to meet arbitrary requirements set by the very system we wished to differ from, requirements we suspected would be more about paperwork than education.

However, in 2006 the government had a clear majority and the law passed. Home educators believe the significant parliamentary scrutiny of the Act they caused influenced the government to release reasonable regulations.

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About the Author

Susan Wight is a Victorian mother who, together with her husband, home educated her three children who are all now well-educated adults. She is the coordinator of the Home Education Network and editor and a regular writer for the network’s magazine, Otherways.

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All articles by Susan Wight

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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