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Party discipline - and democracy

By Peter Bowden - posted Friday, 30 June 2017


This article puts forward a simple thesis. The expectation that the elected members of a party toe their party line is the complete antithesis of democracy. We elect those politicians who best represent our political viewpoint. The current hiatus in elections worldwide is evidence that the elected parties are not representing the majority viewpoint. There are many party positions that do not reflect the views of all its members, let alone the whole nation. I will start with just one.The Australian Greens senator Lee Rhiannon, who says she is being bullied and harassed.

It is certainly true that expelling her from the party is an option under consideration. It seems that her sin was  breaking the Greens party rules and acting in bad faith by failing to tell her colleagues that she had decided to campaign and vote against the education bill, while other senators were still in official negotiations with the Government. Bob Brown calls her a wrecker.

Senator Rhiannon has been an active politician since 1999, examining and fighting for many issues: the cross-city tunnel in Sydney, electoral matters, on law and justice, the NSW taxi industry, the increase in prisoner population, and the ombudsman and police integrity commission. She has many supporters. We do not even have to delve into her position on the education bill, to reach the conclusion that her voice, her position must be heard. It is called democracy.

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 Related issues in Australia are the toeing of the line by the current Australian Prime Minister to ensure that his party speaks with one voice in the current refusal to even discuss same sex marriage, let alone to pass legislation. An example is the conflict between current Australian Prime Minister and Christopher Pyne, his minister for Defence Industry, whom he has been urged to dump. Pyne agitated publicly for a same sex marriage debate. The former prime minister Tony Abbott has accused Mr Pyne of disloyalty. One Liberal said fury about Mr Pyne was widespread. The conflict is bewildering.  There are many people in Australia who approve same sex marriage. Why cannot a member of the Liberal Party also speak out in favour?  

The right wing senator Cory Bernardi, has also lashed out at his colleagues for disloyalty. To him, they must all toe the same party line of obedience to Tony Abbott. It is an unbelievable view point.

We see the same problem overseas. Even in the US, where party loyalty is less rigorously enforced, members of the Republican Party in the US are castigating each other for supporting or not supporting a Medicare bill that is of dubious benefit to the American people. They were split over their response to the Medicare program for the elderly  and they are equally split over the current medical insurance impasse. There is a widespread expectation that all Republicans should agree with the new bill. This despite the fact that 24 million people will lose their health benefitsunder this legislation.

 In Britain, Brexit has proven to be a disaster. But the political parties are committed to continue with it. The majority of Brits, however, have seen the light. They want out.

If we did not have political parties; if each one of us voted for that candidate in our electorates who best represented the political views of each of us; If those candidates financed themselves; if they then elected the prime minister from the candidates who put themselves forward; or alternately, and probably preferable, we have a separate vote for the Prime Minister; and if he or she selected ministers from those who appeared competent, then we would have true democracy. None of us could complain, for it would be a genuine government that reflected the majority views of all the people. If our representative did not support the views voted by an electorate, then we change him or her at the next election We could even have a recall system, where 30% of the electorate could call for a re-election.

Mind you, it might be a little difficult finding a candidate that did represent your views. This opinion writer believes totally in private sector management. The smaller the government, the less that is operated by public servants, the more productive is the economy. On the other hand, he totally rejects budgets like that of Tony Abbott in 2014. We do have an obligation to help people who are mentally afflicted, born into a disadvantaged family, or otherwise incapacitated. Also that we must legitimise gay marriage.  The age of entitlements, equal for all, should be our aspiration. Each side of these views are represented by ideologies of both the left and right political parties in this and many other countries. But there will be candidates who will promote both these views.

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Senates could be voted the same way (although it would be a very complicated voting ballot.). But it is not that obvious that we need a senate.To abolish the upper house is not such a strange idea. Other democracies have done so: New Zealand, Sweden and Denmark, for example and the sky has not fallen in. Queensland and the Northern Territory have also abolished their upper chambers and do not seem any the worse for it than other Australian states. The ACT never had one. 

Democracy says that we act as most people want. That means we will not always get what we want, but we should acknowledge the majority. Loyalty to political party platforms would not appear to be the way.

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About the Author

Peter Bowden is an author, researcher and ethicist. He was formerly Coordinator of the MBA Program at Monash University and Professor of Administrative Studies at Manchester University. He is currently a member of the Australian Business Ethics Network , working on business, institutional, and personal ethics.

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