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Rule by minorities is not 'democracy'

By Humph Applebee - posted Friday, 13 September 2013

The 2013 Federal Election was the most predictable in decades, thanks largely to excessive polling at a national level and in marginal seats by a growing number of pollsters. Yet the results still emerging in the Senate seem to have struck most commentators like the lash of a dragon's tail.

The nominations of numerous minor groups and splinter parties were known in advance. Some of course were already as familiar as the Greens if only at state-level. Such old hands include Family First, Christian Democrats, DLP, the Nick Xenophon group, and One Nation. But this election attracted an even wider range of eccentric and single issue groups than usual, including the No Carbon Tax- Climate Sceptics, the Help End Marijuana Party (HEMP), Smokers Rights, Voluntary Euthanasia, Animal Justice, the Pirate Party, the Sex Party and the Wikileaks Party.

Even more surprising than their abundance was the success of some of the newcomers. As well as the well- resourced Palmer United Party, the Australian Sports Party, and the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party are currently tipped to win senate seats. With the possible exception of the ragbag of policy fragments that mining magnate Clive Palmer advertised, none of these minorities seem to have developed the range of policies required for governing the nation.


In fact the minority parties themselves seem to have underestimated the effect of trading preferences as advised by self- styled political consultant Glen Druery. Proportional representation applying to the Senate means that a cascading system of allocating preferences determines quotas beyond those achieved by primary votes. This means that one or more candidates with only a few hundred primary votes can still influence the outcome by trading preferences within a web of otherwise unaligned parties. Hence the unexpected success of the newcomers.

The prospect of diversifying the Senate so rapidly has provoked immediate calls for a change of rules inevitably called "reform". At the same time many commentators have welcomed diversification arguing that broad representation is fundamental to "democracy".

Which side of this argument to support depends on how the role of the Senate is perceived. Still equipped by the constitution as a defender of states' rights, the Senate in recent times has evolved further from a house of review to a house of manipulation in which minority interests are co-opted by what can only be described as electoral bribes. That happened most famously when former Senator Brian Harradine was able to attract disproportionate resources to his home state of Tasmania in return for supporting certain government policies. Prime Minister Julia Gillard used the same technique to co-opt the Greens and the so- called independents Windsor, Oakeshott and Wilkie. Precedents were set earlier when Cheryl Kernot as leader of the Democrats in her dealings with Labor, and by her successor Meg Lees when negotiating the GST package with John Howard's government. In doing so they denied the principle Democrats founder Don Chipp championed in his famous line: "Keep the bastards honest".

That dictum seems to account for much of the support flowing to splinter group parties which clearly also reflects a distrust of the major parties and their close allies. But sideline commentary is best done outside government and outside parliament. That is where grass roots democracy best contributes to the common good. It is how we ensure the ideal of Athenian democracy for which a working definition might be: "Rule by (some of ) the majority with respect for (some of the) minorities". In contrast Parliament is and should be an institution of representative democracy - that is we elect people to act on our behalf using their own judgment on matters to which ordinary citizens cannot devote sufficient time to understand.

For different reasons the Australian Labor Party has shown a similar misunderstanding of representative democracy. In a cynical attempt to perpetuate his incumbency as leader, Kevin Rudd obliged a subservient caucus to change its rules. In future according to the Rudd formula, a leader would require 50% of a vote in the parliamentary caucus and 50% of a vote by all members of the party. Unfortunately this will result in party power brokers using the traditional "number counting" system ensuring that only one candidate steps forward. Otherwise as former power brokers Graham Richardson and Stephen Conroy have pointed out one candidate may get a majority of the caucus and another the majority of the rank-and-file vote. Bill Shorten and Anthony Albanese seemed to be aware of this trap when showing reluctance to declare their positions immediately Kevin Rudd vacated the leadership.

Failure to fully understand the nature of our form of democracy creates numerous, unnecessary conflicts in our society. Lobby groups do not have "the right" to be heard between elections. As good citizens we need to understand what we can do and what we should leave others to do, to regain a faith in the logic of well- founded argument rather than emotive catch-cries and to resist the post- modern temptation to regard all opinion and every value as equal.


To represent us properly we do need to ensure we elect people with more than one idea, however worthy that idea may be. Some commentators have already suggested the solution lies in allowing voting above the line for the senate to be preferential that is give a numerical order to all the parties above the line. Alternatively there could be a substantial increase in the quota required for the election of each senator or an increase in the deposit lost by a losing candidate. A less punitive process could be for the permanent officials for the Department of the Senate to conduct training courses based on senate practice and the role of government before new senators take up their seats before next July.

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About the Author

Humph Applebee is the nom de plume of two public servants who are full of courageous advice.

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

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