The definition of ‘democracy’ is "Government by the people; that form of government in which the sovereign power resides in the people as a whole, and is exercised either directly by them (as in the small republics of antiquity) or by officers elected by them. In modern use often more vaguely denoting a social state in
which all have equal rights, without hereditary or arbitrary differences of rank or privilege." Parliamentary democracy must therefore be government by the people through its parliament. In most parliamentary democracies the element of ‘sovereign power’ residing in the people is honoured more in the breach than the observance.
Current jurisdictions provide for governance by a powerful executive, which, at best, only seeks formal approval of its actions from parliament, and periodic affirmation from the people at elections.
The democratic process should deliver the rights of citizens to good government, should be open and transparent, and provide public accountability for all who administer public authority, whether elected or not. In a democracy much of this can be delivered through parliamentary debate.
We need to explore how the democratic process can deliver the rights of citizens to good government, open and transparent government, and provide public accountability for all who administer public authority, whether elected or not can happen if it is not already happening. The starting point seems to be an examination of the
profile of current debate in our Parliaments.
First, there are the occasional free-ranging debates on matters of great issue. Occasionally a parliament will provide such an opportunity and invariably the result is a well-informed, thoughtful, non-partisan and representative dialogue in which the community view is reasonably articulated across the broad spectrum of opinion.
These are generally debates on subjects styled as ‘conscience issues’ on which members are allowed a free vote.
Second, there is debate on legislation. In lower houses, controlled by the government of the day, it is unlikely that anything raised in the debate will influence the outcome of the vote. In upper houses where few governments today have a majority the situation is rather different. The outcome of legislation is far less predictable
and may be rejected or amended when a sufficient number of independents vote with the Opposition. The ultimate success of amendments depends to a large extent on the amount of behind-the-scenes negotiation aimed at achieving a sound legislative outcome.
Third, there are the ‘private member’ debates that include general business motions and bills, matters of public importance, urgent matters, private members statements, adjournment debates and so on. Some of these may go to a division in which the result reflects party lines, many are concluded by a procedural question.
Fourth, there are debates on the reports of standing and select committees. These are also concluded by a procedural question.
What is the quality of their outcome? Legislation is determined by pre-arranged voting intentions, other debates pass into oblivion in terms of any self-determining parliamentary initiative.
Is this effective parliamentary debate? Certainly not!
I have consistently advanced the theory that there are five basic reasons for which parliaments exist. They are in order:
- To provide representation for the community on all matters pertaining to its collective welfare.
- To provide a governing executive.
- To provide for the finances of the State.
- To debate issues of public concern.
- To pass legislation.
- To scrutinise the actions of the public service.
- To facilitate the representative function of members of Parliament.
If one asked the average person, ‘What is a parliament’s primary function?’ I suspect the answer would be, ‘To pass legislation’, and yet you will note I have placed it fourth on my list. This is because, in terms of the function and purpose of parliamentary debate the opportunity to raise and debate issues of concern is
vitally important. The community understands the right of the governing party to deliver its legislative agenda, however, it does expect its views to receive exposure at the relevant time.
This is an edited extract from a paper presented to the Annual Meeting of the Australian Study of Parliament Group in Canberra, November 2001.
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