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Plebiscite plethora adds up to democratic deficit

By Brian Costar and Peter Mares - posted Wednesday, 9 August 2006

The recent vote against drinking recycled waste water in drought-ravaged Toowoomba does much worse than give parliamentary secretary Malcolm Turnbull an unflattering 0-2 record on referendums. Turnbull made "community support" a condition for the contribution of $23 million in federal funds to a high-tech recycling plant to reclaim water from effluent and return it to Toowoomba's depleted dams. By insisting on the city-wide poll, Turnbull has made a rod for the back of future governments, state and federal.

It was entirely predictable that the vote would be lost. It is easy to scare people with talk of "drinking sewage"' and gender-bending fish, while engineer-speak about the safety of "indirect potable re-use" and "reverse osmosis" was never going to cut it with the punters.

The reality is that most Australians probably already drink recycled sewage to a greater or lesser degree. Turnbull himself has made the point that Adelaide's Murray-derived water probably passes through many a kidney before reaching the kitchen tap.


With the introduction of indirect potable re-use, consumers would at least know what they were getting because the water would have been treated to the highest possible level. As Turnbull says, the latest technology to treat sewage can produce water "so pure" that there is "nothing else in it but H2O".

So why did Turnbull insist on a vote? Apparently he was spooked by a petition of 7,000 signatures presented by the "no" camp to Toowoomba's local federal member, Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane. Turnbull caved in to populism.

Rather than follow the lead of Toowoomba's mayor and risk the electoral consequences of implementing unpalatable but necessary measures, the parliamentary secretary pushed responsibility for determining policy back onto the voters. This sets a dangerous precedent.

Within hours of the result, Queensland Premier Peter Beattie was promising the people of south-east Queensland that they too would get a chance to decide the issue at the polls.

Yet Beattie is about to go into a state election. Surely that is the time to offer voters a clear policy position on the recycling issue and to seek a mandate to introduce such measures.

What comes next?


Will we vote on whether to take the fluoride out of Melbourne's drinking water? On whether children should be immunised against diseases? On whether stem cell research is ethically acceptable? On decriminalising abortion? On putting folate in bread and iodine in salt? On nuclear power?

At a superficial level, such votes would appear to give us greater democracy. In reality they would soon overwhelm us. An endless series of votes on specific issues would undermine the key democratic processes and institutions into which we breathe life by casting our ballots at election time. What is the point of a parliament if we the people are to vote on issues as they arise? Executive government might just as well present us with a list of options and we could spend the first Saturday in every month ticking boxes at the local primary school.

As the poisonous atmosphere around Toowoomba's vote makes clear, policymaking by referendum is extremely divisive, pitting pro and anti camps against one another in a fight to the death. A yes or no approach to public policymaking is unlikely to result in nuanced and carefully crafted outcomes.

Executive government is quick to claim a mandate for policy of its choosing, regardless of whether the matter was canvassed as an election issue, and often enough in an attempt to bypass the process of parliamentary scrutiny. Government cannot have it both ways. It cannot cherry-pick policy issues and just buck-pass the tough decisions to the people whenever it suits it. Government has a duty to govern responsibly and not to vacate the field at the first sign of trouble.

We elect governments - federal, state and local - to make decisions on our behalf, after widespread public debate, appropriate consultation and due consideration of the complex scientific and ethical issues involved. If difficult questions such as recycling the loo water are to be put to a popular vote, then government at all levels will be hamstrung. It is an abrogation of political leadership.

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First published in The Age on August 7, 2006.

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About the Authors

Brian Costar is professor of Victorian state parliamentary democracy at the institute.

Peter Mares is a journalist and a senior research fellow at the institute for social research at Swinburne University.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Brian Costar
All articles by Peter Mares

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

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