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Australia's shadowy wisp of a democracy

By Greg Lees - posted Monday, 21 December 2009

If one had a magic wand to tweak the origins of this country I would have Australia founded by the fledgling North Americans instead, as now we would have a substantial democratic system in place instead of this English version of parliamentary democracy which is really more autocratic than democratic.

Perhaps this is because the English system devolved from a monarchy compared to the North American version which developed from the inverse position, a recognition of the voice of the masses.

This little tweak to the fabric of time would little alter our popular culture, which is mostly American, except for a couple of local sports. What other country on earth has their TV schedule populated with as many US TV shows as we do? You may be surprised to learn we are exceptional in this regard.


Pity we embrace the lowbrow so enthusiastically, because the valuable part of US culture is its civic tradition which unfortunately has been denied us by our English origins.

If my magic wand worked, then a US ethos would be coursing through our veins, where; we would have a greater sense of self-confidence, rely less on government, have a bill of rights, elect our local government workers (not just the councillors) and, most importantly, have a democratic political system where the local congressman (our MHR) actually represents their constituency, unlike ours in Australia. This is the most refreshing aspect of US democracy. Even though a congressman may belong to the same party as the president, the congressman is not bound to vote for a piece of legislation endorsed by the president, because the delegate is answerable to their electorate and so needs to vote in agreement with their wishes, if they want any chance of being re-elected.

In the Australian parliamentary system, it is very much a top down autocratic structure dominated by the executive and where the local members are just there to make up the numbers. These local members are not representing the people, rather they represent their political party, and that is how people perceive them on election day.

On election day the people first decide which party they want to be ruled by, and then vote for the candidate who belongs to that party. Before the election, all but a handful of people have no idea of who the candidates are, their names or what they look like, including the sitting member, as this is irrelevant to the functioning of our autocratic political system.

The candidate, once elected plays a symbolic role if they do not gain entry to the elite section of the party. As a humble backbencher they will be confined to opening events and cutting the odd ribbon, and will largely be disconnected from the people. Ask your neighbour the name of their local MHR or MLA for confirmation of this assertion.

While there are always some exceptions, to summarise the general workings of our English based parliamentary system and its present flawed incarnation, it generally runs that an idea is generated at the top, either from the prime minister or others in the inner circle, is then forced through cabinet and becomes policy, to then be acceded to by the backbenchers, even if they disagree with it, when they vote in favour of it in the House of Representatives.


Theoretically, there should be genuine debate in the lower house, but as the outcome of the vote is already known, real argument has been transferred to the Senate (which originally was intended as a formality to ensure the passed legislation was constitutionally valid and little else) but which now operates as a de facto chamber of debate, horse-trading and such alterations and additions springing from democratic input. So it is poetically complete that the formality of the rubber stamp envisaged for the Senate, is actually undertaken in the House of Representatives, thus completing the reversal of roles so befitting an autocracy dressing itself up as a democracy.

Unlike the US system where an elected member can vote against their executive's proposal, in Australia, to do so is deeply frowned upon, is rarely done and even has a name for it, “crossing the floor”, to mean voting with the opposition. This means that political power is concentrated among a few of the elite, and like the medieval golden chain of being, as one descends lower, so equally is there a diminution of power, the least powerful being the citizen voter.

So it is with incredulity to read Kevin Andrews' views on immigration questioning the associated impacts of these high levels. Personally I also question the current high levels of immigration as being environmentally unsustainable. It is pretty self evident these levels are impacting on roads, housing and water, but to have a previous minister for immigration question this now, when just a few years earlier he was part of the very same government that had ramped up immigration to these record levels he now challenges is astonishing!

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About the Author

Greg Lees was born in Bendigo and educated there, majoring in Environmental Studies and Philosophy. He is now retired and 'settled' in Melbourne for the last four years, after much travelling in this country and overseas.

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