Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Democrats and Republicans

In NSW we have been seeing some activity seeking a "recall" power in the NSW consttution. The campaign initiated by the SMH has gained the support of Opposition Leader Barry O'Farrell.

My letter to the editor (unpublished) said;

The calls (SMH 11 Dec) for a citizen recall mechanism to be added to the NSW constitution is the wrong solution. Recall requires a high volume of petitioners and as a consequence places significant power in the hands of new and old media to create the movement.

Better solutions include shorter fixed terms and direct election of the Premier.

Shorter terms would ideally be the Chartist request of annual election. But certainly the recent move from three to four year terms has shown to be a mistake.

Separating the electoral choice of the Executive and the legislature, as in the United States, resolves this absurd concept of party factions mid-term changing the shape of the executive from that last chosen by the people.

Ultimately though the best and most popular solution is the abolition of State Governments. If Barry O’Farrell is genuine on wanting to give the people of NSW the power to determine how they are governed he should put that option to the people.

It was interesting therefore to note an article in the bumper Xmas issue of The Economist on the problems "direct democracy" is causing in the US. In the article it explains the issues in relation to the formation of the new system of Government for the United States and the distinction of meaning between a "republic" (a representative democracy) and "democratic" wich can have a greater connotation of direct democracy.

During my flirtations with the Australia Party and more latterly the Australian Democrats the one policy area I never was comfortable with was the policy of citizen initiated referenda and other forms of direct democaracy. Similarly I have never been comfortable with calls for proportional representation in lower houses in a genuinely "Westminster" system wherein Governments are actually selected.

In the American political party parlance the Democratic Party was the first to emerge and it was actually a "states rights" party - it grew out of the anti-federalists. In other words it was more into "direct democracy" rather than a strong central government. The Republican Party came into being through the reformation of the Whigs as the primary opponents of the Democratic Party. The defining moment and issue was the Lincoln presidency and whether the Federal Government could outlaw slavery.

From the position of modern politics this distinction seems odd. At this time in the UK the two groupings wrre Tories and Whigs and the Whigs ultimately morphed into the Liberals who then largely fell into irrelevance in the battle between onservatives and Labour. In the US the labour movement attached itself to the Democratic Party while the Republicans became more noted as conservatives. It is a strange fact that it remains the Republicans who blieve in strong central government, though they believe it should be small.

There is a view that greater direct democracy is a necessary consequence of the move to a market state rather than a nation state. I hate to sound like a Phillip Bobbitt fan but it is one of the conclusions he reaches. I think there are other alternatives for how democratic governance changes in a market state.

In the Australia context it looks to me like there are a number of strands to this;
1. A directly elected executive Government.
2. Abolition of State Governments and reformation of the local government layer to be more democratic (probably full-time councillors but still only about 9 per area).
3. Completion of the reform agenda so that all large service delivery organisations are at the very least "corporatised" - that is the political process can define outcomes, policy and funding but the internal administrative features are run by the delivery organisations.
4. The democratisation of the positions on the governing bodies of the delivery organisations. (For example, if we are to have Area hospital boards re-introduced as per Liberal Party policy then have those positions directly elected - or at least some of them).
5. Bi-annual elections of the legislature on more proportional representation grounds - I have long favoured the idea of three member proportional electorates and each members vote in parliament represents the actual final preferential vote they received - hence "one man one vote" no longer requires continual redrawing of the boundaries. Bi-chameral parliaments work so long as there is a clear distinction between the function of the upper and lower house. The upper house should be made up of representatives appointed by the regional governments and have no more than a reviewing and delaying function - they should have no power to block legislation. In cases where issues in the lower house may become unmanageable due to PR then there needs to be a provision for the members who were first elected voting for their whole elecorate to constitute the parliament.
6. The structure needs to create real roles for "career politicians" - it is a pity that the current Australian system uses the unelected invisible staffer roles and then party factions to create preselections.
7. Political parties need to be recognised as a distinct form of organisation that is neither a company nor association. To be registered as a party and involved in political processes must require a great transparency.

On top of all this we need to use the communications technologies to reform politics. To use the Internet to "democratise" us and avoid the problem of the mob requires direct involvement by the State and the law in the conduct of campaigning. This would include;
1. Clean booths on polling day.
2. The AEC creating a suite of programs for the online management of political parties and in particular their bank accounts so that full disclosure is continually available.
3. AEC provided on-line campaig resources. Limitations on campaign expenditure by other than on-line means.

The more I think about it the more I want to start the Australian Republican Party!

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