Monday, May 02, 2011


Democracy and the idea of government by all expressed by a vote has been around since antiquity, but it has formed the backbone of anglophone government since the late 17th century, being mostly refined first in the US and then other countries so that through most of the twentieth century the issue seemed "settled:.

The reality is somewhat different. There has remained a tension between the concepts of representative and direct democracy, the original distinction between the American party labels of Republican and Democrat (respectively).

At the same time electoral systems have been reviewed and reconsidered. The major dimensions for electoral systems are;
1. Whether the executive and legislature are directly elected separately (the US) or whether the latter determines the former (Westminster).
2. Unicameral versus bicameral legislatures, and the nature of selecting the "second" house - e.g. US and Oz have Senates, Australian States only recently moved to election rather than appointment, UK has a hereditary/appointed house, and NZ and Qld have none)
3. The voting system. First past the post, alternative vote (preferrential) or proportional representation. If the latter Hare-Clark or MMP i.e. a party balance "top-up").
4. Compulsion. Whether voting should be compulsory or voluntary.
5. The franchise. The issues of universal adult suffrage have been long resolved, but the definition of "adult" continues to be open for debate - with some in Australia suggesting 16. But there have been others thinking in terms of tightening the franchise (I saw something I now can't find that was proposing an educational qualification). The related issue is electoral district size and how they are drawn.

In the last week three different pieces have popped up on these issues. The Economist last week had a story on the perils of the direct democracy experiments in California. This outlines the problem of allowing individuals to vote directly on issues where they don't have to reconcile the consequences. Direct votes will lower taxes and increase services. Yet this week in diagnosing "what's wrong with America's economy" they note the inability of the representative federal government to reconcile the revenue with the expenditure.

The second issue has been the referendum in the UK over the Alternative Vote. I was bemused to see The Economist discussion which suggested the AV could increase the vote for extreme parties and indeed that PR could be more "stable".

The same article notes that part of the balancing of votes received versus seats includes the redrawing of electoral boundaries that some are concerned about breaking "local" ties. I have noted that very issue in Australia since the reforms that limited the variability in seat sizes to first 20% then later to 10%. With boundaries redrawn every second election and often quite big changes flowing there is a breakdown in the relationship between member and electorate, with more votes being based on party affiliation.

There is an alternative. That is to let seats vary in size but allow an MPs parliamentary vote reflect the size of their electorate. Voting could be done electronically rather than by physical division (fingerprint swipe - press yes or no) and the vote tallied. The system of pairs would need to be replaced by a formalised system of appointment of proxies.

Finally we come to the question of compulsory voting. Lindsay Tanner in his new book Sideshow, has suggested abolishing compulsory voting "thereby reducing the voting base to people who are sufficiently engaged to be less susceptible to cynical marketing strategies and entertaining forms of manipulation."

This sounds fine in principle, except that the voting base is not actually thus reduced. While citizens have the choice to vote, the self same "less engaged" become the target of the campaign to "turn out the vote". politics in the US and UK is no less a sideshow than it is in Australia.

(In fairnes to Tanner he quotes Richard Speed on this point, but Speed's analysis is wrong. By contrasting Obama's election with Gillard's he is not making a reasoned comparison. Secondly, the need for a party in compulsory voting to "look after its base" is just as real - just look at the NSW ALP and Federal Labor and how they bled to the Greens).

If there is indeed a problem here requiring a solution - rather than a mere transitory phase that will self-correct - it is unlikely that it is only to be found by fossicking through the existing collection of democratic forms. It probably requires a deeper conversation about the intention of democracy and what it requires.

I have previously thrown ideas into the mix, including (1)more frequent rather than less frequent elections (2) formalising the idea that one house of parliament exists to create the executive and the other the legislative review body, the latter to be built on national PR so each party's list is the people they will make Ministers.

The latter idea could have some tweaks. These would include some restrictions on candidacy - you must be at least thirty, you need to have already "done something" which can include having been elected to a representational legislature, held an executive position in a corporation or in an association or GO, or achieved a certain "professional" status....

It could include a process whereby all the parties contesting pre-commit to how they will vote in that house on who should form government.

There are lots of possibilities rather than simply recycling the choices considered over the last one hundred years.

Novae Meridianae Demetae Dexter delenda est

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