Memories of Democracy

Reading articles on what appears to be wrong with the democratic system today, such as an interesting one by Waleed Aly, prompts me to pen my thoughts on this question.

I have been boring people with my views orally but, not being any sort of an expert on politics, I have not considered writing anything. But I have suddenly realised that I have been an intensive consumer of politics, probably for about as long as anyone else in this world, so it is about time I put my views on paper. After all democracy is supposed to be of the people for the people and I am certainly a person (albeit an old one).

When I was just a pre teenager I first became interested in politics. I used to love the few occasions when my parents could be persuaded to take my sister and me to the Domain in Sydney to hear speakers on their “soap boxes”. (For the young I will explain that was the olden days equivalent of Twitter or Facebook on an unbelievably slow internet connection and few “friends”.) Instead of reading fantasy fiction, in 1952 I asked for as a birthday present and read with great enthusiasm, the history of and Manifeso of the Labor Party.

The family moved to Cooma in 1953, shortly after I began High School, when my father began work on the Snowy Scheme. There was an election in 1954 and Bob Menzies himself arrived in Cooma and made an immensely impressive public speech to which I was taken. I can remember much of it today. He not only dealt well with hecklers but I think enjoyed them – an orator indeed.

At University, studies in Philosophy and History, including the ancient Greeks, made me agree that Democracy, whilst not perfect, is the best system that has, at this stage, been developed.

I waited desperately until I was old enough to vote (then 21) and have followed all the subsequent elections as closely as I could. These included both the Australian and British elections in the few years I lived in London. I have never belonged to any party, and never will as I think to actually commit oneself permanently to a particular ideology rather blurs one’s vision. But I have worked on many a polling booth in my lifetime.

I am a swinging voter with commitment.

My view is now that a strong party system has been the beginning of the end for true democracy, particularly in countries like Australia and U.S.A. where there are virtually only two parties. The idea that one’s electoral representative has first loyalty to the needs of that electorate, the basis of a democratic system, has long gone. The fact that both the Liberal or Labor parties in Australia have made it impossible for elected members to cross the floor on issues has made this much worse.

Even early this century there was still understanding of the need to disagree with a party line in a true democracy. Fred Chaney said that he “very seldom saw anyone cross the floor against the wishes of their endorsing body”. David Hamer claimed “None of the cross voters was penalised by loss of selection for they were representing the view of their electors.”

Now it is viewed as an indication of party discipline and a guide as to how strong the party is. This virtually means local views can no longer be represented by a local member and, to me, raises a question of how democratic is each party? A truly strong party would welcome differences of opinion.

For some years I have thought that the answer to this problem might be smaller parties growing stronger. But this does not seem to be possible here. Is this because of  our education of the young? The idea that there must, in a “normal system” only be two parties, seems rife?
Is that because this is all that we in Australia have really known for some time now? We should have more discussion of the system in other democracies.

In Australia we have a rather unique brand of democracy yet we view it as the essence of democracy. It is unique because we are in a very small minority of western countries that have compulsory voting. It means that one has to vote even if not the least bit interested in knowing for whom or what you will vote. We also have a preferential system which can be questionable in the way it operates with deals being made about preferences. Many countries think a proportional system better represents different parties or even can be incorporated in some way along with first past the post voting for individual representatives.

And importantly we are one of few countries which do not have quite strong alternate parties to a mere duopoly of a “left” and a “right” leaning parties.

I have worked for the now defunct “Australia Party”, for the now defunct “Democrats” and now from time to time depending on the local candidate, for the Greens. All with a rather sad lack of success because they are regarded by the bulk of the electorate as a distraction from the “main game” and not as an essential part of a real democracy.

I am carefully collecting election propaganda from this current election because, if you look at it closely, it may, if you are lucky, include a picture of your candidate. This might well be smaller than the picture of their party leader and the blurb accompanying this will just be party generic. Where are the days when the actual local representatives, unaccompanied by a leader, had to hold well advertised public meetings? I would like the opportunity to ask my prospective representatives questions and to hear others ask their questions. For example what sort of issue would be sufficient to have them cross the floor. Could this be a local issue or perhaps a conscience issue? This cannot be successfully done on line as who knows which arm of their party administration is putting out the messages or answering the questions?

My son heard a radio caller the other day complaining that she could no longer vote Liberal, as she had done for a lifetime, as she would never vote for Malcolm Turnbull. She quoted his alleged disloyalty to his party. Yet she did not seem to realise that she had voted for him for some years as a local representative for that party before he became Prime Minister as his was her electorate. This is laughable ignorance and is an extreme case but is, unfortunately, symptomatic of how a significant proportion of the electorate votes.

And our ignorance, based on false assumptions of democracy, goes further and has infiltrated the halls of higher education. A few years ago I had a begging letter from my old alma mater, The University of Sydney, asking for donation for a new Degree for overseas students on “Democratisation and Universal Human Rights”. I gave a small donation to enable me to send it with a letter saying that , although I agreed with their idea of spreading the notion of universal human rights, I did not agree that “democratisation”, particularly our version, necessarily protects these as distinct from other arrangements that ensure social order. The return letter just thanked me for my support of “democratisation and universal human rights”.

What’s the use? I’d give up but it’s not my style.

The Green’s candidate for my electorate of Dobel sounds good, but only on line so far. I also know the Labor candidate is very good. I already have had enough interaction to know I will not vote for the particular Liberal candidate they have on offer in our electorate.

Oh for some sorts of verbal interactions so I can judge for myself, not who will be most loyal to her party, but who, following a truly democratic principle, will be most loyal to those for whom she will speak if elected.


About Anne Powles

I am retired from paid employment. During my working life I have been variously and sometimes contemporaneously, wife, mother of four, lawyer, teacher and psychologist. I have also been a serial education junkie. As are we all, I have been an observer of the world around me. Here I have recorded some of my memories, observations and theorisings.
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