The Case for Direct Democracy: I

Give Us Back Our Country
by David Flint and Jai Martinkovits
Connor Court, 2013, 402 pages, $34.95


“Devolve power back to the people!” That is the clarion call of this important book. Professor David Flint and Jai Martinkovits argue that Australia urgently needs a radical reform of its system of government. Too much power rests in the hands of the factional powerbrokers of the parties. We need to empower people and thus make the politicians truly accountable. This will improve not only the quality of government but also the quality of our politicians. The people should be empowered with the tools of direct democracy. The concrete proposals Flint and Martinkovits put forward to bring these changes about are Citizen Initiated Referenda, Recall Elections, Citizens’ Veto over existing laws, and the reintroduction of Grand Juries.

Australians would overwhelmingly approve of the introduction of the tools of “direct democracy” proposed by Flint and Martinkovits if they knew about them. Unfortunately barely anyone (including political professionals) is even aware of what “direct democracy” means. The factional bosses who still control our political parties fear an empowered electorate and so give these principles the “silent treatment”. You will never hear a politician explaining what is wrong with “direct democracy”—they just hope the ideas don’t catch on.

Whenever people begin to object to the failings of the Australian system, the perpetrators of the problem propose false solutions. For example, four-year terms were introduced in some states, supposedly to ensure improved government, but they were followed by increased incompetence and, in New South Wales, record levels of corruption. An extraordinary amount of time and resources were poured into a failed attempt to turn our crowned republic into a politicians’ republic where, rather than empowering the people, the power of the political classes would have been greatly increased. This regression was not only supported by over two-thirds of the sitting politicians but also aided by a vigorous campaign by most in the media.

Flint and Martinkovits lay out the case for introducing the tools of “direct democracy”, boldly, lucidly and comprehensively, drawing on history and the invaluable experience of other nations—most notably the United States and Switzerland. At some point these democratic reforms will, I believe, inevitably become law. This book is both the manifesto and the how-to manual for bringing about a positive seismic shift in Australian politics.

Micro and macro are often applied to economics but these prefixes could just as usefully be conjoined with the word politics. Micro-politics would describe the day-to-day political matters which make our newspapers and nightly news. Macro-politics would deal with the larger political infrastructure which sets the boundaries of our political rules and conventions within which our micro-politics operates. While micro-politics is important, it is of course subject to the macro-politics within which our daily political affairs operate. Macro-politics deals, not with the next headline or election, but with the next generation.

Give Us Back Our Country addresses Australia’s macro-politics. The book rises above our daily political affairs to envisage the optimal political environment for a better Australia. Australia has fallen well short of world’s-best-practice democracy and we need to shift power back to the people.
Flint and Martinkovits argue that the Liberal and Labor parties effectively operate as a state-sanctioned cartel which increasingly hampers good government. Australia is almost alone in the world in compelling, under threat of fine, all citizens over the age of eighteen to vote in elections—and then the parties are rewarded with around two dollars per vote of taxpayers’ money. This makes our political parties largely welfare dependants, which is of course not only bad for the budget but, like most welfare measures, also harms the recipients. In the case of political parties it frees them from the need to attract motivated members who are willing to donate their own money and efforts to a political cause. It’s no surprise that membership levels of Australia’s political parties are at crisis levels. They are stagnant swamps using the law to protect them from effective competition beyond the fringes.

Political parties are exempt from privacy laws, which allows them to keep files on citizens to which those citizens have no right of access. This is just one example in the book which illustrates how our political parties are above the law. Our politicians are among the highest paid of any in the world, our prime minister receiving more than the president of the United States.

The original intent of Australia’s Founding Fathers who drafted the Constitution was for the nation to be composed of six strong states with a sense of fraternal competition, each striving for best practice and thereby setting an example for the other states. Today more than half of the revenue of the states is doled out by the federal government. State governments are focused almost entirely on how to get more money out of Canberra. If the states had the power to levy income tax (as they originally had) then state elections would be fought largely on finding the right balance between taxes and services.

Flint and Martinkovits argue that Australians are rightly proud of their democratic heritage. There is an unbroken “Golden Thread” of fundamental constitutional principles that reaches back to the Magna Carta, through the Glorious Revolution, the American Revolution, the settlement in 1788, the gift of self-government and, of course, Federation. When the six colonies federated in our crowned republic in 1901, Australia was arguably the world leader in democratic principles. Generations of Australians have grown up so assured of our democratic virtue that we have failed to notice that we have let things slip.

The “Golden Thread” didn’t end with Federation. We need to learn from tradition and the experience of other democratic nations to continue to refine our macro-politics. The “direct democracy” solutions Flint and Martinkovits put forward include Recall Elections, which would allow citizens to petition for an elected official to be dismissed and to face the voters afresh. Recall elections are a feature of around a dozen states in the USA, and while there have been only two successful recall elections the awareness of having them in place keeps the politicians in check, as they know the people can punish bad government. Had we had a “recall” provision then it is likely Gough Whitlam would not have needed to be dismissed by the governor-general—the people would have done it themselves. The last New South Wales Labor government might have faced a similar fate well before the 2011 election.

The authors also propose Citizen Initiated Referenda (CIR) which would give the citizens the power to introduce a referendum that if passed by a majority of voters would become law regardless of what the politicians say. There are various forms of CIR around the world today, all based on the idea that if a certain percentage of the citizens (anywhere from two to fifteen per cent) sign a petition requesting that a certain law be put to the people, a referendum must be held. If the proposed law is approved by a majority then it becomes law.

If the citizens know they have this power they will engage more in the political process and be more attuned to what makes good or bad policy. They won’t feel powerless and remain disengaged from politics, thinking their one form of political power is an election for someone else to be a lawmaker every few years. Switzerland has a strong tradition of CIR, resulting sometimes in several proposed laws being put to the people in a year. It’s no coincidence that the Swiss have among the most popular political leaders in the world. Twenty-five of the American states also have some form of CIR. The only argument against CIR is that the politicians know best. In Australia, we effectively have a “master-servant” relationship with our political leaders. That is not best-practice democracy.

Similar to CIR is the power of the Citizens’ Veto, which gives the people the power to say to the politicians, “Stop! We don’t want this law you’ve passed. We want it repealed.” The veto would commence via a petition among the people; again this keeps the politicians on their toes. It is unlikely Labor would have introduced a carbon dioxide tax had the Australian people been endowed with such a veto.

The authors argue the first step towards “direct democracy” would involve democratising the internal workings of our political parties. The good news is that that process is under way, albeit haphazardly across the various state divisions of Liberal and Labor. The factional control of political parties is ugly. It drives away good people and rewards those who excel at intrigue and rule manipulation. It results in our parliaments being occupied by people with little experience outside politics. Increasingly the trajectory of our politicians begins with student politics, then Young Liberal/Labor activism, then work as a political staffer, and finally a seat in parliament. But the emerging consensus is that our parties should give all ordinary members a direct vote in choosing their local, state and federal candidates, their Senate candidates and their party executive. These simple reforms would cripple the factional bosses.

This process is inevitable and once the genie is out of the bottle these democratic reforms will spill over into our macro-politics. For as long as our political parties remain controlled by a few factional bosses these gatekeepers will prevent “direct democracy” from even being discussed. Fortunately the days of the factional bosses are coming to an end. Perhaps the one positive to come out of Kevin Rudd’s return to the prime ministership this year was his championing of democratic party reform, which has made the media take an interest.

Flint and Martinkovits have laid the foundation for a national debate about “direct democracy”. They don’t prescribe precise formulas for proceeding, but they outline the history, the experiences of other nations and the principles involved. They conclude by calling for a constitutional convention that would debate these principles and then put forward specific proposals to the people.

At some point a political leader in this country will take up this challenge and argue for empowering the Australian people, and the Australian people will say yes. We can and we will have better politics in Australia, and David Flint and Jai Martinkovits have substantially aided that process.

John Ruddick was a candidate for the presidency of the New South Wales Liberal Party in 2011 and 2012.



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