So, when the tumult and the shouting died, Australia voted “No” after all. There would be no point now in my reiterating the many and powerful arguments that Quadrant contributors have delivered in recent issues against the proposed Voice amendment to the Constitution. They won the day, in my view rightly.
Yet, given the accusations from too many advocates of a “Yes” vote that their defeat would be caused by the “racism” of Australian voters, it’s still necessary to underscore the genuinely anti-racist character of the existing Australian Constitution, which Keith Windschuttle detailed in his commentary in the October issue of Quadrant.
Neither the result nor the underlying popular support for Australia’s non-racial constitutional democracy will prevent the accusation of racism being made to explain the result. For it is popular electoral democracy itself which is increasingly seen as “problematic” by governments, the UN and international bodies, international and domestic courts, trans-national political elites, and above all Left progressive political movements around the world.
John O’Sullivan appears in every Quadrant.
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The problem they have in mind is that the voters can’t be relied upon to support the policies they believe to be either necessary or essential, valuable or invaluable. But it’s a problem they never quite state clearly because democracy retains a worldwide status as the only truly respectable form of government in an advanced modern country. So they have to devise various methods of overriding, going around, or in general outwitting the voters when they don’t deliver the votes in elections or referendums that Left progressives want.
Charges of “racism” are one such ploy because they can be used to morally devalue the votes of entire classes of people—such as “the white working class”—and then cited as reasons why the courts or treaties should qualify or override the results of elections.
Britain’s Brexit vote was widely ascribed by the international media, especially the New York Times, to racist motives, even though statistics of comparative racism clearly show the UK to be the least racist nation in Europe. My guess is that Australia enjoys a similar reputation internationally. Look out, therefore, for highly complex new measures of racism in the Australian electorate, supported by alarming anecdotes and quotes from “experts”.
Racism is only one such device, however, and only marginally useful to covert but ambitious oligarchs in countries with little racial diversity. They need not despair, though, because a quick world survey reveals many other useful techniques.
Much the best one is to “constitutionalise” the policies and rights that Left progressives demand, so as to remove them from reform or amendment by governments of a different political character elected to reform or amend them. That was most recently (and most ambitiously) attempted by the Left progressive Chilean President, Gabriel Boric, who supported the passage of a new constitution that, according to a sympathetic New York Times, would have legalised abortion, mandated universal health care, required gender parity in government, given indigenous groups greater autonomy, empowered labour unions, strengthened regulations on mining, and granted rights to nature and animals.
Doubtless many or most of these rights are worthwhile. But they are also the stuff of democratic political debate and decision, because money spent on them could not be spent on different goals that are equally or more desirable in the eyes of voters. In Chile’s case the proposed hundred-plus rights covering inter alia housing, education, clean air, food, internet access, free legal advice, and care from birth to death, once constitutionalised, would have crowded out spending on every other activity of government while requiring massive hikes in taxation.
Chile’s voters must presumably have thought so because in September 2022 they rejected the proposed constitution in a referendum by 62 to 38 per cent, and earlier this year they voted heavily for conservative candidates to be members of a new constitutional convention. If the new conventioneers are politically sensible and genuinely conservative, they will draft a constitution that concentrates on safeguards for procedural fairness in government, including elections, and leaves policy and administration to the voters and their representatives.
President Boric’s mistake was not to restrain his progressive allies from promulgating excessively leftist rules. Because the formal constitutional process meant that their proposals had to be fully spelt out to the voters, a maximalist program meant a minimisation of electoral support. Lesson: don’t tell the voters what’s inside the packet.
Australia’s Labor government did its best to observe this lesson by insisting that the Voice was a one-page deal of mainly humanitarian and ceremonial significance until one journalist, Peta Credlin, unearthed a “fuller” version which seemed to confirm all the dangers and anti-democratic features that, well, Quadrant had been forecasting. After which it ran into a wall of well-founded suspicions.
In short, constitutionalising your favoured political program runs into the difficulty that it’s a high-profile public activity difficult to conceal and, when revealed, forcing its proponents into all kinds of undignified postures of denial and casuistry. To avoid those risks, Left progressives have come up with a more subtle and discreet method of evading democracy: namely, “sortition” (or choosing your representatives the old-fashioned way—by lot, as in Ancient Greece).
Sortition can be dismissed fairly briskly. First, the superior citizen-politicians it’s designed to midwife would become subject in office to the same ambitions, status anxiety, lobbying pressures from vested interests, and incentives for corruption as today’s MPs. They would become, in a word, simply politicians. Second, election by lot cuts the link between the representative and his constituents that makes government by the people a reality. The MP chosen by lot is the representative of chance, as much as a monarch, and his voters can’t throw him out if he betrays them. And, finally, sortition simply isn’t going to happen in national or any genuinely important elections. It’s too eccentric.
On the other hand, it is already happening in smaller political contexts, where it’s used to select ordinary citizens to serve voluntarily in “citizen assemblies” that would then help to shape national policy on key issues such as climate change. The eventual aim of Left progressive activists—such as the Lancet editor who sees its introduction as some kind of medical necessity—seems to be a “national” citizens’ assembly chosen by lot outside the parliamentary system but having either influence or veto on legislation. Sensibly they are starting with baby steps, and the first effort was the UK Climate Assembly in which they and their parliamentary allies inserted sortition (of sorts, as we shall see) into the official legislative process on energy and climate policy. Six parliamentary select committees announced in 2019 that a climate assembly, composed of volunteers from the general public, would be formed to “inform political debate and Government policy making” following instruction by various experts over six weekends.
In his sceptical study of the Climate Assembly, Manufacturing Consent, Ben Pile points out various ways in which it departed in practice from the principles of sortition and the usual rules for good public policy. In particular its selection of citizens violated the main principle of sortition: its randomness. They were drawn from people willing to devote six weekends to discussing climate policy—and the final 108 members were whittled down further in accordance with “age, gender, educational background, ethnicity, home location and ‘attitude to climate change’”. They had been selected to conform with an opinion poll showing that 85 per cent of British voters were either “very” or “fairly concerned” about climate change. Nor were the “experts” selected to instruct them likely to challenge their initial Greenish commitments. Mr Pile again:
“Greenpeace’s Doug Parr spoke to the assembly against investing confidence in technological solutions like greenhouse gas removal. Fernanda Balata, from the New Economics Foundation, argued for an ‘economic transformation’, locating the source of the problem of climate change within capitalism itself. Tony Juniper was introduced to the CA as being from UK environment quango, Natural England, but is best known from his previous role as Friends of the Earth England’s director between 2003 and 2008.”
There were no experts on a less Greenish side of these questions because, as one organiser said, climate science was already settled. But the Climate Assembly was established to consider not the science of climate change alone but the full range of economic and social policies from agriculture to tourism designed to combat it. That includes the food we eat, the cars we drive, the countries we visit. Given both the assembly’s ordinary members and its expert advisers, it’s not surprising that the UK Climate Assembly reproduced the wish-list policies of Extinction Rebellion and Greenpeace as what the British people wanted in future policy—taxes on flying, restricting private cars, higher energy prices, in short, the Net Zero policies from which almost all UK politicians are currently retreating at Olympic rates of speed.
The technical term for exercises of this kind is a “stitch-up”. Expect to encounter more of them in Western, especially Anglosphere politics, as alternatives to the use of referendums and elections in which the voters have the last say.