Expanding and deepening democracy must be an important part of socialist and progressive policy. Growing cynicism about corruption and politics in general, in Australia and elsewhere, feeds the far right and forces of reaction. Deepening democracy requires better electoral and representative systems, meaningful industrial and economic democracy, and participatory mechanisms to involve citizens in policy debates and decisions. It also means redressing the historical injustices and lack of diversity in our parliaments and in positions of economic and social power.
A deficient democracy
Australians have achieved important democratic rights, including the right to vote, the secret ballot, preferential voting, and compulsory voting. The conduct of Australian elections is largely free, fair, independent and transparent. But voting systems for our lower houses of parliament do not reflect the popular will as accurately as they could, except in Tasmania and ACT that use forms of Proportional Representation.
The power of money and concentrated media ownership and control also skew elections in favour of parties and candidates that represent corporate interests and private wealth. The obscene amounts that billionaire Clive Palmer has spent on the 2019 and now this current election provides one glaring example. The role of the Murdoch media provides another. Indeed, former Prime Ministers Rudd and Turnbull have called for action against ‘the pernicious power of Murdoch’ and Turnbull has said that ‘News Corp is “the most powerful political actor in Australia”… ‘.
Our existing political-economic institutions are therefore far from the highest form of democracy. Elections are not as free and fair as they should be when there are no limits to electoral expenditure, insufficient transparency in the funding of parties and candidates, and little if any restraint on the often-blatant bias of the corporate media. As a result, taxation policies, ‘corporate welfare’, and responses to climate change are just three areas captured by private interests at the expense of wider social interests.
The lack of diversity and representativeness among politicians and other power holders is another impediment to democracy. Older, white men still dominate politics, corporations, churches and many other organisations. Parliamentarians, holders of public offices and corporate directors lack diversity by class, sex and ethnicity, among other measures.
A radical democratic program for the 2020s
Institutional, constitutional and electoral reforms are needed to expand and deepen democracy in political, social and economic decision-making. Two key aims are to ensure that the make-up of parliamentarians and appointees to public institutions mirrors the Australian population and that politics is not tainted by money and controlled by the wealthy. Some important steps include the following.
- A First Nations Voice to Parliament is a crucial priority for institutional change.It must be enshrined in the Constitution following a Referendum held in the first two years of the next term of Parliament
- A just republic would be a fitting next goal for progressives to pursue once the Voice for First Nations peoples has been established.
- A federal integrity and anti-corruption body, properly funded and empowered is essential to expose corruption and hold politicians and bureaucrats accountable. Australia has recently dropped to its worst-ever ranking in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index.
- A charter of human rights to provide a genuine and enforceable framework to protect rights that would, for example, help tackle systemic and structural racism as evidenced by the continuing deaths in custody of First Nations people and guard against secret trials as seen in the vindictive prosecutions of lawyer Bernard Collaery and Witness K.
- Campaign finance and donations reform to prevent moneyed interests exerting undue influence over our politics. Rules for political donations and spending should require real-time reporting, far lower reporting limits, tight limits on election spending, prohibition of donations from property developers and lobbyists and an end to practices that hide the true source of donations.
- Introduce proportional representation for the House of Representatives to overcome the distortion produced by single-member electorates. The vivid deficiencies of the current system were shown by the 2019 election: the National Party won 10 seats with 4.5% of the nation-wide first preference votes; the Greens won 1 seat with 10.4%.
- Better representation and more diversity of elected representatives can flow from a proportional representation system. However, other measures are also needed to ensure that our representative bodies reflect the diversity of our society by removing the barriers and structural discriminations that prevent or hinder participation including the obstacles for those who hold dual citizenship.
- Constitutional recognition of local government is needed to build community at a level where everyone can participate. Methods of equalising revenues and services between richer and poorer local government areas should be part of this change.
These are just some measures that would expand, deepen and protect democracy. They can be vital steps towards redressing the power imbalances inherent under capitalism. Such changes can also provide a basis for the even bigger and longer-term challenges of building participatory, economic and industrial democracy that reflect socialist goals and values.
Levels of trust in government and politicians in Australia are at their lowest levels since times series data has been available (also available at https://www.democracy2025.gov.au/documents/Presentation%20to%20IPAA%20Future%20Leaders%20Program%20on%20Trust%20in%20Government%20August%202019.pdf)
(This article is part of the SEARCH Activists Guide to the 2022 Election. You can download the entire guide by clicking here.)