As we enter the commemorative period of Australia’s involvement in the First World War and specifically Gallipoli in Turkey, we are going to hear the word ‘Democracy’ repeated again and again.

This will be associated with our decision, as a nation, to go to war, and to justify the sacrifice of our young men and women to protect our way of life or to deliver to others,  the same benefits of democracy in more recent conflicts.

No heavier burden rests on a government than when our military personnel or police are put in life threatening situations away from our shores. These volunteers deserve the right to understand their objectives and feel the full support of society. At these times parliament should have a joint sitting of both Houses to vote, using an open, conscience vote, to agree to deploy forces overseas. It is unfair and dishonorable to send our brave men and woman to a contentious conflict.

So now we must return to the matter of the legitimacy of parliament and the government derived from parliament.

In my previous Blog about democracy I spoke of the fundamental meaning of ‘democracy’ …’Rule by the people’.

Unlike in ancient Athens that could assemble the ‘eligible’ citizens to vote on any law or initiative of state, the numbers in modern states means we have to elect representatives to a parliament.

This is where it is critical that the representation in parliament must be proportional to the will of the people. Otherwise we have the absurd situation as in the last Federal election where the Coalition received 46% of primary votes but takes 60% of the seats in the House of Representatives and forms a minority government, while the Greens Party gets 8.6% of votes but receives only 1 seat, which is less than 1 % of the seats in parliament.

An absolute basis for measuring democracy must be the accuracy of the representation of the will of the people .Only a system of proportional representation can deliver this and thus reflect the diverse opinions of society. But more than this , the parliament and government derived from parliament must be open and transparent to defend itself from external lobbying which can subvert its path from its responsibility and accountability to the people who elected it.

Democracy is not a monolithic entity, inscribed in stone. Australians have fallen into the trap like our American friends, of believing that our forefathers had wisdom and reasoning beyond our own, in the creation of our constitutions. Democracy is an endless path to which society must commit and  explore. Currently both in Australia and the United States, our democratic institutions have become stagnant.

The net result of this stagnation, derived from a belief that the system can’t be tampered with and the growing discontent with government and parliamentary performance ,is a dangerous disconnect between society and these institutions that govern society.

Our elected parliamentarians are seen as ‘ grubby politicians’ somehow separated from our venerated democratic institution. There is now a widespread contempt for our parliamentarians when they should have the highest respect and empathy from society for their onerous commitment to serve society.

This is a dangerous malady where confusion can develop between the performance of individuals and parties and the very institution itself. The loss of respect and confidence in our democratic institutions leaves the door open to similar dark forces that overthrew governments in the last century.

To address these dangers and create a resilient new pathway to democracy, restoring confidence and respect, I would recommend the following-

  1. Introduce a system of proportional representation for Federal and State parliaments.
  2. Set up a national advisory board for the ‘advancement of democracy.’ A think-tank that would present its ideas to both parliament and the people for consideration.
  3. Make ‘Democracy’ a compulsory subject in year 10 to promote debate and awareness of this most precious acquisition of our society, exploring our system and considering improvements.
  4. Establish anti-corruption commissions in all states and at the Federal level to monitor lobbying and to prosecute those who would attempt to subvert or abuse the power of government and give these commissions powers of surveillance, data collection and enforcement.

The detail of these recommendations will be found when there is a ground swell of opinion that embraces change and we move to a real, evolving democracy that we can all believe in.