“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others,” goes the famous line from Winston Churchill. It’s a short and pithy, sure. But it also remind us of the shortcomings that come with the political system for which we go to war.
A fortnight ago we wrote about the NBN – specifically, about the differences between the NBN policies proposed by the ALP and the LNP and the follies of predictions. In short, ALP’s costs just under twice as much, but delivers multiples on that. The LNP’s is basically cheaper (up front, anyway) but delivers less. The basis for the latter is that its slower speeds will suffice.
Consider that a recent poll Auspoll showed that Australians prefer Labor’s NBN plan (with the exception of the 65+ age group, who won’t be around to realise the long-term benefits of the more expensive project), while the latest Roy Morgan poll shows a marginal decline in popularity for but nonetheless substantial lead to the opposition.
In Australia, we choose between (effectively) two parties. We do so every three years. We do so on the basis of a handful of policies packaged together for election campaigns. Regardless of the relative popularity of individual policies, all will be (or will attempt to be) implemented during the term, lest accusations of broken election promises arise. This package of policies also represents only a small fraction of the bills passed during the government’s term.
This isn’t to say that what we don’t have isn’t a democracy. The definition includes elected representation, since collective voting for every individual decision would be entirely impractical and make for especially dull citizenship. Also, despite claims about the wisdom of crowds, there are matters about which the general public aren’t appropriately placed to make the best call.
We have another tool to open up larger decisions to the public when needed – referendums. That said, referendums are still relatively impractical insofar as they incredibly expensive. The 1999 referendum on whether Australia should become a republic, for instance, cost nearly $67 million dollars. At that rate, the threshold for the note-worthiness of an issue taken to referendum is set quite high. Cost, then, is a fair but also convenient argument against referendum.
Federal MP Tony Windsor is currently pushing for a referendum on marriage equality – a seemingly ideal subject for a referendum given that the high levels of public support are not matched by those in parliament. The enthusiasm of noted conservative Fred Nile might, however, give one pause for thought. Aside from concerns about giving Fred Nile a megaphone for his conservative agenda, as well as the oxymoron that is voting on “rights.”
That, and the fact that only eight out of forty-four referendums have been carried. (That’s a lot of money spent to maintain the status quo).
Last year, our energy whitepaper deferred to public opinion when dismissing nuclear energy – as though the public were experts on energy policy. Which would make sense, if not for that fact that the public is then ignored on questions of social policy. The one thing the public as a whole are experts at is what society we want to live – and yet public policy such as the marriage equality bill introduced last year were not listened to.
This is the background against which Windsor has proposed the referendum, and against which the LNP’s NBN plan continues to act as a relatively light anchor on their momentum towards the election.
Public opinion is ignored and deferred to as and when it suits, while the public are left to choose between the two parties that are least ignorant of public opinion when it matters (and also, we should hope, most ignorant of public opinion when it matters).
The worst except for all the others indeed.
By Matt Hickey