How about Direct Democracy?

In recent elections the Australian Electoral Commission has allowed limited internet voting. Assuming this system is secure, it is practically possible to allow every Australian to vote on each bill before parliament.

The two existing houses of Parliament could create and pass bills with voters providing an effective third ‘house’ of parliament which must pass all bills before they go to the Governor General.

Clearly our much cherished compulsory voting would have to be foregone for the ‘third house’. It is too much to ask every Australian to vote on every piece of legislation before parliament. Some theorists, however, believe that voluntary voting would improve our democracy.

The ‘third house’ would not require constitutional change; it could be implemented legislatively provided both houses of parliament pass the enabling legislation and agree to abide by the process. This approach has benefits and risks. A government disrespectful of voter’s will could, if the Senate agreed, ignore or remove the system. Alternatively, if the system failed for some unforeseen reason the parliament would be able to rectify the failure.

The ‘third house’ would allow voters to block unpopular legislation but not allow voters to create popular legislation.

In the United Kingdom the People’s Administration Direct Democracy Party has a more ambitious agenda to remove the House of Representatives and the House of Lords from the legislative process. They envision an internet based system for proposing, discussing and voting on government policy with two stages of off-line opinion poll checks to detect process manipulation. Comprehensive telephone access would be offered for voters without internet access. A flow chart for their proposal is found on their web site.

The process proposed by the UK’s People’s Administration Direct Democracy Party for creating legislation could be added to the first option to allow voters to directly create as well as stop legislation without constitutional change.

Switzerland introduced voter initiated constitutional referenda is 1848 along with a requirement, similar to Australia’s, that all constitutional changes be passed by referendum. A petition for constitutional change signed by 50 000 citizens required the government to put the proposed change to a referendum.

In 1874 Switzerland extended its petition and referenda process to allow voter’s to create legislation or to stop legislation passed by the parliament from being enacted.

The Swiss system is more correctly people’s initiated referenda, which will be discussed in a later article, than direct democracy but it builds on the near direct democracy established in the Cantons in 1513. The Swiss have two levels of government rather than our three; their Cantons are large Councils or small States in Australian terms. Before the internet, or even telecommunications, the Swiss system was as close to direct democracy as was practical.

The current Swiss federal system is well summarised here. A history of Swiss democracy is found here.

Switzerland shows us that radical democracy does not lead to social failure. Direct democracy is shown to be compatible with a prosperous functional state.

In Australia the Online Direct Democracy party (formerly the Senate On-Line party) proposes electing members who agree to vote according to the clear (70%) majority will of Australian voters who register on their web site. If no clear majority is established then the representative may vote with the majority, or the majority of their electorate, or must abstain.

In 2013 the Senate On-Line party achieved 0.07% of the national Senate vote down from 0.14% in the 2010 election.

The two major objections to direct democracy are that it is impractical and the “you can’t handle the truth”, voters can’t handle power, refrain.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that 83% of Australians had home internet access in 2012-2013. Smart-phones have pushed that continually rising number higher. The cost of enabling direct democracy for Australians without internet access is not great and constantly falling. Direct Democracy is a practical option.

The “you can’t handle the truth” objection is code for not trusting democracy. Charitably, the idea is that democracy is good in parts but potentially dangerous.

My article “Why don’t we get the politicians we want” shows the Senate as the more democratic house of the Australian parliament. The Australian Senate moved to proportional representation in 1948. In 1955 two minor party Senators were elected and 1962 saw the first independent senator. Non-major party Senators peaked at 8 in the 1970 election falling to two by the 1975 election. Since then Senate diversity of representation has risen steadily to the current 18 non-major party Senators, except for a jump when Senate numbers were increased in 1984 and a dip in 2005 caused by a demise of the Australian Democrats.

The history of the Senate since 1948 shows that Australians are cautious and responsible in using new democratic tools.

Direct democracy is the best way for government to reflect the will of voters. Swiss experience shows increased democracy drives prosperity; the Senate demonstrates that change would be stable.

Senate On-Line party’s 0.07% vote reflects Australia’s aversion to radical change. Jumping to direct democracy is not practically possible. If we want to increase democracy in Australia we must do it in small steps.

This is the first in a series of articles outlining options to solve the problem identified in my article “Why don’t we get the politicians we want?”. The next article in this series “There can be only one.” discusses a single electorate of the whole country.

Copyright 2015 John David

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