Imagine a world without politicians!
George Washington once said, ‘The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government’. Despite the fact he was referring to the American political system he couldn’t be closer to a universal truth when it comes to democracy. But the problem with the current system of democracy is that the true will of the people is often rarely enacted, because power falls into the hands of just a few politicians.
Instead what we need is a system of direct democracy, which allows citizens to change the landscape of their country without the need for politicians! The system is structured so that if a number of people feel strongly about an issue they can create a petition and force the government to call a national vote.
So what would direct democracy look like?
Let’s say you felt strongly about banning live animal exports. First of all you would create a petition. Then you obtain the required number of signatures (usually about 100,000) and present it to your local member. The local member would then pass it on to the government and a referendum could be created.
Now referendums can be called at anytime, but they do come at a cost. So to lighten the blow to taxpayer’s pockets it would be easier to plan referendums alongside elections. When the next election comes along citizens would have to answer a question, as well as voting for who they want to be in power. Should live animal exporting be illegal? Yes or No. If the referendum is passed then it must be written into law no matter which party wins the election.
This system seems too good to be true. Does it actually exist anywhere?
It certainly does. The Swiss have been doing it since 1848. The system there works so well that it has earned the praise of conservative American politician Professor Kris Kobach who said, ‘too often, observers deem Switzerland an oddity among political systems. It is more appropriate to regard it as a pioneer’.
The USA has a similar system at state levels but not at a national level. Mike Gravel, a senator from Alaska who campaigned for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, has spearheaded calls for national direct democracy with the ‘National Initiative for Democracy’. Gravel said the main reason for supporting this system is because, ‘American voters have made laws for the last 100 years and their record is as good as their elected legislators––with respect to fiscal matters, the people’s record is far superior’.
At a state level, the most infamous act of direct democracy occurred in 1978 with an initiative called ‘Proposition 13’, which sought to change the Californian constitution in order to limit property taxation. Public outrage at pensioners being forced to sell their homes and move elsewhere due to high taxes, led to the creation of the proposition, which passed with 65 per cent of the vote. With this, the people of California were able to help their own without a politician becoming involved at all.
Is there anyone trying to make this happen in Australia?
At the moment the only form of direct democracy in Australia is something called a plebiscite. A plebiscite is a non-binding vote, which means that if voters pass it, the government still doesn’t have to make it into a law. The most powerful instance of this was when Australians voted no to compulsory military conscription in 1916 but it was brought in anyway. Had direct democracy existed Australians would never have been forced to fight against their will.
The Australian Democrats have advocated for a direct democracy for many years, through their ‘Citizen Initiated Referenda’ policy. Democrats Senator Andrew Murray believes this system would encourage people to engage more with politics. ‘Increasingly we need to recognise that local people are best served when they are able to determine what happens in their own backyard, whether it is the placement of a pulp mill, the location of a nuclear power plant, or the amalgamation of their local council with another,’ he said.
Why should we have this kind of system?
For years Australians have complained that their politicians aren’t truly representative of the people. A Swiss type system would overcome this by ensuring that the will of the people is upheld.
Take for instance the recent 2020 Australia Summit, where there were calls to make it illegal for politicians to lie. Now of course politicians would never dream of supporting any such law. But with direct democracy voters could enact the law. Then we would see what an honest politician looks like!
Direct democracy would further reduce corruption in the electoral system, by making it more difficult for the wealthy and powerful to influence government decisions. For example, say there were plans to dump nuclear waste in Australia and both parties were supportive of this plan. Under the current political system, the waste producers could potentially influence both parties to give them legal rights to dump their waste across the country. Under direct democracy, voters could overturn both parties’ decisions and make it illegal for nuclear waste to be stored in Australia.
Another good reason is that the public, in particular young people, would be more engaged in the political process if they thought they had real power in changing the outcome. There is an old joke that goes, ‘if voting changed anything, they'd make it illegal’. This perfectly explains why direct democracy-style voting is needed—it would not only change something, it would change everything.
How do I know this?
Australian Electoral Commission, ‘How and Why Do Australians Vote’, 2007, www.aec.gov.au/pdf/education/resources/democracy_rules/
Australian Democrats, ‘Direct Democracy’, 19 September, 2007, www.democrats.org.au/docs/ActionPlans/
Gravel 2008, National Initiative, http://www.gravel2008.us/national_initiative
Murray, A 2007, ‘Direct Democracy Comes to Australia’, Online Opinion
, 7 September, 2007, http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=6343
The National Initiative for Democracy, www.ni4d.us/
Wikipedia, National Initiative, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_initiative
Wikipedia, Direct Democracy, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Direct_democracy
Wikipedia, California Proposition 13 (1978), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_Proposition_13_%281978%29
Wikipedia, Conscription in Australia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conscription_in_Australia