Monday, July 01, 2013

The importance of representative democracy

Tonight I listened to Tony Abbott saying that the Australian people elect the Prime Minister. They don't, nor should they if you want to maintain our current system of Government.

Maybe you don't so, so present your alternative.

In our system, Parliament is the supreme being. Parliament appoints the Prime Minister by awarding confidence. It is Parliament that stands between us and the overbearing coercive power of Executive Government.

In a comment, kvd provided this quote from Edmund Burke:

"Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion" - 

This pretty well captures my own position. I come from a particular populist tradition, New England populism, but it's a tradition that combines populism with a powerful belief in Parliament.

When I come to vote at the next election, I will not be voting for either Messrs Abbott or Rudd. Indeed, if I could I would be highly unlikely to do so! I am voting for my local member of the House of Representatives and my possible representatives in the Senate. I may take Party issues into account in that vote, but I am not voting for a Party nor, heaven forbid, for a leader. I don't actually need a leader. Sorry about that.

What do I expect from my local member? I expect them to represent their electorate, to try to meet the needs of their constituents in the most basic sense. I expect them to respect Parliament, to be prepared to act honestly and to explain to me what they have done and why. If I don't like their position and regard that as very important, then I can vote against them next time,

I accept that they are probably a member of a Party and wish to advance the interests of that Party. I accept that this requires compromises, that on many issue things are not black and white, that compromises have to be made.

I do not expect my MP to be an intellectual genius, nor do I judge him as a future leader or manager. That's not his first role, although he may be both leader and manager. I accept that Party structures are a useful practical device in terms of the practical working of Parliament, the articulation of alternative ideals, the specification of alternative views on policy.

I do not accept that people should be selected just on the grounds of their potential contribution to the future of the party or to Executive Government. I want them because they are human, understanding, sometimes confused, can help set value frameworks. I don't expect them to be intellectual giants, I am happy to accept that they have personal failings.

The Prime Minister's role is not to run the country. He or she can't. It's too complicated. The PM's core role is to help articulate a framework. We have lots of good public servants who can develop and implement policies once the frame is set. 

Governments cannot be trusted. Sorry, but it's true. They form a view of what is right, it's called the national or public interest, and then try to drive that through. But that national or public interest is a very slippery concept. Over history, it has been used to justify many rather nasty things.

In all this, we rely on Parliament as our bulwark, the thing that tempers. That's why I support representative democracy.


Winton Bates  put up a companion post to this one, Do Australians elect the prime minister?. I actually disagree most profoundly. Can you see why?


Evan said...

I too favour parliamentary representative democracy.

This has implications for the discussions about getting rid of rule by Britains monarch. Which don't get discussed much I think.

Winton Bates said...

An interesting article! I have just written a response on my blog. See:

Anonymous said...


"This has implications for the discussions about getting rid of rule by Britains monarch. Which don't get discussed much I think."


"Maybe you don't so, so present your alternative."



Anonymous said...


"Politicians should be expected to maintain principled positions that are not blown around by changes in public sentiment."

- a very neat resummary of Edmund Burke

But you lose me when you suggest that Mr Rudd is properly restored so that "voters [...] have now been given the opportunity to vote against him"

This sort of PC nonsense is why I've pretty well lost hope in this thing we call 'democracy'.

Meanwhile, anyone out there with any idea as to just what Mr Abbott proposes? As opposed to opposes.


Winton Bates said...

kvd, I thought I was being facetious rather than PC.

Anonymous said...

Winton, please accept my apologies. My humour detector is rusted, bent, and hasn't really worked properly for maybe a decade.


Jim Belshaw said...

kvd, you are a stirrer! I have done so before, defend constitutional monarchy.

Sometimes, kvd and Winton, I think that my humour detector has been badly damaged.

Winton, I will do a proper response to your companion post. But, as a short opening comment, if I accept a deal with a party in return for my vote, it is a deal with that party. If they can't deliver, it really has nothing to do with the constitution, but is a failure on the part of the party.

Winton Bates said...

That sounds right to me.

Jim Belshaw said...

I like the way these discussions force us all to clarify things, Winton.