National Observer: Australia and World Affairs, No. 85, 2012

Reversing the decay of representative government

by Jeffrey Babb

Daniel Hannan MEP
Daniel Hannan MEP

Earlier this year, Melbourne-based journalist Jeffry Babb had an opportunity to speak to Daniel Hannan, a British Conservative Member of the European Parliament, when he was touring Australia, and to discuss with him the various options available for renewing democracy in Australia, Britain and elsewhere.


Britain, famously, does not have a written constitution. Despite claims to the contrary, it’s not the only Commonwealth country that lacks a written constitution; New Zealand doesn’t have a written constitution either. Amongst the books that have been written on the English constitution — and note, just because Britain doesn’t have a written constitution doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a constitution — in political insight, one book stands pre-eminent: Walter Bagehot’s The English Constitution (1867).

Bagehot (1826-77) was variously a philosopher, banker, essayist and businessman. Under his tutelage The Economist — still published today — became the pre-eminent international organ of laissez-faire capitalism. The title page of every issue of The Economist records that the journal was first published in September 1843 to take part in “a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing progress”. While some would argue that, of recent years, The Economist has become a bit wobbly ideologically now that its largest market is in the United States — it was a particular favourite of the Clinton White House — it has retained its free market orientation. It has also conspicuously backed the various warmist propaganda campaigns, along with the Financial Times, which is not surprising, mutter some, as both mastheads are part of the Pearson Group. The Pearson Group has many and varied financial and publishing interests, and keeping the favour of governments promoting the illusion that we can control the global climate may (or may not) be a priority.

Bagehot would have seen the warmist debate as being about practicalities. In Britain’s particular case, Bagehot divided the constitution between the “dignified” — that is, the symbolic — and the “efficient” — the way that things actually work and the way that things get done. He saw Britain’s great advantage over the United States as being the exposure of such constitutional conflicts on the floor of the House of Commons in rowdy give-and-take, quite contrary to the posturing and wasted energy of the American primary system.


Citizens’ power through referendum

This is where Bagehot and Daniel Hannan, a British Conservative member of the European Parliament, part company. Hannan is very much in favour of primaries to reinvigorate the Conservative base, and can point to some successful examples.

Let’s look at this, in the first instance, from the Australian point of view. Australia has a written constitution that is a combination of American, British and Swiss elements. The American elements — a federal system of six states, a federal House of Representatives and a Senate elected for fixed terms — are well known. The British elements are also obvious to anyone with a modicum of political education. The government is led by a Prime Minister who has the confidence of the House of Representatives, and appoints the ministry. Money bills can only be originated in the House of Representatives. The Prime Minister is the head of government, while the head of state is the Governor-General, who is appointed by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister. The Queen derives her authority from being the Queen of Australia, not from being the Queen of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

But what about the Swiss? Switzerland is composed of 26 cantons, which are more or less, in the Australian context, mini states, except for the fact that they have a great deal more power than Australian states. Australia’s states have slowly but surely had their power leached away since Federation in 1901. In Switzerland, the centre is weak; in Australia, the centre is strong.

To change the constitution in Switzerland (which seldom happens, much to the chagrin of the central bureaucracy), a proposal must gain a majority of votes in a majority of cantons. Australia adopted the same system. A referendum to amend the constitution must achieve a majority of votes in a majority of states — that is, four out of six. Residents of the two internal territories, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory, are required to vote in referendums and their votes are counted towards the overall total, but the two internal territories are not counted towards the majority of states. External territories do not participate in referendums.

Of the 44 referendums held since Federation, only eight have been carried. The two referendums on conscription during the Great War divided the nation and split the Labor Party — both conscription referendums failed. The referendum to dissolve the Communist Party in 1951 again split the Labor Party — and that referendum failed, at the height of the Cold War. In November 1999, the citizens of Australia voted on whether Australia should become a republic. The referendum failed, 45 per cent to 55 per cent. The only recent referendum carried with near unanimity was the 1967 referendum clarifying the rights of Aboriginal people under the Constitution.

If so few referendums have been approved, and yet the locus of power has still so conclusively passed to the centre, could it be said that the referendum system’s aim of protecting the citizen from the power of the state has not been achieved?

It has been said elsewhere that if Australia showed a genius for anything during World War II, it was a genius for constructing bureaucracies. Deconstructing bureaucracies seems to be beyond the most ardent reformers, whether they use a so-called razor gang in pursuit of an efficiency dividend or whatever. One suspects that as the reformers are mostly public servants themselves, or ex-public servants, they aren’t really over-exerting themselves. Occasionally, something radical emerges when the government is confronted with an organisation that is so manifestly dysfunctional that it can only be saved, like the famous Vietnamese village, by destroying it. Such was the fate of the late and unlamented Commonwealth (Un)Employment Service (CES). Interestingly, it was in part replaced by Ingeus, a company managed by Thérèse Rein, wife of former Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and which until recently counted among its directors David Gonski — chairman, in fact — who is now chairman of the Future Fund, Australia’s sovereign wealth fund.

Thus, it could be said in the Australian context, not that referendums have failed, but that bureaucracies have prevailed. How, for example, can the current Opposition leader Tony Abbott achieve his aim of finding what Senator Penny Wong, Minister for Finance and Deregulation, says is $70 billion in savings? Abbott has little idea of costings, or even policies, and seems prepared to give to every pressure group in Australia everything they ever dreamed of, from giving everyone new teeth to giving female executives the six-figure salaries and perks they have become accustomed to while incidentally having a baby.


Decay of federation

Like many “progressive” ideas, it was the Coalition that embarked on the road to ruin. After all, the Coalition has been in power for most of the post-war era. John Gorton, or “Jolly John” as he was known for his fondness for a drink and female company and an occasional flutter on the horses, was particularly prolifigate in this regard. Gorton, who was prime minister from 1968 to 1971 and had previously been minister for education, made no secret of the fact that he thought notions such as federalism were out of date and indeed undesirable. No one had really considered that education, for example, was a Commonwealth responsibility until those nice bright new science blocks that the states couldn’t possible afford started springing up like taj mahals of technology at high schools in the late 1960s and early ’70s. The universities, also chronically short of cash, were also bought off. Large infusions of federal cash also resolved one of the most intractable problems of the Australian polity — state aid to private (read Catholic) schools.

Similarly for health, Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s Medibank, introduced in 1975 as a universal health scheme, was greeted with howls of protest from medical practitioners who proclaimed that Medibank would stand in the way of the doctor-patient relationship. Those who cynically suspected Medibank might also stand in the way of the doctor-bank account relationship were at least partially vindicated when Whitlam’s Labor Government began showering the medical profession with cash and the complaints became noticeably more muted. Since the Fraser Government’s attempt to put the toothpaste back in the tube, no government since has seriously tried to overturn universal health care. Medicare, as it is now known, is simply too popular. What was known in some quarters at “the Medibank election” of 1983, in which Fraser’s Liberals were comprehensively beaten by the Labor Party led by Bob Hawke, was enough to deter even the most gung-ho thoroughbred Liberal — such as John Howard — when it came to reforming Medibank.

But that does not mean that these necessary functions must be administered by the Commonwealth. They are state functions that could — and should — be returned to the states. The states have the means to fund these functions. It’s called the goods and services tax (GST) and its revenues are earmarked to fund state expenditures. This would give Tony Abbott the savings he needs to pay for his promises. And in the event that Western Australia and Queensland get the lion’s share of GST revenue, mightn’t it just be equitable, in one sense, that the workers who get Australia’s minerals out of the ground and onto ships could actually perhaps get decent housing at reasonable rates, if they had state government assistance, instead of a temporary dwelling, or “donga”, at $1,000 a week?



Perth-based writer Joseph Poprzeczny asks, “Australia — a democracy or just another ballotocracy?” (National Observer, No. 76, Autumn 2008, pp.7-32). Poprzeczny contends that Australia is no more or less than an elective dictatorship. Every three years or so — the term of the House of Representatives is not fixed, but the Senate’s six-year term is — the voters elect a parliament. The voters do not elect a government; they elect a parliament.

What emerges from the parliament as the government is something over which they have little control. They have a reasonable expectation that either the sitting Prime Minister or the leader of the Opposition will emerge as head of the government, but that does not always hold. The voters elected Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister, only to see him deposed in back room coup by Julia Gillard. According to all reputable opinion polls, most Australians would still rather have Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister than Julia Gillard, but they have no say in the matter.

What Australian voters are left with is enforced consent. All registered voters must vote in federal and state polls. Voters could be said to consent in these elections by the fact that they vote, but that vote is not freely given. Their consent is coerced and they are coerced into voting. Take voting in local government elections, Australia’s third rung of government. Many people have two properties, say, a main residence and a holiday house, which may be 200 kilometres apart. Voters can vote in one local government area and still be fined for not voting in a second government area. This happens; it’s not hypothetical.

What would happen if “consent” was not enforced? In the United Kingdom, Hannan says, turnouts for local elections are in the region of 35 per cent, and this is in a system where service delivery by local government is much more significant than it is in Australia. In Australia, turnouts for local government elections are embarrassingly low. Local government is the most detested level of government in Australia. It’s supposed to be close to the people, responsive to their needs and in general well liked. The truth is, whether it is limiting the number of guinea-pigs your children can keep or picking up the rubbish on time, local government is a byword for corruption (especially in town-planning), feather-bedding and “capture” by special interest groups.

England is a unitary state. It lacks even the rudimentary obstacles to the expansion of the central government that Australia’s states provide. British Conservative parliamentarians Daniel Hannan (member of the European Parliament) and Douglas Carswell (member of the House of Commons) offer in their book, The Plan: Twelve Months to Renew Britain (2008), a solution along the lines offered by Joseph Poprzeczny — devolving power back to the people through a process of initiative, recall and referendums. In addition, Hannan, in an article published in the UK Telegraph (August 8, 2009), has proposed introducing US-style primaries for candidates for public office.

Were Parliament in Westminster functioning properly, Britain’s problem — and the remedy — might not be so extreme. There are, as any first-year politics student will readily tell you, three arms of government — the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. This separation of powers is effected in a number of ways. First, the executive is responsible to the legislature. This is what is meant by responsible government. However, the whips in the House of Commons enforce who will vote, when they will vote and who they will vote for — not only on legislation, but also for committee membership, including chairmen. The whips enforce the will of the executive on members of the House of Commons. Second, the common law is the heritage of the Anglosphere counties built up over centuries. The common law is, to put it simply, law created by judges. In theory at least, it is superseded by statute law — that is, laws passed by Parliament. Increasingly, judges have simply ignored the statutes, not on the basis of judicial review, but simply because the statute does not suit their ideology, especially on what might be called “human rights” issues.

Britain has some problems from which we in Australia are blessedly free. Whole areas in some parts of Britain are into their second generation of unemployment. Ask anyone in Wales’ Rhondda Valley, a coal-mining district that was once one of the most prosperous regions of Britain, for example, why they don’t relocate to find a job and they will tell you that they would lose their housing subsidies and that south-east England is frighteningly expensive compared to Wales. Some areas of Glasgow have worse health outcomes and lower life expectancy than Bangladesh.

Hannan and Carswell’s solution is localism. Localism has a remarkable resemblance to subsidiarity, “an organising principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralised competent authority. Political decisions should be taken at a local level if possible, rather than by a central authority.”

Iain Duncan Smith MP, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in David Cameron’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, has been given the task of restoring some sort of coherence to the welfare state, so that people are given an incentive to work and improve themselves rather than be caught in a poverty trap.

Restraining the power of the state is no easy task. Whether it be through initiative and recall, referendums, primaries for candidates for public office, judicial accountability, localism or subsidiarity, none will stir the imagination of the ruling elite in any ballotocracy. No ruler easily surrenders his grip on the levers of power.


About the author

Jeffry Babb is a Melbourne-based journalist who has travelled and worked extensively in Asia.



Joseph Poprzeczny, “Australia — a democracy or just another ballotocracy?”, National Observer, No. 76, Autumn 2008, pp.7-32.

Daniel Hannan, “A primary objective: make MPs answer to the people”, The Telegraph (UK), August 8, 2009.

Joseph Poprzeczny’s review in News Weekly, October 3, 2009, of Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan’s book, The Plan: Twelve Months to Renew Britain (2008).



National Observer: Australia and World Affairs, No. 85, 2012