Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Strange notions of democracy

It was once said that communism might be a great system, if anyone actually tried it; the same can be said for democracy. Given the plethora of practical examples few democracies adopt anything close to the ideal. Recent news, particularly from North America, has highlighted one major shortcoming – senates.

A few years back I was commissioned to prepare a briefing paper arguing for the abolition of one of Australia’s Two things struck me from that exercise; (1) you can present an equally compelling argue for both abolition and retention of upper houses (senates), (2) upper houses (senates) were never predicated on democracy, rather they were designed to keep the rabble in check.

- The Australian Senate

- Canada’s Senate

- US Senate

From that tradition, the British administrators paying lip service to democratic principles in Australia, the upper house was to ensure protection for the colonial masters. The Australian Senate was an extension of that concept, intended to ensure each colony had an equal voice in the federation to protect their interests.

Constitutionally, like the US, senators should be answerable to their relevant state legislatures. As the ‘states house’ there could be some justification for the undemocratic makeup of the Senate. For example the half million Tasmanians have the same 12 member allocation as the more populous states.

That argument does not translate to a senate which has morphed into a full on party house. Aussie Senators now represent their sponsoring parties rather than their state, and are chosen by their party and presented to the voters as a fait accompli. As one former Prime Minister put it, none to subtly; “unrepresentative swill.”


It was the Canadians started my mind on this track. A number of recent commentators from that delightful country have been foaming over the Liberal Party appointment of their new party leader, Michael Ignatieff, as undemocratic. No foaming over PM Harper recently appointing 18 senators; a real breach of democratic principles by any standards.

Still, Canada’s Senate has never pretended to be a democratic forum. Apart from being appointed the representation is massively uneven across the country. The relatively tiny eastern provinces each outnumber the larger western provinces in the Senate, essentially because they were there first.

PM Harper made these appointments to save his political ass, despite being a noisy advocate of Senate reform while in opposition. Of course, breaches of democracy can always be justified:

“… it's a chicken-or-the-egg kind of problem. You can't change the rules for Parliament's upper chamber until you control it. And you can't control it unless you appoint senators.”

Quite frankly, Mr Harper would have scored more points by putting the argument for Senate reform to the people, leading to a referendum. The fact that politicians have control over rewriting the constitution, feathering their own nests, without recourse to the people is obscene.


Currently regarded the house of millionaires, the US Senate is quickly heading to billions… Obviously a seat in the Senate costs dearly, and usually in money terms. I guess that is consistent with the haves protecting their stash against the rest of us. If money is the only path to the Senate then we have an immediate issue with democracy.

But again, appointments become a secondary problem. Well, in the US each state has its own rules for what has become another party house. The lucky ones, or those able to escape scrutiny, can ensure the big money entry into the Senate. It’s doubtful, without scrutiny, an appointment would be made for any regard for those represented.

The US delivers many challenges to ideas of true democracy, and partly because of the massive state by state disparities in regulations. Surely an even and fair system holds the same rules across any one jurisdiction. In this sense I mean state voters might have their own consistent state rules, but federal voters should have the same, across the federation.

Compare current US electoral laws with major sports. If teams in the NFL or any other of those acronyms had to remember different rules when they played in other states the teams and the fans would soon start to lose interest in the complexity. Federal voters should be confident that every other American voter has exactly the same value. They don’t!

Dream on

In many ways, as flawed as it is, I still see Australia as the leading model of democracy. Still, I don’t accept that it begins to approach an acceptable level of true democracy. Canada has the best electoral laws I’ve experienced (the Senate is not elected) but is still a mess of special interests. The US I’m told has some perfect examples of true democracy – at the bottom of the pyramid, the concept fades as real power takes its grip.

While money, power and self interest hold sway we can’t have any great expectation of our political masters willingly adopting democratic concepts. More so when most voters really don’t care. I guess they’ll just keep screwing us and using the word democracy to justify themselves.


Stella said...

Cart, your metaphor on U.S. politics and sports (which is also U.S. politics) is quite clever.

There are some great politicians in the House and Senate. I advise you to familiarize yourself with the policies of Barbara Boxer, Henry Waxman, Dennis Kucinich, and Russ Feingold for a few examples.

If you aren't familiar with Jerry Brown, Governor/ Oakland Mayor/ Attorney General and possibly Governor again in 2010, he is one of the greatest California politicians in our state's history. If he does win in 2010, he'll govern 1/6th of the U.S. population.

Cart said...

Srella, Thank you for highlighting the positive. I am always trying to reduce my word count, out of respect for readers, and this was a long post. Yes I am aware of those worthy elected reps, across the range of our countries.
Despite our various systems good people do emerge and should be talked about. Those good people still need to survive in uncertain systems, systems we should continue to improve.
I still hold the notion that a constituency representative owes first allegiance to the constituency and an effective upper house should be reviewing and protecting the laws pertaining to and effecting their state/province.
Jerry Brown was particularly strong on devolving policy decision as far as possible own the food chain. Even that admirable aim has been undone by wily politicians, and rendered problematic at best.
Unfortunately the reality is that the vast majority of electors believe their input is finished once they choose their legislative advocate. If that is the case then those elected must be held o even grater responsibility.

BTW, what is the appropriate entry blog for Stella? We poor antipodeans are a bit simple at times.

abi said...

I don't see the sense of having redundant houses of Congress, and in the US, the Senate should be the one to go. Why should a senator in Wyoming represent about 265,000 people, while another in California represent over 18 million? It's nuts.

enigma4ever said...

this is a great post...and I can caught up on so much at once..thank you...

( you don;t have to reduce your word count for us...)

Cart said...

Abi,there are some good arguments for an effective house of review. I'm split on the issue. But whatever, it must be democratic.

Enigma, words are cheap and a little discipline is required. Overall I hope I tend to the positive. But putting both sides in a post is a problem ;)

Kvatch said...

If teams in the NFL or any other of those acronyms had to remember different rules when they played in other states the teams and the fans would soon start to lose interest in the complexity.

Totally off topic, but this neatly explains why Americans are completely mystified by the many games that other nations refer to as 'football'.

Cart said...

Kvatch, you are probably right, but most other codes don't allow for all those little naps during the game either :)