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The Politician’s Guide to Democracy: Part One (Five things Democracy IS NOT) #ItsTime

Are you a Politician who can’t get his own way? Have you put forward perfectly reasonable policies to the people of your country – only to hear the whiny cries of your ungrateful constituents? Are you trying to get some legislation through parliament, but find that those unreasonable Politicians in opposition won’t play ball? Are you sick of people ignoring your mandate to – well, do whatever the hell you please?

Well this is the Guide for you. It goes through the basics of what true democracy is and – more importantly for many of you – what democracy is not.

The good news is that despite many of your constituents’ lack of faith in you, it’s not all that hard. There’s nothing in these lessons that hasn’t been done before. In fact, there are actually Politicians out there today who have a good understanding of the contents of this Guide and can work fairly effectively in their democracies. So put your phones down, stop googling yourself and read on…

Part One: Five things a Democracy is NOT

We’re going to start your training by dispelling a few widely held myths about a Politician’s role in a Democracy. But before we get going, here’s a quick reminder of what US President Abraham Lincoln said Democracy is:

Government of the people, by the people, for the people.

Lesson One: You have a mandate to represent, not to ruleNotRuler

‘Mandate’ seems to be a favourite word for many Politicians. You like to use it to claim that you have the right to do all manner of things. And the truth is that when we elect you to parliament we actually do give you a mandate. But it’s a mandate to represent us – the people – not to rule over us.

You’re not monarchs, you’re not rulers – a democracy is not meant to be some sort of limited-term dictatorship where one person (or even a small group of people) gets to do whatever they want to a country for a few years.

A democracy is about equality, not hierarchy. We citizens vote in a group of people to represent us. Each of our votes is equal and each of the representatives we elect is equal on the floor of parliament. Or at least they should be. Further, in a democracy everyone has the right to have a say about the policies of the nation. A Politician’s job – your mandate – is not to sit above the citizens who elect you – but to sit with us; it’s not to speak for us – but to be our voice; it’s not to act in your own best interests – but to act in ours.

The key to your role is confirmed by the oath you take when you enter office, at which time you promise to ‘serve’ us – the people who hire you and the people who can fire you – the people you represent.

That’s your mandate – to serve your constituents. And this is the only mandate you have. It’s not about what you want or need, it’s not about your personal philosophical or religious beliefs – it’s about us.

NotWinnerTakesAll Lesson Two: Democracy is NOT ‘winner-takes-all’

The following quote from Jean-Paul Gagnon (University of Canberra) may surprise some of you:

“Democracy is not a winner-takes-all scenario where those who win the election become the rulers with a sacred mandate to govern as they see fit. Democracy is an ongoing process of deliberation, monitoring, inclusion and resistance.”

You see – winning a seat in parliament doesn’t give you the right to do whatever you want, even if you belong to the political Party that is in the majority.

Why? Because in a democracy, a parliament that is truly representative of its citizens will most likely include people with a wide range of opinions. It turns out – this is not actually a bad thing. A parliament with representatives who have different views means that an issue can be considered from all sides, which invariably makes the output more likely to meet a greater number of people’s needs.

However, simply having representatives with many differing views won’t help you if the political Party with the majority of representatives in parliament tries to dominate – to treat their election as a ‘winner-takes-all’ affair. When political Parties make governmental decisions behind closed doors, and then present legislation to parliament in an “it’s my way or the highway” fashion – this is not democracy. Nor is it particularly effective. It’s so ineffective in fact, that many democracies’ parliaments are slowly grinding to a halt.

In Australia, our most recent parliament – led by Prime Ministers Abbott and Turnbull – passed less than two-thirds the number of Bills enacted by the prior parliament. The government’s excuse? According to Abbott, it was due to a ‘feral‘ Senate – who requested changes to some of the government’s key legislation before they would pass it. Unable or unwilling to reach a compromise, Turnbull instead dissolved both Houses of Parliament and called an election.

Similarly, in the US, their Congress has enacted only half as many laws as Congress did ten years previously, again because opposing political Parties are unable to compromise – seemingly scared to give their opponents any ‘political brownie points’ by agreeing that an idea they had might have some merit.

By way of contrast, in Denmark there are nine political parties in parliament, none of which have ever held an absolute majority. This gives the people of Denmark a much wider choice of representatives and policies. Further, their Politicians have learned how to compromise and work together. Why? Because no political Party in Denmark has ever had the luxury of a majority vote enabling them to simply force legislation through parliament without the need for proper debate and discussion – so if they didn’t compromise, they’d never get anything done.

Believe it or not, Politicians in Denmark manage to get their job done quite effectively, despite not having a ‘winner takes all’ mentality. This results in Denmark’s citizens having a much higher level of engagement with their democracy – with 86% of eligible voters turning out at election time to vote, even though voting is not compulsory there like it is in Australia. This contrasts with a turnout rate of 53.6% in the US, where voting is also not compulsory.

NoCryBabies Lesson Three: Democracy is not a kids’ game

When elected in 2013, then Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott proudly announced that “the adults are back in charge“.

But here’s the thing – if you have to tell people that you’re an ‘adult’, then at some level you recognise that there are people out there who either don’t think this is true or have their doubts. If there were no question as to your maturity – why would you need to make the point?

Don’t get me wrong – I can see why at least some Politicians would feel the need to try and convince us that they are adults. Just take a look at this short video of US Presidential hopeful Donald ‘he-started-it’ Trump:

Trump isn’t the only one of course. Check out the following excerpts from the UK parliament:

OK – I’m not gong to deny that this video is pretty amusing. And if we were paying you Pollies to be comedians then you’d be getting full marks right now.

But we’re not paying you to be funny. We’re paying you to run our democracies – and democracy is a serious business. The outcomes of our democratic process determine almost every aspect of our day to day lives – how wealth is distributed, the quality and cost of our health resources, our education, who we can marry, the rules around what type of food we can buy – not to mention life and death matters like whether or not we go to war. And yet, despite the seriousness of the issues you are tasked with managing – you Politicans behave so immaturely that you feel the need to confirm to us that you are in fact ‘adults’.

There’s a reason why parents don’t typically encourage their kids to model their behaviour on their local Politician – it’s because your behaviour is sometimes like that of a group of students who have been on a bender for the last two years. Maybe that’s why a group of Politicians is called a ‘Party’?

Don’t get me wrong – everyone likes to party from time-to-time. But democracy is not only serious, it’s also considered by many experts to be the most challenging form of government. Democracy requires Politicians to have both mental and emotional intelligence – to be able to exhibit maturity, not act as though you just joined a fraternity. If you don’t know how to do this, then democracy isn’t for you. Democracy isn’t a kids’ game.

Lesson Four: Nobody votes in an opposition

NoHecklers Now taking what you learned in Lessons Two and Three to the next stage – when we citizens all trot along to the polling booths on election day, none of us is voting for an opposition. We’re voting in representatives to govern the country. All of you – not just some of you.

This doesn’t mean we want you to always agree – in fact it’s the exact opposite. We want you to debate the issues – like adults. What we don’t want is for you to oppose an idea just because the idea hasn’t come from your political Party.

In September 2010, after finding out that he had lost his bid to become Prime Minister in the Australian Federal Election, then Opposition Leader Tony Abbott promised the people of Australia that for next three years:

“I now rededicate the Coalition to the task of opposition. I believe that we will be an even more effective opposition in the coming Parliament than we were in the last one.”

No. That’s not what the people who voted you in elected you for. We voted you ALL in to run the country by debating issues, sharing ideas and being mature enough to recognise when an idea that hasn’t come from your Party is actually a good one. We DID NOT vote you in to act like the two hecklers in the Muppets. If you did this in the real world – outside the rarefied world of parliament – you’d be fired.

Lesson Five: You can’t be an effective Politician when your pants are constantly on fireNoPantsOnFire

In the real world, real people know that lying can get them into trouble. If we lie to our spouses or to our bosses – we may lose our marriage or our job. If a company lies to its customers when trying to sell them something – then that company can be fined or sued. If we lie to a government official, we may be fined or jailed.

But when it comes to Politicians, lying would appear to be standard operating procedure. In fact many of you Politicians appear to have become so accustomed to lying that you don’t even seem to notice that you’re doing it anymore. Some of you even scream blue murder when another Politician lies about you, while then turning around and happily ‘stretching’ the truth yourself – often well beyond breaking point.

We – your constituents – have also become numbed to your lying, and have even come to expect it. One journalist recently said: “Pretty much everyone assumes that once they see a politician’s lips move, that means that…you’re not necessarily going to hear the truth.”


By @FirstDogOnMoon in The Guardian. See full cartoon:

There are many problems with this. One critical issue is that democracy is supposed to be built on citizens being able to make informed choices. But without truth, without transparency, without citizens being able to trust what you tell us – we can’t make informed choices, because we don’t have accurate information to do so. And like the boy who cried wolf – on the rare occasion you do tell us the truth, because of all your previous lies, we no longer believe you.

This is why a true democracy requires you to be truthful – to keep your pants ‘fire’ free.

Don’t get me wrong here – we’re not asking Politicians to be saints or share State secrets. We’re just asking you to live by the same standards that we all have to. As I said above, if a company or an individual misrepresents themselves or their products to the public – they can be prosecuted or sued. But Politicians are exempt from truth in advertising laws and other laws that us regular folk have to live by.

It’s time Politicians lived by the same rules as us when it comes to your responsibility to tell the truth. We all do it – you can too.

And finally, if in doubt, ask yourself “What would a non-Politician do?”

That’s it for Part One of the Politician’s Guide to Democracy. Although at first glance, the five lessons outlined in this section may seem challenging to some of you, there’s an easy trick you can use in all situations which will help you to put these simple lessons into practice. All you need to do is to stop and ask yourself, “What would a non-Politician do in this situation?” For example – next time you’re about to give a press conference, check your notes and ask “If I wasn’t a Politician, could I be prosecuted or sued for what I’m about to say?”

You see the bottom line is that citizens of democracies are sick of many of their Politicians abusing the mandate we give you when we vote you into office – that you’re there to govern for the people, and not for yourselves. We’re sick of you living by a different set of rules to the rest of us – many of which have been in place unchanged since the Middle Ages, a time period when dueling with pistols at dawn was considered the most appropriate way to resolve a dispute. And we’re sick of you fighting all the time instead of getting on and governing – which is what we pay you to do. It’s time you Politicians learned the basics of what a true democracy is and learned to live by the same codes of conducts and ethics as us. (#ItsTime.)

In our next installment of the Guide, having now dispelled some common myths, we’ll start looking at what a democracy actually is. (Stay tuned.)

This article was first published on ProgressiveConversation.


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  1. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    A great explanation of what democracy means! This supports the strong argument for Proportional Representative Government in Australia, which is modeled on the Danish model. Fantastic that you raised this example.

    Well done, Kate M.

  2. Wayne Turner

    “One critical issue is that democracy is supposed to be built on citizens being able to make informed choices” – Well that rules out a lot/most of Australian’s.The MSM campaign got the LNP over the line again.How can anyone still believe a word the LNP say,when they LIED to get in at 2013 election and continue to LIE since.From the LIE of “trickle down economics” to Turnbull’s very own: “advocacy NOT slogans” = More slogans.

    The Australian “mediaocracy” continues…

  3. Kaye Lee

    We now have the best democracy that money can buy.

    “Malcolm Turnbull reportedly donated $1 million from his own pocket to the Liberal Party during the federal election.
    The Australian reports unnamed sources as saying the prime minister made the “tightly kept secret” donation in the second half of the eight-week campaign and it is understood not to be tax-deductible.

    The donation reportedly went to a general poll of funds to pay for television advertising, direct mail-outs and polling.
    It was reportedly made as the Liberals sought to counter Labor’s campaign on the alleged privatisation of Medicare.”

  4. cornlegend

    Yay, lunchtime

    “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.“ 1863 US President Abraham Lincoln
    Democracy is when the indigent, and not the men of property, are the rulers. Aristotle

    Notice something? how bloody long ago they said this and things get worse.
    Other than armed revolution and nationalising the whole joint nothing will change

    “I understand democracy as something that gives the weak the same chance as the strong’ Mahatma Gandhi
    I understand that too, but “they” aren’t going to let that happen
    Did you honestly think Bernie or Jeremy Corbyn stood a chance?
    Did Gillard when she stood up to the system?
    What happened to Rudd and the MRRT?
    A $22 million attack and it was gone and Kevin too

    “Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.”
    ― Abraham Lincoln

    People don’t get the government they deserve, they get the Government they are allowed to choose from

    “If voting made any difference they wouldn’t let us do it.”
    ― Mark Twain

    And, if you think you will change anything, I wish you luck
    If you need it any clearer check out Sam Dastyari last night
    Labor senator Sam Dastyari claims 10 companies have taken control of Australian politics

    and that’s Australia, a bit player, a pimple on the arse of global power
    ‘THEY” will make the decisions

    “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.“ 1863 US President Abraham Lincoln

    That was 150+ years ago and bugger all has changed so do you think a few part series on AIMN will change anything?

    To make change you’d better ask the question, “where’s the ammunition?”

  5. win jeavons

    This expresses my beliefs beautifully. we are falling far short at this moment, with the ‘super’ fuss as typical .Why is punishing the poor OK to balance a budget, but siphoning a little off the top wrong if they are already comfortable. Some folk must learn what ‘enough’ means.

  6. etnorb

    What a fabulous explanation of what a Democracy” is all about! The only trouble with this inept Liberal lot having now “won” (?) the election is that, to a man (or women,) ALMOST all of them are truly ignorant, lying clowns of the highest order! If any one of them tried to act the way they do–in the confines of the Parliament–out in “civvy street” as “workers” (sic), or being employed by a Company or even an individual, NONE of what they “get away with” in the Parliament (on a daily basis), would be allowed to happen! The article is also very true with regards to ALL these so-called “Liberals” (?) thinking they have any sort of “mandate” to just bully-boy their own lies & propaganda–in the shape of Bills & changes to laws etc–& to then virtually “dictate” to the public of Australia, what THEY “want” us to do etc! Eff off I say! At least the vast majority of the Labor lot are, in comparison, almost all “ordinary” human beings, not some lying, pompous, wealthy lot like almost all the Liberals–who think they are “born to rule”–are!

  7. nurses1968

    Kate M
    A “journalist” should be factual and your convoluted mandate exercise is far from that.
    A ;mandate” in its simplest terms is

    In politics, a mandate is the authority granted by a constituency to act as its representative

    The concept of a government having a legitimate mandate to govern via the fair winning of a democratic election is a central idea of representative democracy.
    New governments who attempt to introduce policies that they did not make public during an election campaign are said to not have a legitimate mandate to implement such policies.

    So if you win an election with announced policies you can claim a mandate

  8. johnlward010

    The last Parliament (2013-2016) twice declined to allow the Executive’s Bill to Abolish the CEFC to become law. Subsequently, the Executive arm of Government had tried for two years to change the CEFC investment mandate.

    Recently, while in caretaker mode, the LNP created a different investment mandate directive (in order to appear to the electors to have authority) to modify the intent of the CEFC Act, without returning to the Parliament (which BTW no longer existed).

    So apparently they were preparing to seek such an alteration to the CEFC Act in (the next) the 45th Parliament.

    During the election campaign Prime Minister Turnbull purported to have the authority to redistribute $1billion from the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) to fund his new Clean Energy Innovation Fund (CEIF). During the recent election campaign Prime Minister Turnbull purported to have the authority to redistribute CEFC funds by: $1billion from the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) to fund his new Clean Energy Innovation Fund (CEIF last week they took $800million from the CEIF to make up for the loss of the ARENA debacle).
    $1 billion was also set aside to finance a ‘Better Cities Fund’.
    A further $1 billion ‘drawn ‘ from the “Green Bank ” to clean up the Barrier Reef.
    $1.5 billion for a second Bass Strait under sea cable link to the mainland.
    $100 million was set aside to prevent the closure of the Steelworks in Whyalla SA . The University of Tasmania’s Northern Campus in Launceston received a pledge of $150 million to be extracted from the CEFC.
    Prime Minister Turnbull is saying to Tasmanians and UTAS, “you can have an expanded Northern Campus or a renewable energy industry, but you cannot have not both”.
    Cabinet Ministers have conspired to remove all funds from the CEFC by pledging the total amount left in the CEFC account to other ‘good LNP causes’.
    Malcolm promised money he cannot access, with the total pledged so far being around $5.0 billion.

    Cabinet Ministers have conspired to remove all funds from the CEFC by pledging the total amount left in the CEFC account to other ‘good LNP causes’.
    At the same time Malcolm Turnbull is subsidising the fossil fuel industry (Oil, Coal and Gas) with (IMF report) $1,712 per person a year or $41 billion of taxpayer funds.
    This includes exploration funding for Geoscience Australia and tax deductions for mining and petroleum exploration. See Great Australian Bight and BP.

    The President of the World Bank stated that it was crazy that governments were still driving the use of coal, oil and gas by providing subsidies. “We need to get rid of fossil fuel subsidies now,” he said. Yet Frydenberg Is attempting to secure a deal with the states to lock in a permanent Coal/Gas base loads; this probably explains why they want to take the CEFC funds.
    All this based on Hockey’s trying to rewrite an act he had not been able to abolish, to an Extent he could (he thought) amend endlessly to make an Arms Lengths Corporation bow to his will.

    In July, Nicholas Stern estimated that tackling climate change would require investment of 2% of global GDP each year. The IMF work indicates that ending fossil fuel subsidies would benefit governments by the equivalent to 3.8% of global GDP a year. Prime Minister Turnbull, Deputy Prime Minister Joyce, Former Prime Minister Abbott, Ministers Pyne, Hockey, Cormann and Hunt are attempting to falsely convince the public that the Cabinet can “re-purpose and re-direct the Act” without going back through the Parliament. These attempted changes to the CEFC Act 2012 are yet to be legislated. Turnbull is subsidising fossil fuel industry (IMF numbers) $1,712 per person a year,9567

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