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This is Democracy

500 BCE, Athens
This is Democracy.

Each year, 500 names are randomly drawn afresh from the pool of eligible voters. These 500 citizens will serve the next year as the legislators for the city. All citizens of Athens are required to vote on any new law that this body creates. Votes are won by a simple majority: one voter, one vote.

There are some people whose opinion does not count; who do not get to vote. In ancient Athens, these include women, children, and slaves. Modern estimates indicate that of up to 300,000 people living in the region at the time, about 20% have voting rights.

Political literacy is high. The opinions of the people are heavily influenced by the media of the day – political satire performed in the theatres.

There are no politicians.

Democracy is dangerous. It takes power away from those who have it, and distributes it amongst those who may have different ideas. It cannot be easily controlled, only influenced. It equalises and it disempowers the powerful.

Thus, since time immemorial, those with responsibility for administering democracy have sought to control its use by limiting the people who may participate. Slaves, foreigners, women, coloured people, non-citizen residents – they’ve all, at some point or another, been excluded from the processes of power.

The great likelihood is that currently, you who are reading this blog post are amongst them.

It is sometimes asked why, if somewhere between 64% and 68% of the Australian people want gay marriage legalised, the major parties are so intransigently opposed to it, or why with seemingly a high proportion of Australians simultaneously outraged by Labor’s and the Coalition’s plans on refugee arrivals, both parties continue trying to out-hardline the other. (I’ve found it impossible to find an actual figure for the proportion of Australians for whom this is a driving issue. If anyone can point me to this number it would be appreciated!

The answer, of course, is that the seats that matter, the swing seats, do not share the outlook of the whole of Australia. Both major parties spend huge resources polling and evaluating their standing in the swing seats.

Both parties target individual seats for marketing, for campaigning, for pork-barrelling and election promises, and both parties heed the opinions and prejudices of the people in these marginal seats as a matter of high priority.

If a policy is adopted that panders to a swing seat, the parties can do this without fear of the outcomes because they know that the rest of Australia will either vote for them or not vote for them, regardless of actual policies.

Of the 144 seats in the Australian parliament, 74 are “safe” – they require a minimum of an 8% swing in order to change hands. The traditional view of “safe” seats is any seat that requires a minimum of a 6% swing, so I’m being conservative here.

Technically, every seat in Australia can change hands at any election. At the 2010 election, some electorates swung by as much as 13%. 18 of the 144 electorates swung by over 8% (17 of them in the direction of the Coalition).

At the 2013 election, with the current projected swings based on polling, any seat on 10% or less might be regarded as a marginal seat.

1789 AD, United States of America
This is Democracy.

“We the people”, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, have the right to vote for their Congress. Most major offices in the country, up to and including the office of President, are elected positions and the people can vote for their preferred candidates to hold them. Legislation is passed by the Congress and ratified by the President.

There are some people whose opinion does not count; who do not get to vote. In post-independence USA, these include women, children, slaves, negroes, native Americans, and non-landholding males. Modern estimates indicate that of up to 5.3 million people living in the USA at the time, about 17% have voting rights.

Technically, the United States is a Democratic Republic. There is already, effectively, a two-party system in operation, with Democrats and Republicans making up the two main schools of thought.

The outcome of the feverish focus on swing seats is twofold. It results in two paradoxically opposed effects. It pushes the parties closer together on big-ticket items, and it increasingly leads to class politics in day-to-day governing.

Both parties are desperate to win the votes of a handful of electorates. Electoral strategy revolves around picking your battles and pitching your offer directly at the heartland of the undecided.

With a limited number of seats in contention, and the stakes so high, both parties have incentive to follow the same path. In Australia, at present, this is slightly right-of-centre.

On refugees, on infrastructure, on education, on the economy, both parties are guilty of me-too politics, as clear vote-winning policies are adopted and co-opted. The opinion of the majority of Australians is not the major consideration. This is one contributing factor to the electorate’s general disengagement from politics in recent years.

The other effect is one of separation, as Labor and the Coalition focus their policy development on particular demographics. Electorates vote on the basis of the people who live there, and most electorates have a character, a homogeneity of age and social class.

As Labor continues to court the vote of the young and the educated, they develop policies that suit their safe electorates. As the Coalition continues to pitch to the battlers and the owners of small businesses, they develop a different set of policies that suit their own electorates.

Neither party is operating in a centric fashion with concern for the opinions of the electorates and demographics that they historically have not appealed to and can’t afford to put effort into winning.

2013 AD, Australia
This is Democracy.

All adult citizens of Australia are expected and required by law to enrol to vote, and are eligible to vote in local, State and National elections. Federal elections allow citizens to elect representatives for their local area, who despite election may not be a part of the governing party. All elected representatives may bring legislation to the house regardless of party affiliation.

Everybody gets to vote, but there are still some people whose opinion does not count. In practical terms, residents who do not follow the majority view of their electorate have no effective voice in parliament and their opinions are not important in the development of policy by the major political parties.

If we estimate that the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) has been reasonably successful in distributing votes evenly between electorates, and if we assume further that an electorate requiring at least an 8% swing is “safe”, then of 22.3 million citizens, about 49% live in electorates where their vote is actually likely to be courted. 51% of the populace lives in electorates where the outcome is assumed.

The people are largely ignorant about the day-to-day processes of government and legislature, with attention paid to a small number of big-picture policies and ideologies, and most activity of the Parliament unseen and unremarked.

So what is the answer?

I increasingly feel that the two-party system is broken. Has representative democracy had its day? The day becomes ever nearer when we will have the technical and administrative ability to develop policy on the basis of the intentions of the people as a whole, rather than a representative attitude of the people in your suburb.

A time when every major decision is treated as a referendum and every voter’s attitude is counted, even if only in determining the overall intention of law. (Much of modern legislature is far too complex to be suitable for a census of opinion, but bureaucrats and lawyers can argue the semantics of law required to implement the expressed will of the people.)

This may be a pipe dream and unlikely in the foreseeable future. Until then, the best we can do if we want to ensure our voice is heard is to move to live in a swing electorate.

Co-posted on Random Pariah on 31 August 2013.


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  1. Fed up

    ” increasingly feel that the two-party system is broken. Has representative democracy had its day”

    Do we have a two party system. I suggest, according to the Constitution, we do not.

    Yes, that is how it works, but the last three years, depending where the votes fall, that is not necessarily so.

    That is why Abbott and any PM that claim they have a mandate, have it wrong.

    Legislation is passed by a majority of MPs on the floor of both houses. That is the only mandate that exists.

  2. mark delmege

    Many good points there. A couple of observations.
    1. Agreed, the two party system is broken and its not before time.
    1a. Proportional voting is closer to the democratic ideal than any other system.
    2. Political leadership is lacking and honesty is a 7 letter word.
    3. So much political discourse is a lie, fib or spin.
    4. You can’t have a democracy (whatever that means) without a free press (you know what I mean).
    5. ditto 4
    6. ditto 4
    etc ditto 4

  3. OzFenric

    Fed Up: Perhaps not, but that just makes the situation even more parlous. If the small number of marginal seats start falling to independents and minor parties, then the major parties (who will still be forming government and, between them, dictating the direction of public legislature for some years to come) will focus even more of their attention on even smaller proportions of the electorate.

  4. Dan Rowden

    Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance. – H.L. Mencken

  5. johnlord2013

    A oat enjoyable well reasoned read.

  6. johnlord2013


  7. Blog of Greg

    Quite a good article. I have a few points to add though.

    This two party system is not representative partly because of lobby groups. We have very wealth corporations, or individuals who can manipulate policy, or help get a party/person elected.

    The fact that we had Gina and her mates overthrow a PM simply because the proposed a tax on them, clearly shows how pathetic politics in this country is. Not that her father, Hancock, didn’t do it in the past.

    When we have public donors, disclosed or not, handing funds to politicians or parties that assist in advertising, it has the potential to manipulate the outcome of an election.

    The Liberals are very very good at negative advertising. This is how they have won so many elections in recent years. Also the fact that Abbott has constantly demonised the carbon tax and the mining tax, incorrectly indicating that it would add to our financial burden, it sways public opinion and wins votes – even if it is a lie. I personally think that all donations should be banned, and that if a party has a certain number of members, it should get public funding with strict terms. This would be democratic IMHO.

    My other concern is the preference system. I hold grave fears when a party can manipulate government by placing a party last, just so that they can gain an absolute majority. This is just an abuse of our political system. It wasn’t about policy, it was about dominance.

    What about when Howard had both houses. He used his absolute power to drive through changes without review and without debate. A system like this is open to abuse as we keep seeing.

    … and there is much more than this about how our system can be manipulated by ruthlessness.

    Just my opinion.

  8. mark delmege

    and then of course is the unsaid – unacknowledged FACT that we are a vassal state – dominated and subservient in every respect to another.
    Most don’t even realise or understand and would deny that it is even possible.

  9. richo

    It is a sad state that our so called democracy is being subverted by big business and lobby groups.
    That a an elected PM can be effectively thwarted due to the multi million dollar advertising campaign.
    That the leader of the oppostion can spend years bagging a successful economy for the simple purpose of gaining power.
    That both parties will dog whistle and that that allows such a small proportion of argualbly disengaged people who decide at the last business based on who knows what effectively decide the government.
    In 2013 it seems the will of the people for marriage equality will be subservient to the whim of the leader as going to war was in 2003. As workchoices was in 2004.

    I am not a rusted on voter but probably not a swing voter either. I align more naturally with the Labor and Greens parties than others however i have been known to vote the other way too. I simply can not believe that we are looking like having this ridiculous lunatic running our country. And I don’t mean the potential PM either.

  10. rossleighbrisbane

    Great! Anything which challenges what people think will be useful in the coming months. We have many possible scenarios, but reducing it to Rudd win/Abbott win, there is a real danger that people will be tempted to consider winning the election as the important thing.
    We won
    Therefore we “won”

  11. OzFenric

    For those interested, when it comes to direct democracy as described in my “pipe dream” scenario, have a look at the Senator Online party, standing two candidates in the Senate. Would this sort of solution remove the need for parties and confrontational politics entirely?

  12. diannaart

    Thank you OzFenric for an interesting read.

    I have already voted and Senator Online party was one of the parties I gave preferences to when I voted below the line. I cannot see an online style of governance becoming a reality any time soon, however I think it will have possibilities in the future.

    On so-called marginal seats, I live in La Trobe and have not noticed much ‘wooing’ from either major party. A particular issue for residents in the Dandenong Ranges has been the objection to a MacDonalds in Tecoma. Despite objections by residents, the council and local business, VCAT overruled & granted development rights to McDonalds. So much for democracy, so much for the VCAT for being an independent arbiter – it has become little more than a tool for big developers, both Labor & the Libs state governments have permitted this. Seems the federal parties don’t give a damn about the public’s concerns either, despite this issue being a potential vote winner.

    The only party of any standing to support the people of the Ranges has been the Greens.

  13. richo

    diannaart – bloody VCAT is just a rubber stamp. You never seem to here of them upholding the. views of the non business commnity do you/.

  14. diannaart

    VCAT, once upon a time, was actually a place where the ordinary person could have civil claims assessed at a reasonable cost. I know, I used to present cases there as part of a former job.

    Now it has increased its fees to beyond the reach of low-income people and is, as you say, a rubber stamp for the wealthy.

    Bloody disgraceful.

  15. Pingback: Random Pariah | Winner takes all

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