Democracy and the Nation State

Homeland Security

The defence of a country has invariably been the impetus to the formation (and maintenance) of the Nation State. Australia was no exception. The unexpected arrival of a warship in Sydney Harbour in the 1800’s gave great momentum to Federation.

One hundred years later September 11th has provoked a renewed vigour of the primordial instinct- homeland security. Almost everyone readily accepts the rationale for the swift implementation of pragmatic counter terrorist initiatives.

The Government has allocated a relatively large slice of the Budget to a wide range of enhanced security measures. Labor, on the other hand, believes that the overall defence programme is too ambitious and needs to be reviewed. [1]At this level of detail, resolution is only usefully obtained by knowledgeable and competent defence experts.

The Party Rules – ok?

It is unrealistic, if not a mockery, to expect the average voter to distinguish between policies, as in the above example. The voter does not have the time, the background or the inclination to seriously assess the various proposals. Whether it be defence, education, health or immigration, the context is the same.

Somehow, though, we are expected to formulate our views and cast our vote towards one party policy or the other.

(Unfortunately, more often than before, it is the charismatic quality of the Party Leader that chances our hand.)

It is a mockery to the intelligence of the average citizen that such a system prevails. In the US, the UK, Australia and much of the ‘democratic’ world, the political parties have hijacked democracy.

The ‘kratos’-authority- of the ‘demos’-people has devolved into the rule of the ‘partir’-division.

Having structured our political life around the historic debate – even though party ideologies are effectively merging- government, opposition and the electorate are locked in an anachronistic model.

We are so wedded to the sparring – the media having more than a complicit interest in fuelling the debate- that we cannot even contemplate an alternative.

Participatory Democracy

As we witness the historic truce between the two warring stalwarts – Capitalism and Labour – we are awakened to a new political paradigm – the market/welfare state. Democracies everywhere recognise that one cannot exist without the other, even in China.

New paradigms, however overlay pre-existing institutional frameworks:

“ Politics is about how power is exercised and for whose benefit. It is a noble calling and disparaged too much, particularly by those who want untrammelled power for themselves. But to change the way our institutions operate faces one major obstacle – the power of those who benefit from the present system.

“Insiders genuinely do not realize how out of touch they are.

As the Polish proverb says, ‘The guest sees in five minutes what the host doesn’t see in a lifetime’.” [2]

As the old party platforms lose credibility in the eyes of the electorate, (replaced by ‘charismatic leaders’), new forms of democratic engagement are emerging. Deliberative forums, citizen assemblies and consensus conferences are growing in number, scale and spread. (See Lyn Carson’s work at )

Quoting Lyn Carson: “The essential features of these forms of participatory democracy are:

  • Representativeness – the sample (usually random) needs to be truly representative, and not just, for example, reflect the views of the articulate minority.
  • Deliberativeness – opportunity needs to be provided to the representatives to be fully briefed and have the time to discuss and deliberate on the issue/s.
  • Influential – the advice ensuing from the deliberations needs to be incorporated and acted upon.”

Recent applications of participatory democracy demonstrate that even reviews of whole electoral systems can be successfully undertaken by this process. (See the current Canadian experience at )

The Form of the new republic

I envisage that the form of the new republic will evolve from participatory processes. I hope Australia will be quite different to what we know today. I would venture to say that apart from having an Australian Head of State, reforms may be effected to the power of the States, vis-à-vis themselves and the Commonwealth.

One only needs to consider the health and education sectors alone to appreciate the extensive ‘political shadowing’ (and associated duplication of executive resources) that occurs across State/State and Federal/State boundaries. Having said this, I recognise that positive reforms have occurred at all executive levels of government in rationalising and making more efficient their interaction.

A good summary of the experience and achievements can be found at .

One may argue that the Grants Commission has rectified the bulk of the wrangling. But our Federal and State Ministers continue to lever off whatever frictions there are to fabricate their party positioned spin. Electoral reform, at the very least, should achieve valuable efficiencies to many historic and obsolete Federal/State dichotomies. From a political perspective, the fundamental framework has remained as it was since 1901.

Prior to Federation the States had a proud history of democratic reform. Victoria led the world in 1856 when it introduced the secret ballot, in 1859, all male British subjects, in the eastern states and South Australia had the vote. In 1894, South Australia was the international pacesetter for women.

The first democratically elected Labor Government in the world was in Queensland in 1899.

Let Citizens Have Their Say

My intention is to help bring about a new framework where citizens can have their say- not political parties. Traditional polling and voting are providing less and less opportunity for effective participation and deliberation. My proposal is to bring momentum to electoral reform by way of a private members bill introduced into Federal parliament.

The Bill would seek to provide considered advice from citizens to the House about Electoral Reform, in much the same way as the current experience in Canada, (see above www.citizensassembly ).

Such advice could become legislation by way of a referendum on constitutional reform. I believe it is important that participatory democracy be seen as a viable alternative/adjunct to current party/political institutions.


[1] Kim Beazley. Lowry International Policy Institute speech, April ’05 [2] John Menadue

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