Monday, September 20, 2010

That's enough democracy, thank you

Apparently Winston Churchill once said "Democracy is the worst possible system of government, except for all the others." He was a persuasive chap, enough that he was able to convince most of Britain to put down their teacups and croquet mallets long enough to fight a six-year war. He couldn't pry enough people away from Facebook to do it again I suspect, but hopefully the other side will have the same problem, so we should be right.

Now that Australia finally has a government again (apparently the country was on cruise control for a while there), we can look back on the democratic free-for-all of the last few weeks and ask ourselves, "Wait, what?" Several questions pose themselves, such as how the hell the Labour mob can get 38% to the Liberals' 49%, yet still end up running the show. Or how two guys from electorates where NOT voting Liberal/National will see you taken behind the woodshed can side with Labour. And most of all, how often we seem to end up with 149 calm, rational, reasonably intelligent people in parliament and one screaming, ranting, poo-flinging nutbag with the deciding vote on everything. We should be allowed to take back our votes if we see our elected members acting like chimpanzees after they're elected. Maybe we could call it the Katter Clause.
When we vote, it's a bit like when we install stuff on our computers. There's a pretty picture, then a "Would you like to install this thingy?" message, then we click yes and we get this wall of text come at us with a "Do you agree?" message at the bottom. It's called a EULA, or End User Licence Agreement, and it tells us what we're agreeing to when we say yes (the EULA for Windows 7  gives Bill Gates ownership rights on one of your kidneys and a fairly solid claim on your soul I believe, but hey, have you seen the interface on that thing!? The colors, the patterns! Hell, I got two kidneys, sign me up!) Voting is a similar sort of thing; even though all you have to do at the ballot box is put a couple of ticks, you're agreeing to a process that's so complicated even the government had to phone the helpdesk after the last election.

Worryingly, there's nothing in that manual about what to do when we can't tell who's won. Last time it happened, everyone just sort of stood around looking at each other and glancing uncertainly at the big office in parliament. The previous prime minister still had his stuff in there, so everyone agreed to just wait a bit and see what happened, so he wouldn't have to go find a box to put it in. This time round they said they were following "unwritten constitutional conventions", which is NewSpeak for "making it up as we go along."

It's a bit odd that they haven't already covered this in the constitution (seriously, that thing is huge), especially since we've had hung state parliaments 1968, 1989, 1991, 1995, 1999, 2002 and 2008. We had a federal hung parliament in 1940, which was awesome timing; with the Japanese heading our way to get rid of all that democratic election nonsense, the government of the day didn't have time for any Oakeshotting at press conferences. They put something in place quick smart and got us back into the fight with not a moment to spare, barely getting troops to Singapore in time to join the surrender. We were (and still are) involved in a foreign war at the last election, but unless the Taliban have a half-dozen aircraft carriers in a cave near Kandahar, I'm guessing they won't be menacing Port Moresby any time soon.
Not being threatened with invasion gives us the luxury of deciding at our own pace. By which I mean the independents' pace, and you better believe our friends Katter, Oakeshott and Windsor hung on to the limelight as long as they could. Waiting for their answer was like watching some dunce on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire decide whether cupcakes were traditionally decorated with a) icing or b) rat poison. And they'd already Asked The Audience; that was what got us into this mess in the first place. They got there in the end though, and we seemed to get along just fine in the meantime, despite the apparent lack of a government.

So how the heck did we end up with a system like this? It can't happen in a lot of countries; our friends in the United States elect one person, who then gets a bunch of his mates to help him decide what to do. They don't even have to be voted for; he can choose ex-generals, academics or even former rivals. France does something similar, although their president has to pick a prime minister from the people who actually got elected. In both cases, there's a bloke at the top (and so far it's always been a bloke) who gets elected by the people, then chooses a crew to run the place. We can't really do that because (technically) we're run by the queen, and we don't get to vote for her. Might be interesting if we did; my guess is Her Majesty would be politely moved along to make way for Kylie.
So why don't we go with what the Yanks and the French do? The answers pretty simple: they had to go through a whole world of hurt to get to where they are now.

The United States has a constitution, same as us. After their argument with Britain in 1776, they had to find something to replace colonial oppression as a system of government. They threw something together straight away, but apparently it wasn't much good, so they got together in 1789 to try to fix it. A month later they realised it was just a mess, so they started again from scratch and wrote a whole new constitution. Theirs is pretty nice; they've still got the original handwritten version, with "We the people" in cool curly writing at the top. It covers everything from how old you have to be to be president right down to who's allowed to make coins. France did something similar; they got so sick of the king running the show that they cut his head off, then cut his family's heads off, then the king's mates' heads, the heads of people who thought cutting off heads was a bit rough, and a few more to round out the tally to somewhere between 16,000 and 40,000. This period of enlightenment came to be called The Terror; it was followed by a wonderful time in France's history in which they got power-slammed by every other country in Europe after Napoleon tried to wheel the head-cutting-off apparatus into a few other countries around the continent.

So when Australia came to build a system of government, we had a good look at the way everyone else had done it before we put quill to parchment. Nobody was keen to fight a war with the United Kingdom, though that was mainly to stop Mel Gibson making some awful movie about it a hundred years later. We weren't keen on the whole French cutting-heads-off thing either, mainly because we didn't have 40,000 people we could do without. So after a good look round, we realised that the strongest, most stable democracy around the place was the good old United Kingdom Of Great Britain.

Handily, we spoke a similar language to them back then. We also had a few ex-pats from the old country, busily expanding their prisons to make room for the next round of immigrants. Less conveniently, there wasn't anything resembling a clear constitution. The rules for running the UK were more like a first-year English essay, with lots of crossed-out bits and notes in the margin and flip-action doodles in the corners. Still, it had survived a civil war and a couple of slightly unhinged monarchs, so people still thought it was a fairly solid model. The states threw in a couple of bits pinched from the US constitution (notably equal numbers of senators from each state, which is why the whole country sometimes ends up getting run by space cadets and boy scouts from Tasmania). Minor changes aside, we're now run under the same cobbled-together patchwork system of government that's kept the UK rattling along noisily but relatively happily for the past few hundred years.

But I suspect the real reason we chose the same system is simple: we had to ask permission.

After we came up with a plan, we had to go up to Queen Victoria and ask her nicely if we could go play outside on our own. We hadn't lopped our monarch's head off, or booted him out at gunpoint, so legally we had to ask if it was okay to be a country. It seemed to work pretty well too; Queen Victoria gave us the nod, we came up with a nice flag and a suitably dreary national anthem and we were away. There was a pretty scary episode in 1975 (note the bit about the queen not wanting to get involved), but aside from that we've done pretty well under the current system. It's clunky, it's flawed, it's got holes in it big enough to drive Kevin Rudd's ego through, but it works.

And if it means we can avoid revolutions, guillotines, wars, and presidents who pronounce 'nuclear' as 'nucular', then it'll do me just fine. Bob Katter may be a bit special, but he's just one guy, and the other 149 people in there with him should be enough to keep him from declaring war on "the poof population". We're safe, we're successful, and we're blessedly free of any radical groups who might take advantage of our dodgy back-of-an-envelope constitution to take us down a less moderate path.

Democracy as we practise it in Australia may not be perfect, but if the state of the nation is any clue, then it's perfect for us.


  1. I enjoyed your critique of Australian Democracy and agreed with alot of your points. So do you think that its time for another referendum on becoming a republic, and a real one this time? Not a referendum on a bunch of people's idea's about what they think a republic should be.

  2. A referendum on a republic? Hell yes! It'll get crushed like all the others, because Australians Do Not Like Change. But once we get asked enough times, eventually we'll vote yes just to shut the Republican movement up. Swap the figurehead governor-general for a figurehead president with exactly the same powers, stick a kangaroo on the flag and we're good to go for the next two hundred years.