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Getting rid of the party system and introducing referendums to Australia

I’m all for starting a conversation about getting rid of the party system and introducing referendums. The recent independents in Federal Parliament in my view acquitted themselves very well, despite constant attacks from many of their parliamentary colleagues. Most politicians however have made themselves increasingly inaccessible and impervious to their constituents’ views – they are now mostly irrelevant to most of us most of the time and we to them.

Voters have a few minutes of illusory power when we shuffle into the voting booth once every 3 or 4 years. Then, for the years of their incumbency a politician has no obligation whatsoever (other than moral and that’s a laugh) to vote according to how she/he campaigned and was elected, or how their constituents might subsequently ask them to vote. Waiting 4 years to vote them out is a very blunt instrument indeed. And, anyway given the party system of candidate selection we’ll get someone equally useless.

After years of campaigning I wonder what’s the point of collecting thousands of signatures on petitions and running rallies and meetings? Massive efforts from so many dedicated campaigners are now effectively ignored. Old growth logging, the Tamar Valley pulp mill, the channel deepening issue, De-Sal, North-South pipeline, and of course SPA have all had well run campaigns aimed at engaging our local MPs and government to at least consider alternatives, but unpopular and unnecessary policies and projects just keep rolling on and over us.

During the Brumby regime Planning Minister Madden ignored the finding of two Planning Panel Inquiries, which recommended against the development of Bastion Point Mallacoota and the Crib Point Bitumen plant. Using “Ministerial discretion” he approved both projects as “shovel ready” - A perfect example of how the party system, representative democracy, and underpinning administrative processes is failing us on so many social and environmental issues.

As Cr. Rosemary West said at the Planning Backlash Rally on 10th June 2009, “Were any of us asked whether we wanted 5 million people in Melbourne by 2030 (now 2020)?” We weren’t asked, and in the case of population growth we weren’t even told it was going to happen. It just happened.

At the very least, perhaps our elected representatives should be required to conduct statistically robust polls in their electorate to guide their voting on issues before them in parliament. Independent Victorian MP Craig Ingram did this on the 2009 abortion reform debate, as he had no firm view. His electorate overwhelmingly supported reform so that’s the way he voted. Other MPs of course proceeded with a “conscience” vote without any obligation whatsoever to consult or inform their electorate. As it stands, for most of the time that is precisely what most of them do – ignore almost everyone that voted for them!

All levels of government in Australia have powers to initiate referenda on any issue. Unfortunately under existing arrangements, in Australia a referendum will only be held if a government or local council determines that a poll should be held on an issue (thus I support Citizens Initiated Refenda). During the 2000s the issue of whether to adopt daylight savings was decided via referendum in WA. In Victoria, local government area referenda are regularly conducted, under the auspices of the Victorian Electoral Commission on the relatively piddling issue of liquor licenses in areas designated as “dry” in the early 20th Century. Clearly it is possible – just not desirable from a politician’s perspective.

What’s more, in the 21st Century we are relying on a voting system from the horse and buggy era - queuing up at the local school to have our names manually ticked off the role. The recent WA senate vote losing incident exemplifies this with millions of taxpayer funds now being spent on another senate election in WA just because 1300 bits of paper were lost. My brother contacted the VEC a few years ago to ask about the prospect of electronic voting. The topic was greeted enthusiastically, with the officer saying it is often discussed, and all that is needed is the legislation. It would be relatively simple to organise electronic voting, as most people now either have internet access via a home computer or mobile phone, or can access a computer via a public library. Electronic voting could be managed by using a unique ID number such as tax file or Medicare numbers. An electronic system could also present the ‘for and against’ argument equitably. It need not be compulsory to vote on every issue, but perhaps it could be organised so that a statistically significant sample is required to decide any outcome.

The way things are at present, we will be fighting many unwanted policies and proposals in future and if nothing changes we will just keep on being ignored and it’s a dead cert we will get what we DON”T want - the environment will be trashed, and those of us running campaigns to protect the places we love will get very depressed and worn out for no sum gain.

I’m still willing to believe that if given the facts, most people are capable of making a reasonable decision and like Tim I’d rather live by a decision made by my fellow citizens than one arrived at by a few politicians who in the main have been corrupted by the Murdoch Press, the corporates and developers (Kelvin Thomson and the handful of Independents being the few exceptions).

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Yes, good suggestions Jenny. We definitely need something - and soon too - before even more damage gets done. This problem was also raised by Klaas Woldring last year and he had a proposal along these lines also (Change the Electoral System and End Adversarial Politics). Steve Irons also has a suggestion on changes to electoral boundaries (and a bit more also) so as to address our environmental problems, in particular the very serious problem of water, a critical resource in world's driest continent (see Steve's proposal at

Given this clear need for change, the only question in my mind is how do we make it happen? Anyone got ideas?

The key is to break the back of the LibLab duopoly. We are making progress. A hung parliament, record number of senate candidates, minor parties gaining power. The duopoly will change the rules to stop this development (with the support of the MSM), but this may lead to further alienation. A party only needs one or two members in parliament to give it legitimacy and I don't think parties should focus just on winning seats. Minor parties and independants I think need to worry less about taking power, and more about what they can do outside of the political system. True politics is engaging with people and assuming power. Minor parties need to take on a more socially active role and become a thorn in the side of others.

We also need more talent. There is IMO very little talent to counteract the rather weak LibLab duopoly.

Subject was "Citizens' initiated referenda". Comment has been edited for paragraphing and some punctuation and spelling, but remains essentially as submitted. - Ed

Australia is not ready for citizens' initiated referenda. They would be used against the general population, Australians have been dumbed down by our media and education institutions for decades.

At the recent re-run of the WA senate elections, I called most of the 77 candidates with a list of questions, including some on real bad legislation in the pipeline and some of them did not give a stuff about it. They said that that's not what their minor party is about. A lot of them could not answer questions about fixing our sick economy.

At the end I asked them: would they like to read some information on fixing Australia's economy, kick-starting our manufacturing and our farming (family farms are the backbone of any country's food supply). We have gone from over 120,000 family farms to less than 40,000 family farms and most of these are up to their neck in debt to the banks and can be kicked of their land when ever the banks feel like it. They also fudge the figures by counting hobby farmers who don't produce enough food to feed themselves.

Our economy is being looted by the banks whose biggest share-holders are foreign banks from Wall street and the City of London. The only way to end this is to re-regulate the Banks. There is a call around the world to reintroduce President Roosevelt's (FDR's) Glass-Steagall Bank separation legislation in USA and to introduce it in all countries that have banks classified as "Too Big To Fail." Australia has 5 of them.

Another way to see that Australians are not ready is how they get hood-winked to vote a Government out and replace them with worse, as the people don't have a clue who they are voting for. Then read the comments each day on the Web pages of our newspapers.

People have to get off the Liberal /Labor party carousel, but this is a problem as you have the Toxic Greens who are nothing but dangerous, the Palmer Party God Help us. We have been in trouble since Hawke & Keating hijacked the Labor Party. All the policies they introduced are killing Australia. These Policies first appeared when they were handed to Frazer to introduce. He refused, saying they are bad for Australia, so he and his Treasurer often came close to having punch-ups. They [the policies] resurfaced when Hawke & Keating started introducing them. Now we have Hockey preparing to take them further.

Dear RonaldR,

I understand where you are coming from, but I disagree.

Like you, I have been reading articles and comments for some years now. The level of critical thinking that is now being shown indicates that recently there has been a significant awakening - particularly in the last 12 months - of Australians' understanding. As an example, I have written on the TPP for some time now. My early articles got little or no attention or interest. Then middle to late last year, this changed, one article had nearly 100, 000 readers within a few days, now when I publish on the TPP, many understand what is happening - there is still some way to go - the Australia Institute study showed that only %11 percent of Australians knew about the TPP, but this is a lot better than the < %1 over 12 months ago. That is just one issue though, if people are not waking up because of that, they are quite likely waking up over one or the other of the many other issues going on. In this respect Abbott is serving a useful purpose - even die hard conservatives are now questioning 'what on earth is going on?'

If we were to move to a system that allows citizens' referenda immediately, by the time it was ready, Australian's would also be ready.