Many Australians watched the shit-show of the recent United States elections and questioned the level of democracy in that country.
It is not just the things specific to Donald Trump, like refusing to concede and attempting to destroy the postal service in order to defeat his opponent. The arcane “electoral college”, rampant “voter suppression”, different electoral systems in different states (and even different counties) and state governors running the elections that they themselves contest are all unusual for those of us used to a more smoothly-run election process.
However, that does not mean we’re living in a democratic paradise. Here are five reasons why Australia is not really a meaningful democracy.
1. The majority is ignored
It might seem controversial to say Australia is not a democracy but just ask yourself: how much influence do you and the people you know really have on what happens in this country?
If you have a good idea about how to improve things, is it possible to talk to your local member about it? Will they listen and act on it?
When people point out injustices to the government, are they resolved?
How many people had a conversation with their federal “representative” in the past 12 months? Or even know their name?
When controversial issues come up, for example the Adani mine — where numerous opinion polls show large majorities consistently opposing it — do politicians respect the will of the majority?
2. Corporate money corrupts the democratic process
The reason ordinary people are not well represented is because both major party-led governments are playing for the corporate rich.
Corporate money pollutes every aspect of the electoral and governmental process. This includes financing election campaigns, “buying” both major parties and, directly or indirectly, controlling the big media organisations that influence opinion.
Those who pay the piper call the tune.
After elections are over, corporate money is still pervasive. Corporate lobbyists and think tanks pressure governments to implement pro-capitalist policies and the corporate media shapes the environment in which governments govern.
Sure, almost everyone gets a vote. But not everyone has the thousands required to buy ministerial access, or the millions required to buy the government.
In general, if you genuinely promote progressive policies in the interests of ordinary people, you cannot rise to the top of either major party.
3. The electoral system is rigged
Aside from corporate donations and the corporate media-dominated environment, there are many other ways in which the system is rigged against ordinary people.
One of these is the method of electing — without proportional representation — “local members” in the decisive lower houses of federal and state parliaments. This provides a major structural advantage to the establishment parties.
This system meant that at the 2019 federal election, the Coalition won 51% of the seats with 41% of the vote. By contrast, the Greens only won 0.7% of the seats with more than 10% of the vote.
It also means that a party can form government even with a minority of the two-party preferred vote.
A proportional system would be much fairer and would mean that every party gets the same level of representation as their share of the vote. The New Zealand model (Mixed Member Proportional) even allows for people to have a “local member” in a proportional system.
Another barrier to democracy is the large nomination fees. It costs a party $231,000 just to nominate a candidate in every electorate and Senate spot in a federal election, before publicity and other costs kick in.
The nomination deposit ($1000 in each House of Representatives seat and $2000 in each Senate seat) means that it is simply impossible for an unemployed person to have a good idea and put it before their local community for consideration based on their own resources.
Another way the system is rigged is that there is no accountability. Politicians are known for lying. But former Prime Ministers John Howard (in 1996) and Tony Abbott (in 2013) are notable examples of political leaders making many and very specific promises prior to election and ignoring them afterwards.
There is no mechanism through which ordinary electors can hold politicians to account or recall them for violating their election promises.
4. Real power is not held by parliament
In the first parliamentary elections in Australia (1843 in New South Wales) a third of the members were simply appointed by the governor. The other two thirds were elected but property qualifications meant only very wealthy men could vote.
The origins of capitalist parliaments here and around the world differ in their details but all share a common privilege for the rich.
Paul Foot’s book The Vote explains in detail in the British context that, as the vote was extended to wider sections of the population, the actual power of the elected bodies was reduced in favour of the unelected public service.
In Australia today, the upper echelons of the public service, the military and police commands and the leadership of judicial institutions are all unelected, but have considerable power. Their pay and recruitment practices mean that these institutions are structurally pro-capitalist and work to service corporate interests.
In addition, there is considerable power in corporate boardrooms. Innumerable invisible strings tie governmental power to the interests of corporate boardrooms. Consider the recent revelations that fossil fuel corporations funding the Bureau of Meteorology have been one factor in minimising the bureau’s public messages about climate change.
In addition to the power of corporate money described above, the revolving door of personnel between corporations and government means that the big end of town generally gets its way.
5. You don’t have a say in changing the rules
You never have a say in the rule book for Australia.
None of us had a chance to vote for the Constitution and it is very difficult to amend. This is another significant structural obstacle to democracy. We need a truly democratic constitutional assembly to rewrite the constitution to serve the people.
Capitalist “democracy” is never very democratic. Sure, the parliamentary system we have is better than an outright military dictatorship or feudal autocracy.
But, it is not real democracy. The system of government we have is a corporate dictatorship disguised by democratic forms.
Potentially, people still have considerable power against corporate interests. But that power comes from our ability to organise and challenge the establishment.
To build a real democratic system, we have to break the economic monopoly of the capitalist class and build new institutions of direct democracy. We will need to make all elected institutions truly representative, free from corporate corruption, fully accountable and subject to popular recall.
[Alex Bainbridge is the national convenor of the Socialist Alliance.]