It’s not hard to find somebody beating their chest about democracy. Democracy is rule by the people! Leaders should be elected! Insert something here about rights!
The chants and mantras soothe the nagging doubts that democratic systems look an awful lot like Dungeons & Dragons nerds have been let loose with some PolSci textbooks. Take the concept of seats in parliament: why do geographic areas need representation rather than, say, demographic cross-sections of the community? Take the elections for the Senate: why do people vote for parties rather than candidates? Take the passing of bills: why are there so many goddamn readings?
The last week or so has brought a few of these subconscious niggles to the surface. Mark Arbib quit the Senate, creating a casual vacancy. After a weird amount of drama, former Premier of NSW, Bob Carr was declared as his replacement (following approval by the NSW parliament).
After the 1977 referendum, the political party of the exiting senator had to be taken into account:
Where a vacancy has at any time occurred in the place of a senator chosen by the people of a State and, at the time when he was so chosen, he was publicly recognized by a particular political party as being an endorsed candidate of that party and publicly represented himself to be such a candidate, a person chosen or appointed under this section in consequence of that vacancy, or in consequence of that vacancy and a subsequent vacancy or vacancies, shall, unless there is no member of that party available to be chosen or appointed, be a member of that party. [Australian Constitution, s15]
Stupid 1970s Australians.
The Australian Senate is an outdated, cumbersome, fundamentally undemocratic institution which has somehow limped into the modern age. Even the House of Lords is preferable: it doesn’t pretend to represent the people. The Australian Senate was created to represent the interests of States who, at that time, were independent colonies. Living in Canberra, surrounded by imports from right across the country, I rarely encounter people who identify strongly with their state of origin. North Queenslanders, sometimes. Western Australian crazies, occasionally.
Fundamentally, we’re more likely to identify with cultural/national backgrounds rather than with our states. Federalism is an outdated philosophy from a bygone era. The Senate embodies it.
So why does the Senate exist? Why does a Tasmanian have greater representation in the Senate than a Victorian or New South Welshman? Whatever happened to equality of voting power?
Appointing people to the Senate (through the rubber stamp approval of the State parliament) is, frankly, galling. A party hack from NSW has been gifted legislative power. A party hack from NSW has the ability to affect legislation which governs my life. And so on and so forth.
This situation — parties owning seats in the Upper House rather than individuals elected by citizens — should also make us scratch our heads about the legitimacy of individual senators crossing the floor on issues. By what authority do they cross the floor? It can’t be on their own authority, because their seat in parliament is owned by the party, not the senator. When there’s a conscience vote, whose conscience should be followed? The Senate is just creepy.
Fortunately, there are alternatives!
What if we kept the House of Representatives as it is, but moved to random selection in the Upper House? The idea comes from an Italian study and basically boils down to the following:
- Professional politics reduces the representativeness of parliaments (gender ratio, ethnic profile, socio-demographic profile, &c.)
- Random selection would be more representative of the community, reflecting more closely the backgrounds of the larger population.
- Using a standard sample size calculator, it turns out you only need some 385 people…
Okay, so that last point is a bit of a problem. That’s a massive increase in the size of the Upper House but — and go with me on this — at least it would be representative.
But maybe that’s a problem. The party system at least has the ability to flush out complete weirdoes… Oh, wait.
Maybe you could argue that representation through a means other than election is somehow, in some way, procedurally unfair. Why should power be cast upon people at random?
Some people assert that the amount of power held by a party (mind, not an individual) should reflect the support that party has in the wider electorate. These people tend to be Greens voters who can’t count.
In the last election, a number of people claimed that the result was ‘unfair’ because the Greens ‘should have’ received 17 seats based on their popularity in the electorate. I showed why that reasoning was wonky (short story: the Greens were the only party to contest all 150 seats, so their primary vote can’t be compared to parties who didn’t contest every seat).
But maybe there’s something to be said for proportional representation in the Upper House… except we play straight back into the world of parties. An independent candidate can’t compete against a political party. If we go to proportional representation, independents will vanish entirely. Some people might think this is a good thing, but it’s not obviously a good outcome.
This is also one of the reasons why I’m against Australia becoming a republic with a president elected directly by voters: the average Josephine can’t compete against a long-standing party hack in a national popularity contest.
The other possibility is to have the Senate a chamber of appointed legislators, just as the High Court is a chamber (of sorts) of appointed jurors. That way, the Upper House could forget about its aspirations to be representative of the people and, instead, be custodians of a public trust: to be impartial, apolitical, and pass laws that it, as a collective group of appointed excellent people, they feel best represents Australians. With the age limit on High Court judges, it’s a fine place for them to end up. Appoint a few professors, retired public servants, &c., &c., and it could be a respectable institution.
After all, anything is better than what we’ve got now.