Polswatch

Outlining a Progressive Future

Is Fremantle a Sign of Things to Come?

On Saturday the 16th of May the Australian Greens made history by winning their first lower house seat in any state or territory parliament (after winning the federal seat of Cunningham in 2002) and by winning the primary vote in an election for the first time ever. The Greens won the seat of Fremantle by outpolling the Labor Party by a 45-38% margin on primary votes and won the seat by 54-46% after preferences were distributed, sending Adele Carles into the Western Australian legislative assembly. With this victory under their belt the Greens are now turning their focus onto federal lower house seats, arguing that if the current trend continues federal seats such as Melbourne, Sydney, Grayndler and Fremantle will soon fall into Green hands. This is being followed by a number of analysts and political commentators who are now questioning whether the Greens have the ability to permanently break up the two party system in Australia.

Third parties in Australia have a history of falling. The Democrats, arguably the most influential third party in Australia’s history, collapsed dramatically in the last two federal elections raising serious questions about whether the two party system will ever be broken in Australia. Whilst theories around why the Democrats collapsed as they did are still debated, there is no doubt that their collapsed has raised serious questions about the ability of a third party to survive in the Australian system. However, the continued growth of the Greens since Bob Brown was first elected in 1996 and the extremely strong showings of the party since the 2007 election, in which they recorded over 1 million votes, are placing the Greens in a position to break down the two party system in Australia. Whilst many may be sceptical of the ability of the Greens or any other party to break down this systems the Greens are in an extremely unique position with many positive aspects that favour the possibilities of them to do so.    

There are five key factors behind why I believe the Greens will continue to grow in the future:

  1. Having a Strong Base: Unlike the Democrats who had no real natural base (being focused on those who were dissatisfied with the major parties), the Greens have a strong base, not only with the environmental movement but with the left as a whole. Whilst the Greens obviously began as a party based around the environment movement, a mix of hard work by Greens MPs on other issues as well as the general rightward shift in Australian politics (see below) has allowed the Greens to take the mantle of the only true ‘left’ party in the country. This gives the Greens a very strong base that continues to grow as the party continues to convince those in the left that they are not just about the environment. This ensures that as long as the Greens stat true to their ideals that they will have a continued base of support that will ensure continued parliamentary representation.  
  2. The Continued Rightward Trend of the ALP: Second to this, the Greens are also benefiting from the continued rightward shift of the ALP. There is no doubt that the ALP is upsetting many of those on the left who have traditionally voted for them as they continue to pursue or refuse to reverse many of the right wing policies introduced by the Liberal Party. The Greens are benefiting from this as they are being seen as the only real ‘left’ wing alternative. Whilst some may claim that this is just a sign of a ‘protest vote’ against the ALP that will eventually collapse,  it seems very unlikely that the ALP will return to its left wing beginnings any time soon, meaning that this ‘protest vote’ is likely to continue to solidify.
  3. A Desire to Govern: Unlike the Democrats, who biggest focus was on ‘keeping the bastards honest’, the Greens have a focus on creating a party that is strong enough to govern, not just to be in the balance of power. This is important as it puts the Greens in a position where they are seen to be more proactive in their role in parliament rather than being reactive to the major parties. This proactive nature of the party tends to create greater support within the public over the reactive nature that occurs when one is focused on balance of power situations.
  4. Having a Large and Extremely Democratic Membership: Somewhat unlike the Democrats, the Greens have a very large and democratic membership. The parties’ membership currently sits around 10,000 and is growing. This is important as it provides the party both a strong contingent to work and campaign for the party, as well as a large number of people who can be trained and recruited to run for office.
  5. Having Strong Roots in Local Government: In all states across Australia the Greens have strong roots and have campaigned hard for local government positions and hold many of these positions, especially in New South Wales and Victoria. Fighting for these positions has been a very important tactical move by the Greens for two reasons. Firstly, it has provided much needed training for Greens members in governance, which provides great opportunities for such members to advance to state and federal government. A large number of candidates in past elections have come from the local level and I suspect this trend will continue in the future. Secondly, having members in local councils provide members of the public a real and local experience with Greens politicians. This is important as it allows the scepticism some have of the Greens to be dashed when they see the real benefits provided by having Greens in Government.  

 These five factors put the Greens in a very good position to break down the two party system in Australia and continue to grow as a party in local, state and federal parliaments. The Greens are surging and unless major unforeseen circumstances occur in the future it seems very unlikely that this surge will end any time soon, leaving the party in a position to create real influence in all levels of parliament and grow to become the most influential third party Australia has seen.

May 22, 2009 Posted by | Analysing the Left, Democracy and the State, Monitering the Left | , , , , , | 14 Comments

Creating Actual Democracy – The ‘Online Senator’ Model

Following on from my recent post on popular ballots I am now going to discuss the ‘Online Senator’ model of increasing democracy. Now, for those of you who don’t know, the Online Senator model was proposed at the Australian Federal Election of 2007. In this election a party called the ‘Online Senator’ ran in every state (I think) for the Senate. The idea behind the party was that if they were to get elected they would set up an online voting system where the people of Australia could vote on the legislation facing the Senate and the elected Senators would then vote according to which way the online vote went. 

Now, I am not going to use the ‘Online Senator’ as my model for discussion today as I think it carries far too many risks due to the fact that having one or two Senators who would vote in this way would not bring any form of institutionalisation to the process, therefore creating serious risks (including how can we be sure people aren’t voting more than once, how can we know that only Australian citizens are voting, what happens if someone is clever enough to hack the voting system and tamper with the votes etc.) However, I do believe that this idea brings up an interesting question; why can’t we let people vote on all pieces of legislation (and therefore all the issues that directly affect them)? I will split up my discussion into the positives and negatives of the issue at stake.

Positives

There really is only one real positive to allowing people to vote on everything, but it is a big one. The positive is that it creates democracy at a very high level. Through allowing people to vote on everything that comes through a house of parliament they are given direct control over every decision that affects their lives. From here there would be little work to be done to create better democracy (the work that would be required would be to get more people involved in the creation of legislation – more discussion on that later). One would have to argue that this is a good thing.

Negatives

The negatives in this situation however are great and in my opinion could easily outweigh the positives. I think the negatives can be split into two ‘key’ areas (I say key, noting that these are the ones that I think could and would be the ones that are most difficult to overcome); logistics and information.

Logistics:

The logistics of such a program would be extremely difficult and would cause serious problems. The logistical problems of this idea are:

  1. How can we get a large population engaged enough to want and to be able to vote on such complex pieces of legislation on such a regular occurrence?
  2. How would such a system work? Would it be done over the internet and if so what risks are there with such a process and how logistically would it occur? If not by the internet, then how could we do it ensuring everyone who wants is able to have their say?
  3. Where would the ideas for changes come from? Would we still have a parliament who introduces such legislation? Why would someone want to be in such a parliament when they would have no power? Who introduces amendments to legislation and how are they voted on?

The list for these logistical problems could go on and I will not continue. I think the above text provides a good enough description of the problems such a system would face.

Information

The basic problem here is simple, how can we ensure that the voting population is provided with enough, balanced information to make regular decisions on complex policy issues that they may not know much about. Whilst some may say that even politicians don’t have this information and often just vote as their party does (a fair criticism) and others may argue for an optional voting system so people can opt out of voting for issues they don’t know much about, the key problem that what goes before parliament is often extremely complex and of such a nature that a large amount of people would never read it would continue to exist. This is not me saying that ‘people’ are ‘dumb’, whilst politicians are ‘super intelligent experts’ that know everything about all policies, but rather simply acknowledging that people cannot know everything about everything, which in such situations could lead to people making votes that aren’t in their or the communities best interests.

A second information argument is that people, who are unaware of the ‘day-to-day’ workings of a nations budget may be inclined to vote for bad policies that benefit themselves, whilst not thinking of the bottom line of the budget (i.e. people voting for massive tax cuts or spending increases that are untenable). Whilst I agree that this could and probably would occur in some places I think overall it is dangerous to label people as being ‘only self interested’ and would point to examples in the United States where popular ballots that would cut taxes have regularly been voted down.

Overall, I think these negative issues far outweigh the positives of such an idea.  However, I still think discussing such an idea is useful, because it creates a discussion on what I think are the two key issues regarding the creation of a more democratic society; logistics and information. Through discussing such a ‘radical’ idea I think we bring up the problems that we must face if we want to create a more democratic society and allow for discussions to begin on how to solve these problems. In future posts I will start to bring up some ideas of how to solve these issues (the post on popular ballots is one of these) and hopefully create a discussion which finds some more appropriate ‘middle ground’ solutions to the democratic void we have in our society.

Keep an eye out for these posts soon!

April 14, 2009 Posted by | Democracy and the State, Options for a Progressive Future | | Leave a comment

Creating Actual Democracry – Letting People Vote on Proposals

As promised in my first blog on democracy I will now begin a series of posts on filling the democratic void in society, both in governance and resource distribution fields. My first post will be on what I think is possibly the most obvious response one may have to a discussion on increasing democracy ‘why can’t we allow all people to vote for legislative proposals?’ 

For me, it’s a pretty fair and reasonable response. I mean, why can’t we let people vote and have an actual say on the legislation that we all claim to be so important? However, logistically, such a question can and does cause serious problems and would require a significant amount of resources and time.

For me there are two ways we can move to let people vote on national or state legislation:

  1. Through the creation of an American style ‘popular ballot’ system (noting that this occurs only at the state level)
  2. Through creating a system which allows for votes on all pieces of legislation at both a local, state and federal level.

Both of these have logistical issues around, so I will look at them separately in different posts.

Popular Ballots

Occurring in nearly every state in the US a ‘popular ballot’ gives the opportunity for the people of a state to vote on a particular issue in a completely binding manner. The issues are always brought up by ‘the people’, with a requirement of a certain amount of signatures to have the issue put on a ballot paper. The vote then occurs at the same time as regular voting, meaning that there can often be many popular ballots on a particular day at any time. It is votes such as this that have seen gay marriage outlawed in many states and have seen action on issues such as adoption, abortion and affirmative action (these are this big issues occurring in popular ballots at the moment).

What does this achieve?

The obvious thing this action achieves is giving people the option to vote on issues that are important to them. These actions allow people to have a direct say in the way a place is governed, although in a somewhat limited way. This, for me, both provides a level of agency when it comes to the way decisions are made as well a level of ownership of the governance of a particular area. These are both good things.

What are the Negatives?

There are a few negatives to such a process:

  1.  The requirement of having thousands of signatures to get an issue on the ballot paper reduces the amount of issues that can be considered ‘important to the people’. The problem here is that taking the initiative to start such a signature drive and gaining so many signatures requires a large amount of resources, which is not available to some. This means that it can often only be the issues of ‘wealthy/well funded’ organisations that are placed onto the ballot paper.
  2. The long time it takes to have an issue placed on a ballot paper (just say it occurred every election cycle in Australia, it would take at least 3 years for new votes) means that governments can implement unpopular initiatives that may be too late to reverse. For example, when the Howard Government in Australia introduced Voluntary Student Unionism (VSU), there was quite a large amount of vocal opposition to the proposal. If a popular ballot system were to have been available it would have been possible to place this issue on the voting rolls. However, by the time this vote would have occurred we would have already seen many student unions collapse due to lack of funds, making it more difficult when the vote is overturned. 
  3. Information: One of the biggest problems people bring up with these issues is the access to information available in complex legislative decision making processes. Legislation is often extremely complex and difficult to understand and it is argued therefore that this should be left up to ‘experts’. I personally disagree with this conclusion as (a) it assumes that all politicians are experts and (b) it assumes that people are too dumb to understand the important decisions that directly affect them. I disagree with such an assumption and simply argue that all that needs to occur is a free and fair campaign on either side to allow the vote to occur.

Overall, however I think these three ‘negatives’ are outweighed by the positives that come with such ballots. The first two points can easily be overruled just by realising that in the current situation in most countries there isn’t even any chance for people to vote on issues. Therefore, even with these two flaws, this system is better than the current one. The last point can, as I said, be mitigated through ensuring there is the opportunity for a free and fair campaign from all sides on the issue (acknowledging the difficulties with defining a free and fair campaign).

Although I think there are options to go further than this (to be discussed later) I think allowing public ballots is a good step forward in increasing democratic principles. These ballots allow people to vote on important, even if somewhat limited, issues and gives people the opportunity to gain some real democratic agency. 

April 10, 2009 Posted by | Democracy and the State, Options for a Progressive Future | 3 Comments

The Importance of A Neutral Electoral Commission

A very quick post today. As the Al Franken/Norm Coleman Minnesota Senate race continues to go on in the United States it is becoming clearer and clearer how important a neutral electoral commission is. In this video, Governor Tim Pawlenty (a Republican) discusses how he will act in the future as the man who is destined to be the final sign off point to declare either of these two as the winner of the race (along with the Secretary of State, who is a Democrat).

http://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2009/04/09/gov_pawlenty_on_the_frankencoleman_race.html

Whilst I think Pawlenty is much better than many other Republicans (just in general) it is clear to see here the level of bias within the way he speaks about the race, which I believe would happen for any Governor on either side of the fence (although some, such as Pawlenty would be better at it). For example in the Presidential race of 2000, it was the Florida Governor, Jeb Bush (George Bush’s brother) and the Florida Secretary of State, who was the convenor of the Republican campaign in Florida who were legally obliged to sign off on Florida’s election results.

It is clear that such situations cause major problems. Having a neutral electoral commission, with stringent rules, such as that in Australia, ensures that these sorts of problems do not occur through having a higher level of accountability and neutrality when voting occurs. The success of this can be seen in Australia, where there are very few reports of any sort of election troubles and where any disputes are generally resolved quickly, due to the effectiveness of the commission.

Whilst I think Franken will eventually become the winner of the race in Minnesota, one will have to question whether the partisan nature of the electoral process in the state has and will continue to slow his victory and leave Minnesota one Senator short (a big deal in the US) for longer that is needed.

April 9, 2009 Posted by | Democracy and the State | Leave a comment

Creating Actual Democracy

 

I always find it ironic to hear people in the Western World who proclaim how great ‘Western democracies’ are, whilst at the same time complain constantly about their politicians (as being dirty rats) and the positions they take. It seems to me that we live in a world of contradiction, both loving and hating the system that governs the way we live our life. This always leads me to question why we accept the current system we have, which most academics would tell us aren’t actually democracies but merely republics.

Getting Definitions Out of the Way

No, we don’t live in democracies, but rather republics. The difference here is pretty simple. In a democracy the people have direct control over the decisions that affect their lives. In a republic they elect people to make their decisions for them. It must be noted here, that in some ways nations like Australia are still not considered republics as their ‘head of state’ and therefore technically the most powerful person in their state is not elected. These nations however do have directly elected parliaments, giving more democracy than a traditional monarchy. 

However, in reality these definitions don’t really mean much until we start really discussing options to move towards real democracies. There is no point arguing about the lack of democracy unless we argue for more of it. 

Now, I think we need to start arguing for greater democracy for two reasons:

  1. People (apart from politicians) still don’t really have any say in many of the decisions that affect our lives, even though we have the opportunity to elect people who do.
  2. Capitalism ensures that there is no democracy in the way that the world’s resources are organised, distributed or managed, with this control being held by a select group of capitalists. 

These two basic facts lead me to argue for a discussion and greater action on the creation of more democratic measures in the two fields of world governance and labour organisation/resource management and distribution (acknowledging that the way labour is organised is directly related to the way resources are managed and distributed). 

World Governance

Creating more democratic methods of governance is without a doubt a difficult task. Problems such as information (i.e. ensuring all people involved in governance processes are fully informed), efficiency, apathy etc. are all rife throughout possible programs that are aimed at enhancing democracy. These problems tend to lead to questions about what price we are willing to pay for increased democracy. I would argue that we should be willing to pay a somewhat higher price than many others do; as greater involvement in the democratic process creates great gains.

Over the course of the next few weeks I will have a look at some different proposals regarding increased political democracy and the issues around them. They will include:

  1. Direct voting on legislation (either the US model or the ‘online Senator’ model)
  2. Increased stakeholder involvement in the legislative process
  3. Localisation of politics

Resource Governance

However, if one wants to talk about increasing democracy one cannot ignore the fact that any proposals that provide increased ‘governance democracy’ still ignore the fact that the majority of the world’s resources would still not be managed, organised or distributed in a democratic way (or a way that values to worth of one’s labour (more discussion on this in another blog)). Although governments do have a lot of power, the power they have does not equal that of the world’s capitalists and I think therefore we must question the level of power that they have. 

The only way therefore that we can truly discuss actual democracy is through a discussion of resource distribution, management and organisation democracy. This discussion should involve two things:

1.       The way labour is organised and

2.       The way resource distribution is organisation

This would (and should) mean a re-distribution of wealth and power (I say should as I do not believe we should be living in a world where the richest 20% of the world’s population hold onto 82% of its wealth and given the problems of sustainability I do not believe there is any way that we can see the entire world reach the wealth of these 20%). I believe the way this should and could occur is through the democratisation of the workplace and the democratisation of resource distribution (when I say this I mean a democratisation of the way this occurs and of who controls this action).

The question again is how to achieve this increased democratisation and this is something I will be discussing in later blogs, looking at some interesting examples:

  1. The ‘Take’ model (i.e. the movie ‘The Take’)
  2. The Russian Revolution
  3. The role of Unions

Now many would argue that achieving this sort of democracy would remove the need for enhances in governance democracy as any sort of change such as this would lead inevitably to more democratic measures in the way the world is governed. I would agree with this, but argue that discussion of governance democracy is still importance as a step towards more resource democracy. The former measures I discussed would not only be easier to achieve but would also lead to a situation where more resource democracy is easy to achieve and therefore deserve to be discussed.

That is it for now; keep an eye out for more discussion soon. 

April 5, 2009 Posted by | Democracy and the State, Options for a Progressive Future, Political Economy | Leave a comment