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Category: Direct Democracy

Flaws in Constitutions

3 January 2023

The US Constitution has many flaws. The most conspicuous being the ‘right to bear arms’ which is taken as the right for every citizen to carry guns around the place, with predictable consequences. There is also state controlled voting rights, which get fiddled and the right of elected governments to draw the electoral boundaries, a sure-fire recipe for dodgy electoral system.  It seems the US Supreme Court has managed to give itself a privileged position and now precedent cements this.

Of course the major problem is that the US Constitution  was made to be almost impossible to change so all these flaws are perpetuated, the latest problem being that Presidents can appoint Supreme Court judges for life and these judges now override the legislatures by saying the law is against the Constitution, as in the case of abortion.

How the US will fix this is not of academic interest. The Australian Constitution was not some document of all wisdom for all time; it was made with the overriding imperative to get the 6 colonies into one country.  All the power except marriage, tax and foreign policy was given to the States.  Looking at how Australia works in practice, one would not even guess this. We have uniform laws only because the state Ministers work out ‘template legislation’ and all State Parliaments pass it unamended.  About a third of all State legislation and certainly the most important stuff it this, with the States Parliaments serving as very expensive rubber stamps.

Now we have major constitutional changes suggested, a Voice to Parliament for Aboriginal people and removing the English monarch of head of State and creation of a Republic.

It would be better if there were some other changes also.  My favourite would be to move towards proportional representation and to allow citizens referenda to override Parliaments, and to limit the terms of Parliament so that political party hierarchies could not have such significance. This would be a move to more of Swiss-style constitution, as was suggested but discarded as it was not Anglo in 1899 at the Constitutional discussions then. The German constitution, which was written by Winston Churchill to ensure that no single party could ever have a majority, or even the changes in the NZ voting system which made it unlikely could, also be considered.  We have to recognise that we have the same problem as the USA, a fossilised constitution that needs significant change. It is ridiculous that we do not have the confidence even to talk about this. Change is not easy, but that is hardly the point.  Are we inferior to our great- or great-great-grandfathers that we cannot plan our future?   

US Constitution’s flaws on show

Nick Bryant SMH Columnist, 3 January 2023

A plan by the probable next US House Speaker to read the Constitution aloud could have unforeseen consequences.

For more than a quarter of a century, American politics has doubled as a civics lesson from hell. The Clinton years introduced us to the impeachment process, something not witnessed since the mid-19th century. The disputed 2000 election reminded us of the vagaries of the Electoral College and revealed how the Supreme Court could intervene to determine the outcome of a presidential election – who knew? The January 6 hearings, which culminated in the first-ever referral of a former president to the Justice Department for criminal prosecution, served both as a primetime crime drama and a tutorial in constitutional law.

To mark the opening of the 118th Congress today, the Republican Party intends to conduct its own teachable moment. If he wins the House Speakership – a contest that looks like it will provide a lesson in the chaotic state of the modern-day GOP – the Republican leader Kevin McCarthy intends to read in its entirety the US Constitution on the floor of the House of Representatives.

This ritual will border on the liturgical. The Constitution, despite Donald Trump’s recent threat to terminate it, has taken on a near Biblical status. Its framers are regarded as patron saints. Yet Americans who listen in may well be shocked to hear these portions of scripture take on a different meaning when placed in their rightful context.

No passage has been more misappropriated than the Second Amendment, which notes that ‘‘the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed’’. As people will hear, however, the primary focus of the founding fathers was the creation of a ‘‘well-regulated militia’’ rather than the firearms they would carry. The intention was to guard against a standing army, which in post-revolutionary America was seen as a tyrannical throwback to the days of British rule.

For almost 200 years, then, the Second Amendment was often referred to as the ‘‘lost amendment’’ because in an America that ended up creating a professional fighting force, the US military, it was considered obsolete. Not until 2008, following a decades-long propaganda campaign by the National Rifle Association to twist and falsify its meaning, did the conservative-leaning Supreme Court make the Second Amendment the constitutional basis for individual gun ownership.

Those who listen in might be surprised to hear how little the Constitution says about the Supreme Court, despite its omnipresence in modern politics. Nowhere does it state that the court should be the final arbiter of whether laws passed by Congress are legal. Judicial review, the ability to declare an act of Congress or presidential executive action unconstitutional, is a power that the Supreme Court granted itself in the early 19th century.

The irony is that the court’s hardline conservative justices are driven by a philosophy of jurisprudence known as originalism, which determines controversial rulings, such as the overturning of Roe v Wade, based on their interpretation of the original intent of the Constitution. Yet the founding fathers never intended the Supreme Court to hold such sway. ‘‘The judiciary is beyond comparison the weakest of the three departments of power,’’ wrote Alexander Hamilton. Thus this right-wing philosophy falls at the first historical hurdle. Originalism is the enemy of originalism.

Defenders of American democracy may also be disappointed by what they hear, for nowhere in the Constitution is there a positive assertion of the right to vote. The original intent of the founding fathers was that only white men of property should be enfranchised, although they left it for the states to decide.

Over the years, as the electorate expanded, voting rights came to be framed in a negative way. The 15th Amendment, which was ratified in 1870 after the Civil War, stated voting rights ‘‘shall not be denied’’ on account of ‘‘race, colour, or previous condition of servitude’’.

In the 1930s, the 19th Amendment finally decreed that women ‘‘shall not be denied’’ the vote. But voting has sometimes been called ‘‘the missing right’’ because the Constitution does not explicitly and positively spell it out.

‘‘We the People,’’ the rousing words in the preamble of the Constitution, were certainly never intended as a statement of great participatory or populist intent. Indeed, the whole point of the Constitution was to guard against the tyranny of the majority and what its aristocratic authors called an ‘‘excess of democracy’’.

Following the American Revolution, the Constitution was designed to be a counterrevolutionary text; what the Harvard historian Jill Lepore has called ‘‘a check on the revolution, a halt to its radicalism’’. Maybe that explains why Kevin McCarthy is so keen to read it out. The Republicans are a minority party increasingly reliant on the founding fathers’ minoritarian model of democracy.

They have lost the nationwide vote in seven out of the last eight presidential elections, but the Electoral College gives them a shot at the White House. The power granted by the framers to small states, which were allotted just as many senators as the most populous states, artificially inflates the Republican Party’s influence in the Senate. The original decision to allow states to determine voting qualifications has enabled Republican-controlled state legislatures to suppress the vote.

Hopefully, the reading of the Constitution will remind citizens of its flaws and how this American gospel is in desperate need of revision. But therein lies the constitutional catch-22. The founding fathers made it fiendishly difficult to amend.

Dr Nick Bryant is the author of When America Stopped Being Great: A History of the Present. Peter Hartcher is on leave.

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Morrison’s Minister for Everything’ Antics show Constitution is deficient

27 November 2022

When Prime Minister Morrison gave himself 5 ministries without even bothering to tell the ministers who he was over-riding, the Governor-General merely allowed him to do so.

Whether this was due to the fuss that was made when Kerr dismissed Whitlam and the upshot is that Governors-General believe that they have no right to countermand Prime Ministers I am unsure. Perhaps G-G David Hurley thought this; perhaps he wanted the PM’s support for his $18million ‘leadership’ scheme , or perhaps being military, he did not rock the hierarchical boat.

But some of us assumed that the Governor-General is head of State in order to stop political antics which are not in the interest of the Australian people. Naturally all the possible types of antics are not defined, nor presumably can anyone craft a law which bans any possible eventuality.

One is reminded of the aging President Hindenburg, who after the Reichstag fire made Hitler Chancellor and put out the Reichstag Fire Decree which Hitler used to suppress his opponents and get absolute power, even though Hitler did not have a clear majority on the floor of the Reichstag. The fire created an ‘emergency’ which was blamed on the Communists, but it is quite possible that the Nazis did it to create a crisis and enable them to take extra-judicial actions.

It is quite simply not acceptable to have a Prime Minster able to over-ride the Cabinet and take whatever powers he likes. The fact that Morrison only used this to stop a fracking project in the NT that he knew would be unpopular with the elections coming is not relevant. He could have done anything, and Hurley did not stop him.

If there is a censure motion against Morrison, this is also irrelevant. Morrison may be embarrassed and may or may not resign, but this will not stop it happening again a few years ahead. Even if Albanese arranges a law to prohibit multiple ministries, this may not help- any law can be reversed by a new government. It might also be noted that immediately after the 1972 election Prime Minister Whitlam and his Deputy Lance Barnard divided all the ministries between them and started enacting the programme that the ALP had taken to the election, merely to save time until his full Cabinet was appointed. This was consistent with the election result and seemed not to arouse any constitutional issues.

If we are to continue with a head of State who is ‘above politics’ he or she needs to be able and willing to stop political excesses. We need to know that there is some mechanism to stop an individual Prime Minster giving himself or herself whatever powers he or she likes. If you think, ‘it could not happen here’ you are wrong. It just has. The powers of the Governor-General were either inadequate or unclear and were certainly not used when they should have been. I cannot see that anything other than a clarification of the Constitution will resolve the matter. It seems that Justice Bell has overlooked this issue.
https://theconversation.com/view-from-the-hill-the-bell-report-on-morrisons-multi-ministries-provides-a-bad-character-reference-195368

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Liberal Preselection problems are significant in a Binary System

10 April 2022

Now that the election is called, progressives might delight in the bad publicity associated with the Liberals pre-selection battle.

The Saturday Paper had 3 articles yesterday, a front page about Morrison’s personal pre-selection scheming double-cross, an article about ‘How Morrison became a tin-pot dictator’, by Stephen Mutch, a moderate Liberal who was a NSW State MLC and briefly member for Cook, and a comment by ex-Federal leader John Hewson saying that Morrison’s willingness to ride roughshod over constituent processes shows total disregard for rank and file members.

In the immediate term of this election, it may hurt the Liberals, though 6 weeks is long time in politics so many people will forget. In my own experience door-knocking in the North Sydney by-election when Treasurer Joe Hockey resigned to go to New York, a Liberal told me that the local branch had pre-selected a candidate with 36 votes out of 40, and Trent Zimmerman had 2.  But Head office and the branch both had 40 votes, and put in Zimmerman with all their votes, giving him 42.  The local branch members were disgusted and did not help hand out.  Liberals came from other areas to staff the booth; it was a blue ribbon seat and a predictable victory.  Zimmerman is a moderate and the branch had a harder Right candidate, so head office favoured the moderate, who is now asking us to vote for him so that there are some moderates left in the Liberal party.

Similarly, Felicity Wilson, a moderate was parachuted into the State seat of North Sydney against the branch’s desire and against the branch’s more Right-wing candidate. 

Craig Kelly was kept in his seat when the branch wanted to dis-endorse him before last election, but were over-ruled by Morrison’s intervention.  What a success he turned out to be; anti-climate change, and then an anti-vaxxer.  The Libs stuck with him as they needed his vote only to be rewarded as he became an independent and now fronts Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party.

According to Mutch a ‘troika’ determines pre-selections in NSW; Morrison, Perrottet and he does not name the third person.  The question must be asked, what would happen if the troika did not control the numbers.  Who controls the branches and who would control the pre-selections if it were democratic?

Morrison has claimed to be a moderate, but Alex Hawke, Morrison’s hatchet man as the minder of David Campbell an evangelical Liberal right-wing numbers man in the NSW Upper house in the early 2000s, and was then given a safe seat.   The Right are in control.

The US Republican Party is completely out of touch with the common person in the US and acts in the interests of banks, big business, the gun lobby, fossil fuels, voter restriction and gerrymandering to maintain power.  They seem totally beholden to Donald Trump.  This has happened in about 15 years.  In their campaigning and some of the philosophy the Liberals follow the Republicans closely.  We must ask, ‘Who is joining the Liberal party?’  Fewer and fewer people join political parties, so they are correspondingly easier to stack or influence.  Lobby groups work on politicians, but if they can have members beholden to them for their pre-selections, it would make their lobbying much easier.  The Liberals are perceived as very right wing and very influenced by the right-wing Christian lobby.  Why would anyone else join?  And if they don’t, who will be left to control the grass roots?

In an article in the Sun Herald today (‘Infighting could cost seats: top Liberals) Liberal Federal Vice President Teena McQueen said that sitting members like Trent Zimmerman and Katie Allen could lose their seats but ‘with a couple of lefties gone we can get back to our core philosophy’.

This may not matter for 6 years if Labor wins and gets a second term, or even 9 years if they get a rare third term, but in a binary system the Libs will win eventually, which is why the nature of a major party membership and their pre-selection processes are of interest.  If the Liberals go the way of the US Republicans we are in danger.

Australians generally are sick of the two major parties and their capture by their lobby groups.  The High Court declining to intervene to support the branches was on the ground that political parties are Private entities.  They are not mentioned anywhere in the Constitution so have become almost privatised lobbies.  Labor have declined to release many policies to remain a small target because negative campaigning is more cost-effective than positive ideas. The question is whether Labor will actually do the right thing when they get in, or will they be conservative, do very little and leave things as the Liberals have made them in order to stay in power?  Pundits have described the ‘right-wing ratchet’ where the Conservative parties privatise and increase social inequality and the Progressive parties make noise and minor changes, but never actually undo what the Right has done.

The Independents are a fresh start, and the negative campaigning does not work as well against them.  There is a website ‘notindependent.com’ that is owned by the Liberals asking which party the independent will support? This of course tries to turn the whole thing into a binary contest again and the Independent effectively into a major party backbencher.  They also want the Independents to have a comprehensive set of policies, as if the Liberals do!

In the medium term, it may be reassuring to think that if a tradition of Independents can be established the major parties will not have it all their way, but this does not solve the problem of a Republican-like Liberal Party.

My own answer is a major change to the constitution with citizen-initiated referenda at 3 levels of government able to overturn Parliamentary decisions, part-time politicians limited to 2 terms so that politics is not a career and there are no significant party hierarchies to climb, multiple political parties so that no single one ever has an absolute majority and the members’ retirement plan is their current job.  This will take years of campaigning to achieve, so we’d better get on with it, or the increasing power and vulnerability of a private political party will have us following the US model, just a few years behind. 

www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au/opinion/topic/2022/04/09/how-scott-morrison-became-tin-pot-dictator/164942640013667#mtr

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Optional Preferential Voting Won Willoughby for the Liberals

4 March 2022

In the recent by-election in Willoughby one aspect that has escaped notice is that the optional preferential voting system delivered the seat to the Liberals because of the number of people who just voted 1, then exhausted their votes.

Liberal Tim James won the two-party preferred against the Independent Larissa Penn by 2,465 votes. But apart from the LDP (2.5%), the preferences of the other candidates strongly favoured the Independent. If there had been compulsory preferential and the exhausted preferences of each group were the same as those who gave preferences, the Independent would have won by 342 votes. This has huge implications for NSW as the Parliament is delicately balanced.

Optional preferential favours those with high primary votes and adds to the duopoly power of the major parties.

I have included the working of the preferences to justify this conclusion and make it easy for fact-checkers. Skip this part if you are not interested.

Here are the candidates in ascending order of their primary vote:

Gunning LDP 2.5% (44% gave preferences),

Bourke Sustainable Australia 5.1% (50% preferenced);

Hackett, Reason Party (Formerly Voluntary Euthanasia) 5.9% (68% preferenced because she numbered her first two squares),

Saville Greens 13.5% (52% preferenced- though she asked them to choose their own and did not number the squares),

Penn Independent 29.7%;

James Liberal 43.5%

.Looking at where the preferences of each candidate went:

Gunning’s Liberal Democrat voters gave 52% to the Libs, 24% to Penn.

Bourke’s Sustainable Australia gave 13% to the Libs, and 29% to Penn.

Hackett’s Reason Party voters gave 10% to the Libs and 69% to Penn.

Saville’s Green voters gave 12% to the Libs and 88% to Penn.

If there had been compulsory preferential voting and those who did not give preferences followed the people who did in their party there would have been an extra 890 votes for the Liberal (317+151+80+342 from the 4 candidates respectively), but an extra 3517 for Penn (146+331+562+2478). So Penn would have won by 162 votes, 20,938 (17,421 + 3517) to the Libs 20,776 (19,886 +890).

Note that given these assumptions about voting, the Greens would have contributed 2,478 of the extra preferences. This would not have been enough to give victory to the Libs, because the Greens had 12% or 347 votes preferencing the Liberal, so my accusation that the Greens gave the seat to the Libs was not quite correct; another 334 preferences were needed from the other candidates, but the significance was that they were 2478 of the 2812 (88%) that Penn needed to win.

The Greens by deciding not to number all squares made it very unlikely that the Independent could win. If they are concerned about who is in Parliament, and not merely their position vis a vis the major parties this is a major strategic mistake, and it is not the first time that they have done this- it is common in their HTVs. They should be a major voice for compulsory preferential voting in all Australian elections; they are anything but.All the figures I have given are from or can be derived from the State Electoral office results:

https://results.elections.nsw.gov.au/SB2201/Willoughby/Parliamentary/DOPReport.html

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NSW By-Elections:- Greens Hand Willoughby and NSW Parliament to the Libs

13 February 2022

There were 4 by-elections on Saturday. The Liberal vote fell, which is normal in by-elections, especially with a Federal government as hopeless as this one and the NSW pork-barreling reports, iCare incompetence and dodgy rail entities to dress up the books.


In Willoughby the Liberal primary vote fell 14.65%, from 57.03% to 42.38% (in the count so far). But what is interesting is that the Greens have given the seat to the Liberals by not allocating preferences. At the latest count, the Libs got 42.38%, Larissa Penn, a credible independent got 31.36% (up from 9.91% when she stood last time) and the Greens 11.64%.


Note the maths: Independent + Greens = 43.0%. Libs= 42.38%


Larissa Penn, the leading independent has stood before and would appear to be a considerable improvement on a right-wing Liberal who also ensures continuing Liberal dominance in the Parliament. A lot of votes are still not counted and it is not certain that she would have won even with Green preferences, but it certainly would have been a line ball. The other candidates who together got 14.62% may well have favoured a progressive independent over the status quo. William Bourke of Sustainable Australia got 3.44%, Penny Hackett of the Reason Party (previously called Voluntary Euthanasia Party) got 5.97% and even the LibDems at 2.67% may well have favoured an independent over a Lib. This is what preferential voting is for. I do know that a bigger cross bench makes for better legislation.


The major parties introduced optional preferential supposedly to make it easier for voters who didn’t know about those little parties and were in danger of voting informal. In reality they did it because if preferences exhaust it becomes ‘first past the post’ which favours those with big primaries. The big parties can (and have) put in a few dodgy independents to soak up the primaries of other independents and win even though a majority of people did not want them. Minor parties should stick together and allocate preferences. It is most irresponsible of the Greens not to do this. I wonder if they are scared of ‘like-minded independents’ and would rather have just the major parties and themselves than more diversity in Parliament Their long-term voting strategy of frequently exhausting their preferences rather than numbering all squares would support this proposition. In this case they numbered no squares themselves but put ‘VOTE 1’ then the lame recommendation ‘then number the other squares in order of your preferences’. Perhaps this was a sop from head office to the candidate, and perhaps the swing was bigger than anticipated and if they thought the Liberals were beatable they may have done differently. Perhaps, perhaps, but the Libs will keep a seat that may have changed hands, sent a big symbolic message and changed the parliament significantly. Silly Greens. The Libs should be very grateful to the Greens but will hope that no one will notice that the anti-democratic fiddle of optional preferential has really helped them this time.


In Bega the Liberals had a 13.46% swing against them (48.91 to 35.45%) and Labor picked up 11.93% (30.59 to 42.52%) and gained the seat. The Greens dropped 2% and the Shooters entered the fray and picked up 5.47%. We may have had a COVID and pork-barrel election up here, but down there where the bushfires wiped out whole towns and numbers of people were huddled on the beaches and rescued by the navy the government may have been in trouble for different reasons. But the swing was still very similar to Willoughby.


In Strathfield, Labor held on, but did not look too flash considering the mess the Liberals are in. Their primary vote fell from 44.30 to 40.07% (4.23%). The Liberal vote fell from 38.89 to 37.24% (only 1.65%). The combined major party vote fell from 83.19 to 77.28% (5.91%), and the Greens fell from 8.79 to 5.94% (2.85%). This was probably due to Elizabeth Farrelly, the well-known SMH journalist who is stridently in favour of better town planning and was sacked by the SMH when it was revealed that she was a member of the ALP. She stood as an independent, got 9.28% and did not direct preferences, giving her almost no chance. The Labor candidate Jason Sun-Yat Li is a good person, but did not live in the electorate, which is a bad look. He will, however, be an asset to the somewhat talent-poor NSW Labor Parliamentarians.


In Monaro, which the Nationals retained after the retirement of leader John Barilaro is likely to get little attention. The National’s primary vote fell from 52.31 to 45.48% (6.83%) which was similar to what Labor gained 27.16 to 33.04% (5.88%). The Shooters did not stand in the by-election adding their 7.78% to the pool, but an Independent who got 5.93% took up much of this and the combined major party votes only fell from 79.47 to 78.52% (0.95%).As the percentage of postal and early votes continues to rise the margin of error of these figures is increased but the sample size is large enough for the results to probably stand, (unlike in the Hunters Hill local elections where the pre-poll and postal vote varied significantly from the polling days votes, probably influenced by an anonymous defamatory leaflet which was miraculously delivered to the whole electorate on the Wednesday night, favouring the Liberals. The change in the voting pattern gave them the mayoral election.)


The NSW Parliament will have one less Liberal, so the numbers will be Liberals 33, Nationals 12 (=Coalition 45), Labor 37, Greens 3, Shooters 3 and Independents 5. With a total of 93, it takes 47 votes for a majority, but the Coalition 45 can still rely on two of the independents, John Sidoti and Gareth Ward as these two were elected as Liberals. They both resigned from the Liberal party but not the Parliament after allegations were made against them, Sidoti from ICAC re property development in Fivedock and Ward after allegations of sexual violence. It is interesting that both our Federal and NSW state governments rely on people who left their party for embarrassing reasons to survive.


Business as usual. Thanks Greens.

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Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame at the National Press Club

February 10 2022

They were riveting watching on 9 February.

Brittany Higgins talked about a toxic culture in Parliament House with sexual harassment, and Grace Tame was careful to define her area of activism as action to stop paedophiles.  Grace was quite insistent that this was not a gender war as she said that most of the people she met until relatively late in her journey of discovery were men, as it seems that more males had come out to discuss their grooming process than females.  It is about the behaviour, not about gender, though she conceded that most perpetrators were male.  She noted that her perpetrator had a known history (covered up) of abusing students and she was only one of his many victims.  Grace made no secret of her view that Morrison had done as little as possible, but when a question from a Murdoch journalist tried to get her to support Labor against the Liberals she declined to be drawn.  She said that the existing power structures of the Parliament, the law and the media protected paedophiles.  She also said that when she criticised the Prime Minister there was an inquiry as to the funding of the Council that awarded the Australian of the Year honour.  She took this to be a hint that they had to find one who was not critical of the government. She also described a caller who was “asking for my word that I would not say anything damning about the Prime Minister on the evening of the next Australian of the Year awards”.

“‘You are an influential person. He will have a fear,’ they said. What kind of fear, I asked myself?”

“And then I heard the words ‘with an election coming soon’.

“And it crystallised — a fear for himself and no-one else, a fear that he might lose his position or, more to the point, his power.”

Grace did not say who it was that called her, and declined to answer a question on the subject.  Now the Prime Minister himself wants to know.  Ho hum.  Obviously someone was trying to protect him.  Is this person to be hung out?

Brittany Higgins was unimpressed by the Parliamentary apology for the sexual harassment except as a first step and commented that the plan to deal with sexual harassment has a great statement of intentions, but these are so vague as to be able to be accepted by everyone, but not actually to specify any action, much less a time frame for such action. Another highly relevant comment she made in terms of the working of Parliament was the relationship between the minders and the public service, with a huge increase in the power of the minders despite their lack of worldly experience or knowledge and the corresponding downgrading of the influence of the public service, who of course should be a big reservoir of politically unbiased expertise.  She said that the public were unaware of the power relationships of minders and this was a problem. She was speaking more broadly than merely of sexual relationships.

As a person particularly interested in prevention, I think that the environment and pressures on individuals makes a huge difference to their decisions.  I first figured this out in boarding school where behaviour options were decidedly constrained, then observed it as people were pressured to take up smoking.  Social disadvantage and crime also stand out.

My state government minder gave me his opinion that if you went to Canberra it took about 18 months to lose all contact with real people and their issues as the Canberra bubble of politicians and the media were so isolated and both used each other as reality contact.  He went on to prove his own theory, as he went to Canberra to work with Meg Lees, Democrat leader, was there about 18 months and believed that she would beat Natasha Stott-Despoja in the leadership spill after Lees had enabled Howard to pass the GST.  Natasha won with 76% of the vote.  As an MP I went to a Young Democrats Conference in Canberra and was invited to a party that they were all going to with some of their friends who happened to be young Liberal staffers.  No one took much notice of the old guy in the corner, but I could not help but overhear the stories of their tactical victories over Labor.  Everything was entirely binary. The object was to win, which was to get ‘our’ agenda passed.  It was exciting, a chess game, and at no stage was there the slightest discussion of any policy or the need for discussion or compromise.  My overwhelming impression was that these folk had far too much power and far too little knowledge for the national good.  I think there are 3 stages of knowledge; those that know, those that don’t know, and those that don’t know that they don’t know; those kids were in a last stage.  (Later I added a 4th category, those who do not want to know and will actively resist knowing; this class being such as anti-vaxxers, religious folk and political ideologues).

I am also of the view that structure governs function.  If you wanted a Parliament that was out of touch, you would put it in a place isolated from the people (say Canberra), in a very secure building (say Parliament House) with excellent facilities in each room so that you did not need to meet anyone but your own. You would isolate them from their families, have unusual domestic arrangements, then have pressure situations where they worked long and emotionally exhausting hours so that they relied very much on their work colleagues.  Added to this there are male/female, age and power imbalances.  All this leads to a situation conducive to frenetic relationships with sexual harassment and marriage breakdowns.  Add a hierarchical binary system with winner takes all with a surfeit of powerful lobby groups and you get bad political decisions as well.

You may be able to fix one aspect of a dysfunctional system if you try very hard, but my view is that a Swiss-style democracy with multiple parties that have to compromise, part-time politicians limited to two terms so that they are not in a personal hierarchy and referenda where citizens can overrule the Parliament with plebiscites would seem to be likely to fix sexual harassment as well as a lot of other things.

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Limits to the Market and a Solution for Australia? 15/5/17

Since the last two world wars were over markets, it was assumed at the conference at Bretton Woods that if there were free markets everywhere there would be no wars and countries who did well would prosper. It worked.  Germany and Japan traded in markets that had been denied to them pre-war and ‘won the […]

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Swiss Democracy. 9/9/18

I visited Switzerland to see the Swiss Parliament and to try to get a feel for how their direct Democracy works. Their basic system is more like Australia’s than might be imagined.  They have two houses of Parliament. The lower one has members elected by a first post the post from individual electorates, and the […]

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Limits to the Market? A New Paradigm Needed!

15 May 2017

Since the last two world wars were over markets, it was assumed at the conference at Bretton Woods that if there were free markets everywhere there would be no wars and countries who did well would prosper. It worked.  Germany and Japan traded in markets that had been denied to them pre-war and ‘won the peace’. The dogma was that because there was efficiency in production we would all be better off as goods would be available all over the world quickly and cheaply. And, helped by the overwhelming dominance of Milton Friedman’s economic theories the market has spread into every aspect of life. The fact that when Friedman’s theories were actually implemented in South America that they failed miserably was merely a blip ignored. 

Now the market is assumed to be better than anything else as a way of allocating resources efficiently. It is better than government, better than planning, hey it is infallible, and probably inevitable as well!

Governments do not have to manage anything; they can sell it, even if they do not need the money. Inner city buses are the latest. 

If you read Chapter One of most economics books, it tells you about competition and how you cannot charge too much or a competitor will uncut you, so prices are kept down.

The rest of the economics book tells about monopolies or oligopolies, where there is poor competition and you can charge what you like, or there are high set up costs as barriers to competition, or regulatory hurdles, artificial training or registration requirements, geographical limitation, existing facilities, impractical duplication costs etc etc, which make monopoly or ‘supernormal’ profits a certainty.  Yet Governments plough on creating private monopolies and compliant political parties are rewarded by campaign funding to keep on winning elections.

What I am writing is not new or original and is known by anyone with even the most basic grasp of economic theory.  Do the politicians not read past Chapter One?  Do they never think that they are creating uncontrolled monopolies as they transfer assets from ownership by all the society to ownership by a moneyed elite?  Are they so ideologically committed to privatisation that they no longer think at all?  Do they not care, or will they do anything for their own short-term interest? It seems that the answer to all these questions is YES!

They have sold the airport, the sea port, the water supply (an endless subsidy to an unused desalination plant), the railways, the electricity, the road network and easements under it, the world standard database of land titles registration, the small councils power to control development, the list goes on and on.  The health system is being sold by stealth. Medicare is being starved to death, as private health insurance is just subsidised inefficiency, and NDIS disability services will go the same way, no government services, oligopolies for profit paid for by the ‘Medicare’ levy rise, which is not even committed to Medicare.  The education system no longer produces tradesmen to do the job and private education rip offs abound from dodgy day cares to non-Gonski funding to schools to post-TAFE colleges selling dubious certificates to phantom colleges ripping off visa-seeking migrant students.

The public service is being ‘hollowed out’. It no longer retains centres of expertise as it can always buy ‘consultants’ who carry briefcases and impressive CVs and have no interest except the public good.  It closes offices, hires short term workers, relies on PR driven websites and replaces people with knowledge by ‘Services NSW’ which has someone who might know which department might do what you might want.

Our existing political system seems unable to govern in our interest. The interest of the political parties no longer coincide with the public interest. Our governments’ decisions have been bought like everything else.  I do not think that money can be held at bay by electoral funding law reform. When we fought the tobacco industry, it sponsored sport and culture to get political allies. When that was banned, it sponsored ethnic groups, rescue boats and helicopters, any worthy cause that could lobby for it, and that was without gifts in kind, dodgy ‘foundations’ or other less visible influence-buying. 

The only answer that I can think of is Swiss-style democracy where major decisions are taken by referenda of the people, and Parliaments merely implement decisions that the people have made. Any other suggestions?

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