Edited by Marc Eastmure
The functioning of the Australian government is fundamentally entwined with the existence of political parties. Primarily, the role of the political party is to aggregate the complexity of public opinion into coherent representative bodies that can link abstract political views with concrete government action. Democracy, loosely defined as government for and by the people, is characterised in Australia by the holding of free and fair periodic elections that elect public officials to represent us in parliament. This is what is called ‘representative democracy’ and while it is the most familiar form of democracy, is not the only form.
'Direct democracy', as reflected by the name, is a form of democracy that seeks to give citizens the power to have a more direct role in the making of public decisions. It does this by allowing the public to make authoritative decisions on laws by having the public vote directly on legislation (as opposed to having public representatives like your MP vote).
Switzerland is the most notable modern country to feature distinct elements of both direct and representative democracy. In the case of legislation, any law passed which acquires 50,000 signatures within 100 days of being passed must be put to the people for approval by an optional referendum.
Party discipline within Australian politics is particularly strong, with Labor party members being required to sign a pledge for them to always vote on party lines. Because of this, there is the potential for certain issues to not be represented in government according to the public's wishes, with a 2016 report from the Museum of Australian Democracy finding public satisfaction over how government addresses salient issues , such as climate change, to be at a 20 year low of 42%. Many say that the drawbacks of Australia's current system can be seen in the recent Liberal Party leadership spill, where the election of a new Prime Minister came against the direct wishes of the people.
In Australia, there is a growing movement towards 'grassroots direct democracy'. Flux is a notable Australian political startup that seeks to incorporate elements of direct democracy into Australia by electing 'Flux party' members to Parliament, who then have to vote according to votes cast on the 'Flux app', an app open to the public.
Would direct democracy be an improvement
over our current system of government?
ABC, ‘Young Australians are engaged in political issues, but unsure how democracy works'; News.com.au, ‘Switzerland’s direct democracy: The country where everybody votes on everything’; Museum of Australian Democracy, ‘Who do you trust to run the country?: democracy, trust and politics in Australia’
Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, ‘Threat of referendum ‘sword’ keeps politicians in check’
The Conversation, ‘Australia needs to lead again on democratic innovation’
Sydney Morning Herald, ‘The democracy question: the dubious rise of the referendum’
Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, ‘How to reconcile direct democracy and international law’; ABC, ’The Tyranny of the Majority: A Plebiscite Betrays Liberal Principles’