The Guardian June 16, 1999

More democracy not less

A many-sided attack is taking place in Australia on democratic rights 
achieved over many generations. Rights have never been incorporated in a 
"Bill of Rights" contained in the State and Commonwealth Constitutions and 
are always at risk. They are dependent on the vigilance of a democratic-
minded society.

The attack on established rights is to be clearly seen in industrial 
legislation which is imposing a tightening noose around the right of 
workers to be members of trade unions and to take industrial action when 

There is the Federal Government's legislation to impose censorship on the 
Internet. The Internet is at present the most open and democratic means of 
public expression and participation and if a means is found to restrict it 
in one direction it will only be a matter of time before censorship is 
extended in other directions.

The third, and most serious attack on democratic rights, is the steps being 
taken to limit the opportunities for voters to elect representatives 
outside of the Coalition and Labor Parties by changing the rules for 
election to the Senate and Upper Houses of State Parliaments.

The Westminster parliamentary system is based on one of the parties forming 
the government and the second being a loyal opposition. In this instance 
being "loyal" means accepting the dominance, the rights and privileges of 
the wealthy, property-owning ruling class.

This "two-party system" is being challenged by the growing disillusionment 
with the major parties and the election of representatives from other 
parties and independents.

The two governing political groups are united in their attempts to put a 
lid on this growing disillusionment by changing the electoral laws to make 
it more difficult or even impossible for the rising political forces to be 
elected or to even stand as candidates.

The decision of the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) to 
look at ways to put clamps on the present situation in the Senate indicates 
just who is behind the moves by both Liberal and Labor politicians and who 
would benefit by changing the electoral procedures.

Mark Paterson for the ACCI claims that the Coalition has a "mandate" to 
introduce economic reforms which are being frustrated by the fact that the 
Coalition does not have a majority in the Senate.

This argument falls down on the fact that the Coalition parties DID NOT 
RECEIVE A MAJORITY OF VOTES in the last Federal elections and were only 
elected on the preferences of the small parties and independents that are 
so despised by the Coalition parties.

Various schemes are being devised to change the rules. They include 
increasing the threshold of votes needed to be elected or to have 
preferences counted, increasing the number of members and signatures 
required for a party to become registered, increasing the deposits 
necessary for candidates to stand or to even abolish Upper Houses 
altogether as Michael Egan would like to do with the NSW Upper House.

An editorial in the Australian Financial Review (10/6/99) has bought 
into the debate which, while claiming that the debate is "opportune", 
points out that "what they are really arguing about is the notion of 
absolute power ... and [that this] would remove the system of review and 
consultation that has become central to our system of governance."

It goes on to warn that some of the proposals being made would reduce the 
Senate "to becoming little more than a rubber stamp",  and that this "may 
not go down well with an electorate which gave nearly 25 per cent of its 
Senate votes to non-major parties in the last federal election."

There is a need for reform of the electoral system but for the House of 
Representatives rather than the Senate. In very few of the recent Federal 
elections has the party forming the government received over 50 per cent of 
the vote, while hundreds of thousands of voters who cast votes for 
alternative parties are not represented at all.

What is urgently needed is the extension of the system of proportional 
representation used for the Senate, to the House of Representatives.

There must be more democracy not less!
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