Two problems in our democracy

The word ‘democracy’ describes one form of government.  It stands for what Abraham Lincoln called government of the people, by the people, and for the people.  It follows that the government will only be as good as the people of and by whom it is made and for whom it acts.

We in Australia follow the English version that developed from the eighteenth century.  People vote for candidates from two different political parties.  So does the U S.

That mode is in trouble here, and in the UK and the US.  Two issues may not be logically connected, but they have a common source – the readiness, willingness, and ability of the people to make the system work.

The two-party system can only work as well as the two parties.  So much is axiomatic.  The people as a whole have very little say in, or control over, the composition or conduct of the two parties.  We have whole statute books about companies, partnerships and clubs, but next to nothing about political parties. 

It is at best odd that our governance depends on institutions outside our control.  How would it be if we allowed our education and health systems to be run by bodies that are not answerable to us – except when we get a chance to vote against those whom they have kept in office?

This anomaly was highlighted recently when a party in government in the UK badly misgoverned, but instead of resigning and allowing the electorate to choose, the government left the appointment of a new leader to the members of one party.  That small group was a tiny part of the people as a whole.  It proceeded by its own rules, which were written for the benefit of that party, and in particular for the benefit of those members of the party in control of it at that time.  Those rules were tailor-made to produce a disaster, and they did.  To the lasting damage of the U K and its people.

In Australia, people are taking action by voting for and securing the election of very competent people whose stand is expressly premised on a rejection the major parties.  If that change continues, the two-party system will be over here.

It may be worse in the U S where at any one time it is impossible to say who is responsible for the conduct of either party, or the formulation of its objectives.  And they do not appear to have a leader of the opposition. 

That leads to other bad problems – like hopeless promises about what the party might do if it gets into power.  If one party does win a change of government, much of its energy is devoted to sharing the spoils by appointing people to offices where they do not have to account for themselves as they would under the Westminster System.

The two-party system needs two parties by definition.  Government will therefore only be as good as the opposition.  That proposition is as inherent in our democracy as competition is to our capitalism.  If the opposition is weak, it does not do its job in policing government, and the standard of government drops.

The opposition party in both Victoria and the Commonwealth at present is in a very bad way.  That is obviously unhealthy for all of us.  We are used to governments going rotten because their opposition has not kept them honest.  Had the Labour Party in the U K not been so fractured, the result of Brexit may well have been different.  The disaster of Trump only occurred after the Democrats put up a candidate as flawed as Jeremy Corbyn – and that statement is large.  In each case, the people as a whole were badly hurt by the failings of one party – that were capitalised on by a party that was not much better.

The parties described as ‘conservative’ – a quite useless and misleading term – are weak in Australia, possibly worse in the UK, and a squalid disaster in the U S.  What chance then is there of the people in any of those nations getting decent government?

The parties named ‘Labour’ here and in the UK at least have a history, although that label is troubling for many whose collar is not blue, and if that party wants to be in the race, its members dictate that its policies are hardly different to those of the ‘conservatives.’ 

That too is unhealthy almost by definition in a two-party system.  Adversaries don’t usually sing hymns of praise from the same song sheet.  In the result, we have two desultory mobs that look sadly alike – except to their war weary old warriors or those bystanders whose livelihood depends on conflict.

But there is a worse problem.  A decent opposition does not just attack the policy of the government.  It offers an alternative policy that it will put in place if elected.  That is a necessary function for it in a two-party system.  It is no good just saying ‘No’, and putting a spoke in the wheel – and picking up your bat and ball and going home.

It was in a book about the Revolution – Leaders of the French Revolution – that the wonderful English historian, Dr J M Thompson, set out the ground rules.

…an Englishman …. has been trained to exercise his party spirit in the game called the Party System; and among the rules of that game – not always observed [1929] as they should be – are the obligation to sink personal differences in party loyalties, not to criticise your opponent’s policy unless you have a better one that you are prepared to carry out yourself, and in case of national crisis, to help rather than hinder whatever government may be in power.  But party politics in the French Assembly meant a very different thing….so majority legislation might be merely partisan, and minority criticism merely destructive and irresponsible.

Before you condemn that as too old and too far away, remember that it comes down to us from those who invented the whole bloody game.

That kind of rule, convention, or practice has fallen away in the last generation.  It may or may not be coincidence that it reared up immediately when a black man was elected as President of the U S for the first time, and the Republicans – predominantly old and white and paradigms of platformed mediocrity – resolved to do all they could, and to cheat as hard as they could, to stop President Obama doing just about anything – whatever the cost.  Decent people around the world looked on in horror as erstwhile guardians of the constitution simply went on strike and stopped the government dead, and did all in their power to stop a once decent nation catching up to being within about a century of the rest of the west on universal health care.  So, the Americans preferred the model of the French Assembly shown by Dr Thompson as at, say, 1793.

And some very mediocre people who did not know any better followed their example in Australia.  The worst instance was the quite irrational opposition to any responsible policy on the environment, which left us as an international dunce, with life threatening consequences at home for the rest of us.

The other party committed the reverse sin.  Instead of opposing a policy on refugees that had been manipulated just to win one election, it decided that discretion dictated that it should swallow its principles.  And we tried to pretend that other nations did not notice our falling off.  We just observed the standard practice of binning the Sermon on the Mount when politics rule the game, and with not one blush to be seen.

So – there is a sketch of one problem of three democracies.  And it is one for which the people as whole are plainly answerable – although there is not much sign of that.

The other problem is another case of our failure as a people.  

In our world, if we want someone to do something for us, we usually have to do something for them in return – and that generally means that we have to pay to get what we want.  The service we get depends on what we pay for it. 

People in Australia and England expect a very high level of service from government.  From just about the time the Commonwealth of Australia came into being, we have been part of what is called the Welfare State.  We expect government to provide services in health and education and to look after the infirm, aged and unemployed.  That is a fact of our political life, and one reason why the word ‘socialism’ is useless here.  The U S has a very different approach to government, and it is one that the rest of the western world simply could not countenance.

If something goes wrong in Australia, people demand to know what ‘they’ will do about it.  But although we demand and expect full protection and support from our government, we are not sensible or mature enough to have a rational discussion about how we pay for it. 

The word is tax.  We are not as coy as the Americans, but that is not saying much.  As it seems to me, we have not been game to collect enough tax from people who could afford it – people like me.  I would scream and groan – I have done that anyway – but the funding of the services we expect from government would have a rational basis. 

Even a slight invitation to the dance puts people in a tizz – after the politicians have put the frighteners on them.  The scare about capital gains and franked dividends was cowardly and callous – and also showed a scary ignorance in the financial press

Our failure to reach this level of sense and maturity leaves our politics sadly predictable and banal, with very ordinary people being bitchy on the fringe, and not looking at the world as it is.

As best as I can see, the first problem only looks like getting worse.  Accordingly, we are unlikely to deal with the second.  The inherent risk in any democracy is that government will not govern in a way that people will not like in the short term, when that is precisely what they need for the long term.

The case looks much worse in the U S.  The Puritans killed off the English way of dealing with poverty, and they did so on doctrinal grounds.  The Founding Fathers elevated the English Bill of Rights into the Constitution and turned the Justices of the Supreme Court into lawmakers in areas we may prefer not to see our lawmakers entering – including those relating to guns and God.  The English never refer to their Bill of Rights; in the U S, it has trashed the joint.  And they have been unable to keep God out of government, with results that are nauseating – not least for God.  The Civil War inflamed the cancer of race, their Original Sin.  The nation then refuses to look after those who don’t do so well.  They show a Darwinian coldness that is unconscionable to us.  And those who were supposed to guard the constitution have wrecked it by tolerating, then electing, and then submitting to an amoral fraud and a coward.  And too many American people want to believe obvious and venomous lies.  The politicians have cheated and vandalised all the way.  Government in the U S is now so low that it cannot even do its first job – protect the people by keeping the peace.

And, so, we the people all get what we deserve.  Or, as someone said, if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.  If we are not prepared to do enough or pay enough to do better, we don’t deserve it.  The short point is that we do not do enough or pay enough to make our democracy work well.  The problems with our democracy are not with government or the parties, but with us.

Politics – two party system – Westminster – Left/Right – Conservative/Progressive – Liberal/Labor – Independents.

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