Saturday, July 17, 2010

We don't elect a PM

As widely expected, Julia Gillard has called an Australian federal election for the 21st August. As part of making the announcement, she said the following:

Today, I fulfil the pledge I made on the day I became Prime Minister. On that day, I acknowledged it is the right of every Australian to vote for the Prime Minister, and that in the very near future I would ensure all Australians could exercise their right.
This is simply not true. It is not the right of every Australian to vote for the Prime Minister. It is our right (indeed statutory obligation) to vote for a representative in Federal Parliament. It is up to the members of parliament to elect their leaders. It may be the case that in the popular mind we identify with a leader and vote for them, but this is a dangerous oversimplification. For Gillard to use this as the opening of her announcing affirms this misconception in the minds of voters. The problem with this line of thinking is that wise deliberation is further crowded out by personality politics more suited to celebrity magazines. Our system does not mean we elect people to mirror our views, or that MPs are obligated to advocate what the majority of voters want. We elect representatives who deliberate and make judgements on our behalf.

I am also disappointed to note that Gillard seems to be the kind of leader who is happy to allow and reinforce such misunderstandings of our system (and Abbott is no better, by the way). I know I'm fighting a losing battle on this issue, but it frustrates me to see that not even our highest elected official is willing to threaten voters' sense of entitlement (stoked by the popular media) in order to get it right.

By the way, don't forget to enrol or update your details. Ten percent of eligible voters, including about fifty percent of 18 year olds, aren't enrolled to vote and even more are yet to update their details. You can do so here.

UPDATE: Ben has pointed out that Bob Hawke has some typically colourful thoughts on Gillard's collusion with public confusion.


Michael Canaris said...

Hear, hear!

Anthony Douglas said...

What she meant, of course, is that it is our right to elect our PM, until their party gets cranky enough with them to summarily dump them. But that doesn't sound quite so principled.

So it's a silly line to take, because it's self-defeating. Every time she uses it, she effectively says that she doesn't care about the 'principle' she espouses.

It was Churchill, wasn't it? - democracy is the worst form of government, except for the rest of them.

michael jensen said...

Technically, she is wrong yes.

I like our system, kinda. It usually stops cranks, and keeps power in the hands of the oligarchies, which is right - except when the oligarchies make a mess of it. In the seat where I live, the only choice I have is to vote for the government, even though I believe they have lost the right to an extra term on the basis of their abuse of power. I have to vote for them so that the Greens (so-called) won't get in - that beggars the imagination.

byron smith said...

Greens so-called? What do you mean?

And you're saying that you'd vote for a Lib candidate if there were a serious contender?

Ben Hudson said...

Bob Hawke knows how the system works:

michael jensen said...

I might, yes. I can't vote Green - this is a party whose candidates HATE me, and everything I stand for. And they aren't backwards in saying so. It isn't just Christian Lobby spin to say so.

I usually vote Labour, not because I think they will do a better job, but because I think they will look after people less fortunate.

The Gillard putsch, tho' technically within the parliamentary party's rights under the Westminster system, I would argue was a terrible abuse of the process and of the trust the Aussie people put in the government. I wrote to my local member to say so.

Anonymous said...

Very good point Byron. There really is little point bringing it up in most conversations though. Like you say, it's a losing battle.

The other thing that has surprised me is the way Julia Gillard always talks about the Australian people's "birthright" to choose their government and PM. What about all those Australian citizens who were became citizens after migrating here?

And she herself is one of them.

Tim Dixon

Anonymous said...

...who became citizens after migrating here?

byron smith said...

Tim - You're right about the birthright point.

Ben - Thanks for that link. I don't know why the editors didn't make the headline: "Gillard talking 'bullshit', says Hawke".

Michael - I'm surprised to hear you use that argument (the Greens hate me). What does it have to do with the Greens being "so called"? I still don't get that, or are you just venting your anger? Can you provide links to where Greens candidates have said that they hate you and everything you stand for? ("everything", really? If so, I must have misjudged your politics). Are they really more opposed to what you stand for than the neo-liberalism from the main parties? (elements of which were labelled "anti-Christ" by O'D, remember. I'd vote for an enemy before I vote for anti-Christ, but maybe that's just me...). Seriously, whether someone hates me isn't the issue; it's whether they will do a good job of upholding justice and making wise political judgements. I'm sure the Greens can be rightly criticised on this front, but identity politics is beneath us.

And can you explain how the Gillard episode was an abuse of the system and public trust? More so than Hawke's replacement?

PS I assume you're being facetious about the oligarchies? Or not?

Donna said...

Byron, technically speaking, I can see you're correct. But when I vote for my local representative, I also take into account who I know he is going to "elect" as the leader of the party.

Bob Debus is the MP in my seat, a truly unimpressive person (seems to me, I talked to him once and know people who know him). But I also knew about Rudd's policies and itentions and supported him, so I voted for Debus because I knew he would vote along with Rudd.

If Mark Latham, for example, had been the leader of the party in 2007 I would not have voted for Bob Debus. So in a sense, don't we still vote for our leaders, because we vote for the party.

And Michael, I'm a Christian, and I don't know very much about Australian parties these days, but I stand for looking after the creation that God has entrusted to us - isn't that one of the things which the Greens are trying to do?

Donna said...

By the way, Byron, I agree that it was silly of Gillard to say that - we elected Labor and she's their rightful leader. She doesn't need any other mandate.

Michael Canaris said...

While I wouldn't class the Gillard Putsch as an abuse of process, insofar as from what I gather its primary animus seemed to turn more on transient polling data than substantive policy or personality factors, it does presage more instability than I'd normally be comfortable with; detracting from MPs' status as deliberative representatives rather than augur-consulting delegates. Granted, my own party also puts excessive stock in these tawdry exercises.

byron smith said...

Donna - You're right that the likely voting intentions of party members is one of many factors to take into account, though the importance of the role of PM can be overstated. We have a parliamentary system in which the PM has certain powers and the government other powers and the parliament yet other powers. However, even acknowledging this, these members are perfectly within their rights to change their intentions without notifying or checking with me first. They can do this for good reasons or poor reasons, of course (not every change of leadership is automatically justified just because the numbers were there for it) and voters can include the merits of their decision making in their consideration at the next election. I don't have enough information to make a decisive call on whether Gillard was right to challenge Rudd in this instance. I'd like to hear Michael explain why it was an abuse of the voters' trust. I'm not closed to that possibility, but I don't think switching leaders is in itself sufficient reason to call an election. Switching major policies, however, might be...

byron smith said...

Michael C - Yes, I agree. I don't see it as an abuse, just a possible (further) loss of nerve on Labour's part. Rudd should have called the double dissolution election when he first had the chance and trusted that he would be able to communicate the issue to the voters. If he had done that, then ALP left tempted to vote Green over climate would probably have ended up supporting him. And if he can't hold the centre on the issue he sees as the greatest moral challenge of our time, then he should have been willing to die on that hill (as Turnbull was).

Eclipse Now said...

Hi all,
I agree that the current system does not encourage 'voting for the PM' but the parties that represent us. This is a very good thing. Imagine Australia heading down the line of voting for a PRESIDENT! The personality politics of the USA? Here? Eeeerrererehehgghahaha. (Sorry about that, just projective vomited).

Our system does not mean we elect people to mirror our views, or that MPs are obligated to advocate what the majority of voters want. We elect representatives who deliberate and make judgements on our behalf.
We have to be careful not to overstate this view. We want politicians to follow through on their election promises. We want to know what we are voting for. I voted for Labor because ‘global warming was the greatest moral challenge of our time’. Then they served up the greenwashing CPRS, and finally dumped it altogether!

Basically, why even have elections, or ‘democracy’ for that matter, if we don’t believe that MPs are obligated to advocate what the majority of voters want. As far as I can tell, I thought the 'spirit' of democracy was that they do have an obligation to advocate the policies they promised the public.

On the other hand, I can see that as new circumstances arise (such as the GFC, or bigger, when peak oil begins to bite) they are the elected Representatives who must make the call. If they make the wrong call we'll sort them out at the next election.

byron smith said...

Basically, why even have elections, or ‘democracy’ for that matter, if we don’t believe that MPs are obligated to advocate what the majority of voters want.
Because democratic election is a means to an end, namely, having political authorities whom the population imaginatively identify with and accept as representing them such that their actions are also in some sense my actions. To trade trust in a wise decision making body for trust that my preferences will be advocated is a poor swap, though it is basically what our system now offers (and doesn't always even deliver on).

Jeremy said...

Couldn't agree more - from the American perspective, I've been horrified to watch the complete degeneration of local politics in my home country in the wake of the personality politics of the executive branch. And - barring the dubiously legal expansion of the executive powers lately in the form of bailouts and patriot acts - the executive is really not meant constitutionally to do anything (i.e. enact laws or declare war). It has been the complete abdication of responsibility by the legislative branches of American government which have promoted many of the disastrous misadventures of the past decade.

But this emphasis on regional elections does bring up another point, namely, if we are to emphasise the role of local politics and how a parliamentary system promotes such an emphasis, it is worth asking how local is local enough... i.e. does an MP (or legislator in my context) really scale adequately to represent their electorate? Should you be emphasising local council elections along side your support of parliament?

I think your prediction about this move is pretty accurate though, as American politics have certainly degenerated in this direction.

byron smith said...

Jeremy - you are right that local council elections are also very important and my wife has worked for a local council in the past. I admit we ought to follow local politics more closely than we often have. My point was that in Oz, federal politics is simply misunderstood and our highest elected officials are complicit with the media in perpetuating such misunderstandings.

The US President is (more) directly elected (I realise that state electors elect the president, but the candidates' names are directly on the ballot paper), but I also agree that the focus on personality politics is destructive to action (in Arendt's sense) in both cases.