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Dealing with democratic deficits

Disciplines
  • Law
  • Political Science

Abstract

Brian Costar looks at one product of South Australia’s novel constitutional reform process WHEN former Liberal and then independent parliamentarian Peter Lewis made his controversial decision to support the Opposition Labor Party after the 2002 South Australian election, he negotiated a Compact of Good Government with the ALP and assumed the speakership of the Legislative Assembly. A major component of the compact was that the government legislate to create a Constiutional Convention to consider changes to the state constitution, including one of Mr Lewis’ favourite causes - citizen initiated referendums (CIR) which would be binding on the government and parliament. As part of that process, a conference was held in Adelaide in 2002, the proceedings of which were edited by South Australian academics Clement Macintyre and John Williams as Peace, Order and Good Government: State Constitutional and Parliamentary Reform (Wakefield Press, 2003). Premier Mike Rann does not exaggerate in describing the book ‘as a valuable addition to the debate on [constitutional] reform and... a timely contribution to it’. It is pleasing to see the upsurge in interest in the often ignored and misunderstood state constitutions. The book covers a wide field including parliamentary reform, Bills of Rights, the role of the State governor and federalism. Electoral reform is less well covered - except as it relates to policy referendums (or CIR) which John Warhurst describes as ‘a most passionately debated issue’. In this volume the chief protagonists are Geoffrey De Q. Walker (for) and Lisa Hill (against). Walker asserts that CIR ‘would be a powerful re-assertion of democratic principles at a time when political globalisation is giving rise to a widely acknowledged and growing “democratic deficit”’, whereas Hill argues that while majority will is a fundamental component of democracy, ‘it is not always the place to look for the answer to social and political problems with complex aetiologies’. One could add that to the extent that there exists a democratic deficit in Australia, it is most manifest in rural and regional areas, where voters are abandoning the major parties in favour of independents. CIR is a blunt, political instrument under which regional minorities would be further marginalising by the undiluted voting power of large metropolitan majorities. When the Constitutional Convention convened in Adelaide last weekend, the 300 randomly chosen ‘people’s delegates’ supported upper house reform, optional preferential voting and the independence of the Speaker, but treated CIR with a healthy scepticism. Brian Costar is a visiting fellow at the Institute for Social Research, Swinburne University of Technology The 10 August edition of Radio National’s The National Interest was broadcast live from the South Australian Constitutional Convention at Parliament House in Adelaide. You can listen to a recording of the program via the link at http://www.abc.net.au/rn/talks/natint/default.htm

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