Australian Political System
Australian Political System: Liberal Democracy
Ever since the origin of state, societies have been debating about the best way to organise their government. The debate has been organised along the views of the ancient philosophers such as John Stuart Mill (representative government), Karl Marx (communism), Thomas Hobbes and Jean Jacque Rousseau (Social contract theory), John Locke and Montesquieu (Separation of powers) among others (Parkin, 2002). The most common form of government to emerge from this debate includes democratic government, Monarchy, communist and authoritarian or dictatorial governments. Whereas each political system has its own inherent weaknesses, democratic organisation seems to have won as the ideal form of government (Fukuyama, 1989; Heywood, 2007). This assertion can be remembered in the words of former British prime minister, Winston Churchill, who extolled democracy as “the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” (1947, p.7566). Democratic government embrace such ideals as equality, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, free and regular election and a society governed by the rule of law. Democratic governments such as Australia, Canada, United States and the Western European countries have expanded their political system to include individual liberties. The understanding among these countries, which are now referred to as liberal democracies is that there can be no democracy without liberalism.
The political system known as liberal democracy encompasses two distinctive elements: liberal and democracy. When speaking about political systems, most people may talk about democratic government while in essence they mean liberal democratic governments. The concept of democracy is broad, but stating from its etymological derivations, its basic meaning is the rule of the people (Plattner, 1998). In some cases, it has been described as the rule of the majority. Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States described democratic government as the “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” (Epstein, 2011: 819).
In its stricter sense, a democratic government is the one legitimised by free, fair and regular elections, universals adult suffrage and the freedom to run for office. This brings the conflict of a democracy. While in ancient time people exercised their power to rule directly, in modern states, democracy is only possible through representatives. While the representative model of democracy as practiced in Australian seems to be in tandem with democratic principles, it is apparent that to some extent, citizens lose their power to rule to a rule of the few. However, this disadvantage is dissipated when the government becomes a liberal democracy.
As Plattner, (1998) notes, the term “liberal” in the phrase liberal democracy “refers not to the matter of who rules but to the matter of how that rule is exercised”. Liberal democracies are the countries which apart from holding free and regular elections, they are also governed by a rule of law. In liberal sense, a rule of law is constitutional liberalism. The ideals of liberalism extol respect to human rights and a limited government that allows individual liberties to flourish. The distinction of the two terms (liberal and democracy) differentiates between what is a democratic government and a liberal democracy. It also differentiates democracy as practiced in Australia, United States and Western Europe with the democracy practice commonly in Africa and Latin America. While some of the world countries have acquired the title of democratic states after falling within the third wave of democratization, most of them are democratic states in the stricter meaning of democracy (Maddox, 2005). That is to mean, they are only “elective democracy” and not liberal democracy as Australia is. The common distinction is the lack of the element of constitutional liberalism. In constitution liberalism, a democratic government is first limited by the rule of law, and secondly by the primacy of individual rights (Hirst, 2002). In such cases, the government has limits up to which it cannot interfere with people private life, including their beliefs and pursuit of personal happiness. In democratic government, characterised by regular elections but missing the liberal sense of governance, individual rights can be violated. The concepts of freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of worship, protection of private property and the right to privacy are only evident in liberal democracy like Australia. From this distinction, it is clear that a democratic government is different liberal democracy government.
Principles of Liberal Democracy in Australia
Australia respects both electoral democracy and liberal order (Heywood, 2007). Starting with electoral democracy, Australia holds practises a federal system of government with a national parliament and legislative assemblies and councils. The Australian electoral system has undertaken considerable measures to ensure that elections at all levels are guided by democratic principles. It has been innovative to ensure that representation is fair as much as possible. Beside holding free and fair election that are carried out by an independent statutory authority, the Australian Electoral Commission, Australia has engineered its electoral system to ensure that its reflects democratic values. For instance, Australia is among the first liberal democracies to introduce compulsory voting, secrets ballots and votes for women. The idea of compulsory voting though is controversial - making it mandatory for people to vote runs contrary to democratic principles. In liberal democracies, it is expected that the choice to vote is a personal freedom, but in Australia it is a legal duty punishable by jail or a fine. Some of the voters have been opposing this duty arguing that it violates their rights. According to the opponents, democratic governments should inspire people to vote but not to coerce them. The idea of adult suffrage can be traced from the Mill’s philosophy of representative government. According to Mill ideals of a representative government, it is unjust to deny eligible person the right to vote.
That controversy notwithstanding, the electoral system in Australia has taken major steps to ensure that elections are regular and fair, majority have their way while minority have their say, votes are of equal value, reduced voter apathy, maximum possible franchise and the voting is accessible (Haeusler, 2005). For instance, in 1919, the Federal Parliament, voted to introduce preferential voting system in the place of the first-past-the-post. The preferential voting is a measure to ensure that the members who are elected to the House of Representative are the most preferred by the majority of the electorate. The proportional voting system practiced in parliament tries as much as possible to accommodate the minority. Such an electoral system tries to accommodate the ancient ideals about democracy. For instance, the arrangement to ensure that elected official reflects the will of majority can be traced from john Locke’s philosophy that all government should derive legitimacy from the people (Webb, Farrell, and Holliday, 2002). It is also in conformity with international treaties such as the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Article 21 of this treaty holds that “everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives”. This treaty also proclaims that “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of the government” and that “this shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures”. Trying to accommodate the right of both the majority and the minority in Australia is a major step at ensuring that all Australian government are formed by a popular initiative.
In its demonstration of its will to hold free and fair elections and safeguard political freedom, Australia is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) treaty (Tham, Costar, and Orr, 2011). From these commitment of fair elections, Australia electoral democracy also champion competitiveness. Unlike in a communist state like China, Leaders in Australia are free to form political parties and compete for elective posts. In such a case, citizens are given an opportunity to choose to be governed by the party a philosophy and manifesto that best represent their interest (Singleton, 1996). In this case, the political space in Australia is dominated by two political parties, commonly described as right-wing and left- wing party. In Australia, the major contention is between the Liberal and the labour, in United States it is between the Republicans and Democrats, in United Kingdom it is the Conservative Party versus the Labour while in Malta it is the Labour party versus the Nationalist party. Little parties also have a chance to compete for political post only that they are not popular.
In liberal terms, Australian government is established on firm grounds of individual liberties and respect of human rights. Like in United States the liberal democracy in Australia recognises the creed that all men are created equal and that individuals have certain inalienable rights. In this case, the liberal principles in Australia, like in other western democracy hold that all governments must protect the dignity of human beings. This dignity extends to all people, including prisoners. This explain why the rule of law in Australia is far much entrenched than it can be found in democratic governments such as those found in Africa. The liberal constitutionalism in Australia holds that the government must be restrained from its excesses by the rule of law. Citizens therefore, in their liberal rights have the right to freedom of worship, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of privacy, the rights to private property and the right to pursue happiness so long as the pursuit of happiness does not infringe on other peoples right. The right to private property can be considered the genesis and the main anchor of the capitalism. To safeguard these rights, Australia besides establishing progressive human rights laws is also a party to various international treaties that seek to protect individual liberties.
Even when there are serious question and debates going on about the desirability and the feasibility of liberal democracy as the perfect philosophy of government, it is easier to conclude that the political ideology of liberal democracy has served Australia as well(Bell, 2006). Compared to other states that practice other forms of governments, Australia and western democracies can be considered as virtuous states. Liberal democracies have brought about human development, respect of human rights as well as economic development. It is not by accident that most liberal democracies in the world are also the most developed in the world. It cannot also be by accident that authoritarian states are also the least developed in the world (Chan, 2002). The virtues of liberal democracies point that there is a close connection between liberalism, democracy, capitalism as practiced in the form of the right to private property, and economic development(McAllister and Wanna, 2001). However, the question of capitalism, as practiced along other liberalism ideal raises the question of common good. Whereas liberal democracy seems to be designed to champion common good, the element of capitalism seem to be working against these principles. Capitalism is blamed for inequalities and the desire to accumulate property at the expense of the weaker members of the society. In such regard, liberal democracy is often thought to be inappropriate, or not feasible to ‘collectivist’ societies such as China and majority of the Asian countries.
The shortcomings of liberal democracy are balanced out by Australian utilitarian political culture. Unlike in United States where individual rights are glorified, the Australian culture of utilitarianism has a tendency to push political and economic policies with the common good in mind (Haeusler, 2005). This differentiates Australia from other western democracies that have become the irony of what it means to be in a shared prosperity. Australia is among the liberal democracy with the least inequality. Compared with the US for instance, Australia leads by far in access to education, health and its robust welfare state. In the individualistic United States, education and healthy has become too expensive for those at the bottom of economic status. In all respect, however, liberal democracy, like Fukuyuma(1989) remarked in the “End of History” theory has triumphed over other forms of governments
Bell, D.A., (2006). Beyond Liberal Democracy, political Thinking for an East Asian Context. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Callan, E., (1997). Creating Citizens: Political Education and Liberal Democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Chan, S., (2002). Liberalism, Democracy and Development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Churchill, W (1947). Speech in the House of Commons. In R. James (Edn). Winston Churchill: His Complete Speeches, 1897-1963 (p.7566). New York: Chelsea House
Epstein, R. A (2011). Direct Democracy: Government of the People, by the People, and for the People. Harvard journal of Law and Public Policy Vol. 34 (3): 819-827
Fukuyama, F., (1989). The End of History? New York: national Affairs
Haeusler, P., (2005). Vibrant, oppositional culture: The media and Australian political culture, 1880-1910. Canberra: University of Canberra
Heywood, A. (2007). Democracy. In Politics (3rd ed.) (pp. 71-88). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Hirst,J. (2002). Australia’s democracy: A short history. Sydney: Allen & Unwin
Levinson, M (1997). Liberalism versus Democracy? Schooling Private Citizens in the Public Square. British Journal of Political Science Vol. 27(3): 333-360
Maddox, G. (2005). Australian democracy in theory and practice (5th ed). Melbourne: Longman Australia
McAllister, I., & Wanna, J. (2001). Citizens’ expectations and perceptions of governance. In G. Davis & P. Weller (Eds.), Are you being served? State, Citizens and governance (pp.7-35). Sydney: Allen and Unwin.
Parkin, A. (2002). Liberal Democracy. In J. Summers, D. Woodward & A. Parkin (Eds), Governement, politics, power and policy in Australia 97th ed., pp. 297-321). Frenchs Forest: Pearson Education Australia.
Plattner, M. F., (1998). Liberalism and Democracy: Can’t Have One Without the other. Foreign Affiars. Retrieved on Dec, 13, 2014 from: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/53815/marc-f-plattner/liberalism-and-democracy-cant-have-one-without-the-other
Singleton, G. (1996). Independents in a Multi-Party System: the Experience of the Australian Senate. Papers on Parliament No. 28
Stiglitz, J. (2014) Inequality: Why Australia must not follow US. The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved on Dec, 14, 2014 from: http://www.smh.com.au/comment/inequality-why-australia-must-not-follow-the-us-20140706-zsxtk.html
Tham, J., Costar, B,. & Orr, G. (2011). Electoral democracy: Australian prospects. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press
Webb, P., Farrell., & Holliday, I., (2002). Political Parties in Advanced Democracies. Oxford: Oxford University press