Representative Democracy Versus the Unrepresentative Swill

I have been absent for a while but have been strong-armed back by the appearance of Iain Walker on the ABC’s Qanda political debate program tonight (Question and Answer). I don’t know much about Iain Walker so I’m not plugging him, other than to say that he runs a foundation called newDEMOCRACY which has proposed a ‘citizen senate’, something along the lines of an idea I have been mulling over for the last month and a half. I post some brief details below.


The question is whether democracy could be improved by greater representation from ‘ordinary’ people. Australia’s present political landscape features one peculiarity which suggests (by sheer fluke) that this may credible: due to Australia’s fairly unique ‘preferential’ voting system and the large number of candidates that can run for election to the Senate we have seen the election of a number of relatively ‘ordinary’ Australians who quickly developed their ability and taken their job with seriousness.


Australia’s democracy has an upper and lower house. Typically the role of the lower house proposes, debates and constructs policy, while the upper house (senate) serves as a ‘check’ to either pass or reject those proposals.

The rules of the upper house allow a great number of candidates to run for election – in my state of Australia (Victoria) this number was 97 last election (2013). To vote for the upper house one can either select their single preferred candidate  (referred to as voting above the line) or choose to laboriously number all the way from 1 to 97 (vote below the line). Due to the complexity of the latter – sorting through tens of candidates the average voter has never heard of and possibly having to fill out the ballot sheet more than once due to error – most citizens opt to vote above the line; they make one choice.

The second point of interest here, as mentioned, is Australia’s ‘preferential’ voting system: if their selected candidate does not receive enough votes to be elected outright (~14% of the vote) their preference is carried on to another candidate; and on it goes, passing on and on until a candidate has amassed enough of this ‘trickle down’ vote to be declared winner.

The problem with this system from the standard of democracy is that the party/candidate chooses to whom the(above the line) preferences they’ve received are transferred. This can lead to bizarre results such that some candidates with a miniscule proportion of the (first preference) vote are elected on the basis of preferences accumulated from a large number of other candidates who also received a tiny proportion of the vote. The final result is that someone is elected because of preference deals not because the voters actually chose them – for this reason Paul Keating famously called the senate ‘unrepresentative swill’ – they do not represent the choice of the people. A case in point of this phenomenon is the election of Senator Ricky Muir in 2013 who was elected with just 0.51% of the first preference votes (the smallest ever for an elected senator), receiving his preferences from 23 other candidates. He represents the Motoring Enthusiasts Party. Few had ever heard of him before.

Several of the mainstream political parties have been quick to assert that this process is inherently undemocratic. The problem with this criticism, though it is true, is that Ricky Muir, in my view (which may simply betray my politics), has done an outstanding job of trying to represent the interests of Australians – which is what a representative democracy is all about.

And there is a sense in which Ricky Muir does represent Australians. Consider that Ricky Muir has a public education like approximately 88% of Australians (most politicians attended private schools); like around 78% of Australians Muir has no degree (79% of the political class have one); and prior to his election he was earning $40,000 per year (below the 2011 median Australian wage of $57k) as a manager of a saw mill. This business collapsed shortly before he began as a Senator. At the time some ridiculed this, suggesting that his own lack of industriousness might be to blame, yet I suspect that few other politicians have had the experience of involuntary redundancy and the other slings, arrows and anxieties that confront many ‘ordinary’ Australians.

The often raised criticism that many of our political representatives are ‘career politicians’ is also valid; a statistic raised by Iain on Q&A moments ago was that only around 20 of the 200 or so elected politicians in the upper and lower house of parliament have not had jobs in which they were political assistants, advisors, lobbyists, staffers – the path into politics is politics and progress through political ranks relies on internal dynamics far more than it does democratic credentials (in the initial case).

Whatever one thinks of the quality of our politicians it should be clear that there is a difference between the average member of public and the average member of a political party – in addition to socio-economic factors the latter is prey to the internal logic of their organisation (for better or worse); and they are also, as a result of tacit agreements and alliances likely more indebted to external pressures – lobby groups and large business (or union) interests. As Robert Michels argued, party politics tends toward oligarchy – rule by an elite – that is to say, it is has its own undemocratic tendencies.

Ricky Muir entered the senate with none of these constraints – the person he was perhaps most indebted to (for the organisation of the preference deals of the Australian Motor Enthusiasts Party) he sacked after just one month.

Thus it seems that the archaic peculiarities of our election system has meant that genuine (in the sense detailed above) representatives of the Australian people have been elected.

The system does need reform (is in the process of reform), but reform is likely to greatly diminish the possibility of future candidates like Ricky Muir because few individuals have the power to raise a profile to be known by the millions of voters; the people with a great advantage in this scenario are those nestled in well-established political parties with strong ‘brand recognition’. Hence the democratic ‘representation’ by candidates with these advantages is representation from a much narrower field – on the one hand this might lead to candidates with higher ‘qualifications for office’, though this is not guaranteed, but it certainly does diminish the election chances of ‘ordinary’ people.

Perhaps this means our democracy gains credibility, but in losing something happenstance it also loses a hint of something valuable. The occasional oversite of the political process in action of every(hu)mans.


But the situation described above is not a complete anomaly. We already have a system whereby members of the public are gathered by random selection and given the very serious democratic task – that of deciding the outcomes of our court system. This is our jury system.

In our legal system the judge proposes the sentence but it is the jury which declares guilty or no. Likewise our government proposes and the senate (or jury?) passes or rejects. In this there is an element which has deep roots in the democratic tradition: in ancient Greek democracy the famous five hundred, selected at random, served the purpose of sorting through which issues were or were not important to be debated by a larger assembly. These ancient Greek everyday landowning aristocrats performed a similar function: separating wheat from chaff. And in that way, guiding their democracy.

None of this implies that un-elected and non professional members of public can replace parliamentarians, just that they could be much more involved.

Will we miss the old senate? Could there be new forms of democratic participation – a jury system bolted ontop as Iain has suggested?

[Update: On July 2nd 2016, Ricki Muir was not re-elected following changes to the electoral system]

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