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Casting the plebiscite in a new light

Published 07 Oct 2017
Rhys Carvosso

The Australian political system has long operated on the premise that Members of Parliament are elected to make decisions on our behalf. Civic duties animate at election time but remain dormant otherwise. Referenda, the one mechanism that directly engages the citizenry, have become a rare component of our civic duty in recent times.

The government has challenged this tradition by arranging a plebiscite on the question whether same-sex marriage should be legalised. This plebiscite will take the form of a non-binding, optional poll conducted by postal vote. The government has promised that if a ‘yes’ vote prevails on November 15, it will introduce a bill into the House of Representatives and allow its MPs to vote freely.

There is no precedent in Australian political history to support this course of action. Australia has had just three national plebiscites (which, unlike referenda, are non-binding, and broach non-constitutional issues). The most recent of these plebiscites was held in 1977 to decide on a new national anthem. Even the most contentious and crucial social reforms – among them the abolition of the White Australia Policy, and the introduction of race discrimination legislation in 1975 – have come into existence through our representative channels.  

This begs the question: why is a plebiscite even necessary? Given that religious doctrine informs much of the opposition to same-sex marriage, this move has credibly been interpreted as an abdication of Parliamentary responsibility by a Coalition government that has prioritised the religious sensibilities of its ultra-conservative MPs over its democratic duties.

Whatever the motive, this plebiscite represents a movement away from the strict representative system on which Australian politics is based, and flirts with elements of ‘participatory democracy’. In other words, it invites constituents to directly participate in the democratic process without attending the polling booth.

There is no indication that the upcoming plebiscite will be repeated. If this is the case, and the plebiscite remains an anomaly, then it deserves to be characterised as an ad hoc, reactionary measure, and as an inexplicable deviation from the norm of representative democracy.

But what if plebiscites were to become legitimate and recurring options to gauge the public will on contentious social issues?

For one, it might spare future governments the sort of opprobrium the present one has drawn on itself. But more importantly, judging from the success of similar initiatives in other democracies, it might address three of the shortcomings of representative democracy itself.

First, it would counteract the influence of lobbyist groups, which use donations and connections to subvert the democratic process. The Republic of Ireland has stymied the influence of the Catholic Church by building in such a participatory mechanism into their representative democracy. It takes the form of a ‘Citizens’ Assembly, made up of 99 citizens, which discusses pressing constitutional issues and gives recommendations to the Irish Parliament. On 22 April 2017, it made various recommendations to Parliament on when abortion should be lawful. Eighty-seven percent of the Assembly also voted in favour of replacing the constitutional prohibition on abortion – a historically vexed issue in majority Catholic Ireland. This result was hailed as evidence that the Irish political consciousness, no longer under the thumb of the Catholic Church, has been free to assume its natural, more liberal position. Their Assembly has been an effective means of directly expressing that political consciousness in an otherwise representative system.

Second, it would make political parties accountable for their stances other than in periodic elections. Parties could no longer simply pander to voters in swing seats in the months leading up to an election. Instead, the result of a plebiscite could provide a clear mandate for legislative change on a specific issue, just as the Citizen’s Assembly’s decisions are designed to do in the Republic of Ireland.

Third, it would encourage a culture of civic engagement. At a time when the Australian citizen’s voice seems to have been reduced to glib diatribes on politicians’ social media pages, regular plebiscites would allow voters to be ‘heard’ in a concrete forum.

Brazil has been highly successful at doing this. For several decades, citizens in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre have been involved in ‘participatory budgeting‘ at a municipal level. Residents from each neighbourhood meet regularly to discuss sanitation, infrastructure and other public needs for their area. They elect delegates to represent them at ‘district budget forums’ and on the city-wide Municipal Budget Council. These delegates submit a list of their neighbourhood’s budgeting priorities to the Municipal Council, which it considers when devising a budget.

On top of the tangible benefits that this system has delivered, including a doubling in the percentage of locals with access to sewer lines within seven years of its introduction, it has had a wider symbolic impact. It has spread to over 100 Brazilian cities, and now involves hundreds of thousands of citizens. It has been credited with renewing faith in the democratic process in Brazil, whose politicians have long been mired in corruption scandals.

Of course, one can question the mechanism by which the Australian government has chosen to invite participation. An optional, non-binding postal vote is not a particularly efficient or secure method of gauging the public will, nor of guaranteeing that the government will act on it.

This does not mean, however, that any participatory initiative would be futile. The plebiscite could surely be refined and regularised, based on what has worked in other countries. Perhaps then, the November 15 vote will be remembered not as that time the government abdicated its responsibility, but as the origin of a bold effort to re-engage the Australian citizenry.

Rhys Carvasso is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW. He is in his fourth year of a Bachelor of Arts (Government and International Relations) and Bachelor of Laws at the University of Sydney. In 2016, he spent six months on exchange at University College Maastricht, where he focused on migration studies. His areas of interest are the origins and contemporary expressions of nationalism, Turkish and Middle Eastern politics and varying international approaches to refugee policy. He has previously worked with the Public Interest Advocacy Centre and the Sydney Centre for International Law.