Updated: Jul 24, 2021
Today, we are beginning a new series discussing Democracy of the Hundreds. This is a proposal for the reinvigoration of the modern parliamentary system through the innovation of a focused form of direct democracy. In chapter 26 of The Code, I sketched out a solution to the problems of modern parliamentary democracy. This proposed system consisted of a tricameral parliamentary system (bicameral if the senate is abolished) with the additional chamber consisting of geographically dispersed councils of one hundred members in each electorate. The membership of these “councils of the hundreds” would be determined by random lot from the electors on the roll of each electorate. The councils of the hundreds would assume the sovereign imperative of providing or withholding assent as is currently exercised in a symbolic manner by the reigning monarch in the United Kingdom or their representative outside of the United Kingdom.
What this post will examine is, firstly, how the modern parliamentary system functions and where it fails. For simplicity sake, I will be using the Australian State of Western Australia as my model. This parliamentary system is a good example of British Influenced Parliaments which predominate in the former dominions of the British Empire and, as such, the lessons drawn from this example can be extrapolated to all other British model parliamentary systems. As an added rationale, I live in Western Australia, so it is the system I am most familiar with. Let us begin with a brief examination of the problems inherent in the parliamentary system.
The Western Australian Parliamentary System suffers from the same problems that beset all modern parliamentary systems. Namely, low voter engagement, low political participation, and a general apathy towards the government. I suggest much of this apathy and disengagement is due to the perceived inability of the average person to influence the government in a meaningful way. As well as the seeming remoteness of the government from their everyday lives.
The general view in the community seems to be that politicians, state and federal, are "in it for themselves". that they care more about winning the next election and taking care of donors or mates than they do about the people they supposedly represent. In general, politicians are seen as being able to be relied on only to be unreliable.
All these problems are fundamental to the undemocratic nature of parliamentary or representative democracy. While it is called democratic as we the ‘citizens’ select our representatives, that is the limit of our power in the political system. Once we have voted, we have no further say in the process. This results in the travesty of electing politicians based on what they say they will do but having no power to compel them to keep their word.
The old argument that the voters will hold their representative to account for their actions is laughable. I challenge anyone reading this to even name a tenth of the legislation passed in the current year by their representative. This separation of the citizens from the government is even more pronounced and insidious as, in most of the English-speaking world, a two-party system prevails. Meaning that, in practice, one of the two parties will form the government. This system coupled with party discipline means that your representative can always beg off responsibility for their decisions. Citing that they had no choice due to party rules but to accept the will of the titular ‘party’.
These are all problems which democracy of the hundreds could resolve. By interposing a chamber of the citizens between the parliament and the 'royal assent’, we would provide for the first time real sovereignty to the citizens. We, the people, would possess the right to assent or withhold assent from all legislation. This would be an evolutionary improvement to the current system, not a revolution or as the famous quote credited to Franklin D. Roosevelt goes, it’s an "evolution not revolution".
At the same time, "Democracy of the Hundreds' would preserve the laudable traits of the parliamentary system which has been strikingly effective in providing for the welfare stability and success of the United Kingdom and its former dominions. It would continue to allow for and indeed promote careful deliberation of acts of parliament as the parliament would continue to retain the monopoly on proposing and amending laws for assent. It would through the periodic conscription of citizens for consideration of each proposed act to both ensure universal participation in the government and avoid the evils of an uninformed electorate.
Before I sketch out the proposed system, it will be beneficial to explain briefly how the system in Western Australia currently functions.
The Current System
‘The Parliament of Western Australia is the bicameral legislature of the Australian state of Western Australia, forming the legislative branch of the Government of Western Australia. The parliament consists of a lower house, the Legislative Assembly, an upper house, the Legislative Council, and the Queen, represented by the Governor of Western Australia. The two houses of parliament sit in Parliament House in the state capital, Perth.
To introduce a new law, or amend or repeal an existing law, a bill (draft law) must be passed in identical form by both houses of parliament and be assented to by the governor. Once assented to, the bill becomes an act. A bill can be introduced into either house with the exception of a money bill, which must originate in the Legislative Assembly as the house of government. A simplified process is shown in Figure 1:
Currently, the Legislative Assembly has 59 members, elected for four-year terms from single-member constituencies, using preferential voting (see Figure 2), and the Legislative Council has 36 members, elected for four-year terms from multi-member constituencies (six from each) by proportional representation (see Figure 3). As with all other Australian states and territories, enrolment to vote and voting for both houses is compulsory for all resident Australian citizens—and eligible British citizens (i.e., those permanently resident and on the electoral roll prior to the passage of the Australia Act)—who are over the legal voting age of 18.’ (WA Parliament, 2021).
The proportioning of electorates in Western Australia is governed by existing legislation with the states’ 36 Legislative Council and 59 Legislative Assembly seats being proportioned as per the below formulation.
“The State is to be divided into 59 electoral districts and six regions. Each district returns a single member to the Legislative Assembly (section 16C), and each region returns six members to serve in the Legislative Council (section 16D). The Act sets out a number of criteria that the Commissioners must take into account in reaching their determination, with the overriding consideration being elector numbers. The boundaries of each district must (with one exception) be set so that enrolment levels do not vary by 10% or more above or below the average enrolment (Average District Enrolment or ‘ADE’) of all districts in the State. The exception referred to applies in electoral districts which exceed 100,000 square kilometres in geographical area. Section 16G of the Act stipulates that in such districts a Large District Allowance (LDA) must be applied, equal to 1.5% of the number of square kilometres in the area of the district. This figure (consisting of ‘notional’ electors) is added to the number of actual electors when calculating the total enrolment for such a district. The total arrived at must not be 10% or more above or 20% or more below the ADE.
To calculate elector numbers the Act stipulates that a snapshot of the electoral roll be taken at a date known as the ‘relevant day’ – a date chosen by the Commissioners which approximates to the mid-point in the election cycle” (Electoral Boundaries WA, 2019). This formulation resulted in the following distribution at the last review in November 2019 (see Figure 4).
As you can see, this system results in a relatively even level of representation at the district (legislative assembly) level across the 2.646 million km² of Western Australia. As well as a representational system in the upper house, which is purposely designed to balance the preponderance of the Perth Metropolitan Area in population density.
The Western Australian Parliament has passed an average of 51.38 acts per year over the last 20 years. See Figure 5 for a year by year break down of acts passed.
Now that we are all on the same page regarding the functioning of the parliamentary system in our example jurisdiction, it is now time to move on to the explanation of the proposed amendment. Now, while I have sketched out parts of the proposal both in Chapter 26 of The Code and in the introduction of this series, it is necessary to give it a more thorough examination. We will tackle this task in part two of this series.
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