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Research - Study Guide

Paper type: Essay
Pages: 9 (2111 words)
Categories: Australia, Country, Democracy, Politics
Downloads: 19
Views: 2

Since the beginning of this year, each tutorial has engaged in a decision-making exercise geared towards reflecting the functions of a representative democracy and consequently, the issues that exist within Australian politics. Students were asked to discuss whether 20 per cent of semester marks should be allocated to tutorial participation or alternatively, whether these marks should be redistributed evenly between the two assignments. Ideally, once a consensus was reached within each tutorial, a representative was elected to attend the delegate meeting with the purpose of deciding whether participation should be assessed and if so, what percentage of marks it is worth.

This essay identifies, examines and critically reflects on the issues that arose during both the initial discussion and election process in tutorials as well as the delegate meeting, namely, a lack of minority representation, majoritarian voting methods, models of representation, the dominance of the majority and political apathy. In highlighting these issues, albeit on a much smaller scale, the participation exercise can be compared to the greater Australian political system which warrants similar concerns.

The paper concludes that the aforementioned issues in Australian politics, which are reflected in the participation exercise, have led to a divide between the public and their representatives and the notion of ‘true representation’ has been warped in our democracy.

Representation, by definition, means ‘making present something or someone that cannot physically be present’ (Maddox 1985, p. 425). In contemporary political terms, this simply translates to a mechanism whereby public opinion and dialogue can have an authoritative impact on political decision-making. However, through the application of a majoritarian, preferential electoral system in the Australian House of Representatives, the views of the minority are often not ‘made present’. This is due to the fact that although the preferential system encourages votes for minor parties and independents as later preferences still affect the electoral outcome, the system promotes a two-party system, making it extremely difficult for minor parties and independents to get elected. One such minor party that suffers from the pitfalls of this electoral system is The Australian Greens who are arguably the “third largest political force in the country behind Australian Labour Party and the Liberal Part in electoral terms” (Miragliotta 2006, p. 585). According to Miragliotta (2006, p. 590), The Greens are no longer a philosophically radical, single-interest party but rather, a widely supported, pragmatic party that is deserving of greater representation than the Australian preferential system allows. For example, in the 2016 Federal Election, the Greens received 10.2 per cent of the national vote, but held only one seat in the lower house (Australian Broadcasting Corporation 2016). This under-representation of a party that is arguably deserving of one tenth of the House or fifteen seats, means that the interests of a large portion of Australians are not voiced in parliament, an issue that was reflected in our exercise. Approximately five out of fifteen students were opposed to the idea of marking students on their participation, yet that argument was not to be expressed in the delegate meeting. This is due to the fact that another majoritarian, first past the post voting system was employed to choose the tutorials primary policy regarding the exercise, a system that deems the views of the minority irrelevant once a plurality of votes is reached. Clearly, this electoral system has been implemented to the detriment of minority interests both in the participation exercise and in the Australian Federal Parliament, resulting in the deterioration of true and equal representation. Another aspect of minority representation that the delegate meeting brought to my attention was the absence of dedicated representation for international students with English as a second language, a minority group that would be adversely affected by the decision to mark students on participation. I would argue that their interests must be ‘made present’ in order to uphold the notion of democracy that according to Young (2002, p. 23) means political equality, that is, “not only should all those affected be nominally included in decision-making, but they should be included on equal terms”. As a minority group that are likely to be affected to a far worse extent than any other student group, international students should have been dedicated at least one delegate to represent their heightened interest in the exercise. The failure of the participation exercise to do so can be compared with the absence of dedicated Indigenous representation within the Australian Parliament, which comparatively, has been a feature of the New Zealand Parliament for 152 years. According to the 2016 Census, 2.8 per cent of Australians identify as being Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and if parliamentary representation were to reflect this, there would be four Indigenous members in the House of Representatives and two in the Senate at all times (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2016). However there have only ever been eight Indigenous representatives in Australia’s Federal Parliament, of which only two were Members of the lower house, the primary legislator for the nation. Evidently there is a distortion present between Indigenous people, a minority group, and their representatives in parliament, a reality of the separation of public interest and representation in the Australian political system.

A primary aspect of democratic theory is the notion of an active discourse between the public and elected delegates in order to ensure the accurate translation of public opinion in parliament. Throughout modern democratic history, scholars have argued as to which representation theory, namely delegate or trustee, is the more adequate model to achieve this translation. According to Maddox (1985, p. 436) delegate representatives can be defined as having an “imperative mandate” which means that they act simply as a mouthpiece for their constituents and are “tied to their instructions”. In direct contrast, trustee representatives are granted a “free mandate” to act as autonomous delegates and are free to act for what they believe is in the best interests of the people (Maddox 1985, p. 436). However, in the Australian political system, neither theory is present, with parliamentarians instead operating under a partisan model of representation. Under this model, members of parliament must act in line with party agenda even if that means ignoring the wishes of their constituency. For example, in 2009, the Member for Kingsford Smith and Labour’s Environment Minister, Peter Garrett, approved a new uranium mine in South Australia despite being a former anti-nuclear activist (Grattan & Fitzgerald 2009) as this decision was necessary under the Labour Party’s policy at the time. The enactment of this so-called ‘party discipline’ in the Australian parliament has created a political system that is dominated by the lower house majority otherwise known as the government. Individual Members are restricted from truely representing the interests of their electorate, as they risk being dismissed from their party for disobeying its policy and therefore the accurate translation of public opinion is distorted. This seemingly undemocratic action, whereby intra-party politics are elevated above the constituencies and a Member’s loyalty lies not with their electorate but with their party has caused the public to hold a longstanding distrust of their federal representatives. Such a sentiment was reflected in the initial stages of the participation exercise where some members of the tutorial saw it necessary to restrict the elected delegates autonomy to within the boundaries of the tutorials majority interest. Unlike the Australian political system, members of the tutorial strongly urged our representative to resist the pull of majority agenda in the delegate meeting and represent their constituent, the tutorial, truthfully, which entailed voting for 15 per cent to be allocated to participation as well as raising the issue that perhaps a penalty should be implemented for students that forcefully dominate tutorial discussion. It is clear that our tutorial recognised the threat of majority agenda overriding all other interests, a threat which became a reality in the opening vote of the delegate meeting, where representatives were prompted to decide whether their decision should be final or not. Option A achieved the slimmest of majorities, winning by one vote, yet the votes of the remaining Option B and C were ‘knocked out’, effectively making the votes of eight delegates worthless. This issue draws comparisons with the Australian House of Representatives which is completely dominated by the interests of the majority government, a political entity which predominately represents the wishes of a specific section of society only. Due to the implementation of partisan model of representation which survives on party discipline, the dominance of the majority in the House of Representatives is difficult to stop. For example, of the 65 bills that have passed in the House in 2019, only 8 of these were Private Member’s bills, which are pieces of legislation not introduced by or on behalf of the executive branch of government (Parliament of Australia, 2019). Such a statistic highlights the shortage of legislative powers for all Members of the Australian lower house, with the exception of government ministers, to represent and introduce legislation on behalf of their constituency. Evidently, the dominance of the majority and the implementation of party discipline are two aspects of the Australian political system that severely impair the ability of our federal representatives to represent the people’s interests in parliament.

Political apathy is an eternal concern of any liberal democracy, as it threatens to undermine the notion that democratic government must truely represent voter attitudes and beliefs. According to Rosenberg (1955, p. 354) the “general factor contributing to political apathy is the feeling that activity is futile”, a sentiment that rings true for many Australian voters who are made to feel disenfranchised by their political representatives. For example, the Australian National University’s 2014 poll “found that only 56 per cent of respondents felt their vote made a difference, down from 79% back in 1996” (Trounson 2016). A similar attitude was exhibited in the delegate meeting by tutorial #17 which did not have a representative attend and therefore, effectively abstained from the participation vote. Voter apathy in Australia is predominately caused by the aforementioned issues of partisan representation and a lack of minority representation, both of which make the voter feel forgotten and unrepresented in the political sphere. Through a predominant non-electoral disengagement from politics in Australia, the discourse between voters and parliamentarians is lost, causing the erosion of the governments political mandate, or their moral authority to act, leading to the deterioration of the democratic system. Although the Australian political system employs compulsory voting and is therefore somewhat resistant to electoral disengagement, it could be argued that non-electoral disenchantment is rampant within the political sphere, with the major party, the Australian Labour Party having only 50,000 members in 2018 (Karp 2018). Such a theory is supported by additional statistics from the Australian National University poll which found that only 43 per cent of respondents felt it mattered who was in power (Trounson 2016). This sentiment was reflected in our participation exercise with only one unelected student volunteering to represent the tutorial, a perfect example of how political apathy is able to undermine something as fundamental as democratic elections. Political apathy was further exhibited in some student’s neglect for our elected representatives adherence to a particular representation model. Rather than advocate for a strict delegate model that would see them act simply as a ‘mouthpiece’ for the tutorial, the eventual disengagement with the details of the exercise resulted in the student being given free rein as a trustee and consequently, the opportunity to misrepresent their constituency.

The final result of the participation exercise was the establishment of a 20 per cent participation mark, a figure decided on by the tutorial representatives. Through an analysis of the issues that arose during the initial tutorial discussion and the delegate meeting, one can recognise the similarities between the Australian political system and on a much smaller scale, the exercise, as well as develop an understanding of the drawbacks of Australian democracy. This essay examines these issues, namely, political apathy, models of representation, a lack of minority representation as well as majoritarian voting methods and the dominance of the majority in order to achieve a more enlightened view of the failures of the exercise and the failures of the Australian political system itself. Like the Australian political system, the minority interests articulated in the initial tutorial discussion were eventually disregarded and forgotten. Like many Australian voters, students fell victim to political apathy and disengagement. Like the Australian parliament, the delegate meeting was efficient at the expense of achieving true representation of all students. The paper concludes that the previously mentioned issues have warped the intended relationship between our federal representatives and the people and the notion of accurate and equal representation is an extremely fragile feature of Australian democracy.

Cite this essay

Research – Study Guide. (2019, Dec 08). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/research-study-guide-essay

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