Nonfiction

Totall Recall

31 October 2012

On 7 October 2003, California’s first ever gubernatorial recall election–only the second in American history–was held after a sufficient number of signatures were collected. The ballot had two questions. The first one, asking whether the sitting Governor Gray Davis should be recalled from office, received a 55.4% ‘yes’ vote. The second asked who should replace him, in the event that a majority voted on the recall.

Davis acknowledged that he had lost touch with the voters and tried to correct this by holding numerous town hall meetings in the lead-up to the election. But the damage was already done; on 14 November the results certified that Republican candidate and action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger would replace Davis after receiving 48.6% of the vote.

The election was a prime example of direct democracy in its purest form–grassroots political decision making.

The current political climate in Australia is something of a sharp contrast. Victoria’s economy is on the verge of a recession, being on the wrong side of a two-speed national economy. In January, 350 workers lost their jobs at the Altona Ford plant while Qantas recently announced it would cut 500 more jobs, mostly at Tullamarine airport. Meanwhile, some senior politicians are living opulent lives, paid for by those whose interests they claim to represent.

A Fair Work Australia investigation recently found that Craig Thompson, the MP for Dobell in NSW, spent almost $500,000 of the Health Services Union’s money on prostitutes, cash withdrawals, and campaigning during his tenure as the Union’s National Secretary. Simultaneously, Speaker Peter Slipper is being investigated by the Federal Police for allegedly abusing cab-charge entitlements to the tune of $50,000, and sexually harassing staff member James Ashby.

One has to ask whether there has ever been such disparity between expected roles and political realities.

Calls for Thompson to be removed from office before a court trial is, as Independent MP Tony Windsor suggests, not Parliament’s role. Enacting the responsibilities of “judge, jury and executioner” would compromise parliamentary conventions and inevitably lead to abuses of power.

Yet highly contentious parliamentary rules remain. MPs who have been convicted and sentenced to under a year in prison are theoretically still allowed to remain in office and collect their salary.

If it’s not parliament’s decision–nor that of the court–to remove an unpopular or criminal official from office, then whose decision should it be? Supporters of direct democracy argue only the people should be able to remove those whom they put in power.

A group of British politicians are currently pushing for a bill to introduce a mechanism where a recall referendum is triggered if more than ten percent of a constituency signs a petition. Moreover, if more than half of an electorate requests a representative to be removed, a by-election is initiated. Another proposed provision of the bill is that a by-election would automatically take place if an MP was convicted of a criminal offence and sentenced to less than a year in prison.

Steve Shaw, the Local Works Coordinator for the UK’s leading democracy campaign group Unlock Democracy, says “it will take several years to successfully see recall enacted in the UK in the form we want–determined by an MP’s voters and for loss of confidence”. But such changes are not even on the Australian agenda.

Dr Zarech Ghazarian of Monash University’s School of Political and Social Inquiry expresses doubt about a recall mechanism being implemented in Australia. While the UK doesn’t have a codified constitution, Australian parliamentary rules dictate that alterations to our written constitution require a referendum.

“Only eight out of 44 previous constitutional referenda have passed,” Ghazarian said. “Australian voters are often hesitant to alter the nation’s rule book.”

When asked about the best way to discourage the behaviour shown by the two currently accused MPs, Ghazarian suggested implementing “a code of conduct that codifies expected norms”. “Voters have the opportunity to pass judgement three years later,” he continued.

But as British Conservative MP and direct democracy activist Zac Goldsmith argues in his book The Constant Economy, real pressure derives from the top, not the bottom. Even if an MP breaks their pre-election promise, they face pressure from voters only once every three years at election. In between, there is nothing voters can do. Conversely, if an MP votes against their party, it amounts to “career suicide”.

Nick Jarman, the Treasurer for the Melbourne University Liberal Club, shares similar doubt over recall. He suggests it could “open a can of worms” as elected MPs “would constantly face questions about the legitimacy of their election to parliament”. He added that this could “motivate political opponents of MPs to agitate for change simply because they do not agree with their policies”.

Yet practical experience suggests otherwise. Switzerland has a recall mechanism for six of its twenty-seven cantons (state legislators), which have collectively enacted four recall referendums over 150 years. Recall would not necessarily produce a parliamentary revolving door, but a deterrent and a last resort to remove defective MPs.

Jarman also suggests that “newspapers would be able to control the outcome of a recall”. But as Goldsmith argues, powerful newspaper proprietors, editors, and journalists can wield far more influence over 226 MPs than over a national audience of 22 million. This has never been ruer in an age of diversified online media content and a highly educated population.

The Leveson Inquiry proved that successive British Prime Ministers since the 1970s have bowed before the Murdoch Empire. As a nation with 70 per cent of our newspapers controlled by that same company, Australia will be no different, if not worse.

The 19th and 20th century notion that people are too irresponsible and uneducated to be entrusted with important decisions is an argument against democracy itself. It is still reflected today in our outdated political system.

It may be a radical longshot, but a referendum on changes to parliamentary laws is desperately needed in a time when public disillusion with political elites is at an all-time high.


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