Should Australia try democracy?

Democracy is on the rocks in Australia as political party membership stagnates and the government does undemocratic deals, but would a move to US-style primary elections make any difference?

The latest Lowy Institute poll contains an alarming statistic for lovers of democracy. Only 39 per cent of young Australians (18 to 29) chose the following statement from a list of three as best representing their opinion: "Democracy is preferable to any other kind of government."

The two choices they rejected were:

– "For someone like me, it doesn't matter what kind of government we have." Safe to say the 15 per cent (across all age groups) who ticked that one interpreted "someone like me" as meaning "a complete bonehead".

– "In some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable." Again, "some circumstances" obviously included events such as the Black Death, Armageddon, or an invasion of gay boat-people as advertised on a poster in Tanya Plibersek's office. On second thoughts, given the political debate conducted by 'straight land-people', the latter could only be a big improvement.

In older cohorts there were more fans of democracy – 60 per cent of Australians across all age groups still think democracy is preferable to all the other systems.

Of course, in methodological terms, presenting the feckless interviewee with three simple choices skews the result a bit. Support for democracy would be lower in the younger cohorts if the Lowy researchers had included the question: "Should Guy Sebastian rule as almighty King from a throne inside the Opera House?"

But enough jesting. The statement that really should have been on the list is: "Democracy sounds great and I'd really like to try living in one."

Late last year I looked at this issue by examining the disparity between political party membership rates in China and Australia (Our politicos face a crisis of virtue, September 2011). The one-party state, to whose teat we are so firmly attached, claims around 6 per cent of its people participate in the democratic votes held at CCP meetings.

In Australia, while something above 90 per cent of voters turn out at state and federal elections, our party membership levels (130,000 in all) are about one tenth the per capita rate seen in China.

After publishing that figure, political operatives from both sides of politics told me with much smirking that the 'official' figures I'd added together to come up with that number were grossly inflated.

In short, the number of people putting candidates before the 'demos' at election time is very small. Getting the whole country to choose between candidates that have been nominated and pre-selected by a tiny political elite makes our 'democracy' look less than sparkling.

So what's to be done? Labor's New South Wales branch is trialling US-style primary elections – starting with the pre-selection of Labor's candidate for the Sydney Lord Mayor election – with some within the party calling to extend the primary system to all preselection races.

Under this system, any voter who is not registered with another political party gets to vote for who should eventually contest a seat at election time.

It sounds much more democratic – not only do the demos choose which of the nominated candidates represents them in Canberra or respective state parliaments, but the people also have the right to say 'no' to candidates parachuted in by party power brokers.

This is a particular problem for Labor, whose state and federal executives share the power with affiliated trade unions to overturn any preselection they don't like. As one of Labor's biggest power brokers told me last year, it prevents "complete dickheads" being preselected.

Really? The antics in parliament last week were a good demonstration that a number have bypassed this filtering process, matched in at least equal number on the opposition benches.

But let's stick with Labor for the moment, where the union movement is throwing its weight around on the issue of importing skilled labour to address the nation's acute shortage of workers with the skills required by the booming resources sector.

Five Western Australian unions have clubbed together to threaten to dump Special Minister of State Gary Gray as pre-selected candidate for the seat of Brand, if he doesn't pull his head in and stop supporting the government's Enterprise Migration Agreements visa program.

Those unions represent their (dwindling) membership bases, but they don't represent the people of Brand. Democracy, once again, is on the rocks.

And all of this in a party whose parliamentary leader, Julia Gillard, concluded a woefully undemocratic deal in 2010 with BHP, Rio Tinto and Xstrata to water down Kevin Rudd's original mining tax. The 'people' she was representing then were desperate Labor Party MPs, not the demos.

But will Labor with primary elections be any better? The most commonly raised objection is that primaries favour celebrity candidates (didn't we get those in 2007 with Peter Garrett and Maxine McKew?) or candidates whose primary campaign resources come from rich benefactors – who want policy assurances in return.

"Lobby against the mining tax," a benefactor might say, "and I'll help you win preselection."

Again, given the history of the RSPT/MRRT, it's hard to see how Labor's shift to a primary system would change very much at all.

Follow @_Rob_Burgess on Twitter.

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