Politics versus the public
The unexpected ripple effect
The effects of the political shocks of Brexit and Trump’s victory in 2016 have continued to spread through global politics in 2017 and 2018, but not in the way expected. European observers were especially wrong-footed. After Britain voted to leave the European Union in June 2016, there was concern in European capitals it would encourage Euroscepticism elsewhere. Yet polls suggested public attitudes in the rest of Europe instead turned more positive to the EU project. Europe seemed even more insulated from Trump’s victory in November 2016 as the United States’ reputation plummeted across Europe, especially in Germany.
By early 2017, European relief gave way to complacency, even hubris. Europe not only appeared insulated from the populist upsurge but ready to take over a moral lead abandoned by Britain and the United States—encouraged not least by the media in both countries still reeling from the shock. Angela Merkel’s pointed remarks after Trump’s election on shared values of democracy, freedom and ‘dignity of human beings independent of their origin’ was widely welcomed in the United States and Britain as a much needed assertion of what one enthusiastic US foreign policy journal called Pax Germanica.
European elections in the first half of 2017 seemed to reaffirm this avoidance of Anglo-Saxon populism. March elections in the Netherlands saw Geert Wilders’ anti-immigrant party fail to reach levels indicated by the polls. In France, nervous watchers of the final run-off for the presidential elections in May were relieved when newcomer Emmanuel Macron comfortably beat the Front National leader, Marine Le Pen. To many in Britain and the United States, horrified at what was happening in their own countries, Macron’s victory was hailed as adding a second pillar to Merkel as a new bulwark of the liberal order.
However, belief in European immunity was based on a misreading of what had happened in 2016. Brexit and Trump were less a product of a new upsurge in populism than an unravelling of the traditional political order.1 Closer examination of what was happening in Europe in 2017 and 2018 revealed much the same thing. So while attention was focused on the poor showing of Wilders’ party in the Dutch election, less noticed was the collapse of the Dutch Labor Party. Macron’s entry into the second round of the French presidential elections in turn relied on the French major parties’ inability to provide a viable run-off candidate for the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic.
The complacency came to an end in the German elections in September 2017 when the radical right Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD) did better than expected. Yet here again, the story behind the headlines around the AfD revealed a similar story to elsewhere—major-party decline. The initial verdict on election night was that the poor showing of the centre-left SPD meant Merkel had consolidated her position as political leader of Europe. With its worst result in the history of the postwar republic, the SPD leader announced the party would leave the Grand Coalition with Merkel’s CDU/CSU union, leaving Merkel to form a new coalition for her fourth term.
The problem was how this would be done. Merkel’s CDU/CSU did not have a great night either, falling to its lowest vote since the Federal Republic’s first election in 1949. After failing to cobble a so-called ‘Jamaica coalition’ with the Greens and the FDP, Merkel was forced to return to the SPD, which now faced a dilemma: to form another Grand Coalition but lose even more support or force another election in the face of plummeting polls. Sure enough the SPD’s decision to rejoin the Grand Coalition has since seen its support drop further to now approaching that of the AfD.
A similar story played out in the Austrian elections a month after the German poll. Again, the radical right did better than expected and the social democratic party had its worst result since the war. This time the centre-right OVP did better, but only after what amounted to a Macron-style takeover of the party’s resources by its new young leader Sebastian Kurz. The Italian elections in March 2018 produced an even greater blow to the European political establishment, with populist parties the Five Star Movement and the League achieving more than two-thirds of the vote and coming together to form government.
Far from being the bulwark against what had happened in the United States and Britain, Europe in 2017 and 2018 joined them, as the upheaval of traditional parties that had already begun in southern Europe moved north. Indeed, in many ways Europe had been leading the way for some time. The complacency had only been brought to a juddering halt by the German elections, not just because for once the radical right did better than expected, but also because of the obvious historical connotations of it happening in Germany.
Much of the sharp change in mood focused on the advanced decline of social democratic parties across Europe. The New York Times summed up the darkening outlook in a piece entitled ‘The disastrous decline of the European center-left’ published after the German elections:
Even if you don’t support the left, this [decline of European social democracy] should be cause for concern. Social democratic parties were crucial to rebuilding democracy in Western Europe after 1945. They remain essential to democracy on the Continent today.
From a democratic point of view, this is nonsense. Democracy is supposed to be about reflecting what people want, not what they increasingly do not want. The idea that a party can somehow be ‘essential’ to democracy when voters do not think so is clearly giving democracy a different meaning than reflecting the voters’ will.
This concern that democracy can be undermined by the results of democratic elections has been growing since the political shocks of 2016. Partly this contradiction has been resolved by suggesting they were not really democratic elections at all—manipulated either by remarkably effective low-cost Russian bot operations or once widely lauded data-gathering techniques in social media. Yet more subtle has been a changing definition of the democracy that is supposedly under threat.
The last time we saw such widespread political disruption in the developed world was in the 1960s and 1970s. Then the causes were fairly clear. Economic crises such as the 1973–74 oil shock compounded industrial militancy and social protest at home, and national liberation conflicts overseas in South-East Asia, Africa and Central America.
This time the causes of the political disruption are harder to locate. Economic factors have been blamed but political turmoil seemed to increase as the global economy recovered. Industrial militancy is virtually non-existent and while social movements claim to exert pressure, they do so more in media and politics than on the street. With the crushing of ISIS, international conflicts are marginalised and rarely impact on domestic politics as they did 40 years ago except as isolated terrorist attacks.
Attempts to explain this political disruption directly from changes in society tend to be unconvincing, not least because they fail to explain why this disruption is so sudden and unexpected. It is not just that you would have to explain the rise of Trump in 2016 from pretty well the same electorate that re-elected a liberal African American just four years earlier. You would also have to explain why no-one saw it coming.
Often such ‘socially based’ explanations reveal more about the observer’s prejudices than they do about the electorate they are meant to be observing. For example, the strong Brexit vote in the north of England and support for the AfD in the former East Germany are often explained by concerns over immigration. Yet the same observers will often point out that such regions are also less affected by immigration. Instead of raising the obvious doubts that immigration really is the primary driver (say, compared to dissatisfaction with the political establishment), more often the conclusion is simply that voters in these regions are as irrational and stupid as their vote.
Perhaps the very inability of media and political observers to anticipate this political disruption or to provide a coherent explanation for it when it happens suggests the answer—that the political system has become detached from the electorate and thereby unstable.
The rise of ‘political democracy’
Numerous surveys have demonstrated the declining allegiance and enthusiasm of voters for mainstream political parties throughout the developed democracies. Less commented on is the arguably more important decline in these parties’ social bases: the groups and sectional interests that created and financed the great political parties of the twentieth century. This may be due to their own declining influence, such as the unions that founded Europe’s social democratic parties, or the declining interest of, say, business groups in political agendas to oppose them.
Weakening connections to social institutions has clearly destabilised the political parties. Lacking the institutional checks and balances that social institutions provide, parties have become increasingly volatile and susceptible to takeovers by narrow cliques. In Britain, the Labour Party has experienced this twice under Blair and Corbyn. In Australia, the breakdown of the factional system in the ALP led to a centralisation of control by Rudd and the ‘kitchen cabinet’ before the factions retook control. In the United States, the dramatic hostile takeover of the Republican Party by a New York property developer and TV host happened at the same time as the Democratic establishment candidate struggled to see off a contender who was not even in the party.
This destabilisation and hollowing of the parties would certainly explain why the scale of the political disruption seems out of line with the modest changes observed in society. Today’s disruption is caused not so much by the impact of social forces on political parties—such as seen during earlier periods of political turmoil—but by the lack of social engagement and the inability of political parties to manage it. It would also explain why such turmoil is often marked by intensifying polarised culture wars, usually more about branding exercises for failing parties than reflecting what are, if anything, converging social attitudes.
Yet the decline of these parties’ social bases has done more than destabilise them. It has also changed the way they view democracy and their own role in it. As the basis of representative democracy has declined, many of its basic concepts have been changed or even inverted.2 For example, the idea that sectional interests would finance political parties to pursue their agenda—the basis of much twentieth-century democracy—has become so discredited that such activity by ‘special interests’ is being seen as almost akin to corruption.
So the concept of democratic representation is changing. Mainstream political parties seem less intent on representing particular sectional interests out in society than claiming to represent society as a whole through the composition of the party. Internal obsession with ethnic and gender quotas has increasingly replaced any obligation on parties to pursue agendas of those same groups in society. In Australia, for example, increasing female and Indigenous representation in the major political parties has in no sense been matched by an increased focus on political agendas that advance the interests of those groups in society at large.
It is not just that mainstream political parties seem to see themselves as being an idealised cross-section of society, but that they seem to see themselves as synonymous with democracy. It is as if representative democracy of the twentieth century is being replaced by what can be best described as ‘political democracy’ of the twenty-first. The measure of democracy has become less the extent to which sectional interests in society are represented but the health of the existing political establishment regardless of whom they represent. It explains why the detachment of political parties from society, and their eroding democratic content, can also lead them to see themselves as the bulwark of democracy.
Until recently this association of parties with democracy was mostly confined to interminable self-important discussions about ‘party democracy’ and membership drives. Such party reform has usually been about distancing from the sectional interests that formed them (such as unions) and is arguably a response to the erosion of representative democracy. Nevertheless, while mainly about reviving flagging political organisations, and of little interest except to careerists in them, the rest of us are expected to view them as major advances in the working of democracy for the common good.
However, with political turmoil intensifying in 2017 and 2018, this tendency of political parties to identify with democracy has led to the point where they now see threats to their own survival as threats to democracy. Such threats are increasingly characterised, and isolated, by established political parties under the label of ‘populism’.
Any democrat would surely welcome the upheaval from recent elections and referendums as a sign that voters are at last starting to impact and reshape a political system that has had declining appeal to them for several decades. Yet the upheaval has generally been greeted with alarm across politics and media. After the initial shock in 2016 subsided, this alarm is now starting to emerge as a more coherent response from the political classes.
Since the decline of unloved political parties and political classes is unlikely to generate much sympathy, this alarm has tended to be expressed as concern about broader threats to democratic procedures and institutions. Conversely, an attempt to lay the blame at the feet of voters is being dressed up as a concern about their vulnerability to mind control from dark external forces.
Combined with this tendency to discredit voters and their votes, the last year has seen the established political classes becoming more openly assertive about the role of democratic institutions such as parliament as a bulwark against such disruptive populism. However, they are doing so in a way that redefines the role for which these democratic institutions were created.
Parliament versus the public
Open tensions between the parliament and the public have been historically rare, and usually confined to periods of extreme political and social stress. However, in 2017 and 2018 the two mature democracies of Britain and Australia gave examples of tensions between parliament and the public being openly, almost casually, discussed. In Britain, the tension between parliament and the public has revolved around the issue of Brexit.
There was a major confidence trick in the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union—more fundamental than the notorious £350 billion per week of EU funds to be given to the NHS promised, then disowned, by the Leave campaign. The slogan of the campaign to leave the European Union, ‘Take Back Control’, effectively meant handing back control to a political class that wanted no such thing. Around three-quarters of Westminster MPs were reported in the run up to the vote to support staying in the European Union. Even after their victory, it was no surprise that attempts by leading Leave campaigners to take over the government leadership floundered in favour of the (reluctant) Remain campaigner Theresa May. Subsequent negotiations have revealed that the government’s determination to achieve a clean break from the European Union was mostly a sham.
The reluctance of Westminster for Brexit is understandable. While dire warnings of the economic impact of Brexit made during the campaign have largely failed to materialise, the political fall-out has already been disastrous. For a start, it has destabilised what were already fragile political parties. In Labour it has exacerbated the increasing detachment of the pro-EU parliamentary party from its traditional working-class voter base that voted overwhelmingly for Brexit.
Brexit posed an even a more deep-rooted problem for the Conservatives. David Cameron’s plan for using the referendum to deliver an expected victory for Remain and see off the Eurosceptics once and for all had obviously back-fired. The party was now forced to implement a policy that the leadership did not want and give leading positions to those it had hoped to side-line.
However, worse for the Conservatives was the damage done to the union, especially the position of Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland’s political settlement had rested on a power-sharing agreement between the Republicans and Unionists following the military isolation and defeat of the IRA in the 1980s. Brexit now put an extremely delicate political arrangement for Britain on the European negotiating table. It was a sensitivity made worse for the Conservatives after a flop election campaign in 2017 made it reliant on the pro-Unionist DUP to remain in government. In what looks like a suspiciously familiar case of EU bureaucracy overreach, the EU has demanded an open border and integration of Northern Ireland under EU jurisdiction. This has turned what was a persistent, if quiet, complaint from sections of the British establishment over a democratic result they opposed but could not openly overturn, to more explicit opposition.
The main argument used for overturning the result of the June 2016 referendum is to appeal to the very issue it was supposed to be won on: Westminster parliamentary sovereignty. The essence of this is to appeal to MPs’ interests as a political class rather than to the mandate they have been given by the voters. The delicacy of doing this probably explains why the principle of parliamentary sovereignty has tended to be selectively applied. After all, holding the referendum was a parliamentary decision by an overwhelming margin and was largely a parliamentary affair.
The referendum was less in response to public demand than an internal parliamentary need to deal with divisions in the Conservative Party. However, the headway made by the Brexit campaign upset what had been essentially an internal manoeuvre. That is why although the referendum was technically advisory, Cameron and other leading Remainers insisted the decision would be implemented and would be final, to try to deter nervous voters. This is a commitment that those advocating parliamentary sovereignty now wish to overturn.
The selective view of parliamentary sovereignty was typified by the approach of leading anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller, who launched a successful legal challenge to force a parliamentary vote on triggering the start of the Brexit process in the hope that parliament would block it. After declaring that ‘parliament alone is sovereign’, she then saw it pass both the Commons and the Lords and was last heard calling for both parliamentary decisions to be bypassed with another referendum.
It was also summed up in a speech made by former prime minister John Major in early March 2018 in the wake of the furore over the European Union’s Northern Ireland demand. Much of his speech rehashed the same economic warnings over Brexit that failed to convince in the campaign. What was new though was how Major used the idea of parliamentary sovereignty to overturn what was, after all, the largest democratic mandate in British history.
It is already agreed that Parliament must pass legislation giving effect to the deal. A ‘meaningful vote’ has been promised. This must be a decisive vote, in which Parliament can accept or reject the final outcome; or send the negotiators back to seek improvements; or order a referendum.
That is what parliamentary sovereignty means.
But, to minimise divisions in our country—and between and within the political parties—I believe the Govern-ment should take a brave and bold decision. They should invite Parliament to accept or reject the final outcome on a free vote.
Major finishes off by calling for the Lords to be also guided by their ‘intellect and consciences’ (such as they are) and, dismissing the voters’ wish to take back control as ‘hollow’, reminds his audience that parliament is ‘not a rubber stamp’.
But parliament is a rubber stamp, or at least is meant to be. It is supposed to reflect the people’s will. Of course, in Britain, as in Australia, this is somewhat complicated by a constitutional monarchy that counter-poses the Queen’s sovereignty to that of parliament. But this is not a rerun of that age-old contest between parliament and the monarchy. This is about the sovereignty of parliament versus the voters.
When Major talks of MPs having a free vote, what he is really calling for is MPs voting free of the mandate of their parties—which in the 2017 election was overwhelmingly for Brexit. Major’s open denigration of the ‘public will’ as the final arbiter is something also expressed by other leading former politicians such as Tony Blair and Michael Heseltine. Major may hold out the possibility of another referendum but is more intent on parliament overturning the result of the last one. He wants to overturn a democratic mandate by hiding behind an institution that is supposed to reflect it.
Calls for free votes and parliamentary sovereignty might strike a familiar note in Australia with the 2017 debate on the same-sex marriage plebiscite. To the major political parties in Australia, the same-sex marriage issue has been disruptive, but nothing like Brexit has been for their British counterparts. Nevertheless, the issue provoked a heightened sensitivity from Australian politicians about their position, and if anything, provoked a discussion that was even more explicit in its anti-democratic tone.
The campaign against the vote
Polls indicate that a couple of years after the Coalition and Labor voted to ban same-sex marriage in 2004, the public swung in support of it. However, instead of reflecting the change in public mood by reversing their decision, the major parties treated it as a political football—initially between the parties and then, after instability set in after 2010, increasingly within them.
Largely dormant as an issue during the first Rudd government, Julia Gillard’s opposition to same-sex marriage during her prime ministership was used as a rallying point against her by the faction around Rudd, many of whom had undergone a curiously simultaneous conversion to supporting the issue. Even after Rudd and Gillard departed the scene, it remained a factional football in Labor, with Bill Shorten having blocked a left/modernising push at the 2012 National Conference that would have made support for same-sex marriage immediately binding on Labor MPs.
When Abbott’s leadership came under pressure not long after he came to power, like Gillard, his opposition to same-sex marriage was also used by his opponents to undermine him. Abbott’s proposal to hold a plebiscite was a means of defusing the issue in an unsuccessful attempt to save his leadership. When Turnbull took over, he carried on with the plebiscite as a means of stabilising his own leadership, this time against a threat from the right. Shorten, who had been open to a plebiscite, now opposed it presumably in the hope of boxing Turnbull in.
So far, so tactical, if tedious. But then something curious happened. A tactical manoeuvre by Labor to oppose the plebiscite to add pressure to the Turnbull leadership—even if preventing the quickest way for same-sex marriage to be made legal—suddenly caught the political and media imagination.
It was striking how much passion the campaign to oppose the vote generated, seeming even more than the same-sex marriage issue itself. Labor, who could not get agreement to bind its MPs to support same-sex marriage in the current parliament, nevertheless discovered a new-found unity against the plebiscite, upholding a poll of LGBTQ people that suggested opposition to the vote. A party that had routinely ignored the wishes of a minority on same-sex marriage while in power now seemed to be taking them very seriously indeed.
But perhaps more striking was the passionate opposition to the plebiscite in the media. Up until the time it was no longer being considered, polls showed that most voters supported a binding plebiscite on the issue. This included those who supported same-sex marriage and those who did not. So combined with the solid support for same-sex marriage, the most popular combination of both was to support same-sex marriage and a vote to decide it.
Yet that view was almost entirely absent from the media. Commentators with access to outlets that gave them no trouble broadcasting their own support for same-sex marriage were equally adamant to deny the public the right to give theirs. Like many politicians, media personalities who had shown little interest in the wishes of a minority on same-sex marriage suddenly became passionate in opposing a vote apparently on a new-found respect for the wishes of that very same minority.
Some arguments against the public having a vote ran along the lines of a broader assertion of parliamentary sovereignty being made in Britain to overturn the Brexit vote. An example was Gillard’s much publicised U-turn on same-sex marriage in her Michael Kirby Lecture in August 2015. Her U-turn was based less on the merits of the issue itself but rather the damage to parliamentary sovereignty if it failed to follow the public will and passed off the decision to a plebiscite.
Gillard’s speech was prescient in rehearsing the anti-populist arguments that would emerge a year later in response to the Brexit and Trump votes. For Gillard the issue was not same-sex marriage itself, nor even that public opinion should be followed—after all she and her colleagues had no problem ignoring the public support for same-sex marriage while in government—rather the problem was the integrity of parliament and the challenge posed to it by a plebiscite.
At this point it should be noted that much of the support for a plebiscite, especially from the Coalition, was not usually motivated by the public getting a say either. Abbott shared many of Gillard’s concerns over the challenge to the integrity of parliament from a plebiscite, which is why he opposed the idea when it was mooted after the Irish marriage referendum in 2015.
Abbott’s support for the plebiscite came more from political expediency to salvage his leadership and, perhaps, wishful thinking that there was a ‘silent majority’ supporting his socially conservative position—a delusion often to be found on the Australian right. Indeed, many of the Coalition right seemed to see no problem in advocating a public vote while still insisting on their ability to vote in parliament as they saw fit, something they reaffirmed with abstaining or voting against the same-sex marriage bill after the Yes win.
Other arguments also replicated those made by the people asserting the sovereignty of Westminster to stop Brexit. Similar to Major’s call for a free vote in Westminster to overturn Brexit, there were also calls in Australia for parliament just to ‘do its job’ and pass same-sex marriage on a free vote.
But the Australian Parliament was doing its job. The forty-fifth parliament was elected with a Coalition mandate to conduct a plebiscite—and polls suggest this was what the public wanted. So clearly parliament ‘doing its job’ meant something other than carrying out the mandate the government claimed. Once again, a call for a free vote appeared more about calling for MPs to override that mandate and hence the voters who had elected it.
Both in Britain and Australia, parliaments were being asked to overturn the elected mandate of the parties in favour of either preventing a public vote, as in Australia, or overturning the result of one that had already happened, as in Britain over Brexit. This meant upholding the sovereignty of their parliaments—but by overruling the Westminster democratic system they were both based on. However, in Australia the campaign against the vote was to go further in revealing its anti-democratic content. These were mainly dressed up around upholding the rights of a minority.
A common argument against the vote was that a minority appealing to the majority for its rights was ‘demeaning’ and liable to provoke a backlash. This was a view echoed by the majority report of a Senate committee looking into the postal plebiscite in March 2018.
If the majority should not be deciding on minority rights, who then should? This was the dilemma Paul Karp grappled with in a Guardian article criticising Turnbull for saying that although he supported same-sex marriage, he would respect the result of the vote even if it was a No.3
It might be thought that respecting the will of the majority is to be expected from a leader of a democracy. But instead of it coming from a belief in democracy, to Karp it illustrated Turnbull’s belief in ‘majoritarianism’ and the ‘tyranny of the majority’. Who then to turn to? The answer is of course parliament, not in as much as it reflects the majority will, but in as much as it does not:
Arguably, parliament deciding the issue would be majoritarian as well because it’s still up for a majority vote, just this time of our representatives. Maybe so. But parliamentarians have a responsibility to govern for all and are therefore more likely to consider whether same-sex marriage is so great a good for the group it affects (the dignity and equality it confers on LGBTI people) that it justifies some upset from those who feel it detracts from their own (heterosexual) marriage.
On what basis this ‘good’ for the group is assessed, well, that can only be a judgement for MPs on their own—a group that has a persistent record of ignoring the wishes of the minority (and the majority) on the issue for years. To the writer, to ‘govern for all’ does not mean respecting the wishes of all. Indeed, MPs here are being explicitly asked to ignore the ‘majoritarian’ Westminster basis on which they were elected.
It is worth also noting that expecting parliament to vote for same-sex marriage at the time Karp’s piece was written was fantasy. The Coalition majority was overwhelmingly for opposing a parliamentary vote ahead of holding a public vote—reaffirmed in their party room right up until the public vote was held. Given there was no hope of parliament passing it without a public vote, appealing to it could only have been suggested because, given the ‘tyranny of the majority’, there was simply no other option. Note that this ‘tyranny’ of the public was for same-sex marriage. It is striking that this refusal to appeal to the majority is so adamant as to be even to the detriment of the result wanted.
Turning away from the majority is opposite to the approach taken by almost all progressive movements of the previous century. The brave souls who faced the brutality of the NSW Police in Sydney’s first Mardi Gras in 1978 followed in the footsteps of other civil rights movements, such as the African Americans who had faced the violence of the Alabama cops a decade earlier. Both groups took to public spaces to bring their cause to public attention in the hope of gaining public support, on the not unreasonable assumption that it would give them more social weight to achieve their demands.
That such a route is now considered impossible, even harmful, is a reminder just how far things have regressed. It highlights how, despite the phoney assertiveness of identity politics, it is really one of retreat and defeat. It is especially detrimental to minorities as it cuts off their main route to achieving their demands as potential public support is replaced with the hopelessness of a ‘tyranny’ of straights over gays, whites over blacks, and so on—leaving them powerless to do anything more than spend years banging their heads against parliament’s concrete walls and be used as a political football.
The democratic dilemma
The political disruption that began with the Brexit and Trump shocks in 2016 is now spreading across the developed democracies and provoking a sharper response by the established political classes under threat. No matter how real were attempts to use Russian bots and data analytics to sway voters, the attempts to denigrate recent results on the basis that they did so are unconvincing—not least because the losing sides never think to mention it at the time (during the US presidential campaign it was Trump who claimed the election was ‘rigged’, a claim rightly mocked by his opponents).
Indeed, both Brexit and Trump’s victory occurred in the face of overwhelming opposition from a traditional media that reached millions. This may give pause to progressives who tend to blame their own failures on the media, rather than perhaps their own uninspiring programs and politics. These latest claims come from a long tradition of assuming a public voting the wrong way must have been duped. Yet insulting the voters’ intelligence is tricky. The political establishment is on safer ground presenting themselves as a bulwark against a populist threat to democracy than spending too much time trashing the public’s ability to think for itself.
This leaves democrats with something of a dilemma. The mobilisation of parliament to overturn or prevent a democratic vote means pitching against the will of the public the only real democratic institution the public has. It poses as much a dilemma for the British public that voted for parliamentary sovereignty in Brexit, only to find the same parliamentary sovereignty being used to override it—just as it does for an Australian minority facing a supposed tyranny of the majority that for more than a decade supported its cause, and instead forced to turn to a parliament that consistently showed it did not.
Perhaps one way to resolve this is to recall what is the real democratic content of parliament and the political parties. Unfortunately, it seems much of this understanding of democracy has been lost. Several decades of declining public interest in existing political institutions has obscured that it was the public that gave political parties, and the institutions they operate in, their democratic content. This lost understanding applies not just to the established parties. As the discussion around the same-sex marriage vote showed, it also applies to previously progressive social movements that now see the public as a tyrant rather than the path to emancipation.
Just how much work needs to be done was probably best illustrated by the lack of challenge to what was probably the worst argument against the same-sex plebiscite of all: that any vote would be nothing but a ‘glorified opinion poll’.
Let us leave aside that those who celebrated the announcement of the Yes victory on 15 November 2017 did not believed this, just as they never had for more than a decade of opinion polls showing much the same thing. Forget also the subsequent disarray on the social conservative right as their dream that they represented anything more than a small minority was finally laid to rest by a decisive vote and a turnout of a size they never expected. Describing a vote as a glorified opinion poll illustrates just how much the true meaning of the vote has been buried.
Contrary to the way it is discussed now, women did not demand the vote in the early twentieth century merely because they wanted their opinion canvassed or their ‘voices heard’—or anything else that could be replicated by an opinion poll, glorified or otherwise. That is to confuse the demand with the political form it took. They did it for the same reason that those from a position of extreme social isolation marched down Sydney’s Oxford Street in 1978, or the granddaughters and grandsons of slaves crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma Alabama in 1965. It was to make an impact on society to bring about change in their interests and, in doing so, assert their weight as a social force, and so claim their part in society that, as an inherent truth, they already had. •
The author is an analyst who writes the Piping Shrike blog, a perspective on Australian politics.
- See the Piping Shrike, ‘Unpopular Populism’, Meanjin, no. 1, 2017.
- See a more thorough discussion of this in the Piping Shrike, ‘Politics Through the Looking Glass’, Meanjin, no. 1, 2016.
- Paul Karp, ‘Malcolm Turnbull doesn’t believe in marriage equality—he believes in majoritarianism’, Guardian, 17 September 2016.
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