PRIME Minister Michael Rimmer, in The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer, overcame one of the main objections to consulting the masses on political questions – cost – by installing in every home a Yes and No button above the television set.
Whenever a question arose for determination a red light and loud buzzer would come on and not go off until the household had voted on whatever question appeared on the television screen.
By contrast, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s plan for a plebiscite on the carbon tax would cost $80 million.
The Rise and Rise was filmed in 1970, so its internet-style interactive voting was quite prescient. So were some of its other themes. Rimmer, played by Peter Cook, starts his career in an opinion-poll company then by various acts of skullduggery and populism works his way up the Conservative Party ranks. The Conservatives beat a Wilsonesque, bungling, pipe-smoking socialist Labour leader and Rimmer gets the top job after pushing the new Conservative Prime Minister off an oil platform and staging it as an accident.
Rimmer poses as a true democrat, insisting that the people should always have their way, hence the consultation on important matters – such as any new tax – with the public at large.
But Rimmer was a meglomaniacal schemer. He made more and more issues matters for referendum questions. After a while the population got thoroughly fed of having their lives incessantly disrupted. So he posed a final referendum question – that all future questions should be decided by him. The masses voted Yes.
Now, Malcolm Turnbull was not toppled from an oil platform nor does Tony Abbott have plans to take over the whole of Australia’s decision making, but the satire does make a solid point about democracy. It may be defined as government by the people, but you can only go so far. It is not pure democracy, but representative democracy.
Abbott’s plebiscite does not have majority support in the Senate so it has no chance of going ahead, but the idea of single-policy plebiscites recurs so often it is worth pointing out their flaws.
The trouble with having them is that a plebiscite is like a great big focus group – and look where they have got the government.
People in focus groups, or indeed the Australia-wide focus group called a plebiscite, is that many of the people in them do not know much about what they are being asked and often they do not care.
You elect representatives to do that for you, so you can get on with making a living and having a life, in much the same way as you delegate many jobs to other experts – dentists to do your teeth, architects to design your home and so on. You decide on the dentist; you do not micro-manage the treatment.
Political representatives have access to an array of expert and other advice to help them.
The interdependence of decisions also makes plebiscites on individual decisions fraught. Put up a question on whether the people want a particular tax and they will invariably vote No. But if we don’t have any taxes the country would collapse.
Nonetheless, plebiscites work on the extremes – choices about fundamental change (like changes to the Constitution, or the fundamental machinery and structure of government) and choices about things which might generate a lot of emotional excitement but really do not matter a great deal, such as the national anthem, daylight saving or the flag.
They work at the trivial end because they are clear-cut: you either get Waltzing Matilda or Advance Australia Fair; or daylight saving or ordinary time. They work at the structural, constitutional end because you have a High Court to sort them out and determine what the new words mean.
On tax we have a fundamental constitutional structure. The Commonwealth has a general power to tax and an exclusive power over customs and excise (taxes on production) which the states cannot impose. If you change that tax structure you change the nature of the federation. The states could raise different custom duties on imports or the Commonwealth could be shut out of some taxes and not be able to direct economic policy.
Abbott’s plebiscite — “Do you want a carbon tax? – aside from inviting the obvious answer – No – suffers from a deadly combination of not being binding and not being certain. For example, is the existing excise on petrol a “carbon tax”? Is the GST on LPG a “carbon tax”? Is an emissions-trading scheme a “carbon tax”?
If the Government kept the fuel excise or the GST on LPG or introduced an emissions-trading scheme would it be defying the will of the people? And if the plebiscite was not binding, so what? How could the Government be forced to comply with “the will of the people”?
Well, there is a way. It is to change the Constitution.
If Abbott’s plebiscite were to be effective it would have to be a referendum to change the Constitution so that after the words “the Commonwealth Parliament has power to make laws with respect to taxation” the words “but not so as to tax carbon” would be inserted.
After the change, people affected by any tax that they thought was a tax on carbon could get the tax declared invalid by the High Court and they would not have to pay it.
That would hold the Government to account. It would be more than a political ploy to argue that the Government was merely “defying the will of the people”.
But something like a specific carbon tax is a policy decision to be made by the elected representatives and explained to the voters. Those representatives stand or fall on that.
Abbott’s plebiscite also raises the questions of mandate. It is not in the national interest for a government to pursue only those policies it announced at an election and never to change its mind. Circumstances change and good governments need to respond.
But if the reasons are not cogent or they fail to explain them to the voters, it is a failure of leadership – that essential ingredient of good representative democracy.
Good leadership requires the pursuit of good policy even if it is initially unpopular and the ability to explain it to voters. Single-issue plebiscites are no substitute.
The Opposition’s opportunistic call for a plebiscite on the carbon tax and, on the other hand, the Government’s inability to explain its case reveal a singular lack of leadership in Australia.
Blind subscription to whatever politicians feel the people want now reduces us to the helpless position of 19th century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli who said: “I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?”
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times on 25 June 2011.