Borgen and the third party fantasy/fallacy

These days the English, believe it or not, are looking east and a bit north for their quality television; to Denmark, præcis. Fresh on the footsteps of the noir crime drama The Killing (Forbrydelsen), come The Bridge, and Borgen, a political drama that might well feel tantalisingly utopian for viewers living in staid Western democracies around the world. The first season of Borgen tells the story of a charismatic, principled female leader of the minority Moderate Party who manages to break the big party stranglehold in Denmark to lead a coalition of parties as Prime Minister. It is, simply put, The West Wing for the post-noughties generation. Who wants to watch the humdrum story of a principled Democrat and his team fighting for and gaining office when a lot of the real action, inspiration and colour in modern politics sprouts from the backblocks of community organising in much smaller parties?

With all the water that has passed under the bridge in recent decades, from the centre-left’s embrace of economic liberalism & New Labour’s “principled” invasion of Iraq, to the seeming predilection of conservative parties for high defence spending, “big government” and politicised social welfare, what normal, rational person doesn’t occasionally dream of a democracy where the major parties get a taste of their just desserts?

The “third party” or outsider fantasy that Borgen depicts is not so much of a stretch for Danish politics, where the government is regularly lead by coalitions of smaller parties; but it does remain a stretch for most of the rest of us. The Westminster breed of government and certainly a fair proportion of the adversarial electoral systems that are prominent internationally are structurally configured to encourage big, powerful parties at the expense of smaller ones. The United States remains the textbook case; an ironclad bastion of major parties, albeit with a Republican Party wracked with internal division courtesy of the evangelical Right and the Tea Party movements. Will we see a President of the United States who is not either a Democrat or a Republican in our lifetimes? Almost certainly not.

In the United Kingdom, of course, Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats are two years into their warm embrace of the Conservatives in government; they are finding that the embrace is slowly suffocating them. In local elections this week, the Lib Dems lost 329 of their 767 councillors. Since the 2010 election, support for the Liberal Democrats has fallen from 22% to 11% in a recent YouGov poll, behind even the somewhat barmy UK Independence Party (Ukip). Everyone with a bit of conscience who cared about democracy “agreed with Nick” in the lead-up to the 2010 poll, but you’d be hard-pressed to find many who do so now. It was inordinately fashionable to agree with Nick back then – even The Guardian editorialised in support of the Liberal Democrats in 2010. Now the Lib Dems have the look of a party sleepwalking towards disaster when the next national election swings around, unless some drastic changes can be made to the way they are doing business with their Tory masters.

In Australia, we’ve had our momentary dalliances with minor parties in the last couple of decades, but only impressionable students, members of the Greens, or the pharmaceutically inspired could argue that Labor and the Liberal Party are significantly waning in terms of support at elections more than they are waxing. Tony Abbott is leading the Liberals with a civilisation-crushing 51% of the primary vote, according to Newspoll; Labor may be in the doldrums at the moment on 27%, but then they have been doing a bit of foot-shooting of late and Julia Gillard is well and truly on the nose in suburbia. The Greens have showed quite an admirable level of staying power over the course of the last decade, consistently sitting at 10% or thereabouts, but arguably, Australia’s close relationship with George Bush’s Republican administration in the first half of the noughties and Bob Brown’s recent resignation may have seen their political high watermark come and go. Bob Brown was always a fairly dignified, relatively likable figure, enjoying a not inconsiderable media profile. Christine Milne, and/or whoever follows her is going to find it desperately difficult to “maintain the rage” whilst maintaining and growing their current fledgling level of support nationally. The fate of the Democrats, another worthy minor party, hangs heavily on the shoulders of would-be innovators in the Australian political scene.

For us, the Brits and the Americans, Borgen is just a twinkling of utopia; it tells the story of a place that our own countries, at least without a drastic and unlikely overhaul of our respective political systems, simply cannot be. There is more than a dash of “grass is always greener” about this, of course. Danish viewers of Borgen would – let’s not kid ourselves – probably snort derisively at any suggestion that their decidedly multilateral incarnation of parliamentary democracy is necessarily something to covet. The often brutal level of compromise and imperfection that modern democracy delivers in spades, regardless of which political party is in office, is not something that anybody yet really has the answer to. Canberra, Westminster and Washington, for many, feel so distant and so alien that they may as well orbit Alpha Centauri, for all the good they do and all the meaning they have in people’s everyday lives.

But yet, through the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and yes, the British National Party, our collective “third party” fantasy lives on. Unless this fantasy transforms itself into an organised movement for electoral reform however, it will remain a fallacious mirage: a distraction from the far more profound structural problems that so bedevil democracy in the 21st century.

Major parties and minor parties at the end of the day are playing the same game by the same rules, and sadly, it’s a damn sight easier and sexier to make a few more little, largely ignorable chips off the old block than to think about fashioning a whole new block.

God save your Queen?

In honour of Australia Day, the 2011 NSW Australian of the Year, Larissa Behrendt, has had an opinion column full of heart-warming bonhomie about “national values” published in the Sydney Morning Herald. It’s quite difficult to disagree with Behrendt’s sentiment and the positive prism through which she views our people and our sense of nation; particularly on a day like today. There are lots of objectively laudable things that Australians tend to do as a people and ideals that we represent through our actions that collectively, we should probably all be a bit prouder of. Our determination to reject the recent flood crises and our willingness to dip into our pockets to help out those affected are contemporary cases in point.

On the other hand, being a bit constructively critical now, our handling of the republic issue over the course of the last decade has been poor. Despite some dubious recent polling and some unhelpful dithering over timing, support (e.g. Newspoll [PDF]) for the constitutionalisation of an Australian Head of State is strong and has remained strong since the 1990’s. In what is beginning (after all these years) to seem like an Australia Day variation on Godwin’s Law, Behrendt issues a call for a move to a republic in her column, but she does so with philosophical kid gloves firmly on:

At the time Australia became a Federation, it was a very different country to the one it is now. It had different values, including its embrace of a White Australia Policy, women were excluded from public life and Aboriginal people from mainstream society. The national conversation about a republic is an opportunity to define ourselves by new values through a process of inclusive nation building.

While there is some fearsome juggling of issues going on at the moment on the front benches of the Gillard Government, I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments of 2009 Australian of the Year Patrick McGorry; in this age of near-universal multi-tasking, the government damn well should be able to “walk and chew gum at the same time”. The rationale for delay is flimsy and unedifying. Waiting on the resignation or death of the Queen is a curiously morbid and cowardly way to approach a profound issue concerning our national identity. Must we meekly wait for the “mother country” to cut a few more emotional strings for us before we will deign to tackle the issue ourselves, as a proud and independent people?

As even the Barmy Army have realised, an Australian republic is laughably beyond due. Its time (surely? please??) to exhume the models, dust-off the arguments and restart the process anew, starting with a plebiscite reaffirming the nation’s desire to have its own Head of State.

The alternative, well… doesn’t speak too highly of us really, does it?

Cross-posted at Larvatus Prodeo.

Electoral Reform Green Paper – Strengthening Australia’s Democracy

As previously mentioned, the government has released a second Electoral Reform Green Paper for public comment. Chapter 15 of the document lists out a series of eighty issues in the form of questions that the government is inviting responses to in particular from the republic. The state of our democracy is a particular bugbear topic for me, so I have this evening managed to finally get my act together and complete my submission, focusing on 19 of the questions raised.

Public submissions are open for just over three more weeks until Friday 27th November 2009. An online discussion on the document will be held from next Monday 9th November 2009 until Friday 13th November 2009.

My submission in all its unadulterated prolixity is over the fold.

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It’s time to talk about human rights

One of the most contentious unresolved issues with respect to the Australian Constitution is that no specific aggregate collection of human rights are enshrined within it, unlike several other “high profile” constitutions worldwide (most famously, the United States Bill of Rights). Australian constitutional lawyer Greg Craven sums up the situation quite succinctly (if a little flippantly!) in his excellent book, Conversations with the Constitution (p.165):

No-one can dislike human rights. Rights are the small children and furry animals of a constitutional system, demanding nothing less than constant admiration, unremitting praise and rapt attention. If, as Doctor Johnson remarked, someone tired of London is tired of life, anyone tired of human rights is tired of credibility.

The reality of rights is harder. For all their surface appeal, constitutional rights are as fraught with complication as a Beirut tourist guide.

When it comes to constitutional recognition of human rights in Australia, the primary combatants fall into two broad camps. The first camp seeks the inclusion of a “bill of rights” of sorts in our constitution, and laments the absence of any cohesive collection of legally enshrined rights in the current document. This is probably the popular view amongst the broader left, as exemplified by this editorial in The Age recently, and the work of Professor George Williams. The second camp is concerned that enshrining a series of discrete rights in our constitution is destined to shift decision-making powers on rights from parliament to the judiciary; in essence from an elected body to an unelected body. One of the most prominent bill of rights sceptics in the political sphere is of course former NSW Premier Bob Carr. There is of course a third, rather amorphous camp to consider here; those Australians who don’t really care whether or not human rights are enshrined in the Australian Constitution, and don’t think that doing so is really going to make a significant difference to their lives. At this point in time, this camp is by far the largest camp on the scene, and will probably present the greatest obstacle to any change being instigated in the future.

It is in this environment that the Rudd Government and Attorney-General Robert McLelland has taken the commendable step of kickstarting a new National Human Rights Consultation process on the auspicious occasion of the 60th Anniversary of the Signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The consultation process is to proceed over a period of some seven months, reporting back to parliament on 31 July 2009, and is to be chaired by Father Frank Brennan, a strong advocate of human rights, but something of a sceptic when it comes to local constitutional enshrinement. His appointment was an exceptionally canny choice from a government no doubt concerned about the repercussions of stacking its consultation committee with people ready and raring to create an Australian Bill of Rights. The other members of the committee are SBS journalist Mary Kostakidis (an Australian bill of rights advocate of sorts), former Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Palmer, and young lawyer Tammy Williams.

This is a great opportunity for Australians to get involved with their constitutional democracy and shape the way it is to develop in the coming decades. You can make an online submission to the consultation process here – make sure you do so by 29th May 2009 if you at all care about human rights in Australia.

ELSEWHERE: Kim remarks on the anniversary of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights over at Larvatus Prodeo. Andrew Bartlett also has a good post supportive of the consultation process here.