Major democratic reforms proposed in Britain

A range of initiatives have been put forward by new British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, aimed at restoring public trust in politics. He flagged many of these changes over a year ago.

A few of them are specific to Britain, but most would have application to Australia and are things our democratic system would benefit from. The proposals to reduce the powers held by Ministers and handed over to Parliament are among the most potentially important.

They include requiring parliamentary approval to go to war, something the Democrats in Australia have been pushing for over 25 years. This has added poignancy now we have a government which has shown it is willing to send our troops to initiate a war, without the support of both houses of Parliament.

Giving Parliament greater powers over ratifying treaties and making key public appointments (including judges) would also be beneficial.

Lowering the voting age to sixteen is something I’ve blogged on a couple of times in the past. It would have a different impact in a country like Britain which has voluntary voting (and a terribly low participation rate these days), than it would in Australia with compulsory voting.

The big hole in the package of measures is the lack of action to reform Britain’s terribly undemocratic voting system. Their regional Parliaments in Scotland and Wales are elected through proportional representation, but this still seems to big a hurdle for the House of Commons. Moving to a fully elected House of Lords/Upper House has also been left for a future date, although I think further reform in this area is fairly likely down the track.

A strong code of conduct for Ministers and MPs is also something that Democrats have been pushing for for a long time. It is fair to say that a key reason why public trust in politics has declined has been because of broken promises and dishonesty, something which may be made harder with some of these changes, but really requires a genuine commitment to honesty from governments.

Here is a list of the key measures put forward by Gordon Brown:

* Voting in general and local elections at weekends instead of Thursdays; voting age to be lowered from 18 to 16.
* A Bill of Rights and Duties to operate alongside the Human Rights Act; possible written constitution in the long term.
* Laws banning demonstrations near Parliament to be reviewed by Government, Metropolitan Police, the Mayor of London, Westminster City Council and MPs.
* National security strategy to be published regularly, setting out threats and objectives; the new National Security Committee, chaired by the Prime Minister, to send “a clear message that at all times we will be vigilant and we will never yield”.
* New Civil Service Act to protect neutrality of officials.
* Extension of local democracy including citizens’ juries on major decisions; ballots on spending decisions; new community right to call for action.
* Advance notice of official statistics given to government departments cut from five days to one.
* Union Flag reclaimed from extremists by allowing it to be flown on government buildings on more than the current 18 days a year.
* Tighter code of conduct for ministers, policed by a more powerful independent adviser reporting annually to Parliament.
* Powers held by ministers to be surrendered to MPs or limited in 12 areas including those to: declare war; request the dissolution of Parliament; recall Parliament during its recess; ratify international treaties; make key public appointments; restrict parliamentary oversight of the intelligence services; choose bishops; appoint judges; direct prosecutors in criminal cases; control the Civil Service; fix the rules on entitlement to passports, and on granting pardons.

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  1. I agree with Andrew that our democratic system could certainly benefit from many of these proposed changes (on the condition that we had the right government in power in the first place).

    I also think it would be good to lower the voting age here as kids are being adversely and deeply affected by many Coalition policies & proposals such as Workchoices, the Oil War in Iraq, nuclear power, failure to ratify Kyoto agreement etc

    They are quite politically aware and feel powerless. My son is 12 and if he could vote in the next election he would and he could articulately justify his voting choice.

    I feel strongly that this Coalition government under John Howard has done more to undermine human and civil rights in Australia that any other in a very long time. The rights of children, Aboriginals, single parents, workers, disabled, students have been trampled under the size 9’s of this corporate-sponsored government.

  2. Only a week in a job and he’s already outlining some vision.

    The proposal that I’m most interested in is devolution of budgeting powers. More detail was outlined today. It would be good if a local council somewhere in Australia could try a pilot scheme. Even before Brown, there were a number of local councils that experimented with it.

  3. i think some of the ideas are good espesialy lowering the voting age .
    we can sit back and see how it works over there before we make the same mistakes.
    we then can lower the driving age to mabe six and drinking to possibly seven.

  4. yes, a veRY big idea u as U? BIG_RED…

    & crabBIES, with a wrong & right cchip,
    on U big lips near u hips for a skip-scotT?

    yes, lower the voting age to 12+ on an anon basis for local, state & federal level.

    if a genius or three was the MENTAL age of a 12+
    old AVERAGE aCROSS the ‘racial’ groups or ‘families’ of a user specified GROUP or CLASS of anY given styLE justice.

    thus, under a really smART BINDI^***i!, a 7+ could easily be a PRESIDENT of the GLOBE.

    key issue & ONE criteria:

    “is the xyz age child or adult [e.g.,7+] FAIR?”


  5. now clear that ozzians aren’t going to get it, so for the record:

    democratic reforms don’t start at the top.

    and if you’re going to talk about politics, do please read aristotle, jefferson, and paine. you won’t understand the ideas, but at least you will have a vocabulary.

  6. Al Loomis:
    How incredibly patronising of you. “You won’t understand the ideas”?

    For those of you who haven’t had a chance to read anything Jefferson said re: government here’s something-
    “…a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government.”

    Not only do I understand him Al – I can quote him. Try reading “Jennifer Government” by Max Barry – actually, no, don’t bother, you probably won’t understand it.

  7. It seems to be me, with respect to the democratic reforms needed for Australia beyond those outlined by Gordon Brown that if the the Senate is to be co-equal in powers, including financial powers, it should be co-equal in representation of population. It should be democratic in a real sense.

    Before the dawning of that new day, it seems to me there are two matters related to Senate voting that need to be addressed.

    Parties and candidates should be required to advise how their votes will be distributed, which might mean their would have to be negotiation between the parties before the election in a manner similar to fusion voting. This would be preferable to the current situation which I regard as deceptive, especially given the quoted figure for below the line voting in the last election was only 4%.

    Secondly with “above the line” voting independents are disadvantaged compared to political parties.

  8. wmmbb, Since Australia is a federal system it incorporates both national and federal characters. The House of Representatives represents the national character while the Senate represents the federal character of the system.

    It is also why since 1979 that the AG must consult with the state AGs for any High Court appointment. While the legislation this is to ensure the ‘national’ character of any appointment, it is actually enforcing the ‘federal’ character (ie not repugnant to the states) of a judicial appointment.

    Federalist No.39 is probably the best argument for the ‘characters’ of a federal system. It is also why the US has the oddity of the Electoral College (it is an attempt to combine national and federal characters).

  9. I think allowing 16 year olds to vote is a stupid idea, especially if they aren’t going to be given full adult responsibility at the same time.

    It’s simply an extension of the overempowerment of children which has led
    to their abuse of adults, refusal to do as they’re told, and poor academic results.

    All of my sons have had mental ages at least 5 years older than their chronological ages.

    But would I have wanted any of them to vote at the age of 11 or 13? Of course not!

    Adults should be running the country (also the homes and the schools), not children.

  10. Cam:

    Senators sit and vote as members of political parties. To my knowledge they have always do so. Therefore the federal character to which you refer is a non-democratic fiction since they are not elected on a equitable basis.I agree the practical situation in relation to population was very different over one hundred years ago.

    In terms of regional representation, the situation in the US means that with a similar population New England has 12 Senators to Florida’s two. The same democratic deficiency.

    COAG is the effective federal institution, which recently John Howard found it expedient to ignore.So much for the Australian version of the “Confederacy of sovereign states”, which in any case would not include the ACT or the NT.

    Thanks for the reference to Publius.

  11. Great to see the voting age may lowered to 16, and I note that this is still Democrats policy in Australia, at least to have voluntary voting for 16-17 year olds. They pay taxes after all and many of them have jobs these days. I would not have voted for the right people I suspect, at 16 – most teenagers are not politically mature it is true, but then neither are most adults frankly, and yet we force them to a polling station!

    And the requirement for parliamentary approval of war – well of course, if only that had been passed then we could have avoided soiling our dear old country in the sheer horror of Commander Cuckoo Banana’s War in Mesopotamia.

  12. A couple of quibbles for wmmbb -“Parties and candidates should be required to advise how their votes will be distributed”.
    1.Parties and candidates cannot be qualified electors and hence not entitled to vote. It is our votes that they manipulate when we vote by proxy.
    2.If I remember correctly, sec.316 of the electoral Act requires senate ‘orders of preference’ to be displayed outside voting premises. This often doesn’t happen as few people look at them. But if electors don’t refer to them, they can’t ‘directly choose’ any Senator, as required by sec.7 of the Constitution.
    As for decisions on war, that is supposed to be a prerogative of the Queen which Howard has simply usurped. It should be decided by unfettered voting of members in Parliament.

  13. Grouse:
    I never thought to look at the Commonwealth Electoral Act, 1918. The actual reference is s.218. I have never seen this information displayed, and have tended to look for it on the “how to vote” cards.

    Technically you are correct that voters not parties cast votes. However,I would suggest we have in effect a variation of fusion voting,and that voters should be entitled to appreciate the possible implications of expressing a preference using the above the line option.

    This may imply that parties negotiate the questions of support prior to the election rather than after it in relation to specific legislation, which to me is a more transparent and more a democratic process.

  14. I can’t say I’m overly fussed on 16 year-olds getting the vote, but neither am I dead against it. I’ve met many people of voting age who – it seemed to me – voted for strange and bizarre reasons and had little knowledge of Australia’s voting and parliamentary system.

    But with a democracy (especially one that includes compulsory voting) we have to allow everyone – whether or not we think they are complete idiots – to have their say.

  15. Yes, muzz.

    When I was 20, a 36-year-old woman told me that if I didn’t vote according to a party’s how-to-vote card, my vote would be informal.

    She said I must vote for the ALP because they were “for the worker”.

    In the first instance, nothing I said could convince her that she was wrong.

  16. as usual the last word on 16yr olds voting .
    if the rite to vote is granted then the 16 yr olds must be treated as adults in the eyes of the law .
    i dont think that they would like to actualy be responsible for all the actions just like adults that have the rite to vote.
    just another stupid idea that will take away there rites to be children by vote hungry pollys.

  17. red crab:

    Yes, and also take away our right to treat them (and protect them) as children – being very seriously undermined already.

    Lowering the voting age will also aid paedophiles/middle-aged men who are already getting away with having sexual relationships with 14-year-olds.

    Empowering children has plenty of negative effects.

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