March 07, 2013 | Graham

Whatever happened to representative democracy?

This piece by Peter van Onselen is based on a huge misconception of how our system of government should, and does, work. I’ve had his theory of government put to me by my daughters and other non-expert voters, but never before by a professor of politics.

Talking about the resignation of Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu van Onselen says:

Removing a first-term incumbent leader should have been taboo after the turmoil that followed federal Labor’s decision to make such a move against Kevin Rudd.

…Voters do not like partyrooms removing elected leaders, especially when they are in their first term.

…Now the entire party will wear the result of Victoria’s next state election, not to mention the many tags that Tony Abbott and co have happily thrown federal Labor’s way for removing Rudd.

Who were the faceless men? Why did they “assassinate” a first-term premier?

What callous disregard for the voters. What chaos the government must have been in to do what it did.

All of which suggests that van Onselen, in common with many voters is confusing a presidential system they are familiar with from US television programs with the Westminster system that we actually have.

The proposition underlying this piece appears to be that electors choose prime ministers and premiers, not parliaments, and that having been chosen, the parliament is duty bound to maintain them in place until the next election, no matter how bad the choice may prove.

(Or perhaps van Onselen believes this is the case only in their first term, the piece is a little confused on this point).

Many electors may share that mindset, fostered as it is by media coverage that focusses on leadership and individuals, as well as US TV shows, but it is not the way the system actually works.

And just as well. The prime minister, or premier, is just the “first amongst equals”, and it is absolutely necessary that they be able to be dismissed by their parliamentary colleagues. It is those colleagues for whom we vote, not just to represent us, but to vote on who of their number will be entrusted to form the government.

Being able to turf a bad performer is part of the robustness of our system. If voters don’t like that, then they can take it out against their local representative at the next election.

Imagine a situation where the prime minister or premier could stay in place no matter what their sins? Where would that have left the Queensland National Party after the corruption of Bjelke-Petersen had been revealed? Should they have been obliged to stick by him to the bitter end, or elect someone to clean up the mess?

What distinguished the Rudd situation was that for most people Rudd was about as popular as he had always been, so they couldn’t understand why he was removed. This doesn’t apply to Baillieu who now adds potential corruption in his party to poor polling figures.

Which ought to send shivers up Julia Gillard’s spine as the Baillieu incident shows how a leader who has lost the confidence of their colleagues and the public, and how is mired in scandal and non-performance ought to behave.

Posted by Graham at 12:28 pm | Comments (8) |
Filed under: Uncategorized


  1. Van Onselen is only trying to deflect the deserved opprobriom at the Victorian government onto the Federal Labor government, employing the well known tactics of rightist shills and Murdoch hacks.
    But the emperor has no clothes- all the weasel wording in the universe doesn’t hide the truth.

    Comment by paul walter — March 8, 2013 @ 11:48 am

  2. Whatever happened to representative politics?
    Perhaps it has been poisoned by party politics, professional political careers and individualism?
    We once lived in communities that were tribal in nature, with an inherently caring/protective common herd mindset, the social glue, if you will, that allowed societies and the common good to effectively function?
    I believe Individualism and its hand maiden, extreme personal ambition, has gone far too far?
    There was a time when politics was progressive, and good or better ideas, were simply treated on their merit, regardless of which side of the political divide one sat on.
    Perhaps a real return to the future, should include re-embracing those very qualities, that once identified us as inclusive progressives, and always able to put others and the common good, always ahead of purely personal ambition.
    Isn’t that what politics and or entering the political fray, is supposed to be all about?
    Even so, party politics, should never ever exclude robust debate or the passionate exchange of ideas!
    [Perhaps we would get a far better class of politician, if individual politicians were limited to just two full terms; and pension or super entitlements, no different to, or better than, the rest of society! People would then be getting in for all the right reasons?]
    Robust debate and the passionate exchange of ideas, have been largely underwritten, all our progress?
    It is said, before one can effectively lead, one must first learn to follow.
    Perhaps that is good old head advice, Mr Shaw could follow?
    Alan B. Goulding.

    Comment by Alan B. Goulding — March 8, 2013 @ 11:57 am

  3. I was beginning to wonder if I was the only person going – “hang on, I voted for the party, not the person”.

    Comment by Val — March 8, 2013 @ 12:39 pm

  4. Well said Graham

    Comment by Chris Lewis — March 9, 2013 @ 7:52 am

  5. Still glad they got rid of Rudd though.

    Comment by Chris Lewis — March 9, 2013 @ 7:53 am

  6. Amid all the carry-on about the “Westminster System”, who remembers that one of its most important traditions was that disgraced members (Thompson, Tilley, Shaw please note) simply resigned and disappeared. If their demise left their leader without a majority on the floor of the house, the head of state asked someone else to form a government. Failing that, a general election was called. That is how the system works. No party is entitled to hold office unless it can maintain moral and ethical integrity.

    Comment by Matthew Peckham — March 9, 2013 @ 8:48 am

  7. I’d disagree Matthew. They are entitled to sit as members of parliament until they are disqualified. The Westminster tradition is that in similar circumstances a cabinet minister would probably stand aside until the matter had been cleared.

    There is actually a long tradition of members of parliament hiding from process servers in the parliament at Westminster.

    Comment by Graham — March 9, 2013 @ 1:01 pm

  8. Excellent! Primum inter pares… that’s the whole point. I’d prefer a rotating chairmanship of a parliament of genuine independents who also elect the ministers of portfolios who are advised by a slew of competent advisors. There’s no need for a government and opposition. Every elected representative should be working for the good of his/her electorate, not for the good of their party.

    Comment by Rigby — March 12, 2013 @ 7:18 am

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