If you ask anyone in a Western nation whether he or she believes in democracy as a system of government, the answer will almost certainly be yes.
But if one aspect of democracy is the election of governments by a majority of those voting – whether voluntarily or under compulsion as in Australia – a second aspect might be thought to be the acceptance by all voters and non-voters of the new government, if only until the next election when everything is back on the table.
But recent votes in Britain, in the United States and in Australia suggest that there are significant groups in these communities who are not prepared to accept the result, and that they will start working to overturn it the day after it is declared.
So in Britain there have been demonstrations since the plebiscite on Brexit calling for a second vote where the first could be reversed or, alternatively, for the British parliament to refuse to pass the legislation initiating the withdrawal from the European Community. Tony Blair has joined the call for a second vote. The Scottish government has simply rejected the result of the Brexit plebiscite and called for a new vote on Scotland leaving the United Kingdom – this question having already been the subject of a plebiscite that was lost in 2015. The underlying theme to these demands is that it may be necessary to keep having successive votes until the desired result is achieved. Then presumably the demands would stop.
Meanwhile in the US there have been ongoing protests since the presidential election in November 2016, highlighted by calls for some kind of mass resistance by Michael Moore and Madonna’s thoughts on bombing the White House.
More importantly, a large section of the US media have continued to publish reports designed to destabilise the new administration with much of the information being provided by officials within government bodies – including intelligence agencies in Washington – who are equally upset about the election result. Discussions between members of the administration and Russian officials – seemingly a normal diplomatic exchange – have been portrayed as some kind of clandestine activity from the pages of a John Le Carré novel.
Even at the height of the Cold War these kinds of contacts did not provoke the hysteria that has been seen over recent months in the media and from some bellicose members of the Senate in Washington.
In Australia the Turnbull government might have imagined that it had been re-elected at the July 2016 federal election. But immediately after the election the non-government parties in the Senate – Labor, the Greens and the eleven independents – made it clear that they placed no value on legislation designed to implement the policies that the government took to the electorate.
Instead they have put forward proposals of their own, such as an increase in the Medicare levy and the maintenance of existing levels of expenditure in a range of areas, as if they were the government themselves, being quite indifferent as to how these measures would impact on the government’s overall budget strategy.
This misconceived role of the Senate was well captured by the fiasco in late 2016 concerning legislation setting the income tax rate for non-resident workers – so-called backpackers – when figures of 10.5, 13, 15 and 19.5 per cent were proposed by various Senate parties until 15 per cent was finally adopted in some kind of random selection.
All this has become a much greater problem in Australia over recent years.
But the refusal to accept the result of an election was first really seen when the Whitlam government was elected in December 1972 after 23 years of Coalition rule.
The Coalition retained a narrow majority in the Senate and made it clear from the outset that all of the new Whitlam government’s significant legislation would be rejected.
Then in early 1974 the Senate blocked the budget bills and forced an election. The government won again but nothing changed in the Senate and the budget bills were blocked once more in October 1975 after the Coalition leadership was seized by Malcolm Fraser, one of the most unscrupulous characters in Australian political history. When Whitlam refused to call an election for the House of Representatives on this occasion, the government was dismissed by the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr.
It is true that the Whitlam government was marked by serious failures of economic policy and an endless series of ministerial scandals. But it was elected twice and was entitled to serve out its terms before facing the judgment of the electorate.
Its opponents, however, simply disregarded the result of two elections in a way that seemed remarkable at that time. Notwithstanding periods of relative stability in the Hawke-Keating period, and then the Howard years, this kind of indifference to the outcome of a popular vote now appears much more normal.
The current attitude of the opposition parties to the July 2016 result – at present still a three year term with little more than half a year served – was well captured by the cynical remark of Greens MP, Adam Bandt, that the country was only one Coalition backbencher’s heart attack away from having a change of government.
There are, of course, problems about translating popular votes into mandates for action but the current trend of some of those in Western countries on the losing side to refuse to accept the verdict of elections and plebiscites can only increase the pressure on what are already rather fragile political institutions in those nations.
It seems that it is easy to believe in democracy if you win the election, but not so easy if you lose.
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