Votes for corporations and extra votes for property owners: why local council elections are undemocratic



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Undemocratic voting systems in local council elections are not limited to the City of Sydney.
AAP/Daniel McCullough

Ryan Goss, Australian National University

Imagine, for a minute, an undemocratic political system. Imagine a voting system in which someone has more votes than you because they own property. Or a voting system in which corporations have a vote – and maybe even more votes than regular people. A voting system in which, as a result, the power of your vote could be diluted by votes cast on behalf of corporations.

This voting system isn’t something from Britain during the Industrial Revolution, or America’s Deep South in the 1950s. Instead, as my recent paper outlines, this way of voting is a reality at local council elections in five of Australia’s six states.

It’s time for this to change.

Not just a Sydney problem

In recent years journalists have often discussed voting rights in the City of Sydney, which gets attention because of the high profile of its council and because of its unusual voting laws. Not only do property-owning corporations get two votes in the City of Sydney, but voting is compulsory for them.

But this type of undemocratic voting isn’t confined to the City of Sydney. It’s not even confined to New South Wales. In every state except Queensland voting rights at local council elections include voting rights based on owning or leasing property, votes for corporations, and various forms of plural voting (ways in which one person can have more than one vote).

In other contexts, Australia’s most senior judges have described plural voting or property-based voting rights as “conspicuously undemocratic” and “anachronistic”, and said that such systems would be unconstitutional if done at federal elections. Such a system enshrines inequality by giving some people more of a say than others.

These days our local councils perform a wide range of government functions. If we don’t accept undemocratic voting rights at state or federal elections, we shouldn’t accept them for local council elections.

Time to catch up with Queensland

Queensland reformed its law on all of this in the 1920s. Alfred Jones, a Labor member of Queensland’s upper house, put it this way when advocating the change in December 1920:

We must recognise that local government is a form of government which affects every citizen within the particular local authority area; and I believe that all governing bodies should be elected on the broad franchise of one adult one vote. Probably Australia has led the world in connection with the adoption of that principle.

Surely what Queensland recognised in 1920 can be recognised in the other states in 2017.

And so, as my paper explains, in Queensland today you get to vote at local council elections if you can vote at state and federal elections. It’s that simple.

Essentially, this means you only get to vote for the local council that runs the area you live in, you only get to vote once, and there are no special voting rights for corporations or property owners. It’s the same at council elections in the Northern Territory.

Queensland hasn’t always been the torchbearer for Australian democracy. But at least voting rights at Queensland local government elections are designed to reflect basic democratic principles.

A kaleidoscope of different laws

The other five Australian states have different ways of deciding who gets voting rights at local council elections. British and Australian history has shaped these voting systems, and the relevant laws have often evolved slowly over time.

In some states, for example, non-citizens can vote if they are resident in the area; in other states residents must be citizens to vote. In some states, voting is compulsory at local council elections; in others it is voluntary or compulsory only for some voters. The detail of the laws is complex.

Nevertheless, there are some rules common to many of the problematic laws in these five states. Being enrolled on the state or federal electoral roll in a local government area will generally entitle you to vote at council elections in that area.

Owning or occupying property in a council area will generally entitle the owner or occupier to vote in that area, especially if the owner or occupier is not also a resident. This also means that, where the owner or occupier is a corporation, the legislation will provide a process by which someone can vote on behalf of the corporation. Where someone owns or occupies multiple properties in a particular council area, or where they live in an area and also own or occupy another property in the area, the law will provide some sort of limit on the number of votes available to that person.

The complex provisions underpinning these voting rights stand in stark contrast to the simple terms of the Queensland law. But while they are complex, their result is clear. In different ways, as the paper shows, these laws allow for voting rights based on property ownership or occupation, voting rights for corporations, and allow individual people to cast multiple votes.

All of this dilutes the voting power of individuals, and runs the risk that local governments may become distracted from what is in the interests of their local community.

Local councils can’t fix this themselves

These laws are quirks of history that have no place in Australia’s 21st-century democracy. So what should be done?

Fixing the laws that govern local council elections is the responsibility of the states. From time to time, state governments and state parliaments consider the possibility of making local council voting rights more democratic.

The ConversationThe good news is that there’s an easy way to make the change: NSW, Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania can simply follow Queensland’s lead. It’s time for state parliaments to act.

Ryan Goss, Senior Lecturer, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Violent politics and the disintegration of democracy in Cambodia


Caroline Bennett, Victoria University of Wellington

Kem Sokha, the leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was charged with treason last week, amid allegations of conspiring with a foreign power to overthrow the government.

In all likelihood, the charges mean the imminent dissolution of the main opposition party, leaving the ruling party – the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) – the only real contender in next year’s general elections.

The charges are the latest in the rolling back of democratic processes in the nation. They also reflect a shift in global democracy.

Destroying democracy

The latest development follows a pattern that has included alleged electoral intimidation in the recent commune elections, media suppression, and increasing threats of violence and conflict should the opposition win.

In the last three weeks, 17 radio providers that gave airtime to the opposition and aired programs produced by the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia – two Washington-based outlets that often include political critique – have had their licences revoked.

Last Monday, The Cambodia Daily, an English-language newspaper renowned for hard-hitting journalism, closed after 24 years, after being hit with an unaudited tax bill of US$6.3 million, with no course of appeal.


Read more: Cambodia Daily closure a major blow for freedom of information and expression in the country


In August, the National Democratic Institute’s office in Cambodia was forced to close, and its foreign staff were deported, following alleged infringement of the Law on Associations and Non-governmental Organisations (LANGO). This law was passed earlier this year, severely restricting the rights of civil society actors across the nation.

These actions are largely agreed to be manoeuvres to consolidate the political power of the CPP under the increasingly autocratic rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who, following Sokha’s arrest, has declared he will rule for another ten years.

The violence of Hun Sen

My research shows that Cambodian politics has always been a sphere of violence, but that since the 1993 UN-backed elections, it has happened under a veneer of liberal democracy.

According to Human Rights Watch, Hun Sen has the worst human rights record of any “democratic” leader.

Although his party lost the 1993 elections, he forced a coalition, before seizing power after violent clashes in 1997. Elections since then have been plagued by accusations of fraud, corruption and voter intimidation. Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard is implicated in much public violence, including brutal beatings of political opponents.

But these current moves are happening in increasingly public spaces. Their intensification appears to be aimed at preventing a replay of the shock results of the 2013 general elections, when the ruling party lost 22 seats to the CNRP, giving the ruling party its lowest share of seats since 1998.

2013: the beginning of the end

I was in Cambodia for the 2013 elections doing research for my PhD on the legacy of the Khmer Rouge regime. My work involved examining contemporary Cambodian politics.

The success of the opposition took many of us by surprise. Despite the allegations of fraud and corruption, the result seemed promising for its indication of free voting – there was hope that it marked a positive move for democracy. But among threats of civil conflict and unrest, the result also provoked tension.

Protests occurred in the capital, and several people were shot. Rumours started to circulate that Hun Sen had mobilised the army and that the deputy prime minister, Sok An, was planning a coup. Fear and tension bubbled below the surface for many of the people I was working with.

Hun Sen has repeatedly threatened civil war should he lose the elections. His threats are grounded in the all-too-well-remembered violent history of the Khmer Rouge, when up to 1.7 million people were killed.

In 2011, following the Arab Spring, Hun Sen threatened to kill anyone resisting his rule. Earlier this year he said:

To ensure the lives of millions of people, we are willing to eliminate 100 or 200 people.

Some in Cambodia fear he will be true to his word. It seems unlikely that Hun Sen will let the 2018 election result get as close as it did in 2013. After all, he has never shunned the threat of violence as a means of control.

Hun Sen also has the support of Tep Vong, supreme patriarch of the Cambodian Buddhist sect of Mohanikay. He has previously condoned controlling the freedom of the people, thereby ensuring spiritual legitimacy as well as political impunity for Hun Sen’s actions.

Global shifts in despotism, crumbling democracies

The moves towards media control and suppression of the opposition parallel turns across the globe. They reflect the rolling back of democracy and a rise of autocratic leaders in so-called democratic countries.

In April this year, a referendum in Turkey voted for constitutional reforms that give President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan single-handed rule with the right to pass new laws and dissolve parliament at will.

This legislation followed the failed coup in 2016. In the subsequent crackdown thousands of journalists, academics and lawmakers were jailed, and at least 156 media outlets forced to close. Turkey now has more journalists in prison than any other nation.


Read more: Turkey’s constitutional referendum: experts express fear for a divided country


Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has admitted murder, threatened killings of drug dealers (and likened himself to Hitler in the process) and said he would pass political impunity laws to protect himself. More than 7,000 people have reportedly been killed in the last year.

In Poland, the ruling party passed legislation restricting the freedom of the press and giving itself increasing control of the courts. Only the prime minister’s signature is needed for action.

According to US think tank Freedom House, 2016 was:

… characterised by an erosion of democratic institutions and a rise of autocratic practices across the globe.

Political violence, open suppression

Violence in politics is not new. The control of the people in Cambodia is not new. What is new is the increasing confidence of leaders, such as Hun Sen, to flex their political muscles openly and violently with complete confidence in their political impunity.

Cambodia is often heralded as a nation with an exciting future due to high levels of investment and development support. But the success of its peace and democracy is openly crumbling.

The ConversationThe CPP needs a powerful opposition to prevent complete disintegration of democracy and human rights. It’s making sure that is not possible.

Caroline Bennett, Lecturer in Cultural Anthropology, Victoria University of Wellington

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Deliberative democracy must rise to the threat of populist rhetoric



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Can we avert a populist apocalypse through good old-fashioned deliberation?
Richard Hopkins/flickr, CC BY-NC

Nicole Curato, University of Canberra and Lucy J Parry, University of Canberra

This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative between The Conversation and the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.

This is the first in a series, After Populism, about the challenges populism poses for democracy. It comes from a talk at the “Populism: what’s next for democracy?” symposium hosted by the Institute for Governance & Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra in collaboration with Sydney Democracy Network.


We are “living in the end times”, or so Slavoj Žižek tells us. We have seen the arrival of the “four horsemen of the apocalypse”: the global ecological crisis, sharp inequalities in the economic system, the biogenic revolution, and exploding social divisions.

The global rise of populism, it seems, is only a symptom of these long-standing tragedies in the making.

Populist claims – the grand promises that prey on unrealistic expectations, those that dodge responsibility by conjuring “alternative facts”, and the kind that leaves citizens committed to the project of Enlightenment dazed and breathless — are both outcomes and drivers of Žižek’s apocalyptic vision.

How should we make sense of these realities? Wicked problems and intractable conflict have indeed marked the past few decades. But these have also been times of widespread democratic experimentation.

Participation in “traditional” politics such as voting and party membership may be declining, but there has been an explosion of activities that seek to “do democracy differently”.

The promise of deliberative democracy

Deliberative democracy could once have been dismissed as pie in the sky with no bearing on the world of practical politics.

More recently, practitioners of deliberative innovations have generated compelling evidence to show the democratic virtues of mini-publics. These involve small(ish) groups of randomly selected citizens who meet several times to deliberate on an issue.

Random selection, similar to the logic of jury selection, underpins this process such that the forum represents a microcosm of the wider population.

In recent years, the case for mini-publics has been articulated more boldly, by David van Reybrouck and then, just this year, by Brett Hennig. Both make a case for sortition, where a group of citizens drawn by lot are given a mandate to deliberate and propose, if not decide, policies that bind the rest of the polity.

Given the enthusiasm for mini-publics, why has this not been enough to avert “the apocalypse”? There are three ways of looking at this.

1. We haven’t scaled up enough

The application of mini-publics has been disparate, inconsistent and small-scale.

Had people, especially the so-called “pissed-off white men”, had more opportunities to participate in deliberation, they would have, potentially, taken a more complex view of issues that they feel threaten their identities, such as immigration or gay rights.

Had “smug cosmopolitan liberal types” engaged in deliberation with “pissed-off white men”, societies could have developed a shared vocabulary to cohabit a world with meta-consensus on the range of legitimate discourses.

Forms of deliberative democracy are not only effective, but also much needed in deeply divided societies.
Joe Flood/flickr

There is evidence that mini-publics work in deeply divided societies. Examples include deliberative polls in Northern Ireland and deliberative forums involving ex-combatants and paramilitaries in Colombia.

We can only wonder how the US elections or the UK’s Brexit referendum might have turned out had they convened a “deliberation day” where citizens deliberated systematically before the vote.

2. We are scaling up incorrectly

One could argue that mini-publics, by themselves, are not the answer to mass democracy’s legitimacy deficit. Even where well-resourced, excellently designed and high-quality deliberations unfold, these have little bearing if the epistemic gains and civic virtues developed in these forums do not spill over into the broader public sphere.

To scale up deliberation is not simply to host bigger mini-publics (mega-publics?) but to think of ways in which mini-publics can be linked to the broader public discourses.

What use is it if we replace politicians with a randomly selected group of citizens if the public sphere is mostly still characterised by partisan point-scoring, cheap political tactics, spin-doctoring and market-driven media?

The reforms of deliberative politics must equally focus on reforming the broader structures that shape public discourse.

3. Mini-publics are not the answer

The logic of mini-publics primes participants to be respectful, public-spirited, other-regarding and open-minded. Unsurprisingly, citizens who harbour deep scepticism, strongly held views and defensiveness in their private interests may not find these forums to be the most understanding and supportive spaces.

In other words, mini-publics may have inherent limitations in processing populist rhetoric. This is because they, by design, aim to keep loud and insistent voices out of the room to celebrate the voice of the “average reasonable person”.

Discursive enclaves such as those found online, or in assemblies of populist supporters, may provide a more hospitable stage for impassioned, confrontational and sometimes bigoted discourses.

While mini-publics enable citizens to carefully reflect on their prejudices, one must take a step back and consider that some do not want to reconsider their views.

Research on climate change deniers provides evidence for this. Australian studies have revealed how deliberation not only fails to dispel scepticism but also makes the deniers feel like they are not listened to, so they become more dogmatic and belligerent.

Other research data demonstrate how people with a “social dominance orientation” tend to see participatory processes as rigged if the forums do not produce their preferred outcomes.

ABC’s Q&A often illustrates the limitations of some forms of deliberation.

The issue of trust compounds such alienation. Mini-publics typically rely on information presented by expert witnesses and resources persons, and we now know that many people have simply had enough of experts.

Beyond expertise, public trust in Australian politics and politicians is at a staggering low. Recent research suggests the public has little trust in any level of government in Australia. For the most part, mini-publics in Australia are instigated by or at least associated with government.

Even though the best-designed forums are independently organised and facilitated, we have to recognise that people may simply not trust the process, organiser or the expertise presented. “Micro” deliberative events don’t exist in a political vacuum. We cannot design out the broader context and power relations.

How can things go right?

There are many reasons to consider populist rhetoric as the opposite of deliberative reason. Populism appeals to base instincts. It sacrifices intellectual rigour and evidence to the promise of quick solutions.

The polarising speech style of populism creates information silos, which bond rather than bridge, opposing views. Inherent in the populist logic is the division of the “virtuous people” versus “the dangerous other”. This inflames prejudices and misconceptions, instead of promoting public-spirited ways of determining the common good.

Given the coming populist apocalypse, then, it is worth revisiting how deliberative democrats conceptualise power and its relationship to knowledge.

The populist moment reminds us of the insidious legacies of power, the kind we generally take for granted, but experience every day. Drawing on the “epistemologies of ignorance”, the solution is not simply to offer facts, but to lay bare the structural phenomenon that disables people from seeing in a certain way. We undeniably find ourselves facing:

… an ignorance that resists … an ignorance that fights back … an ignorance that is active, dynamic, that refuses to go away.

Deliberative democracy may have been the punching bag of those who remain sceptical of the virtues of participation governed by reason. But it has also been a beacon of hope for visionaries who keep on asking how we can make democracy better.

The ConversationThis field of democratic theory and practice has a lot more to offer, especially when we set our gaze towards spaces for reform beyond the forum.

Nicole Curato, Postdoctoral Fellow, Institute for Governance & Policy Analysis, University of Canberra and Lucy J Parry, Research Assistant, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Arab Spring & Christians


Many in the West have rejoiced with the fall of dictators and tyrants in the Middle East. However, the prospects of freedom for all in democracy just isn’t being realised, especially for Christians. The link below is to an article reflecting on the persecution of Christians in the wake of the Arab Spring.

For more visit:
http://www.aina.org/news/20130305203949.htm