Parliament or Democracy?

Did I Say That?

The idea of Parliament derives from the 'advisor groups' that were appointed by the King in medieval times. The first parliaments (for example those in England) were completely staffed with cronies of the monarch - various Barons and Bishops and Earls who were seen as wise and of 'sound mind'. Such persons were there to council the King on his decisions - though it was understood that the King was not bound to follow their advice. Since only the King was privy to all the information, it was accepted that only the King should have 'executive' power - that is the power to make actual laws.

Modern government is still based on this old model. This can be seen in number of ways. One surviving similarity is the idea of having two parts to the decision-making system in government - an 'Executive' part and a 'Parliamentary' part. In some countries the Parliament has the job of 'discussing and debating' (and is somewhat 'advisory' in its role) whereas the Executive actually 'proposes and implements' laws. (Depending on the particular country, the Executive can be chosen in different ways. In Ireland and the UK, for example, the Executive is usually composed of a group drawn from the largest political party in the Parliament, whereas in the USA the Executive is elected separately). Either way, the great change with the past, we are told, is that we now 'choose' who will be in the Parliament and who will be in the Executive. Because of this the decisions that are taken should 'reflect' what we think.

True? The answer most definitely is NO.

A second similarity with the old medieval system makes sure of that. This is the notion that only the Executive is privy to all the information necessary to make decisions, and in essence is the only body in society that can and should be allowed to make laws. So while politicians do stand at election time for various policies and positions, and the voters cast their ballots on the basis of these policies, an elected politician is not bound by any law to follow these previously proclaimed policies and positions. Indeed, once elected and a member of Government, a politician is entirely within his or her rights to jettison any promises s/he may have made at the election. The politician in question is quite entitled (legally) to say: 'Having examined the state of the public finances I have changed my mind about what I previously said - I now think the opposite!'

It is through this notion that an elected parliament is able to discard 'the wishes' of the electorate, and to act as it sees fit. In actual practice this is how your vote is discarded.

Though this idea (that a politician is not bound by your vote) may seem like a minor technicality - it is not in practice. The idea that Parliament and the Executive should retain 'autonomy' from those that elect them was deliberately retained during the period of reform that saw suffrage being extended to the mass of people in society. Though people were gradually 'granted' the right to vote for who should make up parliament, the crucial right of a direct input was withheld. As J. S. Mill emphasised in a subtle but meaningful way: democracy is 'not that the people govern themselves but that they have the security for good government'.

To see how effective Parliament is at 'remaining independent' of the electorate's wishes it is worth looking at a few examples. (These it should be said have been chosen at random. There are hundreds of others and each election throws up a new set. The following however do show the scope of the problem.)

PERU: The elections in Peru in 1990 were fought against a backdrop of increasing poverty and economic ruin. The Peruvian electorate was offered a choice between the policies of Mario Vargas Llosa and those of Aberto Fujimoro. Llosa, a writer and something of a novice in politics, made his policies well known. He argued stridently for austerity and for massive cuts to anti-poverty programmes in Peru (such as they existed) as a means of curbing the State's debt. Fujimoro, who was also somewhat new to politics, said a lot less but campaigned openly as 'an alternative to Llosa'. Not surprisingly, the election saw the wise people of Peru vote against Llosa and his IMF sponsored polices; Fujimoro won. Yet within months, Fujimoro adopted Llosa's previously stated policies and inaugurated unprecedented cutbacks and an attack on the poor - a process that later came to be known as 'Fujishock'! 71

USA: Bill Clinton's victory in 1992 came after twelve years of 'Reaganomics' - policies that had led to a massive shift in wealth from the poor to the rich (see later). Clinton made a number of important promises - some directly economic and some related to 'social' issues.

Ireland: Before the 1987 general election, Fianna Fail flooded the country with posters and billboards declaring "Health Cuts hurt the old, the sick and the handicapped". Within months of their being returned to government they were implementing massive cutbacks in spending on health.

Prior to the general election of 1982, Fine Gael took out newspaper advertisements warning that if Fianna Fail were elected they would impose a new local tax in the form of service charges. Fianna Fail, meanwhile, warned in the same newspapers that if Fine Gael won, they would impose service charges. The Labour Party made a "clear and unambiguous" statement that they were totally opposed to such charges. Following the election, a Fine Gael-Labour government was formed and in July 1983 the Local Government Provisions Act No. 2 was passed by them. This empowered County Managers to charge for services. Fianna Fail fought the subsequent 1985 local elections on an anti-service charge ticket but immediately after the elections their councillors around the country did a U-turn and voted for charges. Just before the general election of 1987, Fianna Fail gave a written guarantee to the National Association of Tenants Organisations (NATO) that if returned to government they would scrap local charges. They were and they didn't. In fact charges continued to be levied for the next decade until a massive campaign of people power led to their abolition. Over that ten-year period several TDs were elected to Dail Eireann on anti-charges tickets. Eamonn Gilmore, Kathleen Lynch (both Democratic Left) and Emmett Stagg (Labour) were all initially involved in anti-charges campaigns and were actively calling on people not to pay the charges. Yet all ended up in a government which was dragging people before the courts for exactly that.

Australia: The 1993 general election in Australia was a close run affair. Eventually it did end with a win for the ALP(Australian Labor Party) who partly secured their victory by promising some 'popular reforms' aimed at improving hospital waiting lists and helping the 'middle range' of people financially (through tax reform). These promised reforms played an important part in the election since the gap between the rich and poor in Australia had widened considerably during the 1980s. Yet by August of 1993, just three months after the election, the ALP had ditched five specific promises it had made at the election:

1) a special tax relief for pensioners
2) a dental health assistance subsidy for low-income earners
3) money to be made available to pay for private hospital beds (in order to cut waiting lists)
4) improvement to housing grants and
5) a broad tax cut.

France: During the Presidential election in 1995, Chirac made an important (in the eyes of the electorate) promise not to 'raise taxes.' He also promised to create jobs by increased spending. A few months after his election, during the notoriously 'quiet' summer period in French politics, Chirac's Prime-Minster Alan Juppé presented a 'supplementary budget to raise an extra $6 billion in taxes by the end of the year' 73 which interestingly (noted the Economist) 'hit the poor hardest' 74 Not that this sufficed. In a later twist, Juppé and Chirac having promised to create 700,000 jobs by the end of 1996, ended up increasing unemployment by announcing spending cuts of $5 billion to 'meet the Maastricht criteria'!

Brazil: The seasoned politician Fernando Cardoso used a thoughtful ploy on his 'campaign trail' that saw him win the 1994 election. Before the crowds he would hold up this hand and begin ticking off each of his main priorities - health, education, housing, infrastructure and employment - one for each finger. 75 It was obviously effective in a country notorious for its levels of inequality. (One percent of the population of Brazil received 15% of the income in 1994 alone) 76 . Yet Cardoso seemed to have forgotten all of this less than one year later when, noted the Economist, 'In Congress, Mr Cardoso and his team have been busy with a package of market-freeing constitutional reforms, needed both to keep inflation down and ensure growth' 77 A set of priorities that made him 'veto the minimum wage rise' and introduce a 'tall order' in legislation, of such magnitude in fact that 'Britain's Conservatives ... have not achieved it in 16 years'. 78

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Chapter 7. Many Roads, One Destination

From the pamphlet Parliament or Democracy?

Parliament or Democracy

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