Yes, it *matters* that Julia Gillard wasn’t voted in as Prime Minister
There’s been some surprise and resentment expressed by some people that Ms Julia Gillard could become Prime Minister of Australia without being elected in her own right. The standard answer is “Well, people who think that just don’t understand the Westminster system”. That answer is technically true, but it puts form before substance and betrays some thoroughly undemocratic tendencies in Australian political discussion.
Under the Westminster system, voters elect (usually) a single Member of Parliament for their local area. Those MPs are usually members of political parties. After an election, the leader of the party with a majority of MPs becomes Prime Minister. So technically you don’t get to vote for Prime Minister, unless you live in the local area represented by one of the party leaders. But the reality of politics is very different.
The reality is that most voters decide which party to vote for based on their perception of the leader of that party. That means that millions of people who voted for an ALP candidate in their local electorate at the last Federal election in 2007 think of themselves as having “voted for Kevin Rudd”. They made a decision about which party leader would be better as Prime Minister, and voted for the party he led. If you don’t think this is the case, you may have forgotten the “Kevin 07″ campaign which barely mentioned the Australian Labor Party.
So now those people who voted for Kevin Rudd are faced with a Prime Minister they didn’t vote for, even though there has not been a new election. No doubt some of those people are surprised, even angry, that the vote they cast in 2007 has been thrown away by the ALP. How can it possibly be good enough to condescendingly tell those people “You just don’t understand the system”?
Anyone more concerned about democracy than proving their own intellectual superiority would have a few questions to ask instead. For instance: Why do so many people not understand the way Australian politics actually works? Is it good for people’s understanding of politics to be so far removed from the formal rules it runs by? And is it possible that people’s desire to have a direct say in who becomes Prime Minister is far more democratic than the current system where a Prime Minister can be removed by people most voters have never heard of?
The instant reaction of helpfully explaining how ignorant the common people are, instead of asking how, by whom and why they are kept in such ignorance, shows just how undemocratic many people of liberal-left tendencies are in Australia. They have so little trust in people that their instincts lead them to talk about the Westminster system as though it were handed down from the Heavens, instead of exploring how it can be and is used to thwart democracy.
It’s interesting that Ms Gillard has shown she understands the way people feel, and has paid lip-service to it, saying “I also certainly acknowledge I have not been elected Prime Minister by the Australian people. And in coming months I will ask the Governor-General to call for a general election so that the Australian people can exercise their birthright to choose their Prime Minister”. Ms Gillard has also said she will not move into The Lodge, the Prime Minister’s official residence, until after she has won an election. Instead of hectoring people about the nature of the Westminster system, the new Prime Minister has demonstrated she gets the clear political difference between a PM elected by the people and one installed by party hacks.
It’s time for Australians to start asking hard questions about democracy, instead of using their knowledge of an undemocratic system to cut off serious debate about how we choose our leaders – or how they are chosen for us.