What Will I Learn
- The following information and activities will help you to understand how citizens can become involved and engaged with our democratic system
- You will learn how you can make your ideas and views heard
Working democracy needs citizen involvement and open compromise.
Democracy requires participation and responsibility within our system of governance. It is our responsibility to make our voices heard and that we question the policies and decisions of the Government and keep the Government accountable. Listening to different perspectives and views makes democracy stronger.
We must exercise our power and civic responsibility directly and/or through freely elected representatives. Citizens are the source of all government power.
In democracies the Government is only legitimate if they are based on the consent of the people.
In our representative democratic system the people we elect make decisions on our behalf.
This is underpinned by two key elements:
- elections where the public chooses people to represent their interests in Parliament and,
- the Parliament itself which is the representative forum.
Checks and balances within the parliamentary system and the principle of the separation of powers keep governments accountable and ensure that they do only those things that the people have given it power to do.
The rule of law requires governments to be accountable to the people and reflect society’s values to make ”good law” for the people. No person or government is above the law, and no government or official can enforce an unjust or unfair law.
Key Principles of Democracy
- Constitutional order: the structure and powers of the Australian Parliament, Government and the Courts are part of our written Commonwealth Constitution which cannot be amended without a referendum.
- Representative democracy: eligible citizens elect members of parliament to make decisions and laws on their behalf. If citizens do not think their representatives are doing a good job, they can vote for new ones at the next election.
- Responsible government: to be in government, a party or coalition of parties must have the support of the majority of members in the Lower House, in NSW this is the Legislative Assembly. The Leader of the Government and Ministers are elected representatives and chosen from this group. This makes sure the NSW Government is accountable to the NSW Parliament which represents the NSW people.
What are the Benefits?
Australia generally enjoys a peaceful and harmonious society with a successful democracy. Its many benefits include:
- The ability to resolve different views and conflicts peacefully.
- The freedom to act, speak and think freely (as long as it does not stop others doing the same).
- Equality before the law.
- Safe and secure community.
- Good government that is efficient, transparent, responsive and accountable to citizens.
- Ability to hold elected representatives accountable.
Rights and Liberties
Rights and liberties are guarantees and freedoms enjoyed by citizens in liberal democracies. In some countries such as the USA, Canada and New Zealand they are listed in a Bill of Rights. In other nations such as Australia they are enshrined in the Australian Constitution.
Did you know?
The Legislation Review Committee reviews each Bill introduced into Parliament and reports on how it affects personal rights and liberties.
For example, in 2010 the Parliament invited comment from the public on the principles it should apply when considering bills that trespass on personal rights and liberties (under section 8A of the Legislation Review Act 1987) in determining whether a trespass on a right is undue in relation to the public interest. You can read the report and responses to the discussion paper Legislation Review Committee; Public Interest and the Rule of Law
More information on the Legislation Review Committee
Making Your Voice Heard
Every citizen has the right and opportunity to play an active part in the decision-making processes of government and the Parliament.
Voting for Parliament at state, federal and local elections and in referendums keeps the people at the centre of the democratic system. Through this process, citizens freely exercise their choice and give the authority to their elected members to represent them in parliament and to form governments based on the majority decision of the people.
But how can we influence our elected members’ decisions and actions during their term in office? In this section you can trace a number of methods that you can engage in to improve outcomes on the issues you find of primary concern.
Action Through Members of Parliament
Your local member, Ministers or Government departments can assist with problems, take action or refer the issue to someone who can assist. They will often pass the concern on to an appropriate minister or officer. In some cases, they will raise these concerns in the parliament. All members of Parliament are listed here.
Expressing our views to a committee, either in writing or in person, is a direct way of having a case taken into account as new legislation, policies or decisions are being developed. Committees investigate complex issues in society and their reports can influence government and parliament decisions. Most committees invite community submissions.
Recently the Legislative Assembly has introduced ePetitions which allow petitions to be signed and submitted online!
Individuals, groups or organisations attempt to make their views known to politicians in order to influence political decisions. It is an accepted practice within a democratic system that must operate within the law. There are many worker, employer and particular interest organisations that represent their interests to the government and the media. Some individuals or firms operate as professional lobbyists, offering their skills and knowledge to organisations which want their case put effectively.
Did you know?
You can stand for parliament at eighteen years of age (voting age).
An option open to all citizens is to stand for parliament – either as an independent or as a party candidate. The NSW Electoral Office will provide advice on the process of registration and standing.
Key to making change and taking effective action is accessing information. Freedom of information laws promote and enhance the processes of democracy and representative government by increasing access to government information.
Citizens can use the Freedom of Information Act to get access to certain information held by the Commonwealth Government or the Government Information (Public Access) (GIPPA) Act at the state level in NSW.
Learn more by reading this background paper Freedom of Information and Open Government.
Using the Media
Newspapers, radio and television can play a significant role in publicising issues or exposing problems. The media can be used to reflect or promote public opinion and influence decisions of the government. Today the internet offers new opportunities to generate support and action on issues and to influence others.
Direct action such as:
- public speechmaking
- street marches
- public meetings
- use of signs and banners
- handing out pamphlets to the public
can be legal ways of attempting to generate and demonstrate public support for an issue and influence decision-makers.