What now for democracy?

Posted on November 16, 2011


Seductive as it is, I am resisting the temptation to rejoice the creation of Italy’s new Monti government.   The demise of the Berlusconi is no doubt being celebrated around dinner tables of the progressive community all over the globe.  His reign is over – at least for now.  Monti  – a respected wise owl – also good.  After an intense period of argy-bargy, his government is entirely made up of experts and technocrats.  Not a politician in sight.  Commentators have been quick to point out that this will ensure that his Cabinet will not be as vulnerable to political lobbying, but conversely, it increases their vulnerability to the processes of Parliament.

A non-elected Prime Minister with a non-elected government is a curious thing in a twenty-first century democracy.  While the decision is being hailed as the only way Italy will be able to forge a programme to respond to the demands of its lenders and other European governments, what does it mean for democracy?

It is not the only contemporary democracy  in which non-elected leaders reside, or at least have designs on residing.  Lucas Papademos is Greece’s new Prime Minister, and is another non-elected expert.  One wonders whether this is a pattern we will see repeated throughout Europe as the debt crisis brings more governments to the brink.

Parochial and example it may be, but the Lord Mayor of Brisbane, Campbell Newman has designs on the Premiership of Queensland, Australia despite not holding a seat in Parliament.  Newman has no intention of being elected through the Parliamentary process but has the full endorsement of the conservative opposition party.

In times of crisis it is perhaps understandable that non-elected leaders are handed the reigns of power to steward governments through a period of instability.  But what happens then? After a time, what defines a democracy of this nature, versus a benign dictatorship?  How is a Prime Minister who is not a member of Parliament, accountable to Parliament?  How does a Prime Minister become bound by the rules of Parliament if there are no Parliamentary sanctions that apply?

The bear-pit that so often represents the Parliamentary floor is a source of frustration for many, and hilarity for others in equal measure.  Some would argue that it is nothing more or less than theatre.  Yet it is the primary tool for oppositions to seek information from governments and to interrogate ministers about their actions.

For now, we might be grateful that people who understand the fiendishly complex financial arrangements of governments are in charge of the piggy bank, rather than the pig itself.  But we must wait with in drawn breath to understand how non-elected governments will transparently and democratically negotiate the first significant challenges to their authority.