The Six Points
The claims of the Chartists came to be known as The Six Points
Compared with many of the militant movements of the time, their plans for agitation and obtaining reforms were originally set out to be strictly peaceful. Their goal was moral force rather than physical. A petition was circulated throughout the community and on the 7th of May 1839 it was submitted with over one million signatures to the House of Commons by MPs sympathetic to the cause. The parliament subsequently voted to not even discuss the request. After further petitions with even more signatures, which extended the cause to include complaints about general working conditions and taxes, were similarly ignored, unity in the leadership of the movement broke down with various factions following their own disparate concerns including some deciding upon more militant action to best achieve results.
Even though the movement eventually lost support due to the Chartists name being associated with bloody and even lethal riots and the subsequent imprisonment and deportation of many of its leaders, the Chartists of the early nineteenth century did prove to be quite prescience in what was ultimately recognized as the democratic rights of man.
Democracies of the twenty-first century have implemented five of their Six Points, and even with the last, annual elections, there has been evolution in their suggested direction since that time. Britain eventually changed its electoral cycles from seven to five years and most democracies now have periods equal to that or even lower. Terms for members of the United States House of Representatives are only two years.
Right or Wrong on Number 6?
It is interesting to contemplate whether the Chartists got it wrong on annual elections or whether governments, even in the twenty-first century, are still dragging their feet on electoral reform.
If an MP is there to represent his constituents then it would seem to follow that he should only be there for as long as he is wanted. One would think political representation is for the sake of the represented rather than the representative. This theory is manifested in Canada and some of the United States where, if sufficient signatures are obtained, recall elections are held to allow the voters to replace an elected official before his term is up. California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, originally attained office at the recall election of his unpopular predecessor Gray Davis.
One of the more surprising defences of longer electoral terms is, as mentioned by the Australian Government’s Civics and Citizenship Education website, to enhance the ability of members of parliament to enact legislation their representatives don’t want.
“Recently State parliaments have been given increased terms: from three to four years. The case for doing this is that governments often have to adopt unpopular measures. If they are worried too soon about getting re-elected, the time when they can govern well is very short.”
Thus the argument is that if an election comes too soon after “unpopular measures” are introduced, the MPs might find themselves out of a job. One can certainly understand why it would be in the interests of the state parliamentarians to lengthen electoral terms and consequently their chances of staying in office, but one wonders why that should be in the interests of voters, and especially democracy.
Necessary Unpopular Legislation?
An argument often used to defend this self serving position of politicians is that the electorate will never vote for unpopular initiatives such as tax increases. There are two responses to this argument.
First, the implication above is that imposing unpopular legislation is like forcing a child to take his medicine. Even though that analogy might be suitable with respect to legislation on tax increases, some unpopular legislation could more aptly be compared with child endangerment or embezzling an infant’s education endowment. For example, Immigration and Capital Punishment are two areas of legislative reform where, over the last few decades in Australia reform has, euphemistically speaking, preceded public opinion. In the early seventies under the Labor government, immigration was a very controversial issue. In the 1974 election, despite Labor being returned to office, the Minister for Immigration, Al Grassby, lost his seat due to what most believed was the government’s new criterion for accepting new immigrants. Thus the vacant office of Minister for Immigration was thought of by many as a ‘poisoned chalice’ for any new occupant. It was eventually accepted by the new occupant only when the name of the portfolio itself was changed to Minister for Labour and Immigration in an effort to disguise the stigma.
Second, even when the legislation is an increase in taxation, it does seem rather a facile argument to say that the electorate will never support it because of the reason it may cause pain. This may well be true for when the new taxes are to support spurious expenditures. However it is hard to believe the general electorate are not intelligent enough to appreciate that important and necessary new programs have to be paid for. One seldom completes a visit to the dentist without suffering either physical or financial pain. Are we to believe dentist’s surgeries are mostly free of voting age people?
If we should ever find it rare to come across smiling voters, it would in all probability be more likely because of concern about their limited connect with the legislative system, rather than any shame they might possess to display their teeth.
Encarta Premium Suite 2004
Australian Democracy, Civics and Citizenship Education, Australian Government Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations
With thanks to Wikipedia for ‘borrowed’ images
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