Disorder as democracy: protesting parliament

On 30 November, 2016, members of Whistleblowers, Activists and Citizen Alliance (WACA) staged a protest during question time in the House of Representatives. Yelling out, they implored the Australian Parliament to ‘close the camps’ and end the detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru.

In March 2015, a member of a Canadian wing of FEMEN shocked politicians when she took off her shirt and decried the government’s new anti-terrorism law as a ‘war on freedom’ whilst parliamentarians debated in Canada’s House of Commons.

These protests sparked debate about the politics of disrupting parliamentary proceedings. Australian Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce expressed his outrage at the WACA protest, stating, ‘they are attacking the informality and decency of Australia’. He insisted that parliament belongs to the ‘people of Australia’ and that protesters had no right to shut it down.

Although both the Australian and Canadian parliaments were founded as representative democracies, each explicitly excluded segments of the population from voting at their foundation, resulting in parliamentary bodies not truly representative of the populations they served.

When the Canadian parliament was established in 1867, only British male subjects with property qualifications could vote for MPs in the House of Commons. Australia’s parliament was initially founded in 1901 with voting reserved for white men and white women who already had voting rights in their state. The Commonwealth Franchise Act of 1902 extended the vote to all white women and barred all non-whites who didn’t already have voting rights. Universal suffrage didn’t come to Indigenous peoples in Australia until 1965 when Queensland finally dropped its restrictions. In Canada, most Asian men and women were barred from voting until after World War II, and Indigenous peoples weren’t given the unconditional right to vote until 1960.

Australian and Canadian parliaments continue to exist as spaces that are older, whiter, and more male than the general population. Young people, Indigenous peoples, and women remain sorely underrepresented.

Both parliaments are what the Australian Parliamentary Library refers to as the ‘domain of the middle-aged’. In the forty-third Parliament of Australia, only twelve per cent of MPs were under forty years old, slightly higher than ten per cent of MPs in Canada’s last parliament.

Indigenous representation in parliament is growing but change is slow. A record ten Indigenous MPs were elected in Canada’s 2015 election, and Australians elected the first Indigenous woman to the House of Representatives in 2016.

There are too few women in both parliaments. At the time of FEMENS’s protest in the House of Commons, only twenty five per cent of MPs were women. Australia’s current parliament is only moderately higher at twenty nine per cent.

The legacies of these exclusions mean many Australians and Canadians have been unable to participate in the decision-making process as equal citizens.

FEMEN, an organisation of radical female activists, state their goal as a ‘complete victory over patriarchy’. Considering the patriarchal tradition of controlling a woman’s body and sexuality, which was particularly in vogue during the Victorian era of the Canadian parliament’s founding, what greater attempt to strike a blow at patriarchy than to protest topless in Canada’s political house: the ultimate demonstration of a woman taking a stand and speaking her voice in a male-dominated space.

As an organisation made up predominantly of young women, the FEMEN protest was taking a stand on behalf of women and on behalf of their generation. According to a poll conducted by Forum Research only a few days before FEMEN’s protest in March 2015, fifty per cent of Canadians opposed the government’s anti-terrorism legislation. Disapproval was much higher among younger people, with seventy five per cent of people between the ages of eighteen to thirty four in opposition. This cohort represented less than six per cent of MPs in the House of Commons but over twenty per cent of the Canadian population.

WACA’s ‘close the camps’ protest during question time demanded the government close the detention centres – they call them concentration camps – on Manus Island and Nauru. A poll conducted last year by the Australian Institute found that only twenty seven per cent of Australians support detaining asylum seekers on these islands without the possibility for resettlement in Australia. With sixty three per cent of Australians in favour of refugee resettlement in Australia, the protesters were actually representing the view of the majority of Australians.

When a parliamentary body over-represents certain segments of the population, there is a risk that legislation will reflect the interests of a small subsection of society. And when the people in greatest opposition to legislation are also those least likely to be represented in parliament, they will find themselves unable to voice their concerns within the standard forms of parliamentary proceedings. They may find no choice but to disrupt these proceedings.

Australian Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce asserted that parliament belongs to the people, and not to politicians. But the Australian and Canadian protesters were ensuring that their voices are also heard in their parliaments. The protesters were reclaiming their House, not solely for themselves but for people from whom it has historically been denied, and who are sorely underrepresented.

WACA referred to Australia as a ‘quasi-democracy’ because the actions of politicians don’t reflect the best interests of people. A quasi-democracy is a consequence of a parliament that is not truly representative of the population it serves – a parliament still suffering under the legacies of exclusion upon which it was founded.


Image: Australia refugee protest / democracynow

Angela Wright

Angela Wright is a historian and writer based in Ottawa, Canada. She formerly worked as a political staffer in Canada's House of Commons. Her work is forthcoming in The Brooklyn Quarterly. Follow her at @angewrig

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  1. Makes you think about how constitutions would have looked, if they had not been used as tools of exclusion.

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