In the recipe of what a democracy is there are many ingredients but simply explained it is a political system where like-minded people come together to form ideas that become a philosophy. They then become the foundation of political parties. These ideologies pull in different directions in a quest for majority approval by the people. It is a far from perfect system that has variations all around the world. It is elastically flexible, (we even have democratic dictatorships), unpredictable and at its worst, violent and extremely combative.
At its best it is noble, constructive and generally serves society well. It is very much better than the next best thing and accommodates diagonally opposed ideas, extreme or otherwise. All in all it’s an imperfect beast that has served us well. Yes it’s government for the people by the people.
Common to most Western Democracies (and in the absence of anything better) it has a capitalistic economic system.
In Australia the right to vote is the gift that democracy gives and people are free to vote for whichever party (or individual) they support but overriding this is the fact that people cannot possibly believe in democracy, if at the same time they think their party is the only one that should ever win.
A clear indication of an Australian Democracy in decline is the fact that people are giving up this voting gift, literally saying:
“A pox on both your houses”.
Three million did so at the last election by not voting.
Our political system is in crisis because our solicitations fail to speak with any clarity on issues that concern people.
Moreover, an enlightened democracy should provide the people with a sense of purposeful participation. It should forever be open to regular improvement in its methodology and its implementation. Its constitutional framework should be exposed to periodical revision and renewal, compromise and bi-partisanship when the common good cries out for it.
But above all its function should be, that regardless of ideology the common good should be served first and foremost. A common good healthy democracy serves the collective from the ground up rather than a top down democracy that exists to serve secular interests. One that is enforced by an elite of business leaders, politicians and media interests who have the power to enforce their version. That is fundamentally anti-democratic.
Every facet of society including the democratic process needs constant and thoughtful renewal and change. Otherwise we become so trapped in the longevity of sameness that we never see better ways of doing things.Unfortunately, Australia’s particular version of the democratic process has none of these things inherent in it and is currently sinking in a quagmire of American Tea Party Republicanism.
I am not a political scientist, historian or a trained journalist. I write this as a disgruntled and concerned citizen because it seems to me that the Australian democracy I grew up with no longer exists. The demise of Australian Democracy has its origins in a monumental shift by both major parties to the right with the result that neither seem to know exactly what it is they stand for. They are now tainted with sameness.
The Liberal Party has been replaced by neo Conservatism actively asserting individual identity against a collective one and old style Liberalism no longer has a voice. There is little or no difference between the Liberals and the National Party who seem irrelevant as a political force.
Conservatives have gone down the path of inequality with a born to rule mentality that favors the rich.
“The whole logic of the “lifters” and “leaners” rhetoric so favoured by the current Government is a distillation of the idea of that there is no such thing as society, that we and only we are responsible for our own circumstances”.
The Labor Party needs to rid itself of an out-dated socialist objective and invest in a social philosophical common good instead. And recognise that the elimination of growing inequality is a worthwhile pursuit.
The major parties have become fragmented with Labor losing a large segment of its supporters to the Greens whilst the LNP is being undermined by rich populist Clive Palmer in the style of Berlusconi.
In terms of talent both parties are represented by party hacks of dubious intellectual talent without enough female representation and worldly work life experience. Both parties have pre-selection processes rooted in factional power struggles that often see the best candidates miss out. Both need to select people with broader life experience. Not just people who have come out of the Union Movement or in the case of the LNP, staffers who have come up through the party.
Our Parliament, its institutions and conventions have been so trashed by Tony Abbott in particular that people have lost faith in the political process and their representatives. Ministerial responsibility has become a thing of the past.
Question time is just an excuse for mediocre minds who are unable to win an argument with factual intellect, charm or debating skills, to act deplorably toward each other. The public might be forgiven for thinking that the chamber has descended into a chamber of hate where respect for the others view is seen as a weakness. Where light frivolity and wit has been replaced with smut and sarcasm. And in doing so they debase the parliament and themselves as moronic imbecilic individuals.
Question time is the showcase of the Parliament and is badly in need of an overhaul and an independent Speaker. Our democracy suffers because no one has the guts to give away the slightest political advantage.
Recent times have demonstrated just how corrupt our democracy has become. We have witnessed a plethora of inquiries all focusing on illegal sickening behavior. There is no reason to doubt that the stench of NSW doesn’t waffle its way through the corridors of the National Parliament and into the highest offices.
And our democracy lacks leadership because our current leaders and their followers have so debased the Parliament that there is no compelling reason to be a politician. Well at least for people with decency, integrity and compassion.
I cannot remember a time when my country has been so devoid of political leadership. In recent times we have had potential but it was lost in power struggles, undignified self-interest and narcissistic personality.
The pursuit of power for power’s sake and the retention of it has so engulfed political thinking that the people have become secondary and the common good dwells somewhere in the recesses of small minds lacking the capacity for good public policy that achieves social equity.
Our voting system is badly in need of an overhaul. When one party, The Greens attracts near enough to the same primary votes as The Nationals but can only win one seat in the House of Representatives, as opposed to eight there is something wrong with the system. Added to that is the ludicrous Senate situation where people are elected on virtually no primary votes, just preferences. It is also a system that allows the election of people with vested business interests with no public disclosure.
One cannot begin to discuss the decline of Australian democracy without at the same time aligning it to the collapse in journalistic standards and its conversion from reporting to opinion. Murdoch and his majority owned newspapers with blatant support for right wing politics have done nothing to advance Australia as a modern enlightened democratic society. On the contrary it has damaged it, perhaps irreparably.
The advent of social media has sent the mainstream media into free fall. Declining newspaper sales have resulted in lost revenue and profits. It is losing its authority, real or imagined to bloggers who more reflect a grass roots society. Writers with who they can agree or differ but have the luxury of doing so. As a result newspapers in particular have degenerated into gutter political trash in the hope that they might survive. Shock jocks shout the most outrageous lies and vilify people’s character with impunity and in the process do nothing to promote decent democratic illumination. They even promote free speech as if they are the sole custodian of it.
There are three final things that have contributed to the decline in our democracy.
Firstly, the Abbott factor and the death of truth as a principle of democratic necessity. I am convinced Tony Abbott believes that the effect of lying diminishes over time and therefore is a legitimate political tool. So much so that his words and actions bring into question the very worthiness of the word truth. Or he has at least devalued it to the point of obsolesce.
The budget will be remembered for one thing. That it has given approval for and overwhelmingly legitimised lying as a political and election contrivance.
Mr Abbott has long set a high standard when it comes to keeping promises. On August 22, 2011 he said:
“It is an absolute principle of democracy that governments should not and must not say one thing before an election and do the opposite afterwards. Nothing could be more calculated to bring our democracy into disrepute and alienate the citizenry of Australia from their government than if governments were to establish by precedent that they could say one thing before an election and do the opposite afterwards.”
On the eve of the last election, after crucifying Prime Minister Julia Gillard daily for three years, Abbott made this solemn promise:
“There will be no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS”.
This is an unambiguous statement that cannot be interpreted any differently than what the words mean. To do so is telling one lie in defense of another.
In the budget he broke them all. As a result, a rising stench of hypocrisy and dishonesty has engulfed the Abbott prime minister-ship. When you throw mud in politics some of it inevitably sticks but there is a residue that adheres to the chucker. That is now Abbott’s dilemma but the real loser is our democracy. In Australian political history Abbott’s legacy will be that he empowered a period emblematic of a nasty and ugly period in our politics.
Our democracy is nothing more or nothing less than what the people make of it. The power is with the people and it is incumbent on the people to voice with unmistakable anger the decline in our democracy.
People need to wake up to the fact that government effects every part of their life (other than what they do in bed) and should be more concerned. But there is a political malaise that is deep seated. Politicians of all persuasions must be made to pay for their willful destruction of our democracy.
Good democracies can deliver good governments and outcomes only if the electorate demands it.
You get what you vote for rings true.
Lastly but importantly we need to educate our final year school leavers (the voters of tomorrow) with an indebtedness and fundamental appreciation of democracy. A focus group I held recently at a nearby college revealed two things. One was that our young people are conversant with societal issues and have strong opinions grounded in clear observation. They cannot however place them into a logical political framework because (two) they are not adequately informed about political dogma and its place in the workings of a democracy.
We deserve better than what we have at the moment. However, if we are not prepared to raise our voices then our democracy will continue to decline and the nation and its people will suffer the consequences.
Part two. Opinions
Three books have recently been published that address the state of our democracy. The first ‘’Triumph and Demise’’ is by The Australian’s editor-at-large, Paul Kelly. In the final chapter Kelly suggests that our political system is in trouble and that, if that is the case, then by definition so are we. The Prime Minister launched the book and in doing so fundamentally disagreed with the authors assertions.
“Paul suggests that the relentless negativity of our contemporary conversation, the culture of entitlement that he thinks has sprung up over the last decade or so, means that good government has become difficult, perhaps impossible’’
“It’s not the system which is the problem, it is the people who from time-to-time inhabit it. Our challenge at every level is to be our best selves.”
In the first quote two words, negativity and entitlement jump out at you. Not necessarily in the context of the difficulty of governance, he was alluding to, but rather as self-descriptive character analysis. He could not have chosen two better words to describe his own footprint on the path to our democratic demise.
The second is a disingenuous, even sarcastic swipe at his opponents that leaves no room for self-examination or blame for his own period as opposition leader and later as Prime Minister in particular. And in another indignant self-righteous swipe he said that Labor was “much better at politics than government.”
These are quotes by Kelly at the launch.
Kelly said he increasingly felt there were “real problems” with the mechanics of the political system as he worked on his book.
“I have always believed in the quality of leadership. I have always felt that leadership was fundamental … to the success of the country,” Kelly said.
“I do think the system today makes governing, and in particular serious reform, more difficult, and I think the record does show that.”
I have not read the book but I agree entirely with his diagnosis. In the first quote I believe he is referring to a breakdown in the conventions and institutional arrangements of our democracy.
The second is a general commentary on the dearth of leadership over the past decade or so. Although he was a Howard supporter and he has recently said this of Abbott.
“Abbott is governing yet he is not persuading. So far. As Prime Minister he seems unable to replicate his success as Opposition leader: mobilising opinion behind his causes. The forces arrayed against Abbott, on issue after issue, seem more formidable than the weight the prime minister can muster.”
The third quote is a direct reference to the 24/7 News cycle and negativity as a means of obtaining power.
The second book ‘’The Political Bubble’’ by Mark Latham also addresses the state of our democracy.
‘’Australians once trusted the democratic process. While we got on with our lives, we assumed our politicians had our best interests at heart’’
He suggests that trust has collapsed. In this book, he freely explores and travels up and down every road of our democratic map. On the journey he talks about how democracy has lost touch with the people it’s supposed to represent. Like a fast talking cab driver he gives view on how politics has become more tribal with left and right wing politics being dominated by fanatical extremists.
An entire chapter is devoted to how Tony Abbott promised to restore trust in Australian politics and how he failed to keep his promises. Another chapter is devoted to what can be done about fixing the democratic deficit as he calls it.
‘’Can our parliamentary system realign itself with community expectations or has politics become one long race to the bottom?’’
The third, and more recent book, by Nick Bryant (BBC correspondent and author) aptly titled The Rise and Fall of Australia ‘’How a great Nation lost its way’ ’takes a forensic look at the lucky country from inside and out. The most impressive thing about this book, besides the directness of his observations and astuteness of his writing, is that what is being said is an outsider’s point of view. He is not constrained by the provincial restrictions of self-analysis. Instead he offers his take on what he calls
‘’the great paradox of modern-day Australian life: of how the country has got richer at a time when its politics have become more impoverished.’’
Another important contribution to the democracy debate is this piece by Joseph Camilleri ‘’Democracy in crisis’’ I highly recommend this thoughtful article for a comprehensive outline of what ails our democracy.
I have alluded to these works, not as a review of each, but rather to highlight a growing concern over the state of our democracy.
There is no doubt in my mind if one looks at all the ingredients that go into forming a strong democracy, and you make a list of ingredients, the traditional recipe is no longer working. Or it has been corrupted by inferior ingredients.
At the risk of repeating myself, take for example the seemingly uncontrollable bias and market share of Murdoch. A desire for unaccountable free speech that is weighted toward, extremism. The attack on the conventions and institutions of parliament by the Prime Minister. The precedent of invoking Royal Commissions into anything as a means of retribution. The rise of fanatical right wing partisan politics and media. The decline in parliamentary respect and behavior. Add to that the right wings dismissive contempt for feminism.
Corporate sway and the pressure of the lobbyist can also be added to the mix, together with the voice of the rich that shouts the voice of inequality. The idea that with political servitude comes entitlement via financial benefit and privilege. And you can throw in the power of personalities over policy within the mainstream parties. Then there is the uninhibited corruption from both major parties. Then there is the acceptance by both sides that negativity is the only means of obtaining power.
But at the top of the list is the malaise of the population. Although we have compulsory voting 3million people at the last election felt so disgusted with our democracy that they felt more inclined to have a beer at the pub, or mow the lawn than cast a vote for Australian democracy.
If we are to save our democracy we might begin by asking that at the very least our politicians should tell the truth.
Others have also written on the subject. Democracy and diversity: media ownership in Australia
Budget Crisis or Crisis in Democracy
Another by me.