Citizens must rescue Australia’s wobbly democracy
10 October 2021
| John Menadue’s Pearls & Irritations
| Edited extracts
MELBOURNE - Only an active citizenry can prevent Australia sliding towards authoritarianism or populist democracy.
Democracy faces its greatest existential crisis since the 1930s. Hitler used democratic forms to come to power in Germany but rejected the democratic ethos.
What is sometimes called ‘The Enlightenment Project’ has come under sustained attack in the United States, much of Europe and to a lesser degree, so far, Australia.
There has been a sharp loss of confidence in democratic practice, and in the quality of leadership, in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Austria, Poland, many other European states, Russia, Turkey, most of South America and virtually all of Africa.
The global scene was marked by the rise of rightist, nationalist, anti-immigrant and protectionist parties, authoritarian rule, corrupted elections, kleptocratic rulers, suppression of free speech, suspension of rule of law, resort to violence and adoption of the surveillance state.
Democracy is under internal threat with the rise of populism, nativism, decaying institutions, corruption accepted as normal, vested interests setting agendas, leaders who refuse to be accountable, ‘retail politics’, and leaders who fail to ask, ‘Is it right’.
We live in a new era in which feeling and opinion displace analysis and evidence, and leaders fail to lead.
Australian democracy is under serious threat and neither the Liberal-National Coalition nor the Australian Labor Party has a vision beyond the election of 2022.
It will be up to citizens to challenge the global threat of climate change.
The Coalition, captive of the fossil fuel lobby, lies about meeting global targets for emissions reduction. The Labor Party s line on climate change is vague and shifty.
It is the States, irrespective of political allegiances, which have been prepared to set targets: the Commonwealth has not.
The respected ‘Democracy Index 2020’, published by The Economist Intelligence Unit calculates that only 8.4% of the world’s population live in a ‘full democracy’.
Australia is one of them, but we cannot take it for granted. We have become increasingly secretive, authoritarian, sensitive to criticism and corrupt.
In 1977 when I was first elected to the parliament of Australia, 53% of MPs were university graduates, and only 2% of Australians.
In 2021 we have a much more tertiary qualified community — seven million — and 85% per cent of MPs have degrees.
That ought to mean a far higher quality of debate and discussion on issues than at any time in our history. Right? Wrong, actually.
Paradoxically, there appears to be an inverse relationship between the number of graduates in parliament and the quality of political debate and it is now impossible to get a straight answer to a question.
Our parliaments are far more representative as a cross-section of the community than they have ever been — not perfect, but far better.
More women (but still not enough), some younger members, far more from non-English speaking backgrounds.
Surely that ought to result in far better debates than in the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s, with all-male, white, English-speaking parliaments? Right? Again, wrong.
Politics has become a profession. This is the era of retail politics, complicated by some feudal elements in factions and patronage.
The major parties have been privatised, ruled by factions who exercise power by keeping the numbers of active, inquisitive party members well down.
There are 15 million voters but probably no more than 30,000 members of the major parties (0.2% of the population).
Typically, members of parliament are drawn from a very narrow gene pool and follow a depressingly similar career path:
Student politics TO graduate TO > (party/union/corporate/lobby group) organiser TO political (staffer/minder) TO MP or senator TO minister TO ‘resign to have time with the family’ TO lobbyist (for gambling, banks, China, minerals etc).
The Liberal Party is essentially the party of the status quo — of reinforcement of the familiar. Historically, the ALP was the party of change, but I doubt this is still true.
The challenge for Labor is this: in an expanding, dynamic society, can it concentrate on emphasising its ageing and contracting traditional base with a ‘back to the 1980s’ appeal?
In the decade from 1966-1975, Australian politicians were generally well ahead of public opinion on many issues: mass migration; ending White Australia; abolishing the death penalty; divorce law reform; homosexual decriminalisation; access to abortion; recognising China; reducing tariff protection; support for the arts; anti-Vietnam War and conscription; affirmative action for women; needs based education; ending censorship; pro-refugees; and expanding tertiary education.
In recent decades, politicians have been well behind public opinion and fearful of antagonising vested interests and being ‘wedged’ [trapped with a policy on which they may be misrepresented].
Former Labor minister Gareth Evans has pointed out that so many of these are what he calls “decency issues” and it is odd — and galling — that leaders who put a heavy emphasis on their religion are strikingly lacking in compassion and regard issues such as cruelty to refugees as vote winners.
We live in an era of anti-leaders, where the greatest issue is winning (or failing to win) the next election, so politicians walk on eggshells, fearful of offending powerful vested interests, incapable of thinking globally, or contemplating the long term future - 2030 or 2050 seem unimaginably distant.
There is bipartisan failure in both the Coalition and Labor to act courageously on major issues.
The last serious debate in the Australian parliament on science was in 1989, involvement in war 1991, arts and culture 1995, the republic 1998, human rights 2001, foreign policy 2003, and environment and climate change 2009.
The Australian parliament sits for fewer days than any other national legislature so that extended debate becomes impossible. This is not the result of Covid-19 — it has been the case since 1901. National average sitting days: Japan 150; UK 142-158; Canada 127; USA 124-145; Germany 104; New Zealand 93; Australia 67.
All governments regard parliamentary sittings as a nuisance, taking ministers away from what they regard as their core business. They are particularly irritated by Question Time, which has become a theatre of the absurd, not a genuine search for information.
For Australia to survive the next half century without irreversible damage to the biosphere and our social and political institutions will require strong action on a number of critical issues including:
address climate change
transition to a post-carbon economy
embrace economic complexity [diverse, sophisticated and unique export products where its currently rated 93rd globally]
adopt open democratic practices by major parties
restore trust in public institutions
Only an active citizenry can prevent a slide towards authoritarian or populist democracy with its endless appeals to the short term and self-interest.
If the major parties fail to respond, then citizens themselves will have to create alternatives.
It is essential that we not fall into despair, and retreat to the caves.
But citizens have to be informed, then challenge, tell truth to power.
It will not be easy. It will be exhausting. We will probably lose some friends. It will not be comfortable. But it must be done.
Barry Jones was Australia’s science minister from 1983-90. His book on the issues canvassed in this essay, ‘What is to be done: Political Engagement and Saving the Planet’, was published in 2020. The essay is taken from the inaugural Jean McLean Oration delivered at Victoria University in September 2021
“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.” - Ursula Le Guin.
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 17 October 2021 at 06:58 PM
Hard as it is to put the contentions in perspective that more elucidate the consternation of impairment of practice in democracy, then there blows a tempest of tyranny that sucks, that is, it sucks the oxygen from all well-meaning and comprehension.
Hard is life for many but harder for Hazara:
Posted by: Lindsay F Bond | 16 October 2021 at 10:36 AM
I was once told that the hallmarks of a good leader are courage but not recklessness, intuition but not irrationality and persistence but not stubbornness.
My long study of military leadership persuades me that this is essentially correct, although I would add self confidence but not arrogance and empathy but not sentimentality to the mix as well.
I struggle to see many examples of these qualities on obvious display across the democratic world these days. Maybe Angela Merkel was an example.
Posted by: Chris Overland | 10 October 2021 at 10:12 PM
The internet is awash with wisdom about leadership.
One of the most quoted aphorisms comes from William Shakespeare’s 'Twelfth Night': “Some are born leaders, some achieve leadership, and some have leadership thrust upon them.”
What he is talking about is inherited leadership, such as in a monarchy, merit based leadership, such as in a democracy and circumstantial leadership, such as in a crisis.
One of my favourites comes from an author whose name I have long forgotten. That quote reads something like “some are born leaders, others are born to be led; some aren’t”.
To me that last maverick category seems very comfortable, even if it is limited in its application and practicality.
All of this collected wisdom about leadership seems to be dependent upon historical context. What made a leader a hundred or a thousand years ago is not necessarily what makes a leader today.
While quite a few leaders in the past were found to be wanting when they were tested by circumstance the phenomenon seems to be a lot more common nowadays, especially in democratic realms.
Looking at the changes unfolding in the world over the last few years tells us that we are have entered a very unpredictable period.
To get us through it we desperately need clear and intelligent leadership. That, unfortunately seems to be in very short supply.
If Shakespeare was alive today I’m sure he would be tempted to add “some buy leadership” to his trilogy and that might be at the heart of the problem.
It’s hard to think of leadership as a marketable commodity that can be bought and sold but in this late stage capitalist world it has become an uncomfortable truth.
The transactional process in becoming a leader is not very often a simple binary affair but, as Barry Jones has pointed out, involves a staged progression of “depressingly similar” steps along a well-worn ladder with a very narrow base.
He is talking about professional politicians but the principal he elucidates is equally applicable to a range of other career paths.
That base at the foot of the ladder is very much linked to education and its availability. That’s now the common starting point.
A good purchasable education is often the first of the many transactions in any progression to leadership.
Self-made leaders, Shakespeare’s achievers, are rarities in today’s world. Today you have to be a lawyer or an economist or one of the other charlatan professions to make it to the top.
Our current prime minister has a background in marketing, for goodness sake, while his opposite number is a party apparatchik. How can you put your faith in people like that?
As a society we have somehow managed to professionalise leadership and made it a career choice.
One day, no doubt, it will become a common elective at university. A degree in prime ministership might be required to aspire to that lofty position.
Professionalism has always been about cornering the market and keeping others out and that seems to be where we are headed.
Leadership studies are already emerging from the private sphere of pop-education and entering the mainstream. Deakin University now offers a 12-month fast-tracked master's degree in leadership for instance.
Get out of the way, I’m a leader and I’ve got a piece of paper to prove it. What are your qualifications?
People who can’t write have PhDs in creative writing so why shouldn't we have leaders who can't lead?
Oops, we already have.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 10 October 2021 at 04:45 PM
And another unflushable turd:
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 10 October 2021 at 03:44 PM
I'm with you Chris but you still have to be careful even with the independents, some of the right-wingers are positively appalling and the left wingers are just as bad.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 10 October 2021 at 01:01 PM
Well put Barry. It would seem that what happened to Barry Jones fall from Grace when removed as Science Minister was perhaps symptomatic of the start of the moral decay that affected the then Labor government’s position as holding strong belief in fairness and equity.
Removed to make room for a shift of power within the Labor government to show that they could balance the power struggles between the left and centre factions of that political party.
What a waste of talent removed solely because of political pragmatism.
A former quiz show guru, science teacher and exceptional communicator removed from a portfolio that fitted him like a glove.
Posted by: Harry Topham | 10 October 2021 at 12:59 PM
Coles or Woolworths with the alternatives being 7-Eleven, Dominos Pizza or IGA.
A nation gets the government it deserves.
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 10 October 2021 at 12:24 PM
Barry Jones is right. Only we as citizens can change anything.
My personal contribution to change includes a decision to never again vote for a major political party. They are now corrupted beyond redemption in that they are full of people for whom politics is a career choice, not a vocation.
I am hopeful that the appearance of more and more independents in our Parliament will undermine the existing duopoly to the point where meaningful change can be forced past the various interest groups that now dominate the political process.
If we are really lucky, we will introduce electoral reforms to create multi-member electorates where representatives are elected via proportional representation.
Such an arrangement seems more likely to produce a Parliament whose membership is broadly reflective of an increasingly diverse electorate than the existing system, which favours the status quo.
Posted by: Chris Overland | 10 October 2021 at 11:28 AM