| 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.
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