A deterioration in freedoms and challenges to democratic values around the globe have been charted for years. In the first of four articles, Alan Reid discusses what’s driving disillusionment with the democratic system including in Australia, and why a rethink is needed.
Democracy is in trouble around the world.
Every year, Freedom House compiles an authoritative report on the state of democracy, using a range of criteria. In 2022, its report described the 15th consecutive year of decline in global freedom where the countries experiencing democratic deterioration outnumbered those showing improvement.
This in turn is leading to a growing disillusionment with democracy and increasing claims that it is an inferior system of government. Such disillusionment is a primary reason for the growth of authoritarian populism in a number of countries, as various leaders grab control, offering simplistic solutions to complex problems. Little wonder that there is a small cottage industry of recently published books with titles which variously describe democracy as being in chains, reaching its twilight, or dying.
According to the Freedom House reports, Australia continues to be one of the countries not yet in democratic decline. Many of the key features central to a democracy – such as free elections supervised by independent electoral commissions, an independent judiciary, a free press, and elected legislatures kept accountable through a range of processes and bodies – are in working order.
And yet, recent reports have raised alarm bells about some aspects of our democracy. Six examples can be used to illustrate some of the dangers which are appearing at both the State and Federal levels within Australia.
1. Party discipline has meant that parliament is no longer a place where there is genuine deliberation about key issues and ideas. It is dominated by the Cabinet of the governing party which largely sets the agenda, with members of parliament generally voting along party lines, going through the motions as they follow a party script. Today, parliament in action is largely a ritual performance involving opposing teams adhering to a pre-determined script.
2. The public service – the body that is meant to offer frank, fearless and expert advice to Ministers – has to an increasing extent become privatised through the outsourcing of many of its functions to consultants, and partially politicised with a key role of protecting the political interests of ministers, rather than providing independent views. Allied with this trend is the fact that the principal source of advice to Ministers comes from appointed party staffers rather than from professional public servants.
3. Our system of representative democracy involves electing representatives to federal and state parliaments to make decisions on our behalf. It is assumed that these people will reflect the diversity of the communities they represent – but instead Parliaments often comprise people with a commonality of life experiences and perspectives.
In addition, there is a small minority of our representatives who do not serve the interests of the broader public. Over the past two years, there have been accusations of politicians having conflicts of interest, branch stacking in political parties, pork-barrelling, appointing political mates to plum post-parliamentary positions, sexually harassing colleagues, and rorting travel benefits.
Unfortunately, not only does this small minority damage the reputation of the many undoubtedly hard working and committed MPs, but it also lowers the public’s trust in our key democratic institution, the Parliament.
4. Income and education are major determinants of who can become involved in the political process. Given the growing inequalities in our society, many are excluded from participation. For example, if you are not a member of a major party you have to be wealthy to stand for election, or have substantial financial backing; and those with wealth invariably have greater access to power through such mechanisms as paying to attend lunches to meet a minister, giving a large donation to a political party in the expectation of a favourable outcome, or employing lobbyists.
5. Representative democracy relies upon an engaged citizenry. This should mean more than limiting democratic involvement to voting every three or four years. However, rather than participating in civil and respectful public discussions in forums such as public meetings, groups and associations, and a free and open media, citizens are largely disengaged from what happens in parliament, and they are not systematically involved in the process of deliberation about key issues.
In addition, where discussion does occur, it is often coarse and contemptuous. Social media has driven people into silos of sameness where people only talk to those with similar ideas, and disinformation is rife. There is often a stronger allegiance to small groups with like interests than to an inclusive and diverse community with a concern to make decisions for the public good.
6. Our representative democracy makes it difficult to plan for the long term. Governments are forced to focus on the next election and decisions are often made with just two or three years in mind rather than decades ahead. This stifles the political will to grapple with complex issues and to plan for the future. By dealing with the short-term, the current system is not serving our future generations well.
These are only six examples of what is happening, but they are enough to demonstrate why there is a growing distrust of politicians and political institutions, greater division within and between various communities, and a growing sense among citizens of alienation and disempowerment.
Where discussion does occur, it is often coarse and contemptuous. Social media has driven people into silos of sameness where people only talk to those with similar ideas, and disinformation is rife
In other words, the problems for democracy do not just reside in other countries. There are warning signs that Australian democracy is also in trouble. Should we be concerned? This series of articles will not set out an argument for democracy – a task that has been accomplished by a myriad of philosophers and political scientists. Rather, the paper is based on the well-known aphorism of Winston Churchill ‘… that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time’.
Based on that premise, the starting point assumption of this article, and those that follow, is the deeply held belief that despite its imperfections, democracy is the best hope for addressing the complex issues facing the world today. The challenge is to continue to work towards both understanding and improving the key features of democracy which are being diminished in many countries.
Australia has an important role to play in the process of democratic renewal for at least two reasons. First, unless some action is taken, Australian democracy runs the danger of joining the trend to democratic decline around the world. Improving Australian democracy is to protect it. Second, given that Australia is one of a diminishing number of countries with a healthy and functioning democracy, it carries some responsibility for being a standard bearer for democracy.
Time for a review of democracy
One of the signs of a comparatively healthy democracy is that regular efforts are made by community groups and politicians to address what are perceived to be problems for our democracy. Recent Australian examples include establishing anti-corruption commissions, developing Codes of Conduct for MPs, or limiting donations to political parties.
However, these are mostly hit and miss responses to isolated issues as they arise. Not only do they fail to take account of the whole, they take the current political system for granted and can be seen as attempts to paper over any cracks that appear. They are democratic polyfilla.
Given the extent of the damage done to democracy here and around the world, surely the time has come for a root and branch review of what democracy means in the 21st century, whether current democratic arrangements are fit for purpose, and what changes or modifications need to be made.
After all, the basis of the current structures in the Australian States were devised in colonial times, and these were in turn used to create our national Parliament at the time of Federation. Although there have been many changes since then, most of them have been patch-up jobs involving modifications to the original design. Given the size and scale of the social, environmental, technological and economic changes in the 20th and 21st centuries, it is clear that our creaking democratic machinery needs a major overhaul. We need to reimagine and reinterpret our democracy for the future.
Some will protest that our society has enough on its plate at the moment to worry about the health of democracy. However, there’s a credible argument that a major reason for there being so many intractable social and political problems is precisely because our democracy is not firing on all cylinders. That is, changing some of our democratic architecture and processes will produce better decision-making and policy outcomes.
But renewing democracy will have more than utilitarian outcomes. It will also help to reactivate civic engagement and renew trust in our democratic institutions, culture and processes. And importantly, it may provide examples to other countries about how a dynamic and vital democracy is the best way to meet the challenges besetting the contemporary world.
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In next week’s second article, it will be argued that South Australia is well-placed to take the lead in a process of democratic renewal.
Alan Reid is Professor Emeritus, Centre for Research in Educational and Social inclusion, University of South Australia.
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