The theme of the American Society for Public Administration’s annual conference in March was ‘Democracy under Threat’. This was in response not only to troubles in the US but to falling appreciation of democratic principles in other Western countries and the rise of authoritarianism elsewhere.
The Economist’s Democracy Index this year revealed a further sharp decline globally continuing the fall since 2015. Like all such indexes, this one must be treated with caution, but it does attempt to incorporate a range of key factors going beyond electoral processes to include civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation and political culture.
Scandinavian countries and New Zealand fill the top five positions. Australia comes in at equal ninth, still amongst the ‘full democracies’, but the UK and the US now lag at 18 and 26 respectively and are considered ‘flawed democracies’. Taiwan (8), Japan (17) and South Korea (16) are amongst the few to have moved up significantly. China ranks near the bottom at 148.
Identifying democratic principles
A more comprehensive list of democratic principles might comprise the following:
Government of the people, by the people:
- Regular elections, majority rule, consent of the governed
- All (adult) citizens have equal right (and ability) to vote
- One vote, one value
- Freedom of speech, freedom of assembly
- Constraints on untoward influence (financial, foreign)
Government for the people
- Checks and balances to avoid ‘tyranny of the majority’ and ‘rule of the mob’
- Limits on government power, subject to human rights
- Separation of powers, particular the independence of the judiciary
- Fair and just administration, capable and professional civil service
- Public accountability, freedom of information
- Responsiveness to different communities, inclusiveness
Associated environmental support
- Well-informed, well-educated populace
- Freedom of the press, responsible media
- Open political party processes, wide public participation
- Trust in government and its institutions.
Against such a list, how does Australia currently rate?
Perhaps our greatest strength lies in our electoral processes and governance. The role of the Australian Electoral Commission contrasts most clearly with US practice. Compulsory voting and preferential voting also ensure wide participation and a focus on the middle ground while also giving minority views some influence. The ‘democracy sausage’ tradition also helps to entrench community support for and confidence in the process.
Other strengths are our checks and balances, particularly the independence of the judiciary, our parliamentary system which constrains the executive and holds it to account (particularly via the Senate and its committees), the professional civil service and the constraints of administrative laws.
We also have, relative to many others, a supportive environment with an increasingly well-educated population, freedom of speech and assembly (implied by the Constitution) and the ABC which complements private sector media to offer ‘impartial’ news and support for local and regional communities.
A number of the principles, however, are under some threat and some of our longstanding strengths are being weakened.
The power of the executive is increasing and checks on it are being weakened. The independence and capability of the civil service have been reduced as political control has increased. ‘Merit’ has been undermined at most senior levels, tenure reduced and pressures to ‘please’ have increased; the number and power of ministerial staff have increased without commensurate accountability.
There has also been increasing disregard for principles of impartial administration with political appointments to the AAT, funding based on partisan political factors not expert, impartial advice, and reduced funding of integrity agencies such as the Auditor-General, Ombudsman and Information Commissioner.
Weak management of conflicts of interest has also undermined integrity within the executive, with scant regard for rules on post-separation employment and limited information on interaction with interest groups.
With the increased power of the executive, the legislature is struggling to play its role of holding the executive to account and contributing constructively to public policy. The focus too often is on political point-scoring not public policy deliberation. The parliament lacks clear leadership to advance its role as an institution and recent poor personal behaviour has reduced public respect for the institution.
The wider environmental support has also, arguably, weakened. Membership of the major political parties has continued to fall with the risk of more polarised memberships and/or self-interested careerists. More generally, we are witnessing a ‘professionalisation of politics’ with fewer people moving into politics from careers with broader experience, professional political careers facilitated by increases in political adviser positions at both State/Territory and Commonwealth levels, and greater emphasis on market research and focus groups with the aim more on just winning than on public interest policies.
Developments in the media are also not helping. While freedom of the press is not under any real threat, ensuring the media is capable and responsible is proving to be problematic. Action taken at ACCC advice to respond to the digital platforms’ excessive market power seems to be limiting the adverse impact of technology change on the production of public interest journalism, though more needs to be done. Disappointingly, the action is yet to materially improve professional standards in the media. Self-regulation is fragmented and poorly resourced with the Press Council now overly reliant on funding from one major publisher (News Ltd). The digital platforms have developed their own voluntary disinformation code but are resisting a firmer misinformation code. And funding of the ABC has been cut in recent years.
Possible repair measures
An Australian reform agenda should include:
- Increasing the capability and independence of the civil service with a stronger, NZ-style Public Service Commission, the Commissioner being the professional head of the APS and appointed only after consultation with the Parliament;
- Reinforcing impartial administration by establishing a national ICAC, imposing clear codes of conduct for ministers, MPs and political staff, increasing the funding of integrity agencies, ensuring merit-based appointments to the AAT and other agencies, and constraining pork-barrelling and political advertising; and
- Strengthening the standing of the Parliament, including by establishing a multi-party Parliamentary Commission.
A more supportive environment might also be created by:
- Extending government terms from 3 to 4 years;
- Broadening participation in the political process, taking advantage of increased support for independents to widen party membership and party engagement;
- Addressing the narrow professionalism of politics by making preselection of candidates more open, limiting the number of publicly funded political staff and requiring publicly funded market research to be made public;
- Further reform of media regulation including the establishment of a well-resourced, independent national media standards organisation (replacing the Press Council) for all public interest journalism however published, and the imposition of minimum standards for platforms’ disinformation and misinformation codes including independent oversight.
There is no best model for applying democratic principles, but the Australian experience may suggest some lessons for others, including the US:
- The need for independent oversight of elections processes, promoting maximum participation in fair elections;
- The importance of an independent judiciary;
- The importance of a professional civil service that is merit-based, impartial, non-partisan and highly capable;
- Having a range of other checks and balances, particularly oversight of the executive by the legislature supported by strong, well-funded integrity agencies and open administrative processes.
A supportive environment may also be enhanced by:
- Facilitating new forms of public participation;
- Broadening and opening up party processes;
- Recognising that freedom of speech requires not only freedom of the press but also a responsible media.
Engaging with authoritarian regimes
The ASPA conference also highlighted the important role academia can play in supporting democratic principles. While the main focus was on doing so within democratic countries, an important issue discussed was when and how to engage with authoritarian regimes. ASPA has established a project to canvass this issue and offer advice. Engagement is important, but the terms of engagement need careful attention. Given my own work with China, this is particularly relevant to me. But we all should watch this space.