Politics of division: a Democracy under siege this Australia Day

Jan 25, 2024
Flag pin on the map of Australia.

In recent years the approach of Australia Day has been seen by the mainstream media as a time for reporting on the antics of those politicians who are intent on dividing the nation, splitting us into patriots and non-patriots, Indigenous and non-Indigenous – to which this year they have added a new divisive line between the pro-Israeli and the pro-Palestinian. As each year goes by it’s as if the point of the day is merely to find new ways to prevent us thinking about what holds us together in our diversity. The overwhelming purpose of all the hoopla seems to be to pull us apart.

Underneath it all though, there’s a stubborn strain in Australians about things we agree on. One of those is that the people of Australia want to live in a democracy. The Australian Values Survey periodically conducted by the Social Research Centre at the Australian National University (ANU) since 2005 shows that our support for democracy as a preferred system of government has been consistently strong, at least until 2018, when 57% of Australians said they believe it is “absolutely important” to live in a country that is governed democratically and only 11% believed it is unimportant. According to ANU, “For most Australians, democracy is still the ‘only game in town’”.

And yet as we approach Australia Day in 2024, we may have to contemplate the loss of our democracy. The signs that we are drifting towards its demise were disturbingly apparent in 2023 – at least if we imagine that, in democracy:

  1.  voters will have political equality; and that
  2.  governments will govern democratically – that is, in accordance with the public interest, the national interest, and the will of the people who elect them.

In 2023 the veil was pulled from our eyes on both of these imaginings.

In the first case, Australians were led by the antics of some politicians to reverse their collective support for an Indigenous Voice in the Constitution. In the ANU’s post-election surveys for the 2016, 2019 and 2022 federal elections, 80% of Australians consistently supported Indigenous recognition in the Constitution. Accordingly, the researchers were emboldened to proclaim that:

“Our research suggests support for legal reform on Indigenous issues is not only high, it’s also durable. Public attitudes have shifted to such an extent in the last 40 years, there is little reason to think a constitutionally enshrined Voice wouldn’t pass a referendum if it was held today. … There has been a gradual firming up of positive attitudes towards legal reform for Indigenous people overall. Because of this, support for a constitutional change is unlikely to collapse in the course of a referendum campaign.”

But we all know how the story turned out. Support that had been strong for years suddenly collapsed, courtesy of the divisive tactics of politicians and the media – tactics which diverted attention from the facts, frightening many into thinking that recognition of Indigenous Australians in a form that would give them a voice in decisions made about them (and only about them) would somehow disadvantage everybody else. At best, this might imply that those who voted against the Indigenous Voice were merely saying that First Nations people should not have a voice in the Constitution until we all do. At worst, it signalled a lower motivation to ensure that Indigenous Australians do not gain political equality with everyone else – ever. Either way, democracy suffered a terrible blow if we believe political equality should be its basic feature.

In the second case, we might see a killer blow, because if we imagine that in democracy those we elect will govern in accordance the public and national interest – that they will keep us safe from attack and our democracy itself safe from interference by external powers – then 2023 clearly did not deliver that sort of government for Australia. Instead, in AUKUS and the Force Posture Agreement we witnessed the near complete ceding of sovereignty in decisions on entry into war or warlike actions and a handover of Australian lands to exclusive control by the military arm of a foreign power – the USA. We also witnessed a government prepared to either openly countenance or turn a blind eye to the housing of nuclear and chemical weaponry and waste on Australian soil, in utter contravention of the spirit and probably the letter of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), to which we have been a signatory for decades.

Later on we were forced to witness another nation’s president announce Australia’s entry into an obviously illegal use of armed force against a country that had not attacked us. The United Nations Security Council Resolution 2722 passed on 10 January 2024 did not authorise the use of military force against the Houthis in Yemen. But Australia has participated nonetheless, and without even so much as a by-your-leave from the people of Australia and their elected parliament.

Everywhere we look in our polity now it is apparent that everyday Australians are being edged into a place of irrelevance – that our will as a peaceful and decent people is irrelevant to our governors and that in place of the sort of democracy we most certainly prefer, we are being forced to suffer one where we have no voice, not a vestige of equality, no human rights, no capacity in law to influence what is done arbitrarily or autocratically in our name, and no means of specifying to governments what we want them to achieve for us and what we consider to be contrary to our interests.

Australia’s democracy – both as we might prefer to imagine it in its best form and as we might reluctantly resign ourselves to it in its poorest form – is on the brink of destruction. If we ever aspired to live in a democracy of political equals, we should recognise that we are definitely moving away from that, not towards it. Certainly our leaders have deserted us in this fundamental aspiration.

And so on Australia Day 2024 it might be time to resist the divisive hoopla and ponder instead how we got here and how we can get out of it. How did we wind up with no rightful power as political equals in our democracy? How did we come to cede our sovereignty in such fundamental decisions? And how can we grab all that we want in our system of governance back, before it is too late?

It may already be too late. But if not, there really is only one way out. Australians must organise themselves to define the sort of democracy they wish to become and to build a political system in which they can share power rightfully and lawfully as political equals and hold governments accountable to the people. At the very least this requires Australians to collaborate to design an entirely new Constitution, because the current one gives them no rights or power at all. Australians desperately need an Australian People’s Constitution. Anyone interested can begin to find out why and how here, here and here.

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