The Senate’s Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee has generated one of the great jargon infested documents of recent times. The introduction to The Inquiry into nationhood, national identity and democracy Discussion paperreveals much about what is wrong with politics in Australia. Like a first year tutorial paper it traverses multiple issues trying to mention everything without analysing anything. This is inquiry is a misguided and futile exercise that is confused about its purpose and will lead to nothing practical or implementable.
One of the big problems is the conceptual framework behind the committee’s terms of reference, set out at the bottom of the discussion paper. Although it gives the impression the inquiry is into nationhood, national identity, and democracy the Committee’s references do not actually refer to democracy. Yet the opening lines of the discussion paper lead the reader to think that democracy is the inquiry’s main subject. Moreover, sustaining democracy is presented as the most prominent among the issues and questions provided to guide submissions to the Inquiry.
The paper begins by reporting, ‘Some Australians report a growing sense that democracy is under threat. Around the world, voters seem increasingly dissatisfied with how democratic politics works for them’. It then goes on to associate national identity with democracy; declaring ‘Notions of national identity, which can be the roots of a democratic community, are changing as our world becomes increasingly interconnected’. The rest of the introduction to the paper to confuses the concepts of nationhood, national identity, and democracy
Many nations exist without democracy or with severely limited versions of democracy. Some have citizens’ rights set out clearly in a written constitution, others, like Australia, have written constitutions with few explicit rights embedded, and others, as demonstrated in the UK, have unwritten constitutions. The idea of nationhood, conveying the status of being independent nation, has no necessary connection with democracy. The UN General Assembly abounds with nation states with various political models from outright dictatorships and absolute monarchies through to constitutional democracies. International acceptance of nationhood status, that is a geographical entity over legal sovereignty is exercised, is unrelated to the political system.
Democracy here is treated as a public good in itself. But democracy as an institution exists to deliver the most just, equitable, stable and sustainable outcomes for its citizens. Therefore, it is natural that public confidence and trust in the institution of democracy depends radically on the assessment by citizens of the extent to which the elected representatives are capable of understanding, acting in a way conducive of, and are committed to delivering, these outcomes. The discussion paper identifies the culprits responsible for the declining trust in democratic institutions. They are: the ‘populist, conservative nationalist, and nativist’ movements; and the ‘, more extreme movements of the eco-fundamentalist and postmodernist variety’. Why any of these are intrinsically anti-democratic is not clear.
That said, the actual purpose of the inquiry becomes clear. It is not about democracy per se; rather it is concerned in a self-interested way about the failure of politics. Although political failure is to a large degree unmentioned, it is there in the background. What are the problems caused by these movements that are so alarming? Well, they threaten progressive ‘social-democratic parties or other movements’ and ‘seek political outsiders who represent ‘the people’, as distinct from ‘the establishment’ and ‘elites’’. Their impact has seen many ‘working class voters turn to extremists on the populist right’, and the rise of populist parties has ‘undermined mainstream parties on the centre-right’. Perhaps most concerning for the committee members, ‘membership of political parties has reduced substantially over recent decades’. That, confronted with the actions of their representatives, voters are simply and rationally deciding it is not in their interest to continue supporting the status quo is not canvassed.
The declining trust and confidence in democracy is in large part a consequence of the behaviour of elected politicians operating within the constraints and processes of democracy. Politicians who for ideological reasons or motivated by ambition are prepared to brush aside and ignore the norms and conventions that have made democracy an effective institution for bringing about the political negotiations and compromises essential to the resolution of the inevitable clash of incommensurable values and irreconcilable objectives that exist in any nation. The key issue is political behaviour not the institution of democracy.
How can trust and confidence in democracy be maintained when citizens daily observe the actions of politicians like President Trump and Prime Minister Johnson or the flagrant majoritarian culture wars prosecuted by a series of Australian governments or the refusal to act in the face of scientific evidence.
If, as the Committee fears, these changes hold ‘the potential to weaken liberal democracy itself’ they could do worse than look to the American political philosopher John Rawls’ notion of the original position and the veil of ignorance as set out in his A Theory of Justice. In his view liberal democracy is not to be sustained by the institutional processes but by the unanimous commitment to justice. Liberal democracy will flourish if it delivers to citizens guarantees that secure their fundamental interests; including the equal basic rights and liberties necessary to pursue educational and employment opportunities, to compete for powers and positions of office, to secure a guaranteed minimum of the means to live with dignity, and to maintain their self-respect as free and equal persons. It is when any section of the citizenry is deprived of these guarantees that they rationally look for alternative ways to acquire them.
Nations will always exhibit an array of identities. Democracy’s credibility comes from its promise to help them live together. Democracy is not a process to obliterate different identities to make the system work for the mainstream parties. If serious, the Senate committee need not look far beyond the corridors of Parliament House for the answers to the real question.