The democratic crisis: Whatever happened to courage, principle, commitment, accountability?

Sep 29, 2021
parliament house of representatives
(Image: Unsplash)

Australian democracy is under serious threat, and neither of the major parties have any vision beyond the next election. Only an active citizenry can prevent us sliding towards authoritarian 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 the quality of leadership, in the United States, in 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, the emergence of kleptocratic rulers, suppression of free speech, suspension of the rule of law, resort to violence and adoption of the surveillance state.

Democracy is under internal threats with the rise of populism, nativism, decaying institutions, with corruption accepted as normal, with vested interests setting agendas, leaders who refuse to be accountable for their actions, “retail politics”, where leaders fail to ask of a proposition, “Is it right”, but “Will it sell?”, 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 Coalition nor the Australian Labor Party (ALP) have any vision beyond the election of 2022. Citizens have to be prepared to engage and challenge to tackle the global threat of climate change. The Coalition, captive of the fossil fuel lobby, lies about meeting global targets for emissions reductions and the Opposition’s line on climate change is vague and shifty. The states, irrespective of political allegiances, have been prepared to set targets: the Commonwealth has not — because there will be three elections before 2030 and 10 before 2050.

The well respected “Democracy Index 2020”, published by The Economist’s Intelligence Unit calculates that only 8.4 per cent 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.

Death of debate: Loss of language and memory

In 1977 when I was first elected to the Commonwealth Parliament, only 2 per cent of Australians were graduates, and 53 per cent of MPs. In 2021 we have a much more tertiary qualified community — 7 million graduates — and 85 per cent of MPs have degrees. That ought to mean a far higher quality of debate/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 — 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 per cent of the total) who are actually alive and know that they are members.

Typically, members of Parliament are drawn from a very narrow gene pool and follow a depressingly similar career path:

Student politics > graduate > party/union/ corporate/lobby group organiser > “minder” > MP or senator > minister > “resign to have time with the family” > lobbyist (gambling, banks, China, minerals).

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 if this is still true. The challenge for Labor is this: in an expanding, dynamic society, can the ALP concentrate on emphasising its ageing and contracting traditional base, with a “back to the 1980s” appeal?

In the decade 1966-1975, Australian politicians were generally well ahead of public opinion on many issues, for example the mass migration program, ending White Australia, abolishing the death penalty, divorce law reform, homosexual decriminalisation, access to abortion, recognising the People’s Republic of China, starting to reduce tariff protection, support for the arts, changing attitudes to the Vietnam War and conscription, affirmative action for women, needs based education, ending censorship, admitting large numbers of refugees, expanding tertiary education. Could we find an equivalent list for the current decade?

Australia has been a democratic innovator, and major reforms included expanding universities, creating probably the world’s best national health scheme, significantly reducing tariffs without causing large scale unemployment.

In recent decades, politicians have been well behind public opinion on issues such as same-sex marriage, effective action on climate change, transition to a post-carbon economy, protecting the Great Barrier Reef and other heritage sites, voluntary assisted dying, ending live animal exports, a rational and compassionate approach to refugees, and the republic. Political parties are fearful of antagonising vested interests and being “wedged”.

Gareth Evans points 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 and are supported by happy clappers are strikingly lacking in compassion, and regard cruelty to refugees, for example, as a vote winner.

In The Frontiers of Knowledge (Viking, 2021), the English philosopher A C Grayling wrote (p. 337):

“Higher education has undergone a remarkable reversal. It has gone from having general literacy as its goal, leaving special expertise to form itself later as the outcome of individual interest and experience, to inculcating special expertise as its goal, leaving general literacy to form itself later as the outcome of individual interest. The reversal occurred without a half-way house, like a switch being thrown.”

We now live in an era of anti-leaders, where the greatest issue is winning (or failing to win) the next election, so politicians are walking on egg-shells, fearful of offending powerful vested interests, incapable of thinking globally, or contemplating the long term future and 2030 or 2050 seem unimaginably distant.

There is a bipartisan failure in the hegemonic parties — both the Coalition and Labor, to act courageously on major issues — taking effective action on climate change (where we are determined to be last among developed nations, and proud of it), refusing to plan for a post-carbon economy, elevating opinion and feeling over evidence and experience, refusal to act on corruption, restore the concept of truth and accountability, in government, getting the Constitution right, pursuing indigenous reconciliation, preserving the environment, adopting humane, compassionate policies on refugees, tackling gambling and drug dependence, ending misogyny and exploitation of women.

The last serious debate in the Australian House of Representatives on science and research was in 1989, on involvement in war in 1991, arts and culture in 1995, the republic in 1998, on human rights in 2001, foreign policy in 2003, the environment and climate change in 2009. Neither major party is willing to debate the rationale for progressive taxation, rational policies on water use, a humane approach to the refugee/ asylum seeker issue — or gambling. And on the surveillance state, never.

Few Australians recognise that its House of Representatives holds the gold medal for the shortest sittings of any national legislature. It is not surprising that extended debate becomes impossible: it is planned that way. This is not the result of COVID-19 — it has been the case since 1901.

But I cannot help feeling uneasy when fears about COVID-19 have been used as a justification for parliaments not sitting at all — while recognising that the option of electronic voting can be valuable.

As the number of MPs increases, the sitting hours decrease.

Japan 150 days (average)
United Kingdom 142-158 days
Canada 127 days (average)
United States House of Representatives 124-145 days
Germany 104 days (average)
New Zealand 93 days (average)
Australia 67 days (average)

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, in which personal attacks, gaffes or “gotcha!” moments are scored, like a sporting event.

The words “truth”, “accountability”, “courage”, “debate”, “analysis”, “critical thinking”, “compassion”, “vision” and “global” have disappeared from the political lexicon.

Only an active citizenry can prevent sliding towards authoritarian or populist democracy with its endless appeals to the short term and self interest.

Solving the problems: the way ahead

Despite the magnitude of the problems, we can survive the next half century without irreversible damage to the biosphere and our social and political institutions. This will require:

  • Strong action on climate change, transition to a post-carbon economy, recognition that coal is the biggest single source of greenhouse gases, that the environment is not the enemy and that Australia can be a world leader in adopting economically complex industries;
  • Challenging major parties to adopt open democratic practices, come clean on funding, expose the role of lobbyists and restore trust in public institutions. If the major parties fail to respond, then citizens will have to create alternatives.

Oddly, the biggest problem of all — climate change — could be the easiest to tackle with higher levels of community engagement.

The number of Australians with lived experience of climate change from direct observation — farmers, gardeners, vignerons, birdwatchers, bushwalkers, firefighters, anglers, skiers, beekeepers, photographers, aviators — amounts to millions – but they are currently disengaged from, and repulsed by, politics.

Their expertise should been harnessed by the hegemonic parties but was not. to ensure that powerful mitigation measures were adopted.

Instead of hand-wringing they must engage, engage, engage. As Ross Garnaut has argued, we should not fear transition to a post-carbon economy — we have the potential to be a superpower in that area.

Voters are now spectators, not participants, in the political process.

Much could be achieved in a range of policy areas if even a small proportion of our citizens

If 1000 citizens in each of the 151 federal electoral divisions could be persuaded to join the political party that they normally vote for, play an active, principled and informed role, insist on a reform platform, and fight existing factional systems/cliques this would only involve 1 per cent of all voters.

But it would be a political revolution.

This is an edited extract of the inaugural Jean McLean Oration delivered at Victoria University on September 15, 2021.

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