The consensus around liberal democracy is collapsing, in Australia and around the world, as citizens are being systematically disenfranchised and disconnected from our democratic role. Unless we radically reinvent and re-embrace much deeper forms of democracy, we stand to lose it altogether.
It is getting harder to describe countries like Australia, the USA and the UK as truly democratic. While obviously we continue to hold elections and form (somewhat) representative governments, the influence most people have over decisions which shape our lives and the future of the planet is constrained more and more, leading commentators such as Naomi Klein, Yanis Varoufakis, Christine Milne and others to describe our system as a plutocracy, a corporatocracy or even a kleptocracy.
Whether or not you go that far, there is an undeniable message that democracy is “not for you” being heard by citizens loud and clear. It’s no surprise we feel disconnected from democracy when government no longer has any real presence in our lives thanks to the privatisation and corporatisation of everything from railways to post offices, medical services to unemployment services. This trend leaves the relationship between citizen and government as one of customer and service provider at best, in which we, the citizens, have no capacity to play any active role except as consumers.
At the same time, our role as citizens is deliberately constrained by the delegitimisation and criminalisation of protest and advocacy. Our political discourse and the actions of governments make it clear that corporations and their lobby groups are entitled to make demands of politicians, but citizens, and the charities and organisations we form, are not. Even whistleblowing and public interest reporting are under attack in the suppression of democratic discourse.
Thanks to investor-state dispute resolution clauses in international trade law, companies can sue governments to overturn their decisions, often when citizens have no such power themselves. Ministers such as Matt Canavan proudly declare that they “respresent” sectors which they are supposed to regulate, while the revolving door between industry and government locks citizens out.
Meanwhile, our electoral system is hopelessly unable to keep up. In a dozen seats at the recent Queensland election, no party managed to secure the support of even a third of voters, with often four parties vying for first and second place, making a mockery of a single member representative system. In first-past-the-post or utterly gerrymandered systems like the UK and USA, representative democracy is even weaker.
If citizens’ democratic role is limited to occasionally turning up at the ballot box, and even that is unsatisfactory, this leaves us with a deep democratic deficit, and a disenfranchised and alienated population.
It’s no surprise that the extreme right has been successful in this context, using slogans like the Brexiteers’ “Take Back Control”. They tap into a very real disconnection and desire for a say in decisions that affect our lives. However, they are also deeply dishonest, misdirecting legitimate concerns away from the real causes and towards easy scapegoats such as immigrants, Muslims and Jews, LGBTIQ people, or the unemployed.
The other primary responses we are seeing to the collapse of the liberal democratic consensus are a reinvigoration of social democracy, and, in the middle, a clinging to liberalism. The former, led by Corbyn and Sanders, assumes that representative democracy can deliver outcomes “for the many, not the few”, if we demand it of it. The latter, epitomised, for example, by AC Grayling in Democracy in Crisis, insists that we must rescue representative democracy through improving civics education, supporting public interest media, and similar necessary – but far from sufficient – steps.
If the crisis we face is one of disconnection, we will not solve it with responses which still cast the citizen in a bit part, rather than as the protagonist. What we need is to radically expand democratic engagement and opportunities.
Essential to this is embracing participatory, deliberative modes of politics which genuinely involve citizens in decisions about our lives. There are some excellent examples of this already being undertaken in Australia and around the world. The Citizens’ Jury model championed by South Australia empowers a selection of citizens to make recommendations to government about major issues from nuclear waste to regulation of cycling. The secret to their success is government’s commitment to implementing the recommendation.
The diametric opposite was the Turnbull equal marriage postal poll, disingenuously proposed, with a clear desire to disenfranchise younger people, and an open contempt for the result in advance. What was remarkable – and what saved the idea, was that citizens seized it with both hands, enrolling to vote, and then voting in huge numbers, making it politically impossible for MPs to ignore.
However, even these participatory decision-making processes (which also include ideas from proactive local planning to institutionalised citizens’ assemblies) are necessary but insufficient.
It’s also vital to broaden our conception of the bounds of the political which have been carefully limited to occasional voting and using our ‘consumer power’.
Many practices of commoning which are growing rapidly around the world – creating citizen-run spaces from community gardens to sharing groups, repair cafes to local barter economies – are fundamentally democratic practices. Similarly, the growth of cooperatives, from farmers’ coops to health, childcare and housing coops, is about citizens grabbing back some level of democratic control.
Governments can and should support rather than suppress these modes of democratic participation, through simplifying regulation, underwriting insurance, introducing tax incentives and more.
At a grander level, we really must start seriously considering Universal Basic Income. While often conceived as a primarily redistributive policy, UBI is an inherently democratising project, reconceiving the relationship between the citizen and the state. It recognises that there is a multitude of different ways people participate and contribute, not just through paid labour; it rebalances power between employers and employees, gives people the basic resources, time, energy, support they need to take the steps they might want to take in life.
Some of these there are reasonably obvious and simple paths, while others seeming out of reach.
But, if we take our crisis of democracy seriously, and if we see it as driven by both disconnection, we must aim high and look to reinvent and re-embrace radical forms of democracy. If we don’t, we stand to lose it altogether.
Tim Hollo is Executive Director of The Green Institute. A musician, environmentalist and political adviser, he founded and runs Green Music Australia, and was formerly Director of Communications for Christine Milne.