Democracy on the Ropes

Democracy on the Ropes

Anyone who was masochistic enough to watch any of the Clinton/Trump debates must be shaking their heads in bewilderment at the state of Western democracy. It is appalling that the world’s most powerful democracy has come to this, forced to make a choice for President between an uninspiring Hillary Clinton, whose presidency would seem to doom America to a future at best of merely maintaining the status quo, and Donald Trump whose misogyny, racism and reactionary opinions make most of us shudder. As some wag wrote in the paper the other day the good news is that they both can’t win but the bad news is that one of them will!

We seem to now have come to some sort of a cross-road in the evolution of democratic processes. Although the political malaise in Australia is perhaps not as dramatic as it is in the USA, there are worryingly similar trends.

There are some serious issues here that are seemingly ignored by politicians and the political commentariat. I will try to address a few of these in this essay.

The first concern I have is that politicians in the major political parties seemed to be disengaged with major sections of the population at large. The career paths of most of today’s politicians seems largely to preclude them from having the experiences, the concerns and the aspirations of the average voter. The career trajectories of many of them have often taken them from university or perhaps the union movement into politics at a relatively young age with very little real life experience. They take on the issues and concerns of their own particular cohort without an understanding that these may not be the concerns of the population at large.

An example of that is the issue of same sex marriage. An enormous amount of political capital has been expended on this issue which seems to me to be a second order issue for most Australians who are much more interested in finding jobs for themselves or their children, paying off the mortgage, educating their children, ensuring some sort of security in their old age and so on.

What’s more we are seeing politicians now reacting illogically to dubious sources of (what they thought was genuine) community feedback. In short they are being misled by social media. As an example just look at Mike Baird’s fraught decision to abolish greyhound racing, or Malcolm Turnbull’s precipitate reaction to the Don Dale Centre expose or indeed Julia Gillard’s response to live cattle exports. These were all dubious decisions made in reaction to the clamour of social media when we would have been better served by a more considered response.

The inexorable march of technology has both some fabulous and some cruel results. Despite the fact that the major driver of improved living standards in Australia, productivity, has largely stalled, most of the gains we are now benefitting from has come from improvements in technology. But the march of technology has also resulted in the creation of a new underclass.

Computerisation and automation has done away with many menial and low skilled jobs, and unfortunately nothing has evolved to replace them. Nobody digs ditches any more, or for that matter shovels coal, pumps petrol, loads ships, chops wood, and much, much more. For generations men with few intellectual skills or education have been able to eke out a living by hiring out their muscles to do menial work. Any relatively simple (and quite a few more complex) manual tasks can now be easily automated.

In factories, power plants and refineries men were hired to walk around and listen to the machinery looking out for unusual sounds. They would feel the bearing housings to ensure they weren’t overheating. They would put a drop of oil here and there and manually read the instrumentation and log important parameters like temperatures, current and pressure. But now embedded sensors record all these things and sophisticated computers analyse the data.

As a result of this there are many unskilled men (women too, but predominantly men) who are unemployed. When they look at the world around them and try to make sense of the changes they have seen in recent decades, it is easy to see why they might want to attribute their disadvantaged state to:

  • Globalisation (our jobs have been exported),
  • Technology (our jobs have been done away with by machines), and
  • Immigration (migrants have stolen our jobs).

There is little doubt that on the whole our welfare has been generally improved by all these trends, but that is hard to reconcile with if you are an unemployed, unskilled worker.

Now add to that other fears these people have regarding such things as Islamic immigration, foreign ownership of Australian assets and so on, and it is obvious they bear is a large burden of concern. The problem we have is that we treat these people as unsophisticated, naïve and reactionary and rather than debate with them these issues of concern to them we resort to calling them names or ignoring them.

Because they feel they are disenfranchised by the major political parties they turn to One Nation and the minor parties and independents to put their views in parliament. We see a similar phenomenon in the United States where a large cohort have deserted conventional politicians and lined up behind Donald Trump.

The phenomenon of political elitism now seems to dominate politics. Each major political group has its accepted paradigms which are sounded out relentlessly, unchallenged and resulting in a particular version of political “group think”. Those that support such paradigms are cheered and those that don’t are denigrated. There is essentially little political debate but largely attempts to impose already determined positions on a long-suffering populace. Tony Abbott’s budget when first becoming prime minister was an admirable attempt to restore financial discipline to the nation except that he forgot to explain to voters such necessity. Bill Shorten’s current position on same sex marriage is all to do with securing political advantage and little to do with righting a social wrong with little justification to voters. Anastacia Palaszczuk’s government’s continual efforts to delay the development of coal mines in Queensland, which is merely a tactic to fend off the Greens in Labor’s Brisbane inner city seats is never accompanied by a rationale why economic development and the creation of new jobs should be thwarted. The political elites run their campaigns assuming voters are either “in the know” or are naïve and don’t deserve rational justification.

The fragmentation of political support for the major parties has its genesis also in the economic performance of the nation. In Australia, real wages have plateaued for several years (with the exception of Government employees, particularly in Labor governed states!). In the USA where the economy was harder hit by the global economic crisis, real wages are less than they were in 2007. Working families are doing it tough. The message here for the major parties is surely that economic performance is the main criteria by which Governments are judged and much will be forgiven if the economy is expanding.

If our lower/middle class citizens continued to prosper, then I suspect they would have far less incentive to turn to minority political parties and independents.

This seemed to be a lesson that John Howard had learnt. He seemed to be able to relate to these citizens, (who traditionally have been Labor voters) in a way that the Labor party couldn’t.

As well, the decades of economic growth that the country experienced in the later decades of last century meant most citizens were able to improve their lot. People under such circumstances didn’t feel so disenfranchised.

As I have previously written, the Labor Party that my father once loved so dearly, has deserted working people. In its attempts to shore up its more left wing supporters in order to defend the inroads the Greens have made into part of their traditional constituency, they have focussed more on the social agendas of the inner city elites, academics and others. Even though the party is deeply in the thrall of the union movement, the union movement is less intent on being a credible voice for workers than ever in its history. Unions are now wealthy and have such diverse revenue streams they are no longer dependent on membership for their financial security. The welfare of the worker has accordingly paled in significance.

It would now seem that in the USA Donald Trump’s chances of attaining the presidency are rapidly waning. But those people who supported him reflect a sizable cohort disenchanted with mainstream politicians. They are not going to go away. Somehow, they need to be listened to and given assurance that their concerns will be heard by those in power.

Similarly those in Australia who have eschewed the major parties need to be listened to as well. They shouldn’t be denigrated. They shouldn’t be ignored. Their growth in numbers is threatening the stability of government in Australia. We have a history of two-party politics where government has been won variously by Labor and the Coalition. It has provided us with political stability which enabled governments to pursue their political objectives over multiple parliamentary terms. We have now had a decade of political instability which has been bad for the country. This dilemma is unlikely to be resolved until the major parties can devise strategies to re-engage these disenfranchised voters.

6 Replies to “Democracy on the Ropes”

  1. Except the US is not a democracy. It is a Constitutional Republic which is quite a different thing. The US probably needs to be a democracy but given the mythical nature of American belief in their system, it is not going to happen.

    The problem cited is not democratic per se: but capitalistic. The US is the least regulated capitalist economy and therefore the most damaged by that lack of regulation, but all of the Western world is being damaged not by democracy but by capitalism unchecked.

    Blaming democracy is a distortion of the real issues.

    If Trump succeeds, and he might, it will be a rejection, not of democracy since Americans don’t have it, but of Capitalism run rampant without reason or ethics.

  2. And that is the irony because Trump is who and where he is because of unchecked Capitalism.

    The Gods do play sport with us.

  3. Ted, While I agree that our politicians have largely lost touch with Australian voters, you have failed to mention the most significant driver behind that shift. The major political parties have been totally captured by big private corporations through their donations to the parties. It has even reached a point where these corporations are writing government policies for the parties (e.g. the energy industry lobbyists wrote the Howard Government’s energy policy). Even the issue that you cite is wrong. Anastacia Palaszczuk’s declaring the Adani Carmichael coal mine as “critical infrastructure” is totally at the behest of Adani. The people of Australia want a protected Great Barrier Reef, and want urgent action on AGW and consequent climate change, not the few jobs, and meagre royalties (cf Adani’s potential earnings) from that massive mine. The Carmichael mine must NOT proceed if our grandchildren are too have a future.

    And, look how the mining industry is now rewarding Ian Macfarlane (at Abbott’s request) for all he did for the industry. Democracy in Australia is totally hacked by rampant capitalism.

  4. Well, David, whilst I am not a great supporter of political donations in general, I am surprised you didn’t mention the donations by the Union movement to Labor and the Greens. As an example the CFMEU has donated over $2,000,000 to the Labor party in the last five years ( yes, this is the same CFMEU that was taken to task by the Heydon Royal Commission on Trade Unions and has currently over 100 of its officials before the courts with over 1100 allegations of illegal behaviour). I guess they are the sort of people you would prefer to see influencing our politicians?

    And no doubt the circles you move in are full of those pushing an anti-mining barrow. But most of us in regional communities with high unemployment welcome the mining jobs and the wealth they create. Even the Lady Mayoress of Rockhampton, who is dyed in the wool Labor is protesting about the excessive hurdles that the State Government is making the mining proponents jump.

    I suspect you have unwittingly supported the thesis in my essay of how easily we fall into the trap of surrounding ourselves with like-minded people and then come to believe the views they continually reinforce are more widely held than is really the case.

    But it is good to hear from you, and I am always happy to publish your opinions even though (or particualarly when) they diverge from my own.

  5. Ted, I totally agree with you regarding union donations (they are also big private organisations!). And, I don’t think that you can put the Greens into the camp of being influenced by political donations from “big private corporations”. Individuals maybe, but not lobbying vested interests. And I am a little insulted with your immediate assumption that I would like to see CFMEU donations influencing politicians. You seriously misunderstand me.

    And Ted, I actually surround myself with intelligent, open minded people – for example, I continue to read your blogs!

    1. Thank you, David. I hope you continue to read and comment on my essays. Whether I agree with you or not I will always publish your responses.

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