Our democracy seems to me to be floundering. Our politicians seem too keen to embrace populist issues without sufficient concern for the long-term. Serious reform which underpinned our economic success in the late twentieth century seems now impossible because voters can’t be convinced to make short-term sacrifices in order to access long-term benefits. Our two party system (counting the Liberal/National Party coalition as a single party) has crumbled with the rise of minor parties and increasing number of independents. Our political stability, which provided the platform for governments to have a longer term focus has substantially diminished and in recent times we have seen more frequent changes of government, more frequent changes in political leadership, more instances of hung parliaments and minority governments.
We must still acknowledge the success of our liberal democracies. The citizens of such democracies are safer, wealthier and freer than human beings have ever been. My concern is largely about how we might sustain such benefits whilst our democracies are seemingly under threat.
Political instability is widespread now in Western democracies and even more concerning, some Asian democracies are trending back to theocracies with the separation of church and state being challenged.
Because of these concerns it seems fitting that we should examine the fundamentals of democracy with a view to trying to improve its operation and to, hopefully, secure its continuing future.
So what are the fundamentals of democracy?
If a democracy is truly to be government “by the people” there must of course be universal suffrage. That is a relatively recent occurrence. In the first instance, as democracy evolved in Britain, only landholders and males were allowed to vote. Thankfully, in Australia we have long had universal suffrage.
We would hope in an ideal democracy the elected people’s representatives themselves would also be generally a microcosm of the electors.
[Mind you Plato preferred an Aristocracy to a Democracy. But the Aristocrats Plato had in mind weren’t privileged nobility but people of wisdom, who were impartial and devoted to pursuing the greater good.]
In our democracy, the majority of our representatives are drawn from select groups that do not share the life experiences of most of us. Labor parliamentarians tend largely to be union hacks and party apparatchiks with no experience in the real world of commerce and industry. Unfortunately the coalition representatives are now more likely to come from the Law and allied pursuits and like Labor, those that have pursued politics as a profession.
In short our elected representatives are not generally of us! And that raises a problem because often the issues of our representatives are not issues of importance to the populace at large. As a result we have frequent debates in parliament on matters of little relevance to many of the population.
For a democracy to work not only do we need universal suffrage but we need each vote to have equivalent weight. This is largely the case in Australia but it hasn’t always been that way. Certainly in Queensland in the Bjelke-Petersen era rural electorates were able to elect a representative with far fewer votes than was required to elect a city representative.
But of course the Senate is elected on a far different principle. The Senate, which was set up to safeguard the rights of the states, allows for each state to elect the same number of senators. Consequently, Tasmania for example, with a vastly smaller population elects the same number of senators as the more populous states of NSW and Victoria. In this way, whilst the parochial rights of the states may be preserved it is possible for the majority of Australians to be frustrated.
It is impossible to legislate without the support of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The voting regime for the Senate requires that a candidate must obtain a certain “quota” of votes to be elected. Once the more preferred candidates of the major parties receive a quota it becomes increasingly easier for minority parties and independents to obtain a quota as well. Consequently minor parties and independents have a much higher representation in the Senate than in the House. Minor parties and independents often don’t have a broad array of policy positions and focus on no more than a handful of issues. Major policy initiatives by the Government approved in the House are, in recent times, frequently rejected in the Senate.
A democracy however, requires more than just having a democratically elected legislature. Montesquieu, the eighteenth century French political philosopher, wrote:
Experience shows that every man invested with power is apt to abuse it …… and therefore it is necessary from the very nature of things that power should be a check on power.
In modern democracies this is effected by keeping separate the legislative, executive and judicial arms of government. If they are mutually independent they will counterbalance each other, but if they are in the same hands there is no safeguard against possible tyranny.
In Australia, the Attorney-General, as the nation’s first law officer and part of the executive branch of government, is responsible for recommending judicial appointments to the Cabinet and the Governor-General. Before an appointment process commences, the Attorney-General, in consultation with the courts and the Attorney-General’s Department, decides whether an appointment should be made. Vacancies may result from a judge retiring or resigning. Alternatively, an increase in workload may prompt the need for additional judicial resources in a particular court or registry. Governments tend to appoint judges that favour their point of view. Fortunately the turnover of judges is little enough to ensure that the overall balance is not unduly distorted.
So, with some exceptions we have the structure in place to support our democracy, but it still isn’t working well, even though it seemed to in the past.
What then has changed?
In order for people to be able to make informed political decisions they need to first to be well-informed politically. With the advent of social media, many voters are making their decisions re voting on dubious information that concentrates on the short term populist point of view with very little substance.
The American Philosopher and Political Scientist, Jason Brennan writes:
Since individual votes count for so little, each voter can afford to be ignorant and misinformed about politics, or to indulge her worst biases and delusions.
Voters usually do not know the basic facts relevant to the election. They also have silly and mistaken beliefs about the social sciences and suffer from a range of cognitive biases that prevent them from thinking clearly about politics.
They vote the way they vote, and we get the candidates we get, because voters are ignorant, irrational and misinformed.
The uninformed, self-interested myopia of voters is a major threat to good democratic processes.
As the philosopher A C Grayling writes about political debate:
In practice the process involves spin and dirty tricks, half-truths and untruths, distortion, propaganda, ad hominem attacks on individuals rather than their ideas, all aimed at inflating the positives of one party and undermining the credibility of the other.
Even worse, politicians have been inveigled by the incessant bombardment of social media to define what issues are important to the populace at large. Those most active on social media are not, however, representative of the population at large, tending to be younger and generally more liberal in their views. Consequently, being unduly influenced by social media, politicians have become obsessed with populist issues rather than those that provide long-term benefits to society.
Furthermore, if an elector is politically inclined to support a particular party, they are unduly influenced by that party’s propaganda. We have recently seen Labor almost winning a Federal election by asserting the Coalition was trying to privatise Medicare, an assertion which was patently false. We see State Governments championing green energy schemes and maintaining that such efforts will reduce electricity costs which is also demonstrably false.
If the electorate is to make informed decisions then surely the claims of all parties in their election propaganda should be fact checked by independent experts. Surely we would be better off if we elected our Governments on the basis of fact and not on the basis emotional, political claptrap.
Rousseau argued that democracy was only possible if people could deliberate in private once they are properly informed, free from the influence and persuasion of others. How difficult is that in our environment with a 24 hour news cycle and perpetual bombardment of political propaganda!
The inherent conflict in a democracy where ideally all electors are well-informed and act in a disinterested way for the better of the state (rather than pursue their own vested interests) was also recognised by Rousseau who stated under these conditions only gods could have a democracy!
The philosopher A C Grayling relates that John Stuart Mill identified two chief dangers in every form of Government.
The first is general ignorance and incapacity, or to speak more moderately, insufficient mental qualifications, in the controlling body: the second is the danger of it being under the influence of interests not identical with the general welfare of the community.
The first danger is recognised as being more likely in governments that are popularly elected, given that they will tend to reflect the same level of information and cognitive capacity as the electors. The second danger, that of possible ‘sinister interests’ of those in power, consists in ‘class legislation’; of government intended for the immediate benefit of the dominant class, to the lasting detriment of the whole.
In our Australian democracy, and indeed many others throughout the world, the ‘sinister interests’ are generally portrayed as big business and the ‘working class’. Labor purports to support the working class and promotes trade unionism purportedly to achieve that end. The unions are the dominant influence on Labor, determining cabinet positions, preselection of candidates, and a large part of the policy platform. Yet unions only cover 15% of workers and mostly those in the public sector where Labor governments make union membership virtually compulsory for public servants.
On the other hand the coalition is often accused of feathering the nests of big business.
Our democracy has been generally reliant on a relatively stable two-party system. In recent decades we have seen diminishing numbers of people joining the major political parties. Membership is unattractive to most people because they have little voice, the parties being controlled by various factions and cabals. This in turn has made parties less representative of the population at large. Consequently the development of a policy platform by the party is less likely to appeal to the general populace.
In Great Britain, the Reform Act was passed in 1832. One of the outcomes of this Bill was the requirement of a party to publish a platform of policies which it would enact into law if it won government. Subsequently, it was assumed that if the party was elected to government it would be free to enact such legislation. Whilst the opposition might seek amendments it would largely not interfere with the government passing into law the initiatives for which it had a “mandate”. By and large, until recently, the Australian parliament has followed a similar course of action. But with the decline of the two-party system, and with the benefits of the Senate voting arrangements, minor parties frequently hold the balance of power in the Senate. This provides them with considerable power. Consequently a government elected with a majority in the House of Representatives can no longer be assured of enacting legislation which would reflect the policy platform it took to an election. We are then faced with the incongruity that the promises made by the incoming government are thwarted by minority parties who often pursue narrow, ideological interests to the detriment of the majority. And as a consequence voters criticise politicians for not fulfilling their promises!
At a more basic level our democracy is continually being challenged in two important areas, viz.
- The preservation of the rights of minorities, and
- The extent to which we should allow governments to regulate our lives.
It is fitting that in a democracy minority rights should be protected. But evidence would suggest that in many respects we have not only protected minority rights but now pander to minorities. It is scarcely believable, for example, that the dominant concern in Australian politics in the last twelve months has been the issue of gay marriage. This issue only directly impacted 1% or so of the population but it was given far more attention than issues that have broader impact such as the state of the economy, education or health.
Or evidence the reluctance of the Victorian Government to associate systematic youth crime in Melbourne’s western suburbs with young people of African origin. In order to prevent any suggestion of racism, they are reluctant to acknowledge that Sudanese youth are massively disproportionately represented in crime statistics. Sure, let us acknowledge that many African families have integrated well into our society but let us also acknowledge a minority of them pose a major threat to our civil society.
We experience the same reluctance with respect to religion. The authorities and some of the media have been reluctant to acknowledge the links between Islam and terrorist activity. We all know that most Muslims in Australia are decent, law-abiding people, but Islam is the only religion actively promoting terror in our society and we would be foolish to ignore the fact.
I could give many other examples of how minorities are pandered to. But in this aberration of our democracy we have contributed to the rise of identity politics.
Many people now seem to want to identify with a minority and thus to claim victimhood status. They obviously enjoy the attention they get as part of minority and use this status to avoid criticism and constructive debate. Psychology tells us that behaviour that is rewarded is reinforced and repeated. The rush to belong to such groups indicates we are unduly rewarding such behaviour.
Finally we need to give serious thought to what we expect of our governments. Every new law a government enacts, however beneficial, is a constraint on our liberty. It is a trade-off we must continually consider. Some of us want governments to address all societal ills thus avoiding the necessity to take personal responsibility. They are the champions of “big” government. They have the mindset that if only governments could intervene and solve their problems all would be well.
The contrary mindset argues that we should be wary of allowing governments to reduce our personal options for decision making. Such people will also point out that governments are very inefficient in the way they spend our money attempting to solve social ills. These people rankle at the notion of government creating a “Nanny” state where people are unduly sheltered from personal responsibility and governments intervene in every facet of our daily lives.
I will leave the latter debate for another day. But no doubt if you have read many of my essays you would understand I am not a proponent of big government.
Well what might we do to improve our democracy?
To begin with politics has become too antagonistic. There can never be a consensus in any large society about what constitutes the common good. But we should at least work to isolate those things the major parties can agree on. Currently the opposition will never agree that any proposed course of action the government might take is worthy of support. Similarly the government is unlikely to adopt any of the suggested policies of the opposition whatever their merits are.
We need a mechanism of assessing what positions can receive bi-partisan support and legislate accordingly. Parties must also be pragmatic. Often initiatives are opposed because they don’t achieve in one party’s eyes a perfect solution. Consequently the pursuit of the perfect has often resulted in preventing many good things from happening.
It seems, as a bystander, that the political players are often more interested in playing political games than pursuing the common good. Right now, for example, the government is trying to legislate for lower corporate taxes. A comprehensive OECD study has concluded that not only corporations but wage and salary earners benefit from lowering such taxes. They have been lowered by previous Labor governments and the opposition leader has in the past endorsed such a proposal to improve economic development. Despite this, Labor are steadfastly refusing to support this move.
The economic reforms of the 1980’s and 1990’s commenced by Labor under the Hawke Government, produced productivity gains that powered our economy for thirty or forty years. These reforms had largely bipartisan support which enabled a significant long-term change agenda to be pursued. Surely our politicians have the nous to sit down together and agree on a range of strategies to pursue for the economic betterment of the country. But currently they seem unable to escape the adversarial mindset that dictates they must oppose everything their political opponents propose.
It would be helpful also if we could get more people engaged in the political process. Fewer people are becoming members of political parties. This is entirely understandable because the major parties have processes that are far from democratic which discourages people from joining because they have little voice in developing policies and in the selection of candidates. Consequently, the parties remain the property of the reactionaries, and the parliamentary representatives they promote come from a very narrow, insular gene pool. If our political parties became more democratic we might attract more membership which would hopefully result in a more representative parliament.
Now there is often debate about whether we should have compulsory or voluntary voting. It is disappointing to see surveys showing that young people do not appreciate the value of our democracy. This, I suppose, is a result of a failing in our education system. Understanding the history of the Western world and how we have attained our democracy, the sacrifices many have made on the way, giving individuals the right to select a government should lead us to believe that democracy is a very valuable outcome from a fraught history. We should see our right to vote not only as a privilege, but acknowledging the sacrifice of the generations before us in achieving democracy, also a duty. Consequently I think it compulsory voting is appropriate.
If then we are required to make a decision as momentous as who should govern us, then that should compel all voters to at least understand the ramifications of our choices. We need to ensure that voters are as well-informed as possible.
As A C Grayling wrote:
….the population of a democratic state should understand the state’s politics and structures of government should have access to reliable information on which to base its participation, in debate and at the ballot box, in the processes of the democratic order. These are things that society itself can seek to achieve, by means of the school curriculum and in demanding that the media should be responsible.
The most difficult problem seems to be guarding against misinformation being distributed. Much of the media is partisan and are willing accomplices with politicians in distributing misleading information often aimed at frightening electors.
One initiative I would champion is that campaigning should cease a week before the election. At that point each party should publish a summary of the policy platform it is taking to the election. The policies should be costed and accompanied by a short rationale for why they are being pursued. The document should be no more than ten pages to make it accessible to most voters. The costings and the veracity of policy material should be verified by an independent third party. Electors should be given this time to mull over what is being proposed without further harassment by politicians and the media. Each party should establish a hotline where voters could enquire about the published material. Then let us vote after reasonable consideration of the material without the adversarial, emotional embellishment of either politicians or media.
Those are my thoughts on our democracy. I know I am an idealist but it is too important to allow democracy to fail. For all its faults we still know no better way of government and it must be worth our while in trying to ensure its continued efficacy.