Part one. What is it.
In the recipe of what a democracy is there are many ingredients but
simply explained it is a political system where like-minded people come
together to form ideas that become a philosophy. They then become the
foundation of political parties. These ideologies pull in different
directions in a quest for majority approval by the people. It is a far
from perfect system that has variations all around the world. It is
elastically flexible, (we even have democratic dictatorships),
unpredictable and at its worst, violent and extremely combative.
At its best it is noble, constructive and generally serves society
well. It is very much better than the next best thing and accommodates
diagonally opposed ideas, extreme or otherwise. All in all it’s an
imperfect beast that has served us well. Yes it’s government for the
people by the people.
Common to most Western Democracies (and in the absence of anything better) it has a capitalistic economic system.
In Australia the right to vote is the gift that democracy gives and
people are free to vote for whichever party (or individual) they support
but overriding this is the fact that people cannot possibly believe in
democracy, if at the same time they think their party is the only one
that should ever win.
A clear indication of an Australian Democracy in decline is the fact
that people are giving up this voting gift, literally saying:
“A pox on both your houses”.
Three million did so at the last election by not voting.
Our political system is in crisis because our solicitations fail to speak with any clarity on issues that concern people.
Moreover, an enlightened democracy should provide the people with a
sense of purposeful participation. It should forever be open to regular
improvement in its methodology and its implementation. Its
constitutional framework should be exposed to periodical revision and
renewal, compromise and bi-partisanship when the common good cries out
But above all its function should be, that regardless of ideology the
common good should be served first and foremost. A common good healthy
democracy serves the collective from the ground up rather than a top
down democracy that exists to serve secular interests. One that is
enforced by an elite of business leaders, politicians and media
interests who have the power to enforce their version. That is
Every facet of society including the democratic process needs
constant and thoughtful renewal and change. Otherwise we become so
trapped in the longevity of sameness that we never see better ways of
doing things.Unfortunately, Australia’s particular version of the
democratic process has none of these things inherent in it and is
currently sinking in a quagmire of American Tea Party Republicanism.
I am not a political scientist, historian or a trained journalist. I
write this as a disgruntled and concerned citizen because it seems to me
that the Australian democracy I grew up with no longer exists. The
demise of Australian Democracy has its origins in a monumental shift by
both major parties to the right with the result that neither seem to
know exactly what it is they stand for. They are now tainted with
The Liberal Party has been replaced by neo Conservatism actively
asserting individual identity against a collective one and old style
Liberalism no longer has a voice. There is little or no difference
between the Liberals and the National Party who seem irrelevant as a
Conservatives have gone down the path of inequality with a born to rule mentality that favors the rich.
“The whole logic of the “lifters” and “leaners” rhetoric
so favoured by the current Government is a distillation of the idea of
that there is no such thing as society, that we and only we are
responsible for our own circumstances”.
The Labor Party needs to rid itself of an out-dated socialist
objective and invest in a social philosophical common good instead. And
recognise that the elimination of growing inequality is a worthwhile
The major parties have become fragmented with Labor losing a large
segment of its supporters to the Greens whilst the LNP is being
undermined by rich populist Clive Palmer in the style of Berlusconi.
In terms of talent both parties are represented by party hacks of
dubious intellectual talent without enough female representation and
worldly work life experience. Both parties have pre-selection processes
rooted in factional power struggles that often see the best candidates
miss out. Both need to select people with broader life experience. Not
just people who have come out of the Union Movement or in the case of
the LNP, staffers who have come up through the party.
Our Parliament, its institutions and conventions have been so trashed
by Tony Abbott in particular that people have lost faith in the
political process and their representatives. Ministerial responsibility
has become a thing of the past.
Question time is just an excuse for mediocre minds who are unable to
win an argument with factual intellect, charm or debating skills, to act
deplorably toward each other. The public might be forgiven for thinking
that the chamber has descended into a chamber of hate where respect for
the others view is seen as a weakness. Where light frivolity and wit
has been replaced with smut and sarcasm. And in doing so they debase the
parliament and themselves as moronic imbecilic individuals.
Question time is the showcase of the Parliament and is badly in need
of an overhaul and an independent Speaker. Our democracy suffers because
no one has the guts to give away the slightest political advantage.
Recent times have demonstrated just how corrupt our democracy has
become. We have witnessed a plethora of inquiries all focusing on
illegal sickening behavior. There is no reason to doubt that the stench
of NSW doesn’t waffle its way through the corridors of the National
Parliament and into the highest offices.
And our democracy lacks leadership because our current leaders and
their followers have so debased the Parliament that there is no
compelling reason to be a politician. Well at least for people with
decency, integrity and compassion.
I cannot remember a time when my country has been so devoid of
political leadership. In recent times we have had potential but it was
lost in power struggles, undignified self-interest and narcissistic
The pursuit of power for power’s sake and the retention of it has so
engulfed political thinking that the people have become secondary and
the common good dwells somewhere in the recesses of small minds lacking
the capacity for good public policy that achieves social equity.
Our voting system is badly in need of an overhaul. When one party,
The Greens attracts near enough to the same primary votes as The
Nationals but can only win one seat in the House of Representatives, as
opposed to eight there is something wrong with the system. Added to that
is the ludicrous Senate situation where people are elected on virtually
no primary votes, just preferences. It is also a system that allows the
election of people with vested business interests with no public
One cannot begin to discuss the decline of Australian democracy
without at the same time aligning it to the collapse in journalistic
standards and its conversion from reporting to opinion. Murdoch and his
majority owned newspapers with blatant support for right wing politics
have done nothing to advance Australia as a modern enlightened
democratic society. On the contrary it has damaged it, perhaps
The advent of social media has sent the mainstream media into free
fall. Declining newspaper sales have resulted in lost revenue and
profits. It is losing its authority, real or imagined to bloggers who
more reflect a grass roots society. Writers with who they can agree or
differ but have the luxury of doing so. As a result newspapers in
particular have degenerated into gutter political trash in the hope that
they might survive. Shock jocks shout the most outrageous lies and
vilify people’s character with impunity and in the process do nothing to
promote decent democratic illumination. They even promote free speech
as if they are the sole custodian of it.
There are three final things that have contributed to the decline in our democracy.
Firstly, the Abbott factor and the death of truth as a principle of
democratic necessity. I am convinced Tony Abbott believes that the
effect of lying diminishes over time and therefore is a legitimate
political tool. So much so that his words and actions bring into
question the very worthiness of the word truth. Or he has at least
devalued it to the point of obsolesce.
The budget will be remembered for one thing. That it has given
approval for and overwhelmingly legitimised lying as a political and
Mr Abbott has long set a high standard when it comes to keeping promises. On August 22, 2011 he said:
“It is an absolute principle of democracy that
governments should not and must not say one thing before an election and
do the opposite afterwards. Nothing could be more calculated to bring
our democracy into disrepute and alienate the citizenry of Australia
from their government than if governments were to establish by precedent
that they could say one thing before an election and do the opposite
On the eve of the last election, after crucifying Prime Minister
Julia Gillard daily for three years, Abbott made this solemn promise:
“There will be no cuts to education, no cuts to health,
no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or
This is an unambiguous statement that cannot be interpreted any
differently than what the words mean. To do so is telling one lie in
defense of another.
In the budget he broke them all. As a result, a rising stench of
hypocrisy and dishonesty has engulfed the Abbott prime minister-ship.
When you throw mud in politics some of it inevitably sticks but there is
a residue that adheres to the chucker. That is now Abbott’s dilemma but
the real loser is our democracy. In Australian political history
Abbott’s legacy will be that he empowered a period emblematic of a nasty
and ugly period in our politics.
Our democracy is nothing more or nothing less than what the people
make of it. The power is with the people and it is incumbent on the
people to voice with unmistakable anger the decline in our democracy.
People need to wake up to the fact that government effects every part of
their life (other than what they do in bed) and should be more
concerned. But there is a political malaise that is deep seated.
Politicians of all persuasions must be made to pay for their willful
destruction of our democracy.
Good democracies can deliver good governments and outcomes only if the electorate demands it.
You get what you vote for rings true.
Lastly but importantly we need to educate our final year school
leavers (the voters of tomorrow) with an indebtedness and fundamental
appreciation of democracy. A focus group I held recently at a nearby
college revealed two things. One was that our young people are
conversant with societal issues and have strong opinions grounded in
clear observation. They cannot however place them into a logical
political framework because (two) they are not adequately informed about
political dogma and its place in the workings of a democracy.
We deserve better than what we have at the moment. However, if we are
not prepared to raise our voices then our democracy will continue to
decline and the nation and its people will suffer the consequences.
Part two. Opinions
Three books have recently been published that address the state of our democracy. The first ‘’Triumph and Demise’’
is by The Australian’s editor-at-large, Paul Kelly. In the final
chapter Kelly suggests that our political system is in trouble and that,
if that is the case, then by definition so are we. The Prime Minister
launched the book and in doing so fundamentally disagreed with the
“Paul suggests that the relentless negativity of our contemporary
conversation, the culture of entitlement that he thinks has sprung up
over the last decade or so, means that good government has become
difficult, perhaps impossible’’
“It’s not the system which is the problem, it is the people who from
time-to-time inhabit it. Our challenge at every level is to be our best
In the first quote two words, negativity and entitlement
jump out at you. Not necessarily in the context of the difficulty of
governance, he was alluding to, but rather as self-descriptive character
analysis. He could not have chosen two better words to describe his own
footprint on the path to our democratic demise.
The second is a disingenuous, even sarcastic swipe at his opponents
that leaves no room for self-examination or blame for his own period as
opposition leader and later as Prime Minister in particular. And in
another indignant self-righteous swipe he said that Labor was “much
better at politics than government.”
These are quotes by Kelly at the launch.
Kelly said he increasingly felt there were “real problems” with the mechanics of the political system as he worked on his book.
“I have always believed in the quality of leadership. I
have always felt that leadership was fundamental … to the success of the
country,” Kelly said.
“I do think the system today makes governing, and in particular
serious reform, more difficult, and I think the record does show that.”
I have not read the book but I agree entirely with his diagnosis. In
the first quote I believe he is referring to a breakdown in the
conventions and institutional arrangements of our democracy.
The second is a general commentary on the dearth of leadership over
the past decade or so. Although he was a Howard supporter and he has
recently said this of Abbott.
“Abbott is governing yet he is not persuading. So far. As
Prime Minister he seems unable to replicate his success as Opposition
leader: mobilising opinion behind his causes. The forces arrayed against
Abbott, on issue after issue, seem more formidable than the weight the
prime minister can muster.”
The third quote is a direct reference to the 24/7 News cycle and negativity as a means of obtaining power.
The second book ‘’The Political Bubble’’ by Mark Latham also addresses the state of our democracy.
‘’Australians once trusted the democratic process. While
we got on with our lives, we assumed our politicians had our best
interests at heart’’
He suggests that trust has collapsed. In this book, he freely
explores and travels up and down every road of our democratic map. On
the journey he talks about how democracy has lost touch with the people
it’s supposed to represent. Like a fast talking cab driver he gives view
on how politics has become more tribal with left and right wing
politics being dominated by fanatical extremists.
An entire chapter is devoted to how Tony Abbott promised to restore
trust in Australian politics and how he failed to keep his promises.
Another chapter is devoted to what can be done about fixing the
democratic deficit as he calls it.
‘’Can our parliamentary system realign itself with community expectations or has politics become one long race to the bottom?’’
The third, and more recent book, by Nick Bryant (BBC correspondent and author) aptly titled The Rise and Fall of Australia ‘’How a great Nation lost its way’
’takes a forensic look at the lucky country from inside and out. The
most impressive thing about this book, besides the directness of his
observations and astuteness of his writing, is that what is being said
is an outsider’s point of view. He is not constrained by the provincial
restrictions of self-analysis. Instead he offers his take on what he
‘’the great paradox of modern-day Australian life: of how
the country has got richer at a time when its politics have become more
Another important contribution to the democracy debate is this piece by Joseph Camilleri ‘’Democracy in crisis’’ I highly recommend this thoughtful article for a comprehensive outline of what ails our democracy.
I have alluded to these works, not as a review of each, but rather to
highlight a growing concern over the state of our democracy.
There is no doubt in my mind if one looks at all the ingredients that
go into forming a strong democracy, and you make a list of ingredients,
the traditional recipe is no longer working. Or it has been corrupted
by inferior ingredients.
At the risk of repeating myself, take for example the seemingly
uncontrollable bias and market share of Murdoch. A desire for
unaccountable free speech that is weighted toward, extremism. The attack
on the conventions and institutions of parliament by the Prime
Minister. The precedent of invoking Royal Commissions into anything as a
means of retribution. The rise of fanatical right wing partisan
politics and media. The decline in parliamentary respect and behavior.
Add to that the right wings dismissive contempt for feminism.
Corporate sway and the pressure of the lobbyist can also be added to
the mix, together with the voice of the rich that shouts the voice of
inequality. The idea that with political servitude comes entitlement via
financial benefit and privilege. And you can throw in the power of
personalities over policy within the mainstream parties. Then there is
the uninhibited corruption from both major parties. Then there is the
acceptance by both sides that negativity is the only means of obtaining
But at the top of the list is the malaise of the population. Although
we have compulsory voting 3million people at the last election felt so
disgusted with our democracy that they felt more inclined to have a beer
at the pub, or mow the lawn than cast a vote for Australian democracy.
If we are to save our democracy we might begin by asking that at the very least our politicians should tell the truth.
Others have also written on the subject. Democracy and diversity: media ownership in Australia
Budget Crisis or Crisis in Democracy
Another by me.
Can our democracy be saved?
By Kaye Lee
Capitalism isn’t democracy