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Jun 5, 2012

Why does Australia hate democracy?

The latest Lowy Institute poll contains an alarming statistic for lovers of democracy. Rob Burgess of Business Spectator wonders why we hate our system of government.


The latest Lowy Institute poll contains an alarming statistic for lovers of democracy. Only 39% of young Australians (18 to 29) chose the following statement from a list of three as best representing their opinion: “Democracy is preferable to any other kind of government.”

The two choices they rejected were: “For someone like me, it doesn’t matter what kind of government we have.”

Safe to say the 15% (across all age groups) who ticked that one interpreted “someone like me” as meaning “a complete bonehead”: “In some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable.”

Again, “some circumstances” obviously included events such as the Black Death, Armageddon, or an invasion of gay boat-people as advertised on a poster in Tanya Plibersek’s office. On second thoughts, given the political debate conducted by “straight land-people”, the latter could only be a big improvement.

In older cohorts there were more fans of democracy — 60% of Australians across all age groups still think democracy is preferable to all the other systems.

Of course, in methodological terms, presenting the feckless interviewee with three simple choices skews the result a bit. Support for democracy would be lower in the younger cohorts if the Lowy researchers had included the question: “Should Guy Sebastian rule as almighty King from a throne inside the Opera House?”

But enough jesting. The statement that really should have been on the list is: “Democracy sounds great and I’d really like to try living in one.”

In September last year I looked at this issue by examining the disparity between political party membership rates in China and Australia. The one-party state, to whose teat we are so firmly attached, claims about 6% of its people participate in the democratic votes held at CCP meetings.

In Australia, while something above 90% of voters turn out at state and federal elections, our party membership levels (130,000 in all) are about one tenth the per capita rate seen in China.

After publishing that figure, political operatives from both sides of politics told me with much smirking that the “official” figures I’d added together to come up with that number were grossly inflated.

In short, the number of people putting candidates before the “demos” at election time is very small. Getting the whole country to choose between candidates that have been nominated and preselected by a tiny political elite makes our “democracy” look less than sparkling.

So what’s to be done? Labor’s New South Wales branch is trialling US-style primary elections — starting with the preselection of Labor’s candidate for the Sydney lord mayor election — with some within the party calling to extend the primary system to all preselection races.

Under this system, any voter who is not registered with another political party gets to vote for who should eventually contest a seat at election time.

It sounds much more democratic — not only do the demos choose which of the nominated candidates represents them in Canberra or respective state parliaments, but the people also have the right to say “no” to candidates parachuted in by party power brokers.

This is a particular problem for Labor, whose state and federal executives share the power with affiliated trade unions to overturn any preselection they don’t like. As one of Labor’s biggest power brokers told me last year, it prevents “complete dickheads” being preselected.

Really? The antics in Parliament last week were a good demonstration that several have bypassed this filtering process, matched in at least equal number on the opposition benches.

But let’s stick with Labor for the moment, where the union movement is throwing its weight around on the issue of importing skilled labour to address the nation’s acute shortage of workers with the skills required by the booming resources sector.

Five Western Australian unions have clubbed together to threaten to dump Special Minister of State Gary Gray as preselected candidate for the seat of Brand, if he doesn’t pull his head in and stop supporting the government’s Enterprise Migration Agreements visa program.

Those unions represent their (dwindling) membership bases, but they don’t represent the people of Brand. Democracy, again, is on the rocks.

And all of this in a party who’s parliamentary leader, Julia Gillard, concluded a woefully undemocratic deal in 2010 with BHP, Rio Tinto and Xstrata to water down Kevin Rudd’s original mining tax. The “people” she was representing then were desperate Labor Party MPs, not the demos.

But will Labor with primary elections be any better? The most commonly raised objection is that primaries favour celebrity candidates (didn’t we get those in 2007 with Peter Garrett and Maxine McKew?) or candidates whose primary campaign resources come from rich benefactors — who want policy assurances in return.

“Lobby against the mining tax,” a benefactor might say, “and I’ll help you win preselection.”

Again, given the history of the RSPT/MRRT, it’s hard to see how Labor’s shift to a primary system would change very much at all.

*This article was first published at Business Spectator



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16 thoughts on “Why does Australia hate democracy?

  1. Douglas Evan

    It just might be that the 15% or so of young people who thought democracy was not necessarily the best way intuited probably correctly that our democratic processes afforded them as good as no possibility to influence decisions taken that will influence their lives. What about their ability to vote? I’m 65 and I suggest that our vote only helps to decide which politicians are told what to do by which members of the group of unelected wielders of economic power that so strongly influence our collective future. Rather than brushing them aside, perhaps the 15% should be taken as a warning that something is seriously wrong with our democratic processes. Labor’s experiment with primaries means only that some candidates are chosen by a group already considerably smaller (and still shrinking) than a modestly successful AFL club.

  2. klewso

    Do they “hate democracy”? Or just not understand that it’s more than just some “two-horse popularity race”?
    Consider our “views” environment – dumbing down by an unbalanced media dominated by a political player = “Conditioning”?

  3. michael matusik

    Democracy really doesn’t work – especially with just two parties and for mine compulsory voting – it is much democratic to let the public to decide if they want to vote rather than force them to – i think we would get a much better public debate if such was implemented.

    also right now – and on both sides of the fence – the quality of leadership and policy debate is rock bottom – we need strong leadership – little wonder there is disillusionment out there about democracy – but the alternatives could be a lot worse – better the devil you know!

  4. Paracleet

    Anyone who thinks putting the proposition “Should Guy Sebastian rule as almighty King from a throne inside the Opera House?” would lower support for democracy amongst the young has no business commenting on the views of the youth of today. Or anything else for that matter. Ever.

  5. Warren Joffe

    I wouldn’t accuse most young people of wasting good partying time to stock up on a decent sample of the interactions of historical events with national and other group cultures and pretty well invariable aspects of human nature but, strictly speaking, it is surely true that “In *some* circumstances, an non-democratic government can be preferable”. Even supposing you are excluding the remoter past when most people were illiterate and a democratic Confederacy would have gone on maintaining slavery when the old aristocratic constitutional monarchy they had got rid of in the 1770s would have already abolished slavery you can’t really set aside Hitler’s Germany where he was elected and re-elected by the demos. Even Queen Victoria’s idiot grandson little Willie and his Prussian Junkers would have been more civilised.

    As for the “boneheads” who didn’t think the form of government mattered to them, the author lacks imagination. For a smart egoist the reasoning could be “just let me work out what the rules are from time to time and who has power and I’ll find a way of making it all work for me – especially relative to the way that it works for everyone else in what I see as a highly competitive state of existence. As someone has already pointed out, the response is in fact much more likely to be just a way of indicating “a plague on all their houses”.

  6. Hamis Hill

    Corresponds directly to the increasing proportion of Australians who are products of a religious
    education system notoriously antagonistic to democracy eg infallible, centralised authority instead.
    Consider how the rejection of the teaching of history in Australia corresponds to an un-Christian
    rejection of the divine command to “Honour thy Father And Thy Mother” and creates a slave-like
    mentality that cannot recognise the idea of freedom and personal authority at all, hence the poll
    results “What is democracy anywayy??”.
    Clue. Democracy is bad for your immortal souls hence the motive and opportunity to subtly and incrementatly destroy it until the frogs are completely boiled.
    Or consider how Anti-Christian and undemocratic it is to reject Christ Himself’s admonition “whatsoever you do to these, the least of my brothers, so do you also unto me” and it it is clear that a religious education antagonistic to democracy is not Christian at all, and indeed quite sinister.
    It may be very impolite to say so but politics and religion are connected and it seems quite demented to pretend otherwise.
    Can a nation have democracy without studying and celebrating the history of democracy?
    why is this nolonger happening in Australia? Is, for instance, democracy too protestant? Too
    British for the taste of some Australians? Just asking!

  7. Microseris

    Trust a business writer to come up with this narrative of the young.

    I am certainly a bit older than the quoted demographic and I despair at our “democracy”. As the above entries suggest in theory we have a democracy, in practice it is a combination of Plutocracy and Oligarchy founded on a ponzi economic and demographic system.

    Unpopular practices like foreign wars, uranium mines in NT and old growth logging are opposed by the majority of people, but these practices can not stop because both parties support the status quo, aided and abetted by a partisan media.

    Neither party has any compelling motivation to change. They only seek to change the publics perception of them after an electoral rout, then its back to business as usual. No wonder younger people are disenfranchised, I am.

  8. Hamis Hill

    Historically a certain politico-religious entity has been battling democracy for about two thousand years, that is a whole lot of history. And as Australians are subversively steered away from their democratic inheritance so we should expect that the Australia of the future will have none of the
    morals or virtues of the early Roman Republic. Slaves have no mothers or fathers or personal history
    to honour, it makes them easier to control. It folllows that the abandonment of “British” Australia
    and its protestant, democratic institutions to pander to the imagined inferiority of the various other
    national subgroups will lead to the dominance of the largest, and most organised of the various sub-cultures. The classic Roman “Divide Et Vincit” tactic for conquest. This is hardly a subject for the usual simpering foppery that passes for intellectual debate, for the enemies of democracy do not
    operate in a democratic fashion, hence the great disadvantage for those who insist on politeness in the defence of freedom.
    There was nothing polite in the planned holocaust that followed the plotted destruction of the Weimar Pepublic or, indeed, in the other 48,ooo,ooo deaths that followed.
    History and an honouring of past sacrifices is the lynch-pin of democracy, destroy it and democracy and freedom simply slips away. The enemies of democracy know this but the supposed defenders of democracy? The beneficiaries of democracy? History is a pearl unrecognisable to swine.

  9. Liamj

    How can i hate something i’ve never known? Democracy sounds lovely, wake me when we get a free and open press, then we can start work on the informed electorate.
    And how is it Labors fault anyway, as Mr Burgess seems to conclude? If meaningless surveys didn’t exist spin doctors would have to commission them.

  10. Dedicated Follower of Politics

    Wow! Someone who, even jokingly, suggests that putting “Should Guy Sebastian rule as almighty King from a throne inside the Opera House?” on a survey would change the way youth voted on the survey is disturbingly out of touch. Guy Sebastian is about as popular with youth as… in my bewilderment I am incapable of thinking of anything similarly unpopular.

  11. Clytie

    We got our Count Me In card from the AEC today. It prompted me to ask my 21-yr-old daughter if she would have filled out the AEC enrolment card when she turned 18, if she had been living away from home. Her answer:

    “Well, you explained how important it is to vote, so I filled it out. But if you hadn’t explained that? Yeah, it would have gone in the bin.”

    Civics education?

    Our earlier conversation concerned changes she did want to make in her environment, and how to achieve them. She has since participated in, and continues to monitor, the campaigns for the R18+ rating for video games, and against Internet censorship and mass surveillance (OzLog).

    I don’t think, prior to that conversation, she actually knew she could create change with others.

  12. mattsui

    Trolling again, Crikey? Much of this article bears no analysis whatsoever.
    Just one Para’:
    “In short, the number of people putting candidates before the “demos” at election time is very small. Getting the whole country to choose between candidates that have been nominated and preselected by a tiny political elite makes our “democracy” look less than sparkling.”
    In short, Any registered voter can nominate themself for election in any poll in any jurisdiction.
    Said candidates are then chosen by the electors registered in the relevant jurisdiction (electorate) – NOT THE WHOLE COUNTRY – to represent them in Parliament/State legislature/Local Council.
    As for how many members of political parties consider themselves part of “a tiny political elite” – try telling that to Katter’s Australia Party or the Citizen’s electoral Council……… or the Labor Party’s “Rank and File” “true believers”.

  13. Zarathrusta

    Since you are a business writer, I’ll put this in business terms for you.

    Firstly, how much of a democracy are we? We create the illusion of democracy, but the single member electorate electoral system in the lower house creates such barriers to entry that it really is a two horse race, and over the years those two horses have become so similare that you are really are voting for a one type of horse parliament.

    If the recent Queensland election showed anything, it was that lower houses in Australia need proportional representation, which is only achievable with multi-member electorates. In Queensland 49.65% of people voted LNP and 26.66% voted ALP as their first preference but they got 78 and 7 seats out of 89 respectively. That is 87.64% and 7.86% of the parliament respectively. That is a 37.99% malapportionment, or in otherwords at least 38% of the people voting were silenced. This extreme example shows how the single member electoral system works every election to exclude new parties. It also presumes that any interest in common will be over land and will occur because people are neighbours. That’s why the Australian Party which appealed to a rural constituency got people elected and the Greens didn’t.

    The electoral system creates a cartel where Liberal and ALP pretend to be different but really are so close you couldn’t tell one from the other. It is hardly surprising that young people don’t worship democracy. Australia is really a one party state with an ALP and a Liberal faction. Both are totally locked into unsustainable economics.

    I’m also unconvinced that primaries are a better solution. Having different preselection criteria is one way for parties to potentially differentiate themselves. Primaries are only a smoke screen to avoid deregulating entry into the “being elected” club by avoiding multi member electorates & proportional representation. Where this is done in Tasmania, voters can already throw out one Labor person in favour of another Labor person. That’s real choice. With primaries you are still stuck with the choice of only one person per party.

  14. Jenny Haines

    I notice young people that I teach at university have a poor understanding and knowledge of history. Local born students probably did not study history at school or only a very narrow version of it. Remember the history wars under the Howard Government? Is this the end product of the history wars that the current younger generation don’t know the values generated throughout history since the time of the Greeks about the importance of democracy? It seems so.

    Overseas born university students often come from authoritarian regimes where democracy is a dirty word, liable to get you some time in a gulag, so not overly appreciated for its virtues by these students. I do enjoy teaching them about democracy though! Must cause some problems for them when they go home, if they go home, at least in their minds, if not spoken. I presume such students may have been respondents to this survey.

    The younger generation do seem to want things delivered in simplistic packages. But the bad news for them is that the world is full of contradictions that they need to think through and resolve or those contradictions will make their life very complicated. Many in the younger generations don’t seem to realise that one day their generation will be responsible for running the world. Are they going to leave it to the few, who have an interest in power. God help them if they do. Not a world I would want to live in!

  15. Andrew McIntosh

    We hate our freedom. Or something.

  16. whoknows

    I don’t believe that it is that young people dislike democracy. The fact is that they dislike the difference between what is said and what is done. Political lobbyists and their financial donors sway corporate / political and economic decisions.

    It is not about independence or party decisions, it’s about who can pressure the most. Think Packer, Reinhart, Murdoch and the mentality of “whatever it takes” to achieve an outcome that the “have and have more’s” want.

    Think Howard and the lie his party supported to go to war. Think Gillard and the overthrow of Rudd, an elected PM, tossed out by an unelected group of power shifters.

    It is more a comment on the dissatisfaction and dis-allusion they feel, and quite rightly so.


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