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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 comments

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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.