democracy Australia

Australian politicians are corrupt. They serve Big Business or the Unions, or their mates. They are all about power and fighting to get the job, not doing the job. Ask anyone. The system is broken. Or is it?

Just 4.5% of the world population lives in a free and fair democracy, and Australia is part of that lucky elite. Additionally, 44.8% of people are in flawed democracies, 16.7% in hybrid regimes and 34% under authoritarian rule.

Across the world, dozens of countries pretend to be democratic, yet the citizens, judges and media live in fear of confronting their politicians.

Here in Australia, a separation of powers protects us. Politicians are scared of the media, scared of voters and scared of the judiciary. Media scrutinises them, voters throw them out regularly if they are found wanting, and the courts pack them off to jail if they are corrupt.

Media is enviably free here considering that in 2016 the world hit another record for the detention of journalists. Last year, because of their work, 65 were killed and 262 found themselves behind bars — half of which were Turkish, Chinese or Egyptian.

The vast majority of countries restrict access to internet sites, but China sometimes imprisons troublesome bloggers, perhaps partially explaining why local trust in their government ranks highest in the world at 84%.

In 2016, Mexico averaged 1.2 attacks on journalists every day, Iran summoned the families of journalists for “please explain” sessions, while North Korea continued to set the gold standard for fake news.

Australian elections are essentially free and fair, while gerrymandering, ballot-stuffing or the simple expedient of announcing fraudulent results are commonplace globally.

Unsurprisingly, the longer a party is in power, the greater the chance of electoral rigging. It rises steadily from 45% after five years, to 70% after 40. Vote-buying has been monitored at 67% in sub-Saharan Africa, 45% in Asia and 14% in Europe. Unlike much of the planet, violence and intimidation is not a significant feature of our elections.

I often work on elections around the world and was recently in Zimbabwe. There was a coup last November, so regime change in the July election seemed improbable. When questions were raised about the legitimacy of the poll, a modest group of opposition supporters took to the street. The police fired tear gas, then the army arrived and shot at least seven, including bystanders, which seemed to temper prolonged dissent.

Rural voters there have historically been denied food and seed if they ignore the voting instructions of their tribal chiefs, dissidents have been beaten or “disappeared”. That said, the recent election was far more fair than previous efforts, and change takes time. If corrupt, it was only vaguely corrupt.

In places like Afghanistan, democratic participation is a dangerous business. With the Taliban around, turning up at a polling booth can be life-threatening.

When a small team I worked with there pointed out that the President had not secured the 50% margin he needed to claim a clear first round win, a terror attack killed six at the guesthouse. Our international group fled with the classic cry of consultants everywhere: “You’ve got a problem, we’ve got a plane to catch”.

Australian corruption is trivial on a world scale. An estimated $1.5 trillion is spent globally on bribes each year, being three times the revenue of the world’s largest company. Only one-third of countries manage a corruption index score (the higher the cleaner) of more than 50, led by New Zealand at 89, with Somalia ranking sleaziest at nine out of 100 possible points.

One in four global citizens claim they paid public servants a bribe within the last 12 months.

Australia is rarely troubled by crooked court officials, but political interference, corruption and bribery are the norm in many countries.

Favourable decisions can be bought in many nations with judges that have been politically appointed or lured with cash to routinely exclude evidence, manipulate court dates or delay appeals, while juniors “lose” files or police tamper with evidence.

Australia’s two dominant political parties have essentially similar policies to one another, with variants to suit the economic times and proclivities of voters. We allow them turns, leaning right when we feel the shop needs better management and left when there’s cash in the till. We’ve been doing this since federation.

Like riding a bike, we press on both pedals, pushing our country forward, instead of circling as single-party states invariably do. Is our system perfect? Obviously not; there’s plenty to complain about. But in times of petty parliamentary disarray it may be worth remembering that from a global perspective we have a robust, functioning democracy, that most global citizens hardly dare dream of.

Toby Ralph is a marketing consultant and small board director who, among other things, has worked on over 50 elections globally. He’s published by Penguin and Oxford University Press.

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