(Image: AAP/Penny Stephens)

Democracy is fragile.

Populists, liars, racists and fanatics are putting democracy through a stress test. It is creaking and groaning, threatening to burst.

Betrayed by the very institutions supposed to protect us, democracy itself is being questioned. Can we restore trust in those who have so widely betrayed the populace? Like any equipment: if you do not do maintenance, it will break.

We have neglected basic democratic repairs. The bearings are in need of some grease and the motor needs fresh oil. We need to look after the fundamentals:

  • publicly accountable politicians
  • elections that are beyond question
  • an anti-corruption watchdog with real bite
  • regulators who reject cosy deals with the regulated
  • a media that holds power to account.

If we don’t, then we will slip and slide down the same perilous path that other democracies are going down.

Take this analogy from a petrol head who is also a political tragic: there was about a 10-year gap between the invention of the motor car in the 1890s and the introduction of road rules. The internal combustion engine found immediate commercial success, but there were no driving licences, no protocols about what happened when two horseless carriages collide, no car insurance, no drink drive laws…

We are at exactly the same point now with the explosion of digital and (anti-)social media. The technology is rampant, but the rules are being retro-fitted to the culture. It’s just like what happened when cars became popular: the early motoring entrepreneurs argued they ought not be bound by rules and regulations. The digital billionaires argue the same now!

Some paradoxes for you: we are supposedly more connected than ever, but we have unprecedented levels of loneliness. We understand more about what makes us healthy and happy, but we have epidemics of disease, obesity, anxiety and depression. We have access to all the libraries and universities in the world on our phone, but distrust in science is at levels last seen before the Enlightenment.

Technology can be a force for democracy and equality, but the people who control it are behaving like totalitarians. The tech giants argue they are not responsible for what goes online — they want to reap profits like publishers, but not be accountable like publishers.

We have innovation, but little progress.

People travel more than at any time in the history of humanity, but suspicion of strangers is soaring. Millions have found a new country in the mass migrations since World War II, but the backlash against migrants and refugees is now rampant. The epidemic of widespread distrust, disillusion and division flows from the unprecedented concentration of the spoils of progress.

Many people are working harder than ever, but feel they will never get ahead. Their share of prosperity seems beyond their grasp, and it is not surprising that they look for someone to blame. The elites have been grasping, patronising and greedy.

We may be breaking sales records for Ferraris, but we can’t increase Newstart. How can that be?

Are we at a tipping point? Too much change, too quickly, spooks those who feel they are not getting to share in the spoils. The social licence is threatened.

The gap between country and city, between tech-savvy and digitally deprived, the globally comfortable and the locally stuck… that gap is getting bigger and more dangerous.

Talkback radio is like society’s “complaints department”. Everyone gets a chance to air their outrage and grievance, and everyone is equal, whether a Nobel Prize winner or the village idiot. Everyone is entitled to be heard.

And how democratic is that? We all get to vote, and each vote is equal.

So what do we do? It is not all doom and gloom. We are told that society has “capacity constraints”. I agree. The capacity to be ethical. The capacity to be less selfish. The capacity to do the right thing.

We need to reassert civic and collective goals. We need to be more active in maintaining the machine — instead of leaving it to the mechanically savvy. We cannot outsource citizenship. We cannot leave empathy to the gig economy. We need to become activists for whatever cause it is that gets the pulse racing. We need to stop being afraid of ideas, and instead test them.

We shouldn’t say “you can’t say that”. We should instead explain why that idea or theory might be wrong; to engage in the contest of ideas instead of the suppression of ideas we disagree with. Respect.

We need to call out self-interest when we see it, and call it for what it is. We need to make sure that everyone is equal before the law — in practice not just in theory. The size of your defence fund should never affect the outcome of your trial.

We need to tell our stories better, and to explain complexity instead of shrugging our shoulders and wondering whether it matters. We need to remind those who volunteer to represent us that it is the voters they need to look after, not the lobbyists and the political donors. The banks, the clergy, the lawyers, the parliamentarians — whose side are they on? Are they there for the people or themselves?

Progress is neither inevitable, nor linear. We cannot take it for granted. We must work to make it happen.

We need to put on the overalls, and get our hands dirty.

Jon Faine delivered this speech for the 2019 Stephen-Murray Smith Memorial Lecture at the State Library of Victoria on September 17. It’s published here with his permission.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey