There’s a very real chance democracy as we know it may not survive the lifespan of the discussion I want to have, but here it is: we must immediately examine the mechanisms by which the essential structures of modern democracy can be separated from the venality, incompetence and corruption of the politicians in charge of them.
Note I do not say we must discuss the desirability of this separation. It’s moving too fast, and we are enraptured in witness to the assault, in real time, on democracy over there, whilst astonishingly complacent to it over here.
To be fair it’s compelling over there — the Michael Bay movie of democracy in all its vivid migraine inducement.
We now have the result of this election, but it may be less important than the journey. To his credit, Donald Trump did tell us this was coming.
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There was a promise to lie, to foment illegitimacy if results were not satisfactory, and to try and send a whole election to a politically adulterated constitutional body now utterly designed to only dance with the one that brung it.
It was because of this we saw armed protestors outside election offices. People with large guns pointed them at votes and vote counters. Wild eyed with an imagined sense of legitimacy and entitlement.
The coup clux clan.
I realise hyperbole has robbed words like terrifying of their impact, but it really does feel like epochal moments are apparent. But they’re not necessarily the ones we’re noticing. Is that how it always happened?
The Republicans have also been honest, for what feels like decades: minority rule is the dream. Democracy not abandoned, but bent and broken to serve a specific end. They’ve boasted about it, financed it, fought for it, and their moment might be now.
A Trump win would have seen the electoral roll purged, courts stacked, and gerrymandering turbo-charged. The ability of a political party to govern without the majority of people supporting them would have been entrenched, possibly for a generation.
Historians and political scientists reaffirmed their concerns in an open letter released before election day.
However, a Trump loss is still a good result for the many Republicans who loathe the man but have gained three Supreme Court judges, huge tax cuts, and possibly held the Senate all while gaining enough fake grievance to justify obstruction and pettiness for the next four years.
These aren’t modern problems, just the latest incarnation of the fragility of democracy and the myriad ways we have become too busy, too tired, too cynical, or too apathetic to challenge the means by which the structures designed to provide checks and balances in the system have been co-opted or corrupted.
Metrics of democracy across the globe have found the project in decline for some 14 years now. Trump is where this gets you, not what causes it.
America has found itself quite shocked at just how much many of the foundational principles of its democracy have relied on something as simple as shame.
Look at what can be achieved when you simply deny a Supreme Court candidate a vote eight months out from an election, then force a different candidate through within days of the next one. Because you can. All you have to do is accept the charge of hypocrisy and you can change the fundamental balance of constitutional law, and potentially elections themselves.
Accountability, so underrated for so long as to be thought to be inherent in the system, is now found wilting through a prism of fanaticism, polarisation, and gerrymandering. Without electoral accountability, the structures holding civilised society together have found themselves at the mercy of the awesome power of shamelessness.
The question, then, is how to put structural integrity back at the heart of democracy.
Politicians own the ability to claim a mandate from the people after every election. But that does not mean/should not mean/was not designed to mean they then own the very essence of the concept of governance.
Yes, the US version of democracy is at the precipice, but there has been a mesmerising, dizzying run of concerning trends in Australia as well. In the last couple of weeks the sheer scale of governance matters requiring coverage has been extraordinary, involving business, politics, the judiciary, and media.
Accountability and/or shame would reasonably have cost a sizeable number of the current federal cabinet their jobs, in normal circumstances. It’s a clever political calculation to judge people will not hold the government ultimately responsible for this level of misdeed. Too much is attributed to apathy, when the devastating truth is most people are simply too busy trying to get by, a charge that has echoes for us in the quiet march of authoritarianism in our region.
It’s why we must look to remove some of the boundaries of good governance from what makes good politics.
A crappy ICAC is good politics, decimation of the ABC is good politics, polarisation is good politics, bad accountability is good politics.
Good luck to Australian politicians and back-room hacks gorging on pork barrels, internecine party warfare, donor appeasement, union factionalism. If you can do all that and still get people to vote for you, you’ve done good politics.
But it should be obvious that you should not be in charge of democracy. It’s not anti-democratic to seek to separate you from the structures that protect it, quite the opposite.
There is no more obvious example than allowing politicians to decide whether there is a corruption body investigating them, or what form one should take. Or the fact that the bodies that do exist are subject entirely to the funding choices, or lack thereof, of the government of the day.
The need for a robust external commission tackling corruption and abuse and mendacity is obvious, as is the realisation that in the maelstrom of modern life no one is going to cast their definitive and precious vote on that issue alone. They shouldn’t have to.
So you find the will and the way to make structural shifts. Here’s another: in absolutely no way should the funding of the public broadcaster be subject to the whims of the government of the day.
I work for the ABC, and in every pore of its essence it is a servant of the people, and a servant of democracy (Editorial Policy 4.2 is worth a separate chat sometime), not a servant of the politics of the day. Fairness is too often false balance at the expense of evidence and objectivity, and “relevance” relies far too much on metrics that simply have no place in a serious discussion when journalism is correctly framed as essential to the existence and proper functioning of the state.
“News is for citizens who belong … it is not a digest of consumer need.”Mark Damazer, former head of BBC Radio 4.
A democracy without an informed citizenry will not stand. It will absolutely tear itself apart. The antidote to destructive ignorance is an open, trusted and accessible media, and we are allowing that to be taken away. The symbiotic relationship between good governance and good journalism has for too long been implicit, or placed in the hands of those that gain from its denuded form.
It needs to be made explicit, and its true value needs to be recognised with firm structural support: an independent mechanism for funding and governing public sector broadcasting; innovative pathways to design and maintain a diverse, trusted, and sustainable commercial and community media environment.
Other models are apparent, and the best ones start with the truly democratic principle that the worth of truth and news and an informed electorate cannot be measured in short-term ways by short-term people.
It’s not an easy discussion. But it’s increasingly obvious that to protect — let alone nurture — democracy requires more structural care than we’re giving it.
Changes in the system to embed integrity and principles of good governance are entirely doable.
We’ve just been asking the wrong people.
Glynn Greensmith is a journalism lecturer at Curtin University and an ABC broadcaster.