‘What’s wrong with our democracy?’

Talk given to ICAN – The Independent Community Accountability Network

Hawthorn Community Precinct. 584 Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn.

Thursday 2 October 2014, 1600


Barry Jones

In June 2014 a poll conducted by the Lowy Institute found that only 60 per cent of Australians, and just 42 per cent of Australians aged 18-29 years, believe that ‘democracy is preferable to any other kind of government’.

According to recent polling by the Australian National University (ANU) in partnership with the Social Research Centre, satisfaction with democracy slumped from 86 per cent in 2007 to 72 per cent in June 2014, and the number of Australians who believed it made a difference which party was in power plunged from 68 per cent to 43 per cent.

Professor Ian McAllister of ANU says: ‘Efficacy, the belief in the effectiveness of your vote, is really quite an important indicator in the health of a democracy.’

In November 2014 the US will hold its biennial election for all 435 Members of the House of Representatives, 32 Senators and 33 Governors. All polls predict an exceptionally low turn-out of voters. Polling indicates that citizens dislike Washington politics generally and political gridlock in particular but will not do anything to reverse it.

In his last two years as President, Barack Obama seems doomed to face not only a hostile House of Representative but a Republican Senate which could thwart any attempts he might make to fill vacancies on the Supreme Court with moderates (let alone progressives.)

Beneficiaries of, for example, Obamacare, won’t turn up to vote on 4 November. Those who bitterly resent having to contribute to a universal health scheme will turn up, under voluntary voting. The issues, including ongoing in the Middle East– will be very big, but they won’t bring out more voters.

The blog FiveThirtyEight which correctly predicted the 2012 Presidential result in all 50 states gives the Republicans a 58 per cent probability of winning the Senate.

There has been a tragic and deplorable collapse of the democratic system is tackling and explaining complex issues. Australia is not alone in this and the problem is very significant in the US, France, Italy, Greece and Japan, to look only at countries which maintain democratic practice.

I raise ten issues where our democratic systems, through parties, elections and parliaments, have been seriously deficient, contributing to widespread disillusion. Both sides of politics have been bad on these issues. I am not banging the drum for the Party of which I have for so long – too long – been a member. One side is mendacious,. The other weak and (sometimes) muddled. I leave you to judge which is which.

  1. Vested interest v. community interest. ‘The values deficit.’

We live in an age of unprecedented prosperity, in which the major influences have been secularism, materialism, utilitarianism, urbanisation, remoteness from nature, institutional failure (especially in churches), emphasis on immediate economic self interest, the rise and rise of managerialism which has displaced community engagement in ideas and values, the impact of mass media, with its emphasis on immediacy, the cult of personality, promoting sensation, entertainment and an often vicious and destructive political agenda, in which the truth of a proposition (‘Interest rates are always lower under the Coalition.’) is irrelevant. Greed, drugs, problem gambling, domestic violence, child sexual abuse, covert and overt racism, all distort our moral compass.

Some political leaders act as if all values have a dollar equivalent, that forests are essentially woodchips on stumps, and that the value of a tree is as lumber, disregarding aesthetic factors or the contribution to clean air. The current obsession is that if a project will make money for somebody, for example grazing in national parks, or oil drilling near the Great Barrier Reef, or the export of live animals, often under unspeakable conditions, it should go ahead.

The appeal of money and growth in the Gross Domestic Product are irresistible, with a refusal to contemplate the downside. In the case of duck shooting, state power is entirely behind the shooters, and against the ducks. The need for more cars on more freeways outweighs the values associated with Melbourne’s Royal Park. Recreational shooters and four wheel drives are now welcome in New South Wales national parks. We seem to have a new Beatitude: ‘Blessed are the aspirationals, for they shall be rewarded, whatever the cost.’

Much of the mainstream media (especially the Murdoch empire), emphasises advocacy, entertainment, shock factors and reinforcing prejudice, rather than providing information or carrying out investigative reporting.

Moral issues underlie the protection and preservation of the planet, and its biodiversity, for the long term, which we ignore in our pursuit of greed. The relief of poverty is one thing, but consumption is not an end in itself. The decay of formal religion and the long term decline in church going intensifies the need to stimulate debate and understanding about values, the transcendental and the numinous.

  1. ‘Infantilisation of debate’

Australia, like the US, UK, Canada and much of Europe, has undergone a serious decline in the quality of debate on public policy. The British journalist Robert Fisk calls this ‘the infantilisation of debate’. There are 1,015,000 students, both undergraduate and postgraduate (about 900,000 of them locals) currently at Australian universities. Australia has about 4,500,000 graduates.

Despite Australia’s large number of graduates, our 38 universities and the intellectual class generally have very limited political leverage and appear reluctant to offend government or business by telling them what they do not want to hear. Universities have become trading corporations, not just communities of scholars. Their collective lobbying power is weak, well behind the gambling, coal or junk food lobbies and they become easy targets in times of exaggerated Budget stringency.

Currently Australians are, by far, the best educated cohort in our history – on paper, anyway – but it is not reflected in the quality of our political discourse. We appear to be lacking in courage, judgment, capacity to analyse or even simple curiosity, except about immediate personal needs.

Tackling complex problems will demand complex solutions (e.g. refugees, climate change) which cannot be reduced to parroting a few simple slogans (‘turn back the boats’, ‘stop this toxic tax’.) ‘Retail politics’, sometimes called ‘transactional politics’, where policies are adopted not because they are right but because they can be sold, is a dangerous development and should be rejected.

We must maintain confidence that major problems can be addressed – and act accordingly. Revive the process of dialogue: explain, explain, explain, rejecting mere sloganeering and populism. We need evidence-based policies but often evidence lacks the psychological carrying power generated by appeals to prejudice or fear of disadvantage (‘They are robbing you…’) A voracious media looks for diversity and emotional engagement, weakening capacity for reflection and serious analysis, compounded by the rise of social media where users, typically, seek reinforcement of their views rather than being challenged by diversity.

Control of the ALP by factions, which in practice are essentially executive placement agencies, means that the party may have lost the capacity to deal with major issues. The five most obvious examples are climate change/ carbon pricing, refugees/ asylum seekers, taxation, the surveillance state and gambling.

  1. Attack on science and scientific method. Evidence v. Opinion.

Science and research generally are given disturbingly low priority in contemporary public life in Australia, although medical research and astronomy may be exceptions. Scientists, especially those involved with climate change, or the environment, have come under unprecedented attack, especially in the media, and the whole concept of scientific method is discounted, even ridiculed. In a complex world, people seem to be looking for simple solutions that can be expressed as slogans, and the quality of public debate on scientific issues has been trivialised, even infantilised. The controversy on anthropogenic global warming (AGW) has been conducted at an appalling level on both sides of politics. (Debates on refugees and taxation have been conducted at a similar level.)

There is fierce opposition in some quarters to the vaccination of children and the fluoridation of water supplies to prevent dental caries, even though the empirical evidence in support of both is overwhelming. But appeals to fear can be far more powerful than arguing on the basis of hard evidence.

Paradoxically, the Knowledge Revolution has been accompanied by a persistent ‘dumbing down’, with ICT reinforcing the personal and immediate, rather than the complex, long-term and remote. In a democratic society such as Australia, evidence is challenged by opinion and by vested- or self- interest. Australia has no dedicated Minister for Science with direct ownership/ involvement in promoting scientific disciplines.

If every vote in Australian elections is of equal value, does this mean that every opinion is entitled to equal respect? It is easy to categorise experts as elitists, and out of touch. There are serious problems in recruiting science teachers, and numbers of undergraduates in the enabling sciences and mathematics are falling relative to our neighbours. In an era of super-specialisation, many scientists are reluctant to engage in debate, even where their discipline has significant intersectoral connections.

  1.  Climate Change

There were seven important words, all starting with the letter ‘c’, that were central to the climate change debate, but never mentioned in the Parliament nor in the election campaign: coal, cities, cars, cement, consumption, conservation and contraception.

Let’s start with coal. On burning, each tonne of coal produces 3.67 tonnes of CO2 . At present, the consumer pays for the coal but takes no responsibility for the cost of disposing of the exponentially increased residue. This is treated as a ‘free good’ by the purchaser/ user, a spectacular example of market failure. The downstream impact of consumption of coal and oil, dug up from underground and put into the air, is a long term contribution to atmospheric pollution taking decades (perhaps centuries – the issue is deeply controversial) to disperse.

The environment used to be high on the political agenda – but now it is rarely talked about in political circles, and the mantra now is ‘Jobs!, Jobs!, Jobs!’, which often means, in practice , a conviction that work in the future will be essentially what it has been in past generations, an extremely unlikely proposition. Labor was hesitant about forestry but took a strong stand against Japanese whaling in the southern oceans.

Lying is standard practice in modern politics and spin: Was the carbon price a major factor in the problems of Qantas, Ford, General Motors, Toyota and Point Henry? No, said the corporations. Yes, said the Coalition. Who are we to believe?

There is a disturbing lack of community curiosity about our long term future, with an apparent assumption that consumption patterns will never change. China is looking for alternative energy sources. So is the US. We are not.

It is striking that the four most important economic advisors from outside Government, David Murray, Maurice Newman, Dick Warburton and Tony Shepherd have, in addition to gender and skin colour, one thing in common. All are climate change sceptics or deniers. Thus suggests that denialism may be a precondition for appointment. The question of having prudential policies, of evaluating risk, never comes up over the climate change issue.

It is amazing that the climate change debate has been so badly informed because large numbers of Australians are skilled observers in relevant areas. There is still some confusion between ‘climate’ and ‘weather’ but farmers are acute observers of changes in the seasons. Gardeners, millions of them, can report that flowers are blooming earlier in the season. Bird watchers keep detailed records. So do bush walkers. There was no attempt to enlist them in an information campaign, nor did they volunteer.

  1. Taxation

The Taxation Review (2009), chaired by Dr Ken Henry, was very badly handled by Labor, which cherry-picked a few big ticket items, such as the Resources Rental Tax, failed to negotiate with the miners, jumped the gun and imposed a tax which generated an astonishing level of community opposition, but raised very little revenue.

Tax rates were never mentioned in the 2013 election campaign. Australia is the fifth lowest taxing nation in the OECD: only Mexico, Chile, the US and South Korea have lower rates. Unfortunately the comparison is virtually meaningless to Australian taxpayers because, other than the assertion, they have no basis of comparison.

In 2014 Ken Henry has argued powerfully about the need to raise taxation levels, even if it is politically unpopular as the only way to fund Gonski education reforms, the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) and the increasing costs of dealing with an ageing population. Securing bipartisan agreement should have been easy. Interestingly, Henry was subject to some biffo in the Murdoch papers for raising the bleeding obvious. The gap between revenue and expenditure can be met in two ways, (i) cutting expenditure or (ii) increasing revenue. The second option is not on the political agenda.

In recent election campaigns, the impression has been created that Australia’s levels of overseas debt were dangerously high and that Budget deficits were at a unsupportable level. Tables published by the OECD for the calendar years 2008-15 inclusive (the last year being a projection), indicate that in each year the Australian figure was well below the OECD average, and also the 15 countries in the Euro area, with one exception 2014, when it was equal (-2.5 per cent). The Australian figures were far better than the US, UK, Japan and France, but worse than Canada, Germany or New Zealand.

The Australian Taxation Office (ATO) began losing serious numbers of staff under Rudd-Gillard and this has continued, more sharply, under Abbott-Hockey. Many of ATO’s skilled personnel have moved to the ‘big four’ accounting giants where they are an important part of the growing tax avoidance/ minimisation industry – so simultaneously we weaken the will or capacity to collect corporate tax revenue, and enhance the capacity to avoid it.

Transborder revenue flows to and from Australia amounted to $270 billion in 2013. Fairfax Media has been drawing attention to companies that arrange their affairs so as to avoid paying tax on income earned here and these companies include James Hardie, Glencore the mining giant, Westfield and News Corp. This subject has not received much coverage in The Australian.

There has been a complete failure to explain the significance of population change in increased levels of expenditure and falling revenue. Life expectancy is increasing by 2.5 years in every decade, and the gap between retirement from paid work and death, once calculated as being in the 15-20 year range, is now increasing to 30-35 years. How is the gap to be met? Not, I suggest, by cutting taxation levels. The current Tea-Party inspired fantasy is that if tax levels are cut to the bone, the market will work its magic and provide jobs for everyone who needs one. Well, we shall see…

  1. Refugees

The asylum seeker/refugee tragedy continues, and ‘boat people’ are now officially designated as ‘illegals’ even when they have broken no law. We currently have a bi-partisan political approach, but it is a negative one, a political Dutch auction, a race to the bottom with alternative cruelties offered for the support of voters.

The period 1947-96 involved political bipartisanship on immigration which was positive.  Malcolm Fraser gave permanent residence to more than 50,000 Cambodians and Vietnamese after 1977, and Bob Hawke did the same with 20,000 Chinese students after Tiananmen Square in 1989. In both cases the then Opposition went along. But not now. Having privatised detention centres makes them one degree further removed from direct knowledge by bureaucrats or ministers and/ or moral responsibility. (‘I was not informed…’)

In Australia, refugee statistics are rarely if ever examined in a global context. In terms of the numbers of asylum seekers listed by country of destination, even when boats were arriving in the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years Australia ranked well behind Turkey, Canada, Norway, the Netherlands, the U K, France, Italy, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Greece and Belgium.

A constructive bi-partisan approach to asylum seekers would be the moral priority but it won’t happen unless it is politically popular. The highly priced shambles of Manus and Nauru are causes for shame – but Labor has little to congratulate itself on in this area. Its contribution to debate has been pitiful.

Scott Morrison, it has been recently disclosed, employs 66 people to work on ‘spin’ on immigration issues and the denial of information, not to mention outright lying, is a major deformation of our democratic system. We failed to address the asylum seeker issue on either a moral or even a statistical basis.

  1. Terror

The shock waves of 9/11 2001 in Manhattan still reverberate in our politics. The recent rise of the Islamic State aka Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (sometimes abbreviated as IS or ISIL) and the involvement of Australian expatriates in its activities have a disturbing immediacy which may paralyse our will to examine and find appropriate responses. IS has been, in part a response to state failures in Syria and Iraq, and it would not be surprising to see it emerge in Libya, Pakistan and possibly even Egypt.

There are two aspects to IS, although governments try to treat these issues as indivisible – first is the physical, 30,000 or more guerrillas, who have captured significant territory and killed many Muslims and some Europeans. The second aspect is ideological – desire to revive a caliphate, to drive Israel into the sea, fanatical opposition to modernity and an open society, and especially to the influence of, or intervention by, the United States in Middle Eastern or Islamic concerns. This is an intangible factor, hard to destroy by bombs or bullets, but it is the fuel of jihadism – and we provide that fuel in container loads. Horrors such as the beheadings of Westerners on television and social media are designed to provoke Western intervention – and this in turn fuels a new wave of jihadism.

It is the classic ‘wicked problem’ – where each alternative produces a horrific result. Failure to intervene by the West will create a humanitarian crisis. Intervention by the West will create the same result. The leaders of IS and the West seem to have one thing in common – a deep hostility to the West’s tradition of free speech and open government, accountability and following the rule of law.

The US and UK both allowed Congressional/ Parliamentary discussion of the issues involved in talking arms against IS. Here we left it all to the Executive and the Opposition feebly acquiesced. We have become, in effect, a surveillance state. I can’t help quoting from Edward Gibbon.

‘The urgent consideration of the public safety may undoubtedly authorize the violation of every positive law. How far that, or any other, consideration may operate to dissolve the natural obligation of humanity and justice is a doctrine of which I still desire to remain ignorant.’

Edward Gibbon, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (chapter 26, published 1781)

This may well be the Prime Minister’s mind-set.

  1. Foreign policy (‘Australia will be there…’).

One of the most disturbing elements of Australia’s colonial history, rarely observed and almost never discussed, is the enthusiasm of colonists in the 19th Century for creating infantry and navies and participating in military adventures overseas.

Australian colonists were first involved in the Maori Wars in New Zealand (1845-46; 1863-64), there were volunteers for both sides in the US Civil War (1861-85) then a contingent from New South Wales went to the Sudan (1885). Then followed the Boer War (1899-1902) and the Boxer Rebellion in China (1900-01), where – Wikipedia informs me – duties included providing members for firing squads. One has to ask: ‘Why?’

  1. Recruitment, corruption and patronage in politics.

Both major political parties have been captured by vested interests and lobby groups, with a strong whiff of corruption exposed in New South Wales by ICAC and effectively suppressed in Victoria by a bi-partisan unwillingness to give real powers to the congenitally enfeebled IBAC.

It pains me to say it but I regard both the Liberal Party and the ALP as significantly corrupt and this has serious, potentially lethal, implications for our democratic system. There is no possibility that under present arrangements in the ALP that nomination for a safe seat could be won by John Cain, Gareth Evans, the late John Button, Michael Duffy, Neal Blewett, John Faulkner or me.

In the 2013 Federal election, despite widespread unhappiness with both Labor and the Coalition, 79 per cent cast their votes for the two major groups, sometimes with pegs on their noses. But while people retain loyalty to the major parties, for whatever reason, they have no enthusiasm about joining them.

More people are in the waiting list for the Melbourne Cricket Club than are members of all Australia’s political parties. A recent survey indicated that members of AFL clubs currently total 800,000. The Geelong Football Club has 43,000 members, exactly the same as the number claimed for the ALP. The ALP’s primary vote in the 2013 election was 4.3 million so its notional membership, by a neat coincidence, is exactly 1%. The Liberal Party claims to have 80,000 members, but the true figure is probably well below 50,000, overwhelmingly male and ageing.

  1. Institutional failures

Churches have been exposed for their complicity in child abuse crimes. The Catholic Church leads the pack because of its sheer size, the traditions of priestly authority and the seal of the confessional, but there are other horror stories, for example in the Salvation Army with its discipline and hierarchal structure.

Our major institutions, church, sport, politics, unions, media, clubs and casinos, supermarkets, armed forces have often been coercive and sometimes corrupt. There are exceptions: public service, mostly, the courts, universities, medicine, and emergency relief.

There has been a strong vein of authoritarianism in our system, often covered by the explanation, ‘we are doing it for their own good’, a rigidity, harshness, cruelty, even sadism, in institutions – armed forces, churches, schools, orphanages. There were horrors inflicted during wartime, for example the execution of indigenes in Papua-New Guinea, which were buried and defy rational explanation.

In the Victorian Parliament’s 2012 apology over forced adoptions (a practice involving about 250,000 infants in Australia from the 1950s to the 1970s), the then Premier Ted Baillieu referred to ‘moral arrogance, the flawed justification and the heartless approach of authorities in institutions.’

The ‘child migration’ policy was coercive and mendacious, memorably reported by David Hill and the BBC-ABC television min-series The Leaving of Liverpool (1992).

The current Royal Commission about child sexual abuse presents evidence with a horrifying consistency. Treatment of asylum seekers shows unconscionable (but bipartisan) harshness.

Score card

Australia ranks next to Norway on the United Nations’ Human Development Index (HDI), taking account of life expectancy, years of education and gross national income.

There is a long list of positives in our national history: democratic parliaments, free elections, probably the world’s best electoral system (the Western Australian Senate poll in 2013 notwithstanding), pioneers of the secret ballot and universal suffrage, strong legal system with internationally respected courts, tradition of religious tolerance (although it could, in part, be indifference), secular education (but with some limits), good research (universities and CSIRO), excellent medical standards, superior public service, the ABC, courageous disaster relief.

But there are negatives as well: the long tradition of Aboriginal dispossession, burying their history, using them as quasi slave labour (and even worse), extraordinary rates of incarceration and domestic violence, brutality in the convict system (especially Norfolk and Sarah Islands) and the racism implicit in the White Australia Policy.

We also have had a poor record in securing economic rights for women, discouraging them from entering public life or the professions, our uncritical involvement in foreign wars and our acquiescence and credulity in the surveillance state.

We must redefine politics – and grasp its importance, not just at election times. Here is my attempt: it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue but I think it captures the essence.

Politics is the fault line between tectonic plates in society and the electoral struggle is an expression of, or a metaphor for, unresolved, often unspoken, divisions within society – race, class, gender, religion, region, language, education, sexuality, consumption patterns and time use, self-definition and the expression of individual differences/ aspirations (both positive and negative), offering a choice between different moral universes.

 Barry Jones

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