AJPA - Virtual Issue on Democracy
The central joke in the popular ABC television drama ‘Utopia’  is that policy is floated via a thought-bubble from a Minister; pumped with hot air by ministerial, PR and communications staff; either overblown or completely deflated by the media ... and then left with the public service to develop into something that may or not be in the nation’s interests.
Of course, this is a fictionalised dystopia. But there is significant evidence of enduring problems with the quality of democracy and the way it operates in advanced Western contexts.
Australia is developing an international reputation for leadership instability, with five different Prime Ministers in five years. Clearly there is there is widespread distrust of political leaders (Swinburne Leadership Survey 2014-15) and increased voter volatility (Trends in Australian Political Opinion, ANU, 2014).
In addition, participation in formal political processes has declined with political party membership languishing behind the membership of the big AFL clubs (ElectionWatch, 2013); only 65% of Australians believe democracy is preferable to any other kind of government (Lowy Institute Poll 2015); and there’s a perception that politicians need to take more action on important long-term problems (How do Australians Imagine Their Democracy? (ANZSOG, 2015).
But how entrenched and significant are these problems? And what is their effect on the functioning of democracy?
The Australian Journal of Public Administration has a rich archive of material which helps us assess the health of democracy and the role of the public service in it. We have selected 10 fascinating pieces for this virtual edition on democracy that help us evaluate whether democracy is in crisis and what some of the solutions to contemporary problems might be.
1. Is Democracy in crisis?
Gary Banks (2014, p. 12) identifies the lack of trust in leaders, including public servants, as a major issue: "With low levels of trust, even good policy has become hard to convince the electorate about. This poses a major problem for Australia's progress." He identifies three main threats to public service effectiveness: the increasing power of Ministerial staff and a decline in their transparency; the erosion of the capacity of senior public servants to speak truth to power, due to contract employment and performance based pay; and the pressures of 24-hour media which mean “the public service is all too often placed in reactive mode, often having to justify, and find a least bad way of implementing, a decision made in the heat of the moment without the benefit of its advice” (p. 9).
However, Janine O’Flynn (2011) argues that a decline in policy capacity of the public service is based on rumour rather than fact: “What I have not seen is any serious evidence of policy capacity degradation or deficiency, but rather a powerful pro-reform rhetoric that rests on an assumption that there is a deficiency” (p. 310). She points out that there are no “publicly available studies done of the competencies and capabilities that underpin policy capacity, and it is not clear there is widespread practice of mapping these in the Australian Public Service in such a way that would allow us to gauge whether there has been any degradation over time” (p. 310).
Ian Marsh (2007) identifies what he sees as a serious decline in the quality of the public conversation about policy due to the two-party system. He argues that the two major parties no longer effectively link community attitudes to the political system due to a number of changes, including the increasing influence of parliamentary leaders, the collapse of party membership, the declining ideological differences between the Coalition and Labor and the diversification of Australian society. He concludes that the "present incentive structure encourages the major parties to adopt populist approaches, distort and/or manufacture issues, foment controversy opportunistically, solely or mostly for political advantage, and tell other than noble lies" (p. 329).
However, Barry Hindess (2002) questions the assumption that a ‘democratic deficit’ is necessarily problematic. He argues that the gap between the public and their elected representatives is actually the intended outcome of democratic systems: “democratic deficit is built in to the design of representative government, as a means of responding to the classical fear of the popular corruption of government” (p. 37).
Patrick Bishop and Glyn Davis (2002, p. 14) take as their starting point that “more and better participation in policy making has become a standard expectation.” They point out that governments have always consulted widely with prominent individuals and interest groups, but they argue that a negative perception of the ‘democratic deficit’ is causing rising demand for direct citizen participation in policy. They have some reservations: “Extensive participation may make policy resolution more difficult by raising expectations, or to introduce a power of veto that allows some to block a project of benefit to others” (p. 26).
David Adams and Michael Hess (2001) argue that it is often difficult to even define ‘community’ in relation to a policy area, and that greater community involvement in public policy is at risk of becoming a fad.
However, Ron Kluver and Soma Pillay (2009, p. 229) conclude that direct citizen participation can be successful in the context of local government if “the activity and the groups of participants are clearly defined, and the level of participation is restricted to consultation and access to information.”
Michael Cuthill and John Fien (2005, p. 76) also see value in greater public involvement at the local government level saying it “strengthens democratic governance [..] and provides a foundation for citizens and local government to work collaboratively”.
3. Historical perspectives
At the centre of the current discussion about democracy, is the assumption that current challenges are new and different. But are they really?
In 1983, Ian Marsh argued that widespread policy failure was the result of the decline of the major parties and a disconnected and opaque executive. Decades before the rise of social media, he wrote of the “political fragmentation and the negation of political authority” undermining governments’ ability to address the issues of the day (p. 457).
In 1984, JH Howard lamented the growing range and complexity of issues facing governments and their increasing inability to adequately address them all. He speaks of the “crisis of democracy” and “excessive expectations from voters, pressure groups and organized interests which are difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile” (p. 332) – phrases that could have been written today or any time in the last decade.
Certainly political life has changed dramatically since Australia’s federation was created. In the early 1900s, Prime Minister Alfred Deakin (known as ‘Affable Alfred’) used to talk with colleagues about literature and philosophy while walking to work, and sometimes wrote anonymous articles for an
English newspaper about Australian politics (National Archives of Australia, Australia’s Prime Ministers). Now Australian Prime Ministers are dubbed ‘the Mad Monk’ or ‘Juliar’, constantly accompanied by security detail and a media pack, and take selfies or give interviews even when they have nothing to say.
In Utopia’s modern world, good policy is constantly hijacked by politicians demanding ‘announceables’; slick promotional videos are released before policy work has even begun; and senior public servants are the largely helpless cog in the political machine. Realising policy goals is the very difficult job of the public service. Is that job more difficult than before? How can policy and policy-making be improved? We hope this virtual issue on democracy has breathed some considered thought into the frantic modern pace of the machinery of government.
Feature image: Parliament House, Canberra. By Benson John/Flickr