Let’s Vote for Democracy – But Is That Going to be Enough?


Democracy is under the pump, or so we are told. The complaints are as various as the complainants and that is probably a good sign if you think a good democracy should value diversity.  Young people in the West are telling survey companies they don’t think democratic institutions are all that impressive. Business leaders want greater predictability. Autocrats and charismatics point to Malaysian, Singaporean and Chinese economic miracles and argue that this would not have been possible if they had to deal with Australia’s “excessive” democracy.

Even when we find good news stories for democracy the results can disappoint. Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi leads the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar but her party could not manage to find a single Muslim candidate to run in the national election. Meanwhile the increases in participatory democracy inside the American Republican Party and the British Labour Party seem to be directly responsible for both a tea party and a mad hatter.

Commentators down through the ages have found any number of such sticks with which to beat democratic institutions. But there is no doubt that contemporary systems are actually experiencing stress and that our traditional instruments for resolving problems are less effective than we might have predicted. For example, in the home of democracy the Greek government has deployed the full force of the democratic arsenal. They have had six elections in three years, the current one being the third in less than eight months. They have also had a national referendum, changes in coalition partners and significant rearrangements in ministries and parliamentary committees.

Australia has been almost as energetic, changing its Prime Minister once or twice every parliamentary term and choosing one-term governments more than ever before. In neither case has public confidence in government been improved. This might be defensible if these changes were indicative of some evolving pattern of institutional adaptation. Instead the ructions seem mostly to be driven by internal dynamics and especially by a "retail" style of politics focussed on risk management. So Paul Kelly concludes that the Australian system is broken and having feasted happily on the corpse, many others in the media also shake their heads in dismay.

One might think that all these lamentations would be generating a search for solutions. And so they are. The results are not very convincing so far. Much like the failed attempt to create an Australian republic, lots of ink is being spilt admiring the problem and not much at all on a process for road-testing some prototype solutions.  

Perhaps most notable in the narrative for change has been a surge of interest in so-called grass-roots democratic renewal. Political entrepreneurs have been dusting off their copies of Saul Alinsky’s work and rejoicing in his claim that “The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away.”

President Obama regularly offers his own community organising days as the formative experience of his political life. Hillary Clinton wrote her honours thesis at Wellesley College on Alinsky. The Industrial Areas Foundation which Alinsky co-founded in Chicago in 1940 is now a national coalition of organisations across the USA and their purpose is to strengthen citizen action on issues of concern to local communities. Their British affiliate is called Citizens UK, an umbrella for more than 100 local groups and a vehicle for campaigns on such things as the Living Wage. A major theme of these organisations is that conventional democratic organisations such as political parties and legislatures have failed.

Closer to home we see other novel approaches to democratic renewal such as New Democracy. Their founding message includes the claim that “for centuries, we've grown up thinking that the election contest is the best way to effect political representation. The contest conflates issues with candidates/parties, and as we have become so mesmerized by the theatre – and its actors – we've lost sight of the real issues and a better way.” Their better way includes a Citizen’s Senate made up of “randomly selected people”.

These plans to empower citizens and activate communities propose a deeper democracy and perhaps a partial solution to the loss of confidence and trust currently being expressed in democracy. Or do they?

Randomly assigning ordinary citizens to the national parliament and thus subjecting them to a media feeding-frenzy sounds more like reality TV than democracy. And while we salute the community activists for fighting for better wages for the poor, lets remember that the Tea Party also uses Alinsky-style tactics, as does the National Front in France. What they have in common is a sustained attack on government itself and on the idea that governments solve real problems.

If the party system is in decline we may need to consider how a more diverse electorate will need to be kept engaged. 

The quality of a robust democracy is its ability to make adaptive changes to its own institutions to deal with big changes in society, while also resisting the incessant demands for short term changes of direction. There are some obvious institutional improvements well overdue in the Australian case – not only the republic but also constitutional recognition of the first Australians and a curb on preference harvesting in Senate elections.

But it could also be time to ask whether the existing electoral system helps as much as it should. If the party system is in decline we may need to consider how a more diverse electorate will need to be kept engaged. Our two-party system defines the middle ground as swing-voters and elections are mostly about a handful of swing seats. But increasingly we observe a larger numbers of voters detaching from affiliation to the parties and defining themselves through a package of issues. These package-voters are mobile across the party system, turning safe seats into contestable seats and transforming upper houses into an almost impossible veto game for governments.

This basic question about the way each democracy fashions a process for aggregating voters into communities of interest is going to get more and more important as the open global economy takes a larger role in determining the distribution of prosperity. Governments will spend less time ramming legislation through the parliament and more time mediating, negotiating and coordinating actions with other governments and institutions. If we wanted a good example of this genre of policy making then people movement and border security tell the story that can also be found in most areas of environmental action, health improvement and local economic development.

All this considered, it's time for some sustained discussion and evaluation of our existing democratic machinery and some consideration of why our confidence in our own system seems to be getting more and more brittle. Some intelligent modifications to an otherwise great democratic design might just enable us to achieve the ultimate quinella – an increased responsiveness to the citizens, while empowering our elected leaders to tackle our most serious problems. Who wouldn’t vote for that?

Professor Mark Considine

Dean of Arts, University of Melbourne

Published Date
October 21, 2015