Time is Ripe for Democracy Renewal


Is democracy all washed up?


It is my contention that our current system of democracy is in crisis. In Australia, I believe citizens are losing faith and turning their backs on democracy en masse. A recent study found that only around 40% of young Australians think democracy is the best political system. Other research reveals that such is the state of apathy and mistrust in our current system, only 43% of Australian voters believe it makes any difference which party is in power.

The irony about the current crisis is that we seem to be in denial about how bad things have become. Yes, there are problems. And from time to time we stop to acknowledge their seriousness. But we tend to explain them away as one-offs rather than systemic problems. In this way, we convince ourselves we are seeing only disconnected dots, rather than patterns that speak to deeper dysfunctions. Perhaps this isn’t surprising. We are engrained to see democracy as the best system to manage the 21st century. And because it is the best system, it cannot fail.

That’s why we tend to blame democracy’s current malaise on what we see as the personal foibles or weaknesses of individual leaders. Alternatively, we think democracy is working better elsewhere and that our system could be better ‘if only ours worked like theirs’. As a last resort, we tell ourselves democracy has been in similar crises before and emerged stronger than ever (think 1930s when it was under direct threat from communism and fascism). So like previous crises this is all a temporary aberration, and like a cork democracy will bob to the surface and sail effortlessly along.

Connecting the dots to help see the bigger picture is the rationale behind the Melbourne School of Government’s Democracy Renewal website. The website collates a wide range of academic writing, reports and opinion articles by scholars, political and policy experts, journalists and think-tanks about democracy, the challenges it faces and ways to solve them.

The Democracy Renewal website is organised into a simple taxonomy centred around Challenges and Solutions. This taxonomy is aimed at unlocking the often complex and sometimes arcane debate about what’s wrong with contemporary democracy and how to fix it. The Challenges section includes categories such as citizen disengagement, policy failure and gridlock, the decline of political parties, money politics and political leadership (or lack thereof).

There are many challenges occurring across Western democracies, particularly in established ones. In Australia, where voting is compulsory, we find that 20 per cent of eligible voters are simply not signing up to vote. In the United States, the European Union and Japan, where voting is not compulsory, citizens are manifesting what might be effectively viewed as a ‘strike’ against democracy with record low poll turnouts.

Levels of political party membership in Australia – another core indicator of democracy’s health – have become negligible. This is also now the case across most Western democracies, including the United Kingdom, Germany and France.

As a result, political parties are failing to command levels of voter support and engagement needed to create and follow through on coherent policy. The result is policy instability or gridlock that feeds perceptions that the current configuration of democracy is unsuited to manage the big policy challenges of the 21st century. The Challenges section also highlights how money politics has reached such suffocating levels that the people’s voice has become at best marginalised.

In the United States, candidates and interest groups spent $6.2 billion – much of it provided by wealthy donors – on influencing the outcome of federal elections in 2012. In the European Union, there are now more lobbyists than bureaucrats. Most represent the interests of large corporations.

The other side of the Democracy Renewal website organises a similar diversity of scholarly and mainstream proposals, reports and opinion articles into Solutions. These solutions highlight various new ways in which democracy is attempting to renew and reconfigure itself to meet the dramatically new political and policy demands of the 21st century.

These include innovative democratic experiments to re-engage citizens through digital voting. They include ‘wiki-style’, collaborative forums that give citizens the opportunity to directly input into and shape major policy in real time. They also include new face-to-face ways of policy deliberation, such as citizen forums and juries, in which citizens – more knowledgeable and networked than ever before - are actively involved in making policy choices and decisions.

Ways to renew democracy also involve ramping up transparency through capping election spending and corralling the influence of special interests. These innovations are not eclectic one-offs. Instead, they are an emerging pattern of political and institutional change - largely driven by the public and others - to lift democracy out of its current crisis. And some are proving successful in addressing the touch points of democracy’s current malaise.

These and other innovations aim to generate greater citizen engagement and trust in democracy as people begin to actively ‘own’ decisions rather than having policy handed to them by an increasingly disconnected political class. Through more dynamic, citizen-led decision-making, we may see more effective policy outcomes more in tune with what has become a super-sped and highly networked world.

The Democracy Renewal website will be expanded on a regular basis to deepen its information base with the latest research and reports on democracy’s challenges and potential solutions. The key to solving democracy’s challenges is generating much greater public awareness and knowledge about the pattern of its problems.

Once we understand that we must pro-actively shape a new and better system for the 21st century, democracy’s innate capacity for innovation and renewal will come to the fore.


Image credit: Pixabay


Mark Triffitt

The University of Melbourne

Published Date
July 14, 2015