By Joe Montero
The frequency in which think tanks, pollsters and other commentators are talking about the evidence pointing towards Australians becoming increasingly disillusioned with the nation’s political institutions.
There are two ways of interpreting this development.
More conservative institutions and commentators lament the fall of faith in “democracy.” Their failure is a limited grasp, which defines democracy as meaning the existing electoral system and the way that the institutions of the state are operating.
The other interpretation was born out of revolutionary upheavals in countries like the United Kingdom, France and the United States, and extended by the rise of trade union and socialist movements in the nineteenth century. This tradition went to have an influence in the emerging Australia and reached its height at the Eureka rebellion.
All of these movements were branded as undemocratic by those in power. These movements in turn, wrote democracy as achieving the right to have a say in the affairs that affect your life, and it involves the shifting of political power, from a few at the to those at the bottom. From this it follows that the progress of democracy is the continuation of this downwards movement.
Looking at it from this point of view, what is happening in Australia is not a disillusionment with democracy, but with those seen as betraying it.
Of course, those holding the reigns of power follow tradition and brand this notion as undemocratic.
A recent survey of the Institute of Public Administration Australia (IPAA) found that of the 800 who had turned up to a conference of the organisation, just one if five thought they delivered projects well and used tax payers money effectively; almost half said their institutions had become more political, with most being of the opinion that the offices of the ministers and hired consultants had too much say. Only 30 percent thought that the public service is “frank and fearless.”
This is mentioned, because it sheds a light on how the senior administrators of the public service are feeling. Are these opinions an expression of a fall of faith in democracy, or a reaction to a perceived curtailment of it?
Public perception of what is going on is much harsher.
According to the Australian Election Study run out of the Australian National University, dissatisfaction is now at the highest level since the Whitlam dismissal in 1975, and the greatest level of dissatisfaction is among those under 45. The question that had been asked was is “democracy is preferable to any other kind of government.”
It is a loaded question displaying the definition bias of its authors. Nevertheless, there is room to suggest that the response may have more to do with opposition to the status quo wearing the label of democracy, as against aspirations for a genuine democracy.
Political scientist at the University of Sydney, Sarah Cameron, suggests the dissatisfaction is influenced by disapproval at the dismissal of string of prime ministers, not by the ballot box, but internal party factions. She also mentions that deeper down, “there is a perception that government is run for big interests, and that politicians are looking after themselves rather than governing on behalf of the people they are elected to represent.”
Even this is only part of the picture. Australians feel the economy is providing less and don’t expect better in the future. Only 10 percent believe that the economy has improved in the past year.
Only 5 percent say that they have personally gained, while 74 percent believe that corporations have “gained a lot,” according to a Community Pulse survey run in April by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA).
The undercurrent is that Australia is becoming a less fair society and that the political institutions are not only failing to act on it but are part of the problem.
A rise in the number of scandals involving political and corporate corruption, the behaviour of the banks, the lag in wages growth and cuts to penalty rates, are among other factors feeding the perception that the system is not working for most.
Unfortunately, there are those in a relatively privileged position who dismiss all of this as being unfounded, or are fooled by official economic statistics, which wrongly suggest that Australia is doing it relatively well. They look at the aggregate, ignore who gets what, do not consider the underlying economic and political forces at work. They do mot consider the impact of the casualisation of work, the cost of housing, the withdrawal of government services and rise in poverty.
The erosion of once established rights must be considered too. The perception of rising big brother government; increased subservience, in some cases decrease in the right to a full defence if brought before the courts; less right to appeal against arbitrary decisions of government departments and their resort to interfacing with individuals through impersonal and inflexible computerised voices.
The truth of the matter, is that the perceptions exist because they are based on the very real foundation of what is experienced by most Australians.
Closely tied is the sense that ordinary people don’t get a say. That it’s about how fat your wallet is and who you know. Most people feel voiceless and powerless.
Democracy is not just about the ballot box. It encompasses having an every day voice in every day life, whether at work or in other forms of participation in Australian society.
It may be that people are finding that the present system and the small group of people controlling it are a big part of the problem.
Dissatisfaction is going to continue growing, for as long as the problems are not being resolved. If the political institutions and those who lead them continue to fail to deliver, the terrain will become increasingly fertile for germinating new ideas on building a truly democratic society.