By Jim Hayes
Evidence that Australians are losing faith in the nation’s political institutions, political parties and political leaders has been mounting in recent times.
Some have interpreted this as a turning away from democracy. They are wrong. Their error is based a narrow interpretation of the concept of democracy, confined to having the right to vote and the protection of certain rights on paper.
Democracy is much better defined by how it operates in the day to day realities of every day life. This means that democracy involves much more than the right to vote.
It is the increasing gulf between what is on paper and lived reality that is the basis for the alienation of a growing part of Australia.
Part of this evidence comes from the Australian Democracy 2025 project of the Museum of Australian Democracy and the University of Canberra, which, by analysing combination of qualitative and quantitative data, finds compelling evidence of this loss of faith.
The poject’s major limitaiton is built into the reality that the institutions behind it are locked into operating within the status quo, and their brief is to find ways to reverse the trend, while leaving the status quo intact.
Consequently, Australian democracy is said to exist, because there are free elections, freedom of assembly, the rule of law and other basic human rights.
On its website, Democracy 2025 describes its mission as aiming to “to drive a process of national renewal and reflection on how we can rebuild trust and strengthen democratic practice in Australia.”
This is why the solution is presented as educating the public to to re-engage belief in the system, and on the assumption that the problem lies on the failure of the voters to understand.
Many Australians an alternative take view. They see that the political system and elections are manipulated to produce results other than those desired by the majority.
They feel that the media monopoly under Rupert Murdock has too much influence, limits access to information and reduces freedom of speech. They hold that the machinery of government is oiled and corrupted by corporate money, and therefore, represents the sectional interests of a rich and powerful minority and the majority have no real voice.
One of the most unreported and important facts about this year’s federal election is that the combined vote of the Coalition and Labor was below 75 percent, the lowest it has ever been. This is a continuation of a declining trend since the start of the Twenty First Century. Another fact is that about 24 percent of electors decided not to cast a vote. A third is that the Coalition was able to retain government with fewer votes and less than Labor and the Greens combined.
Australia has a government voted for by around 38 percent of the electorate. This is hardly an endorsement of democratic practice.
It goes further than this. The political institutions and the elite within them, are not delivering on promises and what are considered the most important needs.
The biggest part of Australian society is finding itself increasingly worse off and insecure. It is getting harder to fill the gap between income and providing for the necessities of life. Proper jobs are becoming scarcer. The dismantling and privatisation of important public services is making it even worse. Society is becoming increasingly unfair. Established rights are being diminished and vulnerable sections of the population targeted.
A big new factor is the failure to take on the threat of climate emergency. This is becoming increasing evident among young Australians, as has been witnessed by two major school strikes and the third one is planned for this coming September. Extinction Rebellion is experience fast growth in Australia.
In short, Australians are fed up with what they see as a system that is not meeting needs and not listening.
A growing body of opinion in Australia wants more than a narrowly defined version of democracy, and believes that the interests we share together should not be ignored; that all should be treated as equals; and everyone should have a voice the affairs that affect us. Not merely the right to cast a ballot every few years.
Democratic renewal, to borrow the term, is not possible without the rise of a framework that is better than the increasingly failing system that we have.
It is not enough to patch up what exists. Change is needed. Doing this requires an end to what stands in the way of change. Anything short of this is really a farce, because it will change very little.
In the face of the failure of political leadership, the stirrings of change are beginning to emerge in newly rising political movements, coming face to face with the reality of limited democracy and compelled to look for solutions.
It is the case with the movement pushing for urgent action on global warming and a shift to a renewable economy, and the movements fighting for human rights and equality. The union movement is also confronted with this need.
There are inherent dangers. It can feed the rise of division, intolerance and scapegoating.
On the other hand, tremendous opportunities are opening up, to begin a positive journey towards a new concept of democracy. One that is far superior to what we have today, and one can attract the attention of and participation of all, in ensuring our common well being.