February 24, 2004 | Peter

Losing Democracy

I’ve been reading about Nazi Germany and what can happen if democracy fails. In a few short years the country many would have said was the most civilised in the world became one of the most barbaric.
One argument was that Democracy had not properly taken hold in Germany, and so it was fragile. It was not valued enough in itself for the various contesting social forces to make sure it was not threatened. Of course the Nazis and Communists specifically wanted it to fail, but they were always in the minority.
Oz has a pretty good record in this regard. Despite us originally being a group of British colonies, responsible self-rule was well established by the time of Federation when we led the world in expanding the voting franchise. Furthermore, our preference system is seen as one of the better voting systems, encouraging stability by coming down to the two strongest parties but also allowing voters a ‘protest’ vote.
It has faltered now and then, perhaps most clearly in 1975 when structural power won out over democratic power due to remnant monarchical institutions. Whatever we think about the actual dismissal of the Whitlam government, it was set up by the prior refusal of the conservatives to accept the people’s choice of Labor. The conservative-dominated Senate (that ‘unrepresentative swill’, as, I think, Keating called them) was clearly used to undo the popular vote that elected the Labor majority in the House of Representatives. It is certainly ironic that it is John Howard, who was so personally well rewarded by this anti-democratic manoeuvre, who now wants to reform the senate to make Parliament more accountable.
Anyway, whatever formal arrangements are in place it is clear that two things must obtain to maintain a functioning democracy. The first is a popular belief in the institution of Parliament, and thus of the value of voting. The second necessity is a well-informed populace who can make rational decisions on who to vote for.
Confidence in parliament is eroding, as Mark Latham has pointed out. This is a western world phenomenon, and although there are common problems, they have specific manifestations in each nation. Mostly, this loss of faith is because of the corruption (subtle but real) of politicians on all sides who see personal power and wealth as being more important than some notion of national good. It is also because of the ever-growing power of the executive, which seems now out of the control of Parliament itself. In Oz the demise of question time as a key process has a lot to do with this.
On the second point, an informed populace requires functional mass media, and in particular a free press. Thomas Jefferson, if I remember correctly, said he’d take a free press over a free government it was so important. I suppose a truly well informed populace can always reform its government.
We in Oz suffer from one of the most concentrated, politically conformist mass media in the world. Each new government law makes it worse (like handing over new TV technology to the big players). Even the ABC is being constantly weakened financially and assaulted ideologically. Ex-minister Alston’s absurd barrage at the ABC’s reporting on the war in Iraq is just the latest attempt by certain conservatives to close it down.
There are anti-democratic forces in Australia. They are mostly badly organised and under-funded, but so were the Nazis at the start. The Nazis got their big chance when bad times caused social upheaval and a weak democratic system of national government could not hold. Oz may well face hard times, and sooner than we think. One Nation has already shown how prone to simplistic answers some people are when under pressure.
Like anything else important, democracy has to be worked at to be kept strong. Our current crop of pollies do not do this nearly enough, focused as they are on short-term advantage and personal gain. And neither does our mass media, concentrating as it is on maximising profits. The old saying, ‘use it or you lose it’ applies here, and we had better start to figure out how to use our democracy more and better.

Posted by Peter at 12:59 pm | Comments Off on Losing Democracy |
Filed under: Uncategorized

No Comments

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.