count the ways Australia democracy is falling short

This is part one in a series. For the full series, go here.

There is no guarantee that any democracy will stay a democracy.

Several Eastern European countries that embraced democracy after the end of the Cold War have retreated toward authoritarianism in recent years. While those can be dismissed as cases where democracy hasn’t had time to sink deep roots, it’s a different story in the United States.

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There is clear evidence that the Trump administration planned a coup last January, and large sections of the Republican Party continue to peddle the lie that Trump was robbed of victory. Across numerous states, Republican governments are putting in place laws to ensure that the “mistake” of November 2020 doesn’t happen again in 2024. Similarly, in India a right-wing populist has imposed an increasingly fascist government on what was once “the world’s largest democracy”.

Books, articles and panel discussions on Australia’s broken, ailing or failing democracy have become almost routine in recent years as well. But what does it means to talk about a crisis in democracy?

A first step is to identify a series of characteristics of a successful democracy and determine how healthy they are — and if they’re becoming less healthy. Here’s an initial list:

  • Is the will of the electorate being reflected in parliamentary representation?
  • Is there a good balance between the power of the state and the rights of citizens?
  • How healthy are key democratic institutions like integrity bodies, independent regulators, an independent media and an independent judiciary?
  • Do powerful or wealthy interests interfere with decision-making, or have access to decision-makers beyond that of ordinary citizens?
  • In a colonial settler society, is there recognition of and a treaty with First Peoples?
  • Is anti-democratic sentiment, and political extremism, growing?

Australia does have some significant issues around representation. Just under 300,000 ACT voters elect three lower house seats and two senators; around 140,000 Northern Territorians elect two members and two senators; but around 390,000 Tasmanians elect five seats and twelve senators. Residents of both the ACT and the NT are quite literally second-class citizens: not merely are they underrepresented, their territory governments can be overridden by the Commonwealth.

There are also large disparities in election outcomes. In the 2019 election, the Greens secured 1.4 million lower house votes for one seat; the Nationals secured less than half that — just 640,000 votes — for 10 seats. The United Australia Party secured 489,000 votes, just 150,000 less than the Nationals, for no seats at all.

However, these disparities are the product of constitutional flaws which haven’t changed significantly in decades. And Australian politics remains remarkably undiverse in the composition of its parliaments, which are more male, more Anglo-Celtic and drawn from a far narrower background than the electorate it serves. This is one area where there is, however, substantial progress, primarily on the left of politics, with a significant rise in the number of female MPs in recent decades, and a slow improvement in the number of Indigenous MPs.

But there is an area where representation is under threat: the Morrison government’s attempt to legislate to address entirely confected claims of problems with voter ID — the importation of a racist tactic from Republicans in the United States, designed to disenfranchise African-American voters.

And the representational issues extend to the major political parties — now hollowed-out divisions where member numbers are small enough that factional players can stack their way to power, including ministerial office.

The balance between the power of the state and the rights of citizens has dramatically shifted in favour of the state in Australia. Communication technologies have given governments the capacity for surveillance that Stalinist regimes of the Cold War could only dream of, and governments have routinely given themselves the legal power to use it, constantly invoking wildly overstated threats from terrorists and criminals. Australian intelligence agencies now have immense powers to surveil, interfere with the computers of, detain without due process and prosecute in secret Australian citizens.

The pandemic has radically extended state powers as well, with lockdown, surveillance and personal behaviour mandates imposed with the threat of large fines, justified on the basis of “public health advice” that is enforced inconsistently and irrationally, complete with citizens being prevented from returning to their own homes.

Key democratic institutions in Australia are under attack at all levels. In addition to refusing to establish a meaningful federal anti-corruption body, Scott Morrison has attacked the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) and cut funding to the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO). Freedom of information laws are flouted at the Commonwealth and state levels. The Coalition has stacked the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAP) with scores of former Coalition MPs, staffers and allies. The public service has been politicised, with a long-term Liberal apparatchik now in charge of the public service.

The South Australian Parliament unanimously passed legislation undermining that state’s integrity body. Australia’s media continues to shrink and grow more concentrated, and the government has cut funding to the ABC and succeeded in cowing its news journalists — although on the positive side, it has provided additional funding for regional and small publications.

Decision-making in Australia has long been corrupted by special access and influence obtained by corporate and union donors, lobbyists and revolving-door staffers/corporate executives. Is this growing worse? The evidence suggests yes: donations by the big four consulting firms have risen dramatically at the same time as they have won billions more in governments contracts; large banks have resumed and increased their donations as the government has abandoned implementation of the banking royal commission recommendations; the Crown Resorts inquiries have revealed the impact of successive Victorian governments’ close ties with that company; and fossil fuel executives have written the Morrison government’s energy policy.

Indigenous recognition continues to be delayed, with no action likely before the next election and the Uluru Statement call for an Indigenous voice to Parliament rejected. Indigenous recognition has now been in limbo for over a decade, with five prime ministers having served without progress.

Extremism is increasing significantly, with security agencies warning that right-wing extremism is now a major threat, white supremacist and US-imitating conspiracy theorists exploiting discontent over pandemic restrictions, and major party politicians urging civil disobedience and promoting anti-vaccine material.

In four out of these six areas, there is a material worsening of the democratic circumstances Australia finds itself in, and no progress on representation or Indigenous recognition. On this basis, it is fair to conclude that Australian democracy is deteriorating significantly, and in some areas entirely dysfunctional. We’re in serious trouble.

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Peter Fray

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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