Fixing Our Broken Democracy
Democracy has connotations of freedom, fair representation and the absence of totalitarian oppression. Small wonder politicians from both the left and right love to promote democratic principles. They use democracy to inform as to what lollies to offer the electorate. However, voters are now finding holes in their teeth, holes in their budget and holes in the rhetoric of those advancing popularist government.
We need to be careful not to overstate the case. Any who have lived under despotic oppression will be quick to tell you how lucky we are to live in a democratic country. They’re right. That noted, its proper we be honest about the benefits of democracy and firm in our resolve to make it work better.
Australia’s national debt is something like $578 billion. Before you decide to migrate to the USA, their debt is over $25 trillion. No democracy, as it exists in its current form, is able to repay these debts. In early 2016, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison flirted with the idea of nudging GST up to 15% to get rid of a few red numbers. Most sensible analysts thought this a good idea. But, not the back benchers. They revolted. Protecting your political backside was more important than protecting your country from debt.
We can’t say we weren’t warned. The philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche said that democracy would lead us to the lowlands of “herd conscience” and a society unable to rise above petty wants and self-interest. For this reason, it is doubtful any popularly elected government could survive a policy that required their nation to live within its means. It is even less likely to survive if it advanced measures to retire debt.
Keeping with the fiscal theme, democracy has also failed to stop the financial profligacy often associated with the likes of the English King John (think what caused the Magna Carta) and the French Bourbon monarchy (think what the Palais de Versailles cost). Trussing up or tipping out the monarchy has not stopped financial mismanagement. Subsequent democracy gifted us with pork barrelling. In Australia, twenty percent of the $624m allocated to Community Development Grants since 2013, have been given to two percent of the Australian population. This is a lucky two percent. They live in five marginal seats. Before you tut and mutter about the current Federal Government, prior to 2013, Labor spent forty percent of its available $568m on marginal seats they wanted to hang on to. They’re all at it.
Some banner wavers advance the democracy = freedom claim. However, this is not always true. Economist, John Wenders, warned that democracy was two coyotes and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. It’s also worth remembering that Hitler and Mussolini were voted in by democratic process.
A feature of contemporary democracy is that it often leads to short-term governments. Furthermore, these governments are only in power because of opportunistic alliances that dissolve quicker than ardour in a cold shower. Stir in a bi-cameral situation that results in a car-driving enthusiast with minimal parliamentary experience determining the fate of our nation’s legislation, and one can begin to understand why a few are thinking that current Chinese and Russian leadership might have something going for it.
If giving a nod to our communist cousins does not sit well, there are others that could be acknowledged in terms of leadership effectiveness. For example, Lee Kuan Yew, who was Prime Minister of Singapore from 1959 to 1990. He may have engaged in giving the cane to vandals and graffitists and to locking up opposition leaders, but he transformed a nation and made it an economic power house.
Aung San Sunn Kyi suggested that democracy was about the people keeping the government in check. She’s right – but sometimes in the wrong way. Governments are not just checked – they are stifled and stopped from doing what is necessary. Why? Because they must first do what is popular. Winston Churchill once quipped that the best argument against democracy was a five-minute conversation with the average voter.
The democratic world allows, even encourages, the media to feast on its politicians and to pick their bones. Denigration gets more “likes” than the thumbs down. Consider the media’s brutalisation of Joe Hockey when he was snapped by a long-distance lens having a quiet cigar with Mathias Cormann in 2014. It was front page news. The outrage, ridicule and huffy articles about poor example went on for weeks.
Very few governments can now survive more than a few years in Australia. It’s not just the inept leadership and constant infighting, it’s the negativity of the press that has condemned our nation to constant political change.
So – how do we stop “government by the highest bidder”? Do we go down the path of increased authoritarianism as Putin did after taking over from Yeltsin? Do we not just count votes but weigh them? If so, how?
Perhaps we should do nothing and let history sort things out. The Italian Renaissance philosopher, Niccolo Machiavelli, suggested that democracy would inevitably lead to anarchy and tyranny, which in turn would lead to strong-man leadership together with its monarchs and aristocracy. In time, these would dissolve into republics and democracy. Then the cycle would repeat itself over and over again.
If we want to be a tad more proactive about solving the problems posed by democracy, other approaches need to be considered. I would like to suggest a renewed emphasis on truth, goodness and knowledge.
It is generally accepted that President Trump got into the Whitehouse courtesy of many things, but not least because of a social media blitz that muddled real news with fake news. Aided and abetted by Cambridge Analytica, people’s “hot buttons” were discovered which fed a Facebook barrage designed to scare people into voting for Trump. We now need to stop misinformation and start punishing those that promulgate not just “fake news” but “make news” – that latter being beat-ups designed to sell stories rather than report facts. We need a renewed commitment to truth.
The political scientist, Alexis de Tocqueville, once said that America was great because it was good. However, if ever America ceased to be good, it would cease to be great. It is worth every country asking itself whether its leadership is renowned for goodness, whether its laws are fair and whether its culture is healthy. This task is all the more important in a post-modern age where moral ambivalence is the zeitgeist. We need a renewed commitment to that which is good.
As a teacher, it will not surprise many that I will advance knowledge as an antidote to democratic malaise. I have strong support for this notion. The American President, Franklin D Roosevelt suggested that democracy would not work if people were not wise in how they voted. Therefore, he went on to conclude that the real safeguard of democracy was education. We need a renewed commitment to knowledge.
Truth. Goodness. Knowledge. It’s worth giving them a go if we wish to make democracy work in our land.