“Individualism … disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellows and to draw apart with his family and his friends, so that after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself. … Individualism, at first, only saps the virtues of public life; but, in the long-run, it attacks and destroys all others, and is at length absorbed in downright selfishness.” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835, Second Book, Chapter II.
As the attack on Iraq was launched we were nightly exposed to earnest, brow-furrowing admonitions from Bush, Blair and Howard to endorse the war because we were obliged to bring democracy and freedom to Iraq and, in time, to the whole of the Middle East. We were told it was imperative – at least once it became clear that the weapons of mass destruction argument had lost credibility – that we destroy the oppressive, autocratic and brutal regime of Saddam Hussein and replace it by a democratic system of government.
Some had the temerity to ask why we’d been so slow to recognise the plight of the Iraqi people, why the West had backed Hussein and supplied him with the finance and the means to wage war and why we punished those who fled in terror from Saddam Hussein’s brutality and locked them away in remote camps? These questions remain unanswered.
But some of us also asked what sort of democracy the allies might be thinking of exporting, like instant food, to the people of Iraq. What exactly do we mean by democracy? What are the key values and characteristics of modern democracies? How do we judge the success of the democracies currently in operation and which forms should we be recommending to the newly emerging democracies? Just how democratic is the Australian – and for that matter – the United States political system? Does our performance measure up to the rhetoric?
Ian McAllister describes a “surge” in democracy in the late 20th century, so that by its end, 120 of the world’s 192 countries – many of them former communist regimes – had embraced some form of democracy as their system of government with varying degrees of success. (1)
In thinking about democracy most of us would point to the minimum requirement of popular control and political equality (see International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance). In judging any democracy, most of us would want to go beyond these two simple features to include the protection of civil liberties and human rights, particularly against crude majoritarianism and sectional interests. A recently established Australian National University research project, The Democratic Audit of Australia, also includes the quality of public debate and discussion, assessing “the degree to which debate and discussion can be distorted by manipulation, strategising, deception and restrictions on allowable communication”. Many, myself included, would add the extent to which citizens actively participate (beyond the simple act of voting) in the political life of the country.
When people at large are questioned about the key values of democracy, the vast majority agree about the need for free and fair elections, freedom of speech, equality before the law, active citizen participation and the protection of minority rights. These are the desiderata of modern democracies.
When measured against these objectives, I believe we are falling short. Ours is a withering democracy.
As we contemplate the health of our democracies, we should be reminded that the evolution of modern representative democracies was accompanied by a “powerful distrust of the people”, of the poor, the poorly educated and women, who were initially excluded altogether and had to fight to gain suffrage. This distrust – and the practical difficulties of operating direct democracies in large populations and territories – was one of the reasons that representative government gained favour over more direct, Athenian forms of democracy.
Even Madison, one of the founding fathers of the U.S. system of government, argued that citizens could not be trusted to identify the “permanent and aggregate interests of the community”, a task best left to elected representatives chosen by the people, not the people themselves. Echoes of this view are evident in the nervousness with which the U.S. government has approached the possibility of control by the Shi-ite religious majority in Iraq. It also underlies some of the contemporary reluctance of political parties to allow their members to have a say in forming policy.
Initially this representative form of government, which keeps the people at arm’s length from the actual work of government, was not even considered a true democracy. In such systems, the work of government is conducted by the “elective aristocracy”, to use Jefferson’s term, and is mediated by political parties. This classical form of representative democracy is often considered non-participatory and elitist – a “thin democracy”, as Barber describes it. In such democracies, citizens are relatively passive. At best, they are monitors – experts and elites do the actual work of government.
Political parties are central to the functioning of modern democracies. Indeed, in 1941 the political scientist E.E. Schnattschneider asserted that “modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of political parties”, a view which is reflected in most of the academic literature and reinforced by the evidence that no representative democracies appear to operate without them. The received wisdom is that political parties are key institutions for linking the various elements of the democratic process to ensure efficient and effective government. As Dalton and Wattenberg put it:
“Political parties have created political identities, framed electoral choices, recruited candidates, organised elections, defined the structure of legislative politics and determined the outputs of government.”
For better or worse, they are firmly embedded in the political landscape and any assessment of the health of democracies must include an assessment of the health of the political parties, especially of the extent to which they mediate the relationship between the community and their elected representatives.
The State of Democracy: Healthy or Diseased?
It is fair to say that democracy has generally functioned reasonably well when assessed against competing forms of government and methods for organising society. Democracy has characteristically produced societies that have been relatively “humane, flexible, productive, and vigorous”.
However, democracy is also characterised by “unsightly and factionalised squabbling by self-interested, short-sighted people and groups”. Furthermore, the policy outcomes often result from “special pleading” from those best placed to “adroitly pressure and manipulate the system”. Many commentators, here and elsewhere, observe that many citizens do not display the deliberative qualities theorists held to be central to the effective functioning of a democracy. Indeed, many display an almost monumental lack of political interest and knowledge. On the other hand, as Arendt has argued, politics as it practiced infantilises citizens who act as though power can only be gained by begging for it from a reluctant state.
There is a palpable cynicism routinely expressed by the public in democracies here and elsewhere, especially about political parties.
A large number of studies indicate deterioration on this front. There is some evidence that cynicism, discontent, frustration, and a sense of disempowerment and helplessness have markedly increased in recent years in most mature democracies. Various explanations are offered for these changes and remedies proffered.
One recent assessment of trends in attitudes toward political institutions and democratic government confirms that “citizens have grown more distant from political parties, more critical of political elites and political institutions and less positive toward government”. The authors describe these as “fundamental changes” in the political orientation over the past generation.
International comparisons show that these trends are characteristic of almost all the established democracies – and even some of the emerging ones. In particular, there is substantial evidence which points to a pattern of what has been called “partisan decline”, characterised by a declining role for the members of political parties in shaping policies and a reduction in the identification of voters with the major political parties.
A recent comprehensive assessment of the advanced industrial democracies found a general decline between the 60s and the 90s in the percentage of people who identified strongly with any particular party, a pattern also evident in Australia, which showed a 15% decline. These trends were more pronounced among the well-educated and the young, many of whom remain intensely interested in political issues, although not necessarily in participation. In fact, overall interest in politics appears to be increasing at the same time as participation in campaigns and volunteer work for political parties is decreasing.
The same research project traced the consequences for political behaviour of these changes. They reported bigger swings in election results on average, increasing fragmentation of political parties, a greater tendency of people to shift their votes between elections and to delay making decisions about their voting intentions until the last minute. More strategic voting is evident and where voting is not compulsory, voter turnout is in sharp decline.
Paradoxically, as parties are declining at the electorate level and party members have less influence on policy and strategy, the influence and control of central party organisations on campaigns and at the parliamentary level is stronger than ever. The responses of the political parties to these changes are likely to exacerbate both the cynicism and the disengagement. More campaigns are candidate and leadership focused and opinion polling, rather than party ideology, is more likely to inform policy decisions.
One contributor to an Internet discussion group reflected a commonly held sentiment when he wrote?:
“The ‘business of government’ is very sick indeed. If it were a real business it would have gone bankrupt long ago. It has lost most of its clients’ loyalty that’s for sure. The only reason they keep buying is that it is a monopoly and they have nowhere else to go.”
It may be tempting for politicians to dismiss such criticisms as the predictable whinging of malcontents, but it would be folly to do so. The growing clamour of such voices suggests there is more at stake. It is not simply the decline in political trust that has been noted in many evaluations of politicians and political elites, nor is it simply that the deference to authority once common in many Western democracies has been replaced by public scepticism of elites. Of greater concern for the future health of our democracy is that these feelings of mistrust have broadened to include the political regime and political institutions.
To date, this scepticism appears not to have significantly affected support for the democratic creed itself, although the risk is that failure to participate will eventually corrode commitment. While people are not yet abandoning democratic principles, they are critical of how these principles are functioning in our system of representative democracy. Citizens are frustrated with how contemporary democratic systems work – or how they do not work.
The solution, then, would appear to be to improve the democratic process and democratic institutions, not to accept non-democratic alternatives. People want democracy to work.
Democracy in Australia
In Australia too there appears to be a growing conviction that our political system needs to change; that the fundamentals of the democratic contract have been corrupted. Many Australians are disgruntled by a system which does not appear to respond to their needs and seems, increasingly, to be in the hands of elites more interested in their own advancement than the general good. As a result, our political system has less and less legitimacy.
Others have characterised this as a crisis which ranges across many of our democratic institutions and processes: our outdated constitution; the Byzantine, power-focused behaviour of our major political parties; the disquieting alliance of our political parties with corporations and large organisations; the control of our political parties by privileged minorities; the seeming irrelevance of much parliamentary debate and political discourse in the media; the pervasive use of propaganda to influence public opinion; the steady erosion of civil rights and minority interests; the increasingly blatant politicisation of the public service; the permanent state of vitriolic antagonism between the major parties; the elevation of executive secrecy above public disclosure; the readiness of government to mislead both the people and the parliament; the winner takes all outcomes of elections which preclude the input of minority opinion; and the failure to enunciate and plan for the long term challenges we face as a community. To nominate just a few!
Amongst the pessimists, this disenchantment spills over into disparagement of government action and a retreat into individual solutions to social and economic problems. This, of course, suits the neoliberal agenda, but is anathema to effective joint action necessary to reduce inequality, improve broad social outcomes and to protect the environment. Fortunately, there are optimists who believe it is possible to redesign our institutions. However, it is ironic that in an era which glorifies the novel and worships change, the same politicians who advocate flexibility and reform cling to conventions and practices which always had design flaws and which have ossified into caricatures of themselves.
Whatever the ascribed causes of these problems, it is clear that changes in our political system are needed.
Representation: Equality of Influence
The minimum requirement of any representative democracy is that governments should be elected and that all adults should have an equal right to vote. This minimum is indeed very little. As Rousseau acerbically observed:
“The English people believes itself to be free; it is gravely mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of Parliament; as soon as the members are elected, the people is enslaved; it is nothing.”
We might well ask what kind of accountability it is that operates only once every three or four years and which depends on assessments of performance which are inevitably based on information which the government of the day chooses to make available.
That said, it is fundamental even with our circumscribed democracy that all votes should be of equal value. In broad terms this has been achieved in Australia, with universal suffrage, electorates of roughly equal size and independent electoral commissions to determine electoral boundaries and prevent gerrymandering. Here in W.A. the entrenched conservative opposition in the Upper House over the past century made it impossible to achieve one vote one value and a High Court case to force the issue constitutionally did not succeed. The election of the Gallop government and the success of the Greens in gaining the balance of power in the Upper House gave hope that the principle of “one vote, one value” would finally prevail. But shockingly – and against their stated values – the Greens are blocking reform. The coming appeal to the Full Bench of the High Court is the last hope.
Despite the otherwise general equality in voting power, many are suspicious that not all citizens are equally able to influence their representatives. This breeds cynicism and a belief that the ordinary voter’s needs and views are ignored, while preference is given to the interests of the wealthy, to big business and to political cronies.
Several features of our political system contribute to these attitudes. Substantial campaign donations to the major parties by corporations and large organisations such as unions and business foundations foster the perception (and perhaps the reality) that it is possible to buy privileged access to MPs and ministers and that this influence is in proportion to the amount of money donated.
The disclosure that business leaders paid $10,000 per head for dinner at the Lodge indicates that not even the Prime Minister’s office is free of this practice. Reports on the extraordinary level of – secret – access to the Prime Minister afforded to the CEO of the Manildra Group, Dick Honan, and the favourable treatment of his ethanol producing company (over $20 million in taxpayer funded subsidies since October) has again sparked controversy.
Like many Australians, I am perturbed at these tendencies. We run the risk of becoming a “corporate democracy” – a “donocracy” – in which the number of shares you have purchased in the party of your choice determines your effective voting power. While there has been extensive debate about big money in politics in the U.S., there is still a conspicuous silence on the issue among Australian politicians.
Public funding of elections was supposed to reduce the parties’ reliance on private corporate and union donations: all that has happened is a blow-out in both public (doubled since 1993) and private funding as parties engage in an increasingly expensive bidding war at elections. Corporate contributions have become an accepted part of the election landscape. Figures collated by the Parliamentary Library show that in the 1998-99 financial year, the latest figures to which I have access, $37 million was paid to the parties by corporations and $3.7 million by unions.
The substantive problem is the possibility that such donations can purchase influence. Recent controversy surrounding the exercise of Ministerial discretion in the issue of visas has given credence to this concern. Like those Australians who follow politics, I am still waiting to hear a credible explanation for the donation by a Buddhist monastery in Sydney of $100,000, the largest ever donation to an individual candidate, to Minister Ruddock’s last election campaign.
While I know of no comparable Australian data, surveys of major corporate donors in the U.S. show that they donate not out of charitable impulses or civic duty; they expect a return for their money principally in gaining access, ensuring consideration of their interests and receiving “preferential consideration on regulations or legislation benefiting our business”. Many of these multinationals operate in Australia and donate to the major parties. There is no reason to suppose their motivation changes as they fly across the Pacific.
Retired U.S. Senator Paul Simon observed that “anyone who has been a candidate for major public office and says, ‘Campaign contributions don’t affect you’ is simply not telling the truth”, and that “the financially articulate have inordinate access to policy makers”.
There is no reason to believe the same observations do not apply to Australian MPs.
Reliance on donations may also create a strong inducement for political parties to bias their policies toward business and high income earners who provide the bulk of the funding, thus conspicuously undermining the promise of democracy that we all share equally in political power. The threat by the mining industry earlier this week that they would withdraw campaign contributions to both major parties unless they made changes to native title and other policies indicates just how blatant the exercise of such influence has become.
As I have said elsewhere, I believe it is time to reign in the exponential growth of corporate donations and to curtail the proliferation of content free, coercive media advertising that passes for policy debate during elections. The retention of public funding of elections should be accompanied by measures to limit the size of individual private donations to $1500, or thereabouts, and to proscribe any donations from corporations and large organisations. An extension of free-to-air radio and television could accompany these changes.
There are other reasons to scale down paid political advertising, particularly given the increasing tendency of Australian parties to emulate the negative tactics of our American cousins. As many have suggested, such advertising is one of the corrosive influences in our political system. To paraphrase an analogy used by Paul Simon:
“If Qantas ran regular 30 second commercials saying ‘Don’t fly Virgin Blue and showed a plane crashing into Mt Kosiosko and Virgin Blue ran a similar commercial showing a plane blowing up and urging travellers not to fly Qantas, it would not be very long before fear of flying became endemic.”
Politicians shouldn’t be surprised when their negative campaigns succeed, not only in diminishing their opponents, but in undermining confidence in all politicians. Tony Abbott’s “don’t trust politicians to elect the President” campaign was a case in point. I think we should be greatly concerned that negative campaign advertising will increase voters’ cynicism about the electoral process and be taken by some voters as “a signal of the dysfunctional and unresponsive nature of the political process itself”, causing them to lose interest in how they vote.
If free time on radio and television were to replace such paid advertising and candidates themselves were required to speak, they might spend more time advancing their own agendas and less time abusing their opponents. It might just encourage the media to focus more on the real issues and less on the trivial and combative characteristics of campaigns.
Mirror or descriptive representation
Part of the growing sense of disenfranchisement about politics amongst Australians may lie in the obvious differences between party members and MPs and the wider community. This failure of “mirror” or “descriptive” representation is, of course, most noticeable in the relative absence of women in the senior echelons of the major parties and in the Parliament.
What kind of representation is it where the candidates are not even remotely typical of the wider society, even using crude indicators such as age, gender, income and occupation. Voters need to feel that their representatives – at least in aggregate – can understand their circumstances and have sufficient identity with them to press their interests. The greater the distance of representatives from electors, the greater the mistrust.
These weaknesses begin with the political parties who determine who will be presented to the community for election and who govern the behaviour of their members in law making.
It is not generally appreciated that none of Australia’s parties is a mass party with a substantial membership base: at last count only 1.5% of Australians were members of a political party. Nor are the influential party members necessarily typical of the wider community. Too many candidates come from the party organisations and from MP’s staff. Many have little experience with anything other than back-room operations and are not active in their communities.
In Australia, it is apparent that many people have formed the view that the major parties are in the thrall of special interest groups. They reject involvement in party politics because they are not prepared to be used as factional pawns and campaign volunteers when elections are on and ignored when policy is being developed. Party members and supporters are often asked to fall in behind policy positions that they had no hand in developing and about which they have not been consulted.
As a contributor to a website discussion forum put it:
“If we as a party are serious about rebuilding our membership base, we need to rethink the way we as a party govern. A rather large slice of the cynicism that is evident in the general population has come about from the perception that we are governed from the top. Australians as a rule dislike being told what to do unless it is for very good reason, doesn’t damage their pride and is explained long enough for them to be comfortable with the change.”
The most visible symbols of our democracy, where decisions are theoretically made, are our parliaments. Once elected, MPs may find that their contribution and that of the parliament as a whole is much more limited than the theories of representative government suggest. It is fair to say that, even with the expanding contribution made by the Senate Committee system, executive domination remains a hallmark of Australian politics. This too may have contributed to the alienation of voters.
The author of a Parliamentary Library report compiled as part of the Centenary of Federation celebrations concluded that “the domination of the Parliament by a disciplined bipolar party system meant that the House of Representatives came to be seen at worst as a theatre of meaningless ritual and at best as an institution under the foot of the Executive”. (2) Although she politely places her observations beyond contemporary politics, the view is one that is often repeated today.
There are many, myself included, who believe that the Parliament is long overdue for substantial reform to enable it to take greater responsibility for its own affairs and to act independently of the government of the day. Our current system is increasingly based on the “rubber stamp” model of government criticised by the Clerk of the Senate, Harry Evans in his commentary on Howard’s proposal to water down the role of the Senate:
“The electors elect a party (or a party leader) to govern. The government governs with total power to change the law and virtually do what it likes between elections.”
In this scenario, the MPs are there for no other purpose than to register the voters’ choice. What then is the purpose of having a Parliament at all? If this is the way government is to operate, then there appears to be little justification for all the effort and expense entailed.
One of the more disquieting experiences in the Federal Parliament is that most speeches are delivered without an audience, into the void. Speech after carefully prepared speech disappears without a trace having no impact on the fate of the legislation. This, in the House of Representatives, is determined in advance by the simple arithmetic of majority. Even in the Senate, where outcomes are more fluid, deals are done behind closed doors rather than fleshed out in public.
This is particularly true of the House of Representatives, where there is almost no opportunity for individual members (or even the opposition en bloc) to introduce or modify legislation. Scrutiny of the Executive is limited to the charade that is Question Time, when no questions are answered. Committees in the Lower House, while they often inquire into matters of great significance, have no capacity to quiz ministers and bureaucrats about budgets and legislation. Some of our brightest and best are effectively excluded from the tasks they were elected to perform.
Question time is often mentioned by voters as one of the most irritating of Parliamentary procedures with its aggressive and insulting language, accusations instead of questions, replies that contain no information and evade the question, and gratuitous attacks on political opponents – all in the atmosphere of an unruly locker room complete with “sin bin”. I agree with Coghill’s assertion that “the rules for Question Time are so ridiculous it is no surprise that they generate the type of behaviour we see on the nightly news”, and his contention that it has “degenerated almost to a farce”. As a result, Question Time rarely functions as it was intended – as a means of ensuring accountability of the executive, exposing abuses of power and corruption and challenging the arbitrary exercise of power by the government.
While most MPs I have met are conscientious, they are largely unable to influence the legislative or policy agenda except behind the closed doors of the party rooms. Even then, there is often little room to manoeuvre because decisions have already been made by the Executive. Matters which deserve free and open consideration are often submerged because of anxiety about dissent. The media feeds this paranoia by portraying even the most minor disagreements as tests of leadership or signs of party disintegration. The absence of any dissent from the entire Coalition back bench about the attack on Iraq is mute testimony to this stranglehold.
Indeed, it is fair to say that the opportunities to speak open openly are becoming more and more constrained. I think the community wants its political leaders to stand for something and to be prepared to publicly stand on the issues. Too often we are driven by the polls or what the media tells us matters and not by conviction. We have a political culture of pandering, of telling people what they want to hear. It is by definition a grey and cautious culture because it removes all the contentious issues and seeks to offend no one. Confected personality politics and theatrical “biff” then substitutes for genuine debate on the values and solutions which are our responsibility to propose.
While the Parliament often seeks the views of the community and of experts in various fields, most of this contribution occurs in committees whose deliberations and conclusions are ignored. A treasure trove of thoughtful and meticulously prepared submissions and reports languish in countless bottom drawers.
On a broader front, members of the wider community are pressing for greater involvement in decision making while their representatives, especially in government appear to be moving in the opposite direction, involving fewer and fewer people, with less and less public scrutiny of the development of public policy.
Idiots? Political Knowledge and Participation
Having laid much of the blame for the problems with our democracy at the feet of political parties and politicians, I think it only fair to reflect on the role that citizens – and voters – play in our democracy. Citizens themselves must share some of the blame for declining interest and participation. It’s always easier to leave the work of democracy to others.
Perhaps it would pay us to reflect on the etymology of the word idiot – Greek “idios” – “one’s own”, someone who does not participate in public affairs. Only later did the word acquire the connotation of someone incapable of participating in public affairs. If we do not pay attention to the state of our democracy, we could become idiots in both senses and end up, as we were before the development of democracy, as “subjects” again.
I think we all assume that, as a minimum, a competent voter should be a knowledgeable one, that “democratic citizens should have a minimum understanding of the political system in which they express preferences and elect representatives”. Governments almost certainly operate more democratically when people have a greater range and depth of information about politics and when the distribution of knowledge is more equitable.
People in developed democracies are now better educated than at any time in the past, but surprisingly, at the same time as general levels of education are rising, knowledge of the political system has not improved – as far as we can tell – here or elsewhere.
McAllister has argued that any assessment of political knowledge should include both knowledge of events, personalities and institutions as well as political concepts and the procedures by which political institutions operate. (3) McAllister’s research in Australia has revealed a high level of political ignorance – typical of other developed democracies. Of those questioned here, 55% did not know that the Senate was based on proportional representation and only 5% were able to answer correctly all of the questions put.
There is a great deal of evidence of a large and apparently growing uninformed segment of the population, a group that is also less likely to participate in political activity of any kind. Research shows that political participation and knowledge affect each other reciprocally. Knowledge is a prerequisite to effective political engagement and in turn participation informs citizens about politics and increases their attentiveness to political events. This is one of the apparent benefits of compulsory voting, although the degree of “participation” reflected in voting is perhaps the bare minimum.
Around the world, the decline in political participation – particularly in voting – is greatest among those with less education, less money and fewer connections and is most pronounced amongst the young. In the United States, today’s young adults are less politically interested and informed than any cohort of young people on record.
The weakening of political parties and the replacement of policy focused with personality based campaigning has been cited as one of the factors contributing to this decline. The dearth of information about values and policies and the way they affect various groups in the community also reduces the motivation of people to get involved. Marginal seat campaigning which responds to the ephemeral moods of the most undecided effectively says to half the population, ‘Your needs and interests are irrelevant – you’re just spectators’.
The narrowing divide between major parties of the left and right also makes it harder for voters to distinguish among political alternatives, leaving them effectively less politically informed. “Citizen competence is largely a function of the political environment, which often gives the citizen difficult tasks and little support for reforming them.” (4) In this respect, it is instructive to contrast the millions of young people who vote in “Big Brother” elections at some monetary cost with the level of enthusiasm amongst the same young people for general elections, in which they often say they’re not interested and can’t be bothered to vote.
Many people of good will are worried about the direction in which Australia is headed but uncertain about where to turn for an analysis and understanding of what may be done. They are confused by the apparent convergence of the two parties, wanting at least to hear a debate on issues such as the role of government, population and immigration, rising inequality, reconciliation with our indigenous people, simultaneous underemployment and overwork, human rights and international citizenship, models of economic growth, balancing work and life and the priority which should be given to environmental improvement and protection.
In the past, the major political parties, here and elsewhere, were differentiated by their economic and social philosophies. As parties have converged and become less clearly defined, candidate and leadership centered campaigning has become more pronounced. As a result elections are reduced to a competition between individuals rather than ideas and campaign coverage becomes just another from of infotainment, focusing on personality and appeal. Who is more popular or likeable is more important than what they have to say about policy and the contests themselves become more “personal” and negative. For many people this is so offensive that they simply turn off.
In response to this apparent lack on interest and knowledge among many voters, some political activists fall back on democratic elitism. Rather than encouraging participation, they are content to accept this passivity and to circumscribe the voters’ task to choosing between competing elites who will then make all the important decisions on behalf of all the electorate. This seems increasingly to be the view of the cadre of professional politicians who control the development of policy and the conduct of elections. They see no benefit in getting the citizenry involved.
The Role of the Media in Representing Politics and Politicians
No assessment of the state of our democracies would be complete without examining the role the media play in shaping political debates and personalities. There is a widespread belief that the mass media have played a significant role in eroding trust and interest in politics.
Whatever the truth of this assertion, most voters devote only a tiny proportion of their time to the analysis of personalities and issues and often use shortcuts to help them make reasonable choices with imperfect information. They combine, as Popkin observes, “learning and information from past experiences, daily life, the media and political campaigns”. (5) The media have considerable power to frame our understanding of public life, to set the agenda on key issues and to influence the political process. The treatment by the media of the attack on Iraq is the most recent vivid illustration of this effect.
What is certain is that most people do not experience politics at first hand. Voters’ perceptions of the political figures and issues are shaped principally through the news media: this is even more likely in large scale, national and state based constituencies where personal contact with the candidates is made difficult by the sheer weight of numbers and distances. Such coverage is necessarily selective. It may be said that, in this sense, the news media shape rather than mirror the political landscape.
In general, political activities are portrayed in the media as fiercely competitive. Debates are frequently described in adversarial terms and those elements of political life which most resemble combat are most likely to be reported. There is, in all the media, a highly selective reading of issues, a tendency that is cultivated by many in politics. Serving politicians come to appreciate that coverage is more likely if their statements and images are provocative and controversial. Reasoned and moderate argument delivered without vitriol is given a wide berth.
Television, in particular, seems unable to cover complex stories in which the image is secondary to the facts. It is fair to say that the coverage of politics – and current affairs generally – has increasingly come to resemble entertainment. Confrontational media images give the impression that politics is only about argument and conflict, “that all parties are constantly locked in permanent and irreconcilable conflict”.
The choice, for example, to restrict most images of parliamentary proceedings to Question Time with the constant shouting, heckling and interjections reinforces the view of politics as a blood sport unworthy of all but the crude, rude and unattractive.
In addition, debate about politics via current affairs programs is often combative, with the interviewers setting up political opposites for confrontation or adopting an aggressive posture, regardless of whether is contributes to a better understanding of the issues. Interviewer’s reputations are made by their success in unsettling or demolishing interviewees. It appears not to matter that little light has been shed on the subject under discussion. In fairness, the same criteria are often used by politicians to judge their own performance in the media.
There is fairly general consensus among politicians, regardless of political affiliation, that there has been an increasing trend toward “tabloidisation” of both print and electronic media. Political and current affairs coverage is characterised by increasingly brief “grabs”, trivialisation and sensationalism – all inimical to sustained and complex debate. There is also and increasing trend for reporters and presenters’ views to be more intrusive, often ignoring what the interviewee has to say in favour of the media personality’s “authoritative” assertions.
The descriptive style of journalism which focused on the views and behaviour of newsmakers has been replaced by reporting which places the reporter at the centre of the action. In the United States, this has reached the point where during the 2000 campaign, for every minute that the candidates spoke, the network correspondents spoke for six. And their tone was “skeptical, negative and strategic”, a disposition which appears to have contributed to distrust of politicians. (6) This distrust then feeds into reduced involvement including in watching news about politics and campaigns. News organisations then cut back on their coverage or make it softer, producing further declines in involvement.
It’s perhaps not surprising that television has been identified as one of the major causes of declining civic engagement. As one researcher put it, this is primarily a “knowledge reducing effect” as newspapers and public service radio and TV announcements are replaced by commercial TV as the primary source of political information. (7) The commercial media, in particular, devote less time to current political events and when they do, it is often in sensationalist and strategic terms. Candidates are ignored or portrayed as boring if they run issues based campaigns. Attacking sound bites get airtime, positive problem solving statements get the delete button.
In general, we have yet to fully calculate the effects of the transition from word to image on our democracy. As Barber encapsulates the problem:
“A succession of fast-moving images is not conducive to thinking, but it does accommodate advertising, manipulation and propaganda, and these are the hallmarks of modern consumer culture and its privatizing political ideology that displaces governments with markets.” (8)
The media are also the principal means by which governments attempt to manipulate public opinion. Propaganda – now called “spin” in an attempt to render it innocuous- is the antithesis of democratic discourse.
We sometimes forget that the restriction of information and the manipulation of public opinion are not solely the prerogatives of totalitarian Governments. Indeed the use of propaganda techniques has been, and is, commonplace in Australia as in many other societies. These appeals persuade not through give-and-take of argument and debate, but through the manipulation of symbols and of our most basic human emotions.
Some of us are old enough to recall the vivid and terrifying images of the yellow peril and the “reds under your beds” drummed into us by conservative governments in the 1950s. More recent examples include Peter Reith’s “construction” of reality in the lead up to the waterfront dispute, the government’s sustained campaign to dehumanise asylum seekers, and the continuing attempts to justify the attack on Iraq.
In the lead up to the sacking of waterfront workers, Reith employed classic propaganda techniques: creating the stereotype of the greedy wharfie by grossly exaggerating their rates of pay and conditions, misrepresenting productivity levels and engaging in continuous name calling and repetition of negative phrases (e.g. rorts) and simplistic slogans.
The goal was clearly to destroy collective action and to ensure that the workers were segregated and alone in bargaining with their employers. There was considerable irony in the alternative labour force later banding together to sue the Minister and the Government for misleading and manipulating them.
The Reith tactics were part of a long-standing propaganda war perpetrated largely by major corporations to portray unions as disruptive, greedy and harmful to the public interest as defined by the business community and its allies. By virtue of their strategic position, docks have long been the crucibles of struggles for improved wages and conditions in most countries, including Australia. Since it is at the heart of the union movement it is attacked – and defended- with considerable vigour.
This was obviously just a practice run for the concerted campaign of vilification which has been conducted against asylum seekers who’ve arrived on our shores in leaky boats. It was Reith too who managed the “children overboard” scandal and repeated with Ruddock and Howard the many calumnies perpetrated against these people. For political advancement they still continue to denigrate their victims, many of whom remain hopelessly strung between their fear of returning to face persecution and their despair at indefinite detention.
It is no accident that in both the cases I have cited, the sell job followed market research and opinion polling. While such polling has some uses, it is also one of the starting points for propaganda and media manipulation designed to convince an unsuspecting public that what is being proposed, while it might appear damaging, is actually benign – “Toxic Sludge Is Good For You”. (9)
Implicit in these strategies is the desire to control public access to information on the grounds that the political elite is best placed to understand what is in the public interest. The strategies rest on the assumption that open and informed public debate is either impossible or undesirable. This is also clearly the view of some in the media – the so-called elite opinion.
Law and order campaigns designed to frighten the population and distract from hard questions of causation provide another illustration of the operation of privileged interests. The fact is that analyses of the causes of crime invariably point to inequality of wealth and power as critical factors. The necessary remedies, including the redistribution of both wealth and power, are not likely to be advocated by the likes of Packer and Murdoch or the political players who protect their privileged allies. They prefer to feed people on a steady diet of alarming images which generate fear and outrage, but not much else.
This is important because the steady diet of bad news can simply bolster the status quo and bad news can, and does, convince people that the world is much more dangerous than it is.
Gerbner found that people who watch a lot of television see the world as much more threatening and filled with menace than those who watch less. Fears about crime, often exploited by politicians, have less to do with actual crime rates than with the perception we get from the news. Bad news can create panic and distort the policy agenda. It’s anyone’s guess how fearful people have become after the declaration of the so-called “War on Terror” and the constant bombardment with threat assessments and warnings of imminent disaster
It is generally the case that those who “engineer consent” are those with the resources and the power to do so – principally the business community and some in the political class. It may be said that the well-connected and the well-protected can work the system, but the interests of the ordinary citizen are often left out.
The major political parties in Australia are becoming more and more dependent on the PR industry – the consultants, marketers and social scientists who manage and promote causes and candidates. The current government routinely undertakes market research and polling at taxpayer’s expense to “test messages” and spin the most acceptable lines. The insistence by the Prime Minister that to do anything other than support out troops as they were sent off to attack Iraq was, almost certainly, a market research driven line. Nothing else really worked.
Protection of citizen’s rights and minority interests
One of the consequences of this sustained manipulation of the media is that many Australians have stood by uncomplaining – even cheering – as their own rights, as well as those of minorities such as indigenous people and refugees, have been eroded. Had it not been for the Senate, many were apparently untroubled by the original ASIO Bill which would have seen children as young as ten detained and searched. The government knew that there was little opposition to detention without trial because they had already left citizens to rot for months in Guantanamo Bay, without lifting a finger to insist on their minimum legal rights. And they had already successfully trampled on Indigenous property rights and disrespectfully denied them recognition and compensation for dispossession and suffering under separation policies. They also knew that they enjoyed widespread community support for locking up refugees indefinitely, in defiance of every international human rights convention. On this front our democracy is in a parlous state. We need a Bill of Rights.
Reforms to increase participation
Popular dissatisfaction with present democratic structures is fuelling calls for reform all over the world. Recent data from the U.K. indicates that the politically dissatisfied are more likely to favour constitutional reforms, such as changes in the role of the House of Lords, judicial protection of human rights, and greater public access to government information.
Recent electoral reforms in Italy, Japan, and New Zealand resulted from public dissatisfaction with the electoral process. Interestingly, as one nation moves towards Proportional Representation (PR) as a solution, another moves in the opposite direction. This makes me sceptical that reforms to political parties and electoral systems are sufficient to address the present malaise. Widespread declines in political support, and growing alienation from various institutions and forms of the democratic process suggest that the sources of dissatisfaction go deeper than what can be addressed by modest electoral reforms.
However, it is worth noting that there is a well-established turnout boost associated with electoral systems based on proportional representation. It has been argued that this is due to otherwise excluded citizens seeking representation from small parties incapable of breaking through in winner-takes all contests. Every vote then does count, as it does with Senate voting in Australia. Under PR, parties have an incentive to inform all voters of their programs rather than just targeting the marginal seat voter. It is possible that PR based multi-party systems may inhibit precipitous changes in a parties’ principles and identity with the result that the political map is more stable and clearly drawn.
People are also expressing a more fundamental dissatisfaction with the system of representative democracy itself. Many express the desire to move toward greater participatory democracy.
The potential for citizen participation is limited in traditional forms of representative democracy. The opportunities for electoral input are scandalously low in most democracies, limited to the chance to cast a few votes during a multiyear electoral cycle. The declining voter turnout in advanced industrial societies suggests growing disenchantment with this form of democratic participation.
Barber’s alternative to this “thin” democracy, a “strong” democracy, incorporates muscular participatory and deliberative elements, something that many citizens are urging for Australia. In such democracies, citizens are engaged in political action and are prepared to engage in debate and deliberation in order to reach agreement about solutions to shared problems. In other words, citizens take a greater role in governing themselves.
Strengthened commitments to the democratic ideal and increased skills and resources in contemporary societies can lead to increased political participation beyond the present forms of representative democracy. A growing body of international research has documented a steady growth of protest and direct-action methods.
It also shows that while participation in elections may be declining, direct contact with government officials and politicians and work with community groups has been increasing. Participation in new social movements, such as the environmental movement, has also increased substantially over the past generation.
These new participation patterns are creating pressure on governments to develop forms of more direct, participatory democracy. For example, surveys of the German public indicate that democratic norms are broadening to embrace more participatory forms of democracy. The use of referendums and initiatives is generally increasing in democratic nations. Younger generations and the better educated are more likely to favour referendums, greater participation by the citizenry, and other forms of direct democracy. The Internet shows promise as a means of broadening the scale and scope of political discussion.
A recent review of the social movement literature describes other ways that institutional reforms can increase direct citizen participation in policy making. In Germany, for example, local citizen action groups have won changes in administrative law to allow for citizen participation in local administrative processes.
Italian environmental legislation now grants individuals legal standing in the courts when they seek to protect the environment from the actions of municipalities or government administrative agencies.
These institutional changes are difficult to accomplish and therefore are likely to proceed at a slow pace; but once implemented they restructure the whole process of making policy that extends beyond a single issue or a single policy agenda.
Similar reforms need to be debated in Australia.
It is possible to do much better, to open up decision making, to involve more MPs and engage the wider community, to actually thrash out the issues in real debates. Australia was once considered the “democratic laboratory” of the world. It’s time to conduct a few new experiments to revive our body politic and embrace the principles of openness, accessibility and accountability.
As a start we could:
* As in the new Scottish Parliament, establish an all party Business Committee to determine the business of the Parliament including the allocation of business to committees. The Committee would require regular endorsement of the Parliament for its plans,
* Amend standing orders to require that a greater proportion of parliamentary time is devoted to non-government business,
* Ensure that legislation introduced by the Executive undergoes a substantial period of pre-legislative development and consultation through the relevant committees, interest groups and the general public,
* Give committees the power to initiate legislation arising from their inquiries, especially if the government has failed to respond to major recommendations,
* Establish joint estimates and legislation committees with the power to question public servants and ministers from either House and to take submissions and commission independent research,
* Limit the number of speakers on legislation and change the standing orders to ensure that a real debate occurs with members from both sides to provide a quorum,
* Restrict Question Time to genuine questions without notice, with a majority going to the Opposition,
* Devote the second chamber to a more extensive deliberation of the bills in committee,
* Provide for private bills which allow private citizens or groups (with sufficient backing) to bring certain matters before the Parliament, probably through sponsoring MPs,
* Require that all petitions be investigated, if necessary by special hearings, of a dedicated petitions’ committee,
* Commission citizens’ juries or deliberative polls on contentious and complex issues,
* Invite expert and community representatives to address the chamber in session and engage in debate with members,
* Promote and sponsor the establishment of groups such as civic and youth forums to enable more regular and efficient consultation with the public, and
* Strengthen freedom of information legislation to reduce the number of exemptions from disclosure.
As well as engaging the general public and their representatives more fully in the democratic process, I believe such initiatives could transform politics in the way that many have dreamed about; into a more engaged and active democracy. The goals of greater participation, more civil and co-operative parliamentary conduct and an informed public debate are worth striving for.
In preparing for this lecture I read quite a lot of speculative material about the likely effect of the Internet on the operation of modern democracy. It struck me, as I thought about the Internet with its impressive speed, that a strong democracy actually needs a speed limit sign.
We need a political equivalent of the “slow food” movement to enable people to stop and think about the nature of the problems they confront, to assemble all the best ingredients for solutions to these problems and to debate the respective merits of various proposals.
In a speech to the Wesley College Foundation, John Menadue asserted that:
“Politics is too serious a matter to be left to politicians. Unaided, they will not reform our political outlook.”
At one level this might be taken as yet another blow in the national sport of bashing politicians, but Menadue was, in fact, making the more serious point that the health of our democracy requires greater involvement and participation from party members and the community at large. It’s a view I share.
We need to take politics beyond the politicians.
Carmen Lawrence delivered this manifesto to protect and enhance our democracy at a public lecture at the University of Western Australia on August 7. She is standing for the ALP presidency in the first direct election of a president by the rank and file since the ALP changed party rules to encourage greater participation by party members after its 2001 federal election defeat.
1. McAllister, Ian, A crisis of democracy – again, in ‘Policy Review’, Summer 2000-2001, 47-49
2. Thompson, Elaine, Australian parliamentary democracy after a century: What gains, what losses? ‘Vision in hindsight: Parliament and the Constitution,’ Paper No. 4, p6, 2000
3. McAllister, I, Civic education and political knowledge in Australia, Australian Senate Occasional Lecture Series, Canberra, 2001
4. Kuklinski, J.H. and Quirk, J.J., Citizen competence revisited, presented at the 2001 annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, San Francisco
5. Popkin, Samuel I, The reasoning voter: Communication and persuasion in presidential campaigns, Chicago University Press, 1991
6. Patterson, T.E., The vanishing voter: Civic involvement in the Age of Uncertainty, Alfred A. Knoph, 2002
7. Milner, H., Political participation and the political knowledge of adults and adolescents, paper presented at the 30th ACPR Joint Session Workshops, University of Turin, 1998
8. Barber, B.B., Which technology and which democracy? MIT Communications Forum, 2003
9. Stauber, J. & Rampton, S., Toxic sludge is good for you: Lies, damn lies and the public relations industry, Monroe, Maine, Common courage press, 1995