All posts by Julian Ninio

Australians well placed to help repair democracy

Julian Ninio’s first piece published on Webdiary was Ignorance, hypocrisy, obedience: symptoms of a sick America, based on his recent book. This article was first pubished in The Age and is repubished with Julian’s permission. For more on defending our democracy see nothappyjohn.


I became an Australian citizen a month ago. In the US, I will vote for Kerry holding my nose, knowing that Kerry won’t fix the deep problems of which George Bush is a symptom, such as the trailer parks where America’s social policies force one family in thirteen. In Australia, I will vote knowing that a single election can produce change.

Australian citizens share at least one problem with American citizens. This problem afflicts many democracies. Citizens feel that governments do not obey them. In Australia, John Howard didn’t ask the people if they wanted to invade Iraq. John Howard didn’t ask Australians if they wanted to raise the price of university education by 25 per cent. John Howard didn’t ask Australians if they wanted to ban gay marriages. John Howard didn’t ask Australians if they wanted a tax cut instead of social services.


But compared with US citizens, Australians are in a far better position to change their society. First, more Australians are aware that their democracy doesn’t truly work. (It helps that Australia, unlike the US, does not see itself as the cradle of democracy.) One cannot fix a problem unless one knows about it. By and large, Australians know there’s a problem.

Second, Australian citizens have powerful democratic tools on their side, tools US citizens lack. Think of democracy as having two aspects: government ‘by the people’ and ‘for the people’.

Australia’s special tools do not lie on the ‘for the people’ side of democracy. ‘For the people’ means that people can force government to serve the public interest. This piece of democracy is broken nearly everywhere.

Australia’s democratic strength lies on the ‘by the people’ side of democracy. ‘By the people’ means that people choose who represents them. Australia has mandatory voting; in the US, half of the people vote and they vote in proportion to income and education. Australia has proportional representation; in the US, if ten per cent of people vote for the Greens, their vote gets thrown out. Australia has preferential voting; in the US, if five per cent of people vote for Ralph Nader, that’s fewer votes for Al Gore or John Kerry, and George Bush gets elected.

If Australians re-elect John Howard, at least they will know they voted for him. Australia has these tools: mandatory voting, preferential voting, proportional representation. This means that if Australians produce a critical mass of concerned citizens before an election, they can change society.

For instance, look at the Iraq War. Many people feel that last year’s massive protests were useless, that they changed nothing — yet things are changing. The Sydney suburb of Leichhardt (where I live) just had local elections, and now has four Green councillors. Australians have tools to express their anger at the ruling parties. And if Australians organise again, they can actually solve the war problem, make sure it never happens again.

Let�s call this a democracy problem. The problem: Most Australians opposed the war, Howard went to war anyway. Clue: The constitution sets no process for the country to declare war. The problem has at least one obvious solution. Australians need a law that forbids government from committing troops to a war of aggression without the approval of parliament, or of citizens. By the way, make that approval by a ‘super majority’ – a majority by two-thirds or three-quarters.

So the message before the election should not just be ‘We want troops out’. It should also be: ‘We want laws to restrict the power to go to war’. The Democrats introduced such a bill last year, but without major party support, parliament has not discussed it.

If hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets with that message in the weeks before the election, it will work. Labor will have to pick it up. These are the mass dynamics that worked in Spain’s last election.

The Iraq War is one of many ‘democracy problems’. Australians could solve many other problems in one go. Today, Australian citizens have no power to initiate a referendum. Suppose Australians changed that. Suppose Australians changed the Referendum Act so the signatures of 300 000 voters could force an issue on the ballot.

That’s the scale of last year’s No War protests. People wouldn’t feel disillusioned about protests if they knew that protests could force government to submit important questions to a popular vote. People would protest more. And government would take greater care not to upset the popular will, if they knew that citizens could organise and reverse their policies.

If citizens could initiate a referendum, they would be far closer to having government ‘for people’. People would have the power to force reforms that seem doomed today, in all areas: the environment, work, education, health, trade, and more.

True, a people’s referendum would need careful design to ensure people do not have to vote every week, and that they vote on meaningful questions, not blind tosses between bitter and acid. Those disgruntled with the 1999 referendum can help discuss how to design a process that works.

Australian democracy almost works. This may sound like a harsh assessment, but it’s more than one can say about most societies that also call themselves democratic. It would take little to make Australian democracy truly work.

In the weeks before the next election, we should ask for ‘Troops Out’. But we should also ask for a People’s War Control Act. And, I argue, we should ask for a People’s Referendum Act.

As we spend energy treating symptoms such as the Iraq War, we might as well treat the causes too. Let’s start making these banners now. By next year, we may be on our way to becoming the lucky citizens of a fully functional democracy.

Julian Ninio is the author of The Empire of Ignorance, Hypocrisy and Obedience (2004) .

Ignorance, hypocrisy, obedience: symptoms of a sick America

American Julian Ninio is the author of The Empire of Ignorance, Hypocrisy and Obedience, and is in Australia for the Sydney Writers Festival. This piece first appeared in The Age, and is republished with the author’s permission.


The American people didn’t know its troops abused prisoners in Iraqi jails. Ignorance. Officials who knew pretend they didn’t know. Hypocrisy. To excuse the perpetrators, parents of soldiers say their kids were forced to follow orders. Obedience.

Torture is the problem-du-jour. Two weeks ago, the problem-du-jour was the deceptive case for war. The American people believed the administration�s lies. Ignorance. The President says he relied on the flawed intelligence he was fed. Hypocrisy. Instead of rebelling, Colin Powell stuck with his team. Obedience.

America’s problems are structural. Even if Kerry replaces Bush in January 2005, America will still have one child in six living in poverty; America will still have two million people in jail; America will still have military installations in 50 countries. It’s time we looked at the structure behind America’s problems.

By studying America�s self-image, we can collect symptoms of the �disease� that ails American society. Is America truly the beacon of justice? Not when it tortures prisoners. Is America truly the cradle of democracy? Not when its president is elected by a minority, not when government for corporations displaces �by the people for the people�.

Is America the land of the free? Not when powerful corporations can silence dissidents like Michael Moore. Is America the land of plenty? Not when one household in thirteen lives in a trailer.

Does the US have the best way of life? In a BBC poll, 96 per cent of Americans say that foreigners want to live in America. In the same poll, one Australian in 100 says she would prefer to live in America. It�s not hard to guess why: Australians like paid vacations, Medicare, the fair go, even if it doesn�t always work perfectly.

By studying America’s self-image, we can collect symptoms of the ‘disease’ that ails American society. By America�s own standard, the standard of its self-image, the US is a sick society. Behind torture and all the other symptoms, you can find the same driving principles. �America is the best.� �Might means right.� �Corporations have a right to maximise profit.� �Government should serve the economy.� �People must look after themselves.� �Status comes from wealth.� �Winning justifies anything.�

Behind it all, you can find a powerful blend of ignorance, hypocrisy, and obedience. It�s a kind of disease, something I call the �IHO Syndrome�: I for ignorance, H for hypocrisy, O for Obedience. Under its influence, lies become truth, wrong becomes right. Peace becomes war, justice becomes torture.

Of course, every American is not always ignorant, hypocritical and obedient. Of course, the US does not have a monopoly on ignorance, hypocrisy and obedience. But when we interpret American society through these lenses, current events make a lot more sense. And that suggests ways to fix that society.

We must produce awareness to replace ignorance. Dissenters must spear hypocrisy with truth. Instead of obeying, American people must resist.

On paper, that sounds simple. But in America as around the world, many people feel powerless to change things.

In Australia, suppose you try to solve just one problem: the logging of old-growth forests. You will butt against government. You will butt against corporations. The press will help your fight, but only up to a point. And you will feel that modern society�s values work against you.

Take two friends and try to discuss how people can solve a problem you care about – Australia�s presence in Iraq, refugee detention centres, anything. You will soon find yourself entangled in the same web: government priorities, corporate power, media focus, modern values. Some call that the �system�. We feel discouraged because we see that to fix one problem, we would have to fix the entire system.

Most people would love to fix the system. This means that citizens must have the power to decide policies. Two-thirds of Americans think Congress should pass stricter gun control laws, such as keeping track of who buys guns. Survey after survey confirms this, but the surveys also show that Americans expect Congress not to pass these laws. Government does not obey people.

People cannot shape policies, much less institutions, unless they reach a critical mass. To reach a critical mass, we need to take a stand, and we need to awaken our neighbours, our parents, our friends.

It works. That�s the way change happens every time, from Alabama blacks� right to ride in the front of the bus to Torres Strait islanders� right to own their land. And it�s enjoyable. Most people I know prefer to work with others for a distant goal than to sit isolated in their living rooms. Apathy is an illusion. We are isolated, so we assume that no one else has any interest in changing the world, and we join the official game – work harder, buy more. When we break the isolation, when we talk to strangers, we realise that most people share the same interests.

Many people are waking up. Michael Moore�s popularity is a sign of dissent. Many will try to change society if they see a way.

There’s no secret. To change the ‘system’, we need to take a stand and wake up people around us: parents, friends, workmates. At some point it becomes acceptable to disagree – it becomes the norm to disagree. It doesn�t work overnight, but it�s the only sure way to produce change.