We ought to worry about Australia's Democratic Decline

There’s been much talk recently about a decline in the ‘'civility’‘ of our public debate. This follows a long period of anxiety about ’‘values’‘ and disgruntlement about ’‘spin’‘, and – if I’m reading the tea leaves right – will soon give way to sustained fretting about what our Prime Minister recently called the ’‘Americanisation’‘ of Australian politics.

I don’t think we’ve put our finger on the precise nature of the problem yet. But we’re not jumping at shadows. There is something rotten in the state of Australian democracy, something about which we have good reason to worry.

The problem isn’t etiquette, but a rise in lawlessness. There are rules that have long governed the way the democratic game is played, rules that arise from Enlightenment values. These define what is and isn’t cricket when it comes to how individuals and institutions engage in our democracy.

It is these procedures and values, often unarticulated and widely taken for granted, that are under siege now – and this is the cause of Australia’s democratic decline.

Who broke the rules first? I’m neither sure, nor sure it matters. Key democratic institutions are so interconnected that unremarked cheating from one corner – especially if rewarded with unfair advantage over competitors – will quickly lead to a frenzy of lawlessness as other players rush for a piece of the action.

Some of the blame certainly lies with our political leaders. A number of Canberra insiders pick the early 1990s as the moment when they began tinkering with policy-making processes in ways that compromised their capacity to uphold their sworn oath to serve the public. Around this time, says Laura Tingle from The Australian Financial Review, politicians stopped seeing big business as a vested interest or ‘'rent seeker’‘ and began viewing it as a ’‘stakeholder’‘.

The test against which policy interventions proposed by corporate Australia began to be judged was not whether they served the public interest, or conformed to basic demands of consistency or logic, but whether they could be sold to voters. Recalls Tingle: ‘'A lobbyist with long links to the Coalition observed to me that, in the Hawke/Keating days, you had to come to see ministers armed with microeconomic modelling to back your case … In the Howard era you had to come armed with focus group polling and research.’'

Big business responded to the new lie of the land with alacrity. A new class of public policy professionals emerged, including lobbyists, spin doctors and consultants from private sector ‘'consultancies’‘ who began challenging key institutions such as Treasury with their own budget forecasts, economic modelling and made-to-order ’‘research’‘. The result, says Crikey Canberra correspondent Bernard Keane, is laws and policies that don’t have a ’‘shred of evidence or logic’‘ behind them.

The Fourth Estate, exercising its key role in a functioning democracy as defender of the public’s right to know, could have contested the new paradigm, but didn’t. Instead, and for a range of complex reasons, it went along for the ride. The result is a news media congested with public relations material, and that regularly features vested corporate interests (or their paid mouthpieces) as credible public policy ‘'experts’‘.

As well, analysis of the doing of politics, rather than of the substantive issues, is rife. On his recent trip to Melbourne, New York media academic Jay Rosen pointed to ABC TV’s Insiders as evidence of much that is rotten with Australian political coverage: ‘'Promoting journalists as insiders in front of the outsiders, the viewers, the electorate, [shows] journalists are identifying with the wrong people.’‘ We are worried about our democracy for good reason. Lawlessness leads to more lawlessness, and the upholding of procedures and values such as reason, evidence and the public interest have been keys to the success of Australian democracy thus far.

But we shouldn’t despair. This is not an omelet that can’t be unscrambled. Politicians could start turning things around tomorrow by restoring pre-1990 policy-making processes. They could also – if I might be so bold – learn how to hold their nerve. Our elected representatives are not helpless in the face of tabloid media campaigns or corporate advertising blitzes, however uncomfortable they may find the heat that’s generated. Ultimately, they are the decision-makers. It’s time they started acting like them.

The media must play a role, too, abandoning its mischaracterisation of corporate and other sectional interests as capable of offering insight in the public interest dimensions of policy. Of course, this turnaround won’t stop big corporations from seeking influence to shape the world according to their interests. It will just stop them being so successful. We’re on the road to hell together on this one. The only way back to a healthy democracy is for all the key players – business, political decision-makers and the media – to take a collective step back.

Let’s hope they do before the essence of what we value about our democracy is gone.

Publication history

Good Reason to Worry about our Democracy   The Age