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Morality and democracy: public sovereignty is a simplistic approach to policy

By Max Atkinson - posted Friday, 12 August 2011

On July 14 Tony Abbott, Leader of the Opposition, offered a statement of political principle: ‘In Australia’ he said, ‘the people are sovereign’. He said what he, and many others, think democracy means; that politicians, when deciding on their policies, should be guided by public opinion - their duty, as political officials, is to do what the people want.

This theory of democracy is called ‘populism’. It is a theory which, in the eyes of its critics, encourages politicians to exploit the ignorance of electors and use public opinion to justify a party agenda, or to run campaigns to sway opinion to their own ends, in each case with little regard for the public interest.

It gives the media, with its power to influence opinion, a critical role, such that no one is surprised if party leaders and media barons might seek to align the political ambitions of the one with the corporate interests of the other.


The criticism is relevant to the debate on a carbon price, which gave rise to this appeal to sovereignty. The dispute had seen a challenge to Abbott’s policy from economists and business leaders who agree with environmental scientists that a carbon price, followed by an emissions trading scheme, is the best way to go.

Media pundits point out, however, that the ‘great big tax’ campaign has aroused such apprehension that any party will now risk defeat if it puts a price on carbon, however necessary to the nation’s interests or to global security.

This is a good reason to pause and ask if Abbott’s theory of popular sovereignty is really what democracy means. Most people, for instance, want majority rule but not mob rule - no one wants a 'tyranny of the majority'. But what is the nature of the difference and what bearing does it have on the duty of legislators who make laws and officials who enforce them?

We can clarify these matters by going back to basics. In its simplest and most defensible form democracy means only that the representatives of the majority have a stronger right to make the rules than any other person or group. Whether the rules they make are wise or just or moral or worthy of respect is a very different question - it can only be answered by looking at the values of the community. This is an important point, but is often ignored in political debates.

It follows that a majority in power cannot cite democratic theory in order to abolish a minority, or to deprive them of their rights, even if they have both public support and legal power to do so. It means the government is entitled to pursue its mandate, but not by unjust or immoral means, or to further unjust or immoral policies, regardless of public support.

Some theorists think this minimalist definition is too basic because most people take for granted that democracy, as a theory of government, includes basic political rights of free speech, press and assembly, as well as rights to a fair trial and perhaps a general, omnibus right to fair treatment.


But this richer conception merely confirms the claim the bare-bones version makes clear, that the principles which underlie constraints on the majority are important for their own sake, not because the majority want them; they are no less important than principles of fairness which justify the latter’s right to rule.

What does this mean in practice? Consider the decision by the Tasmanian upper House several years ago to support gay law reform legislation. The anti-reform lobby had sought a referendum as the only 'democratic' way to settle this issue; in their view, if the majority wished to retain laws criminalising homosexual acts, such laws must prevail. This, they said (pre-empting Abbott) is what democracy means.

Reformers were understandably discomfited by this proposal; some insisted that it was not necessary because the public were already on side while others argued, also weakly, that such a poll would be divisive.

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About the Author

Max Atkinson is a former senior lecturer of the Law School, University of Tasmania, with Interests in legal and moral philosophy, especially issues to do with rights, values, justice and punishment. He is an occasional contributor to the Tasmanian Times.

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