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Is democracy terminally ill?

By John Töns - posted Tuesday, 9 March 2010

If you are a political commentator then 2010 will be a good year. At the last count there will be three elections - Tasmania and South Australia go to the polls on March 20 and sometime this year Kevin Rudd will take the drive to government house and announce a federal election. The pendulum has already made its appearance in the press - we can see what the impact of a swing of various proportions will have on the composition of parliament.

Few seem to be asking the question: Does it really matter? Will a change of government presage any real changes? Will there be any notable changes in the script in the soap opera that is parliament or will it be merely the case of the understudy getting the opportunity to strut the stage?

There are of course many who passionately believe that it does matter. They are not unlike the tribes who follow the V8 car races - they are either passionate in their conviction that Ford is a better vehicle than Holden or vice versa. For the uninitiated like myself it is a little puzzling - surely they are both just cars? Or back to politics - surely they are all just politicians?


If we look at voting trends we find that about 30 per cent of the electorate are rusted on Ford supporters, and another 30 per cent are rusted on Holden supporters. Ah sorry that should be ALP or Lib/National Party. This basically leaves about 40 per cent of us who see elections as a tiresome intrusion in our lives; an opportunity to alert people to some issues that they think are really important. Some take the opportunity to seriously evaluate the performance of the respective parties or indeed any one of a thousand other reasons why we are not rusted on to any political party.

If one casts around other democracies one can quickly see that the problem is not unique to Australia.

Globally, there is a disenchantment that democracy can actually deliver on its promises. Ronald Symes writing in 1939 about the revolution that was ushered in by the Emperor Augustus makes the point that it makes little difference what form of government is chosen -behind each façade is an oligarchy calling the shots.

What was true for Ancient Rome seems to be just as true for us today. Chomsky analysed this phenomenon in his book The Manufacture of Consent - large corporations realise that in order to be able to make effective business plans they need to somehow influence the decision making process. There are a number of ways in which that may be achieved. Berlusconi used his wealth to establish his own political party - a simple and elegant solution - vanity and business interests satisfied in one hit.

It does not always work smoothly: either your corporate business competitors work to destroy you (such as happened in Thailand) or you simply do your dough (as Ross Perot found out in 1996).

Perhaps the most tried and effective way is to simply use your wealth to shape and direct the debate. The tobacco industry has managed to hang on despite the fact that is has killed more people than asbestos simply because it has run an effective campaign discrediting the notion that smoking could be harmful. It has also helped that as with alcohol and pokies governments have become addicted to the revenue that smokes, booze and gaming brings in.


(Taxation makes governments unpopular - indirect taxes like the GST and sales tax is less visible and so tends to do less electoral damage.)

In democracies such as ours it is becoming clear that there is really not a great deal of difference between electing a Labor or Liberal government. All that changes is the rhetoric but the actual policy directions remain much the same. In fact sometimes it seems that the changes in government are limited to changes in the official stationery.

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About the Author

John Töns is President of the Zero Carbon Network a network established to promote clear thinking about the issues associated with climate change. In addition to operating the only zero carbon boarding kennels in South Australia he is also completing a PhD at Flinders University in the area of Global Justice. John is a founding member of a new political party Stop Population Growth Now.

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