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Shhhh. Democracy sleeping

By Peter Chen - posted Friday, 20 August 2010

National elections can be like festivals. Festivals that allow us all to celebrate the co-operative construction of social order that is democracy. As measured in the commentary of the opinion pages, however, the overriding theme of the current election is often a sense of profound ennui. This is disappointing, but it should not be misread to indicate that the democratic spirit of Australia has failed and that we’re heading for a post-democratic era of PR politics and demagoguery.

That is the road to a mindset that divides Australia into the political and apolitical strata. It is a shift back to a class-oriented view of our society that led to the Howard-era electoral reforms. These reforms, ostensibly aimed to protect the integrity of the electoral roll, now feed into the problem of under-enrolment by the young and transient. Rather than be appalled at this state of affairs, we only see punish-the-victim narratives such as Hugh Mckay’s patronising dismissal of younger people as divorced from political interest.

Successive survey work undertaken by researchers from the ANU’s Australian Electoral Study has demonstrated a number of interesting and somewhat contradictory things. First, if democracy is measured in terms of elections, then there has been a steady decline in the number of Australians who actively follow federal election campaigns over the past four decades. This reflects what we have seen in the 2010 race: politics without passion, and largely also without real conflict over policy.


This often leads to the argument that politics is dumbed-down to the lowest common denominator because of the compulsory voting system. That we’re hog-tied to the least engaged and informed members of the community.

But before you start to ask if compulsory voting should be done away with consider these three other trends:

First, elections aside, the ANU’s research has shown that Australians are as interested in politics as they have ever been, and they’re more interested in politics than in the 1960s. Here politics is a different construct than elections: we can be interested in politics as the contest and distribution of power without being interested in the formality of the electoral process.

Second, Australians have higher levels of regard for the value of democracy than in the more ‘‘lively’’ political jurisdiction of the US (with a system that, without compulsion, encourages and rewards elite and middle-class participation only).

Third, is that we see political parties as a necessary evil: parts of the democratic system, disinterested in our concerns and opinions.

In short hand, what Australians like about our country is its democratic tradition and their personal sense of empowerment to take action with regards to issues of concern. What we like least is the major institutions that exist to aggregate and facilitate political participation. The back-room political manoeuvres that we’ve seen in recent months, the issue management of the campaign, and the he-said she-said nature of the leadership contests leaves people cold.


This makes me interested in an undercurrent that has been running throughout the campaign to date: democratic reform. While democratic reform was a key policy issue in the recent UK election, it has lurked around the margins of debate in our contest. Like any painful family discussion that we know we should have, but avoid because it will lead to door slamming and hurt feelings, we’ve been putting it off for far too long.

But there are some willing to talk about it. One of the more recent examples of this was from Cheryl Kernot who has stated her come back was motivated by the shallowness of contemporary politics. In defending her return she talked to Sky News about potential for technology to improve democratic participation in Australia.

This should be music to the ears of the Senator Online Party. SOL are running candidates for the upper house who promise to vote on each bill and amendment based on the result of online polling through their website. Where Kernot and SOL differ lies only in their core models of democratic practice: Kernot presents as the democratic trustee, you can rely on her because of her legislative experience and known progressive credentials; SOL reflect the more jaundiced view of democracy, their senators are bound to vote based on the majority view. Like monkeys hitting the feeder bar, division seating arrangements for SOL’s senators will be dictated by their Blackberries and iPhones.

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About the Author

Dr Peter John Chen is a lecturer in politics and public policy at the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney.

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