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Renewing democracy

By Carmen Lawrence - posted Saturday, 2 February 2002

It is almost routine to observe that there is today a palpable cynicism (and sometimes ignorance) about politics and politicians among the general public.

A number of studies also show that it is getting worse, with international research showing that cynicism, discontent, frustration, and a sense of disempowerment and helplessness have markedly increased in recent years in most mature democracies. One recent assessment confirms that "citizens have grown more distant from political parties, more critical of political elites and political institutions, and less positive toward government." The decline in political trust is most notable in the evaluations of politicians and political elites.

Of immediate concern for our democracy is that these feelings of mistrust have broadened to include the political regime and political institutions. Fortunately, this scepticism has not yet significantly affected support for the democratic creed itself.


It would appear that the public are not abandoning democratic principles, but they are critical of how these principles are functioning in our system of representative democracy. Citizens are frustrated with how contemporary democratic systems work – or how they do not work.

The solution, then, would appear to be to improve the democratic process and democratic institutions, not to accept non-democratic alternatives. People want democracy to work.

In Australia, too, there appears to be a growing conviction that our political system needs to change; that the fundamentals of the democratic contract have been corrupted; that we need to articulate a detailed agenda for reform based on an analysis of the deficiencies in our system.

The problems we confront range across many of our democratic institutions and processes: our outdated constitution; the Byzantine, power-focused behaviour of our major political parties; the disquieting alliance of our political parties with corporations and large organisations; the control of our political parties by privileged minorities; the seeming irrelevance of much parliamentary debate and political discourse in the media; the permanent state of vitriolic antagonism between the major parties; the elevation of executive secrecy above public disclosure; the winner takes all outcomes of elections which preclude the input of minority opinion; and the failure to enunciate and plan for the long term challenges we face as a community. To nominate just a few!

It is possible to redesign our institutions, although it is ironic that in an era which glorifies the novel and worships change, the same politicians who advocate flexibility and reform cling to conventions and practices which always had design flaws and which have ossified into caricatures of themselves.

Representation: Democracy or Donocracy?

The minimum requirement of any representative democracy is that governments should be elected and that all adults should have an equal right to vote. This minimum is indeed very little.


Despite the general equality in voting power, many are suspicious that not all citizens are equally able to influence their representatives. Substantial campaign donations to the major parties by large corporations and organisations such as unions and business foundations foster the perception (and perhaps the reality) that it is possible to buy privileged access to MPs and Ministers and that this influence is in proportion to the amount of money donated.

We run the risk of becoming a "corporate democracy" in which the number of shares you have purchased in the party of your choice determines your effective voting power. The substantive problem is the possibility that such donations can purchase influence. Research among corporate leaders suggests that this is why they donate to political parties.

Retired U.S. Senator Paul Simon observed in a recent speech that "anyone who has been a candidate for major public office and says ‘Campaign contributions don’t affect you’ is simply not telling the truth" and that "the financially articulate have inordinate access to policy makers." By way of example, he cites his own responses:

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About the Author

Hon. Dr Carmen Lawrence is federal member for Fremantle (ALP) and a former Premier of Western Australia. She was elected as National President of the ALP in 2003. She is a Parliamentary member of National Forum.

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