In a speech last year, the author Norman Mailer described democracy as “a state of grace that is attained only by those countries which have a host of individuals not only ready to enjoy freedom but to undergo the heavy labor of maintaining it”.
Australians generally accept that democracy is the best system of government, the market is the most efficient mechanism for economic activity and fair laws are the most powerful instrument for creating and maintaining a society that is free, rational and just. However, we are also collectively conscious that democracy is fragile, the market is amoral and law is an inadequate measure of responsibility. As former Chief Justice Warren of the United States Supreme Court explained: "Law … presupposes the existence of a broad area of human conduct controlled only by ethical norms.”
Similarly, democracy in our tradition assumes that a broad range of political activity is controlled only by conventions of proper conduct. Especially because individual rights are not constitutionally guaranteed in this country, justice, equality and other fundamental community values in Australia are constantly vulnerable to the disregard of those conventions.
Since the sacking of the Whitlam Government in 1975, the major political parties seem to have largely abandoned the ethics of government. A spiteful, divisive contest now dominates the national conversation, and democracy struggles incessantly with populism. Mainstream political parties routinely shirk their duty of maintaining democracy in Australia.
This is nowhere more obvious than in what passes for political debate, in which it is regarded as not only legitimate but clever to mislead. Although effective democracy depends on the participation of informed citizens, modern political discourse is corrupted by pervasive deception. It is a measure of the deep cynicism in our party political system that many of the political class deride those who support the evolution of Australia as a fair, tolerant, compassionate society and a good world citizen as an un-Australian, “bleeding-heart” elite, and that the current government inaccurately describes itself as conservative and liberal.
It is neither.
It exhibits a radical disdain for both liberal thought and fundamental institutions and conventions. No institution is beyond stacking and no convention restrains the blatant advancement of ideology. The tit-for-tat attitude each side adopts means that the position will probably change little when the opposition gains power at some future time. A decline in standards will continue if we permit it.
Without ethical leadership, those of us who are comfortably insulated from the harsh realities of violence, disability, poverty and discrimination seem to have experienced a collective failure of imagination. Relentless change and perceptions of external threat make conformity and order attractive and incremental erosions of freedom tolerable to those who benefit from the status quo and are apprehensive of others who are different and therefore easily misunderstood.
Mainstream Australians remain unreconciled with Indigenous Australians and largely ignore their just claims.
Without any coherent justification, we are participating in a war in a distant country in which more than half the population are children, some of whom, inevitably, are being killed. In our own country, many live in poverty, children are hungry and homeless and other severely traumatised children are in detention in flagrant breach of the Convention on the Rights of the Child simply because they were brought here by their parents seeking a better life.
The recently published report by the HREOC National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention (A Last Resort, 2004) attests that "Australian laws that require the mandatory immigration detention of children and the way these laws are administered by the Commonwealth, have resulted in numerous and repeated breaches of the Convention on the Rights of the Child".
Findings by the Inquiry confirm what those of us who have sustained contact with some of the children now released have known for some time, namely that "the traumatic nature of the detention experience has out-stripped any previous trauma that the children have had". It observed that:
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