Today democratic government is regarded as the ideal-type when it comes to systems of government; it is the norm to which all nations are encouraged to aspire. This has not always been the case, for much of the 2500-plus years since democracy was first practiced in Ancient Greece, prominent political thinkers and practitioners were sceptical about the inherent merits and functional effectiveness of democracy - some were openly hostile to the idea.
Australia is widely regarded as one of the world’s most stable and enduring democracies. As a nation it has known no other form of government. It was born a democracy out of a series of popular referenda in the colonies and an Act of the British Parliament, not out of a war of independence or bloody revolution. In this regard it was the first nation to effectively vote itself into existence. Had the nation been forged in an earlier era or under a different colonial regime this might be an altogether different story, but it was not and therefore it is not.
A centenary-plus of democratic government, then, is cause for celebration, but it is also an ideal time to reflect. Familiarity breeds complacency, something to which no country is immune (the US presidential election of 2000 and the Florida debacle being a salient example).
The Democratic Audit of Australia is designed to be a thorough check on the health of Australian democracy. Its team of examiners are both willing and well equipped to prescribe a range of possible remedies when they identify ailments that potentially undermine the overall health of Australia’s democratic governing principles.
Based in the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University and supported by the Australian Research Council, the Democratic Audit follows the democracy assessment framework first trialled in the United Kingdom and further developed by the Stockholm based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA). IDEA has subsequently sponsored audits using this framework in a number of other countries, including our neighbour New Zealand. The Democratic Audit of Australia is unique, however, in that it is the first to tackle the intricacies associated with a federal political system.
The basic principles of the IDEA framework are:
- Popular control over public decisions and decision makers
- Equality of respect and voice between citizens in the exercise of that control
From these principles flow a number of mediating values such as participation, representation, accountability, transparency and responsiveness.
With these principles and values in mind, coupled to a broader awareness of the complex nature of democracy as both a theoretical concept and a diversely implemented system of government, the Democratic Audit of Australia will:
- Make a significant methodological contribution to the assessment of democracy; particularly through the study of federalism and by incorporating into the research design a diversity of contested views about what democracy is and what it means.
- Provide benchmarks for future monitoring and international comparisons; the data compiled and conclusions drawn will make it possible to track government reforms as well as to compare and contrast Australia with other countries; and
- Like On Line Opinion, the Democratic Audit promotes public debate about issues central to Australian democracy through the posting of regular discussion papers by leading commentators, academics, and practitioners of Australian democracy on the Democratic Audit’s website.
In addition to regular discussion papers the Democratic Audit produces a series of scholarly audits focussing on key aspects of Australian democracy. There will also be a final monograph assessing the overall state of Australian democracy according to the more than eighty probing questions posed under the IDEA framework.
The focused audits already produced and in circulation are: How Well Does Australian Democracy Serve Immigrant Australians?, by James Jupp of the ANU; Australian Electoral Systems – How Well Do They Serve Political Equality?, by Graeme Orr of Griffith University; and Corruption and Democracy in Australia, by Barry Hindess of the ANU.
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