The Eureka Stockade has a place in Australian popular mythology as the birthplace of Australian democracy. There is little dispute that Eureka stands as a popular symbol for “releasing the spirit of democracy” but there is an apparent paradox between the promise represented by that uprising 150 years ago, and the political realities of 21st century Australia.
Why is it that 150 years after the Ballarat Charter proclaimed the “inalienable right of every citizen to have a voice in making the laws he is called upon to obey”, and now that all the rights and freedoms claimed by the rebels have been more than met, do surveys show that most Australians still do not think they have much, if any, influence over their rulers? Nor do they feel politicians care much what they think. The paradox is compounded by evidence that the desire for people to have more say in government has never been stronger.
Evidence supporting this is strong. Surveys on the political attitudes of Australians paint the following picture: Between a half and two thirds have little or no confidence in the federal parliament or political parties; fewer than a quarter believe politicians care what ordinary people think; and less than a third think politicians try to keep their election promises. More than half think people like them have little influence on government decisions and only about one in six think government is run for the benefit of all, rather than for a few big interests. A similar tiny minority gives politicians high marks for ethics and honesty.
This survey data tells us that 150 years after the "release of the spirit of democracy" at Eureka we seem to have a nation of disillusioned democrats, many of whom appear to feel they have little more influence on the way they are governed than the unfranchised miners at Ballarat. This is despite the fact that modern-day Australia, in many ways, is more democratic than the ancient Greek city-state of Athens which is often held up as the democratic ideal, although there was no suffrage for women or slaves in ancient Athens.
In one important respect though, Athenian democracy differed markedly from the dominant form of government, which we now know as democracy in modern advanced industrial societies such as Australia. Democracy, in its Athenian form, was largely direct and as an idealised model, represented government of the people, by the people and for the people. Assemblies which every citizen had the right to attend, to have his say and to record a vote, made laws. In modern democracies, however, the people’s right to participate in government is largely restricted to the right to vote - periodically - for representatives who - in theory - will represent their interests when laws are made, and policy decisions taken.
Though representative democracy has become virtually synonymous with democracy in modern nation states, the eminent American democratic theorist, Robert Dahl, argues it has a “dark side” as a consequence of citizens delegating enormous discretionary authority over decisions of extraordinary importance to elected representatives. Another eminent democratic theorist - this time British - John Dunn, states the problem in much blunter terms. In his view:
In no modern state do the people in fact rule, and … there is little reason to see in the history of any modern state over any period of time a reasonably straightforward intention to permit them to do anything of the kind.
The power of the modern citizen to call ruling elites to account for their management of the affairs of the state at elections every few years is obviously a weak substitute for the power the Athenian demos reserved to itself to have final say over all important government decisions. This is not to say that an educated elite in ancient Athens did not have influence over the government of the city-state well beyond that which would be justified by its numbers alone. But the wielding of that influence was under continual scrutiny by the demos.
An American scholar of ancient Greece, Josiah Ober, tells us that the elite orators, who tended to dominate the proceedings of the Assembly, were required to maintain the “dramatic fiction” that they too were common men and to express their solidarity with egalitarian ideals. This drama served as a mechanism of social control over the political ambitions of the elite and restrained the tendency of a group of well-educated advisers from evolving into a ruling oligarchy.
The tension, resulting from the demos’s innate distrust of elites coupled with its recognition of the need for the skills of elites to provide good governance, has resurfaced with the reincarnation of democracy in modern times in its representative form. The fault line, however, is much deeper because the balance of power has been tilted very much toward the elites. The tension has been intensifying in recent decades. “Elite” has become a dirty word in modern politics. In the current Australian debate, it is a term that has been successfully appropriated by the Howard government, associated with “political correctness” and applied with devastating effect to progressive, educated “small l” liberals (in the American sense), who generally lean to the left on social issues, and tend to vote for Labor or the Greens.
This divisive exploitation of the tension between elites and the demos has the opposite effect of the solution to this age-old problem devised by the ancient Athenians. The Athenian solution was designed to reduce tensions within society. In today’s modern representative democracies the opposite is true. Elitist rhetoric is used to exacerbate societal tensions within society to gain party political advantage.
Are the people happy with this situation? Even if the majority of Australians think they have little or no say in government, what evidence do we have they want more? There are three sources of evidence we can turn to for an answer to this question. Large-scale quantitative national surveys; support for citizen-initiated referendums (CIR) which allow citizens to determine policy directions on particular issues and to make and unmake laws by a direct vote of the people; and support for a directly-elected president in the referendum on whether Australia should become a republic. These all indicate that people do want more say in the way they are governed. Australia was one of 24 advanced industrial democracies included in a World Values Survey in the mid 90s, and more Australians than any other people (bar the Finns) nominated “giving people more say in important government decisions” as the most important role of government.