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Spreading freedom and democracy

By Mark Bahnisch - posted Monday, 23 May 2005

Alexander Downer's tirade on the Labor Party's history (read here in On Line Opinion) is no doubt intended to stir up the history wars, as well as its obvious partisan intent. Actually, I think Downer's farrago of fabrication and insinuation mostly refutes itself. The silliness of the comment about Whitlam and the Baltic States and the lack of appreciation of John Curtin's contribution to the defence of Australia and to internationalism speak for themselves. But I would like to take issue with this outrageous claim about more recent history.

Delivering a speech in honour of the first Country Party leader, Earle Page, Mr Downer bracketed Curtin's appeasement with Arthur Calwell's isolationism, Whitlam's view of the Baltic states and the South Vietnamese and Mark Latham, who he said had "gone to water" over Saddam Hussein and Iraq. He said:

In 2003, Labor went to water on Saddam Hussein and his regime, declaring Iraq an irrelevance in the war on terror. There was no shortage of so-called realists prepared to tell us that democracy was unsuitable for export, and even that the Islamic world would never accept what they airily characterised as cultural imperialism by force of arms.


We have a view of the national interest in which successful prosecution of those wars and the success of diplomacy, in furthering the cause of freedom and democracy, is fundamentally important."

The "Little Australia" mindset persists in the Labor Party.

No doubt, along with a preference for populist appeasement and isolationism, it played a part in Mark Latham's thinking when he argued that our contribution to the war on terror should be limited to our own region and that our troops' proper place was not on the other side of the world, but at home.

Mr Downer said it was too early to "reach triumphalist conclusions" but the idea that democracy could be used to find a way out of the "impasses of the Middle East can no longer be dismissed as naive".

Iraq was an irrelevance in the War on Terror in that the Baathist regime was secular and strongly opposed by al-Qaida. Sadly, it's not anymore as both the invasion itself and its aftermath have been prime recruiting tools for Islamist terrorism: not to mention outrages such as the Abu Ghraib events.

It's also specious to claim that the Left are dismissing the value of democracy, as Downer insinuates. Far from arguing that democracy is culturally unsuitable for Arab peoples, what realists point out is something basic in democratic theory. We tend to think of democracy as rule by a majority. It's more than that - it's also premised on formal equality and acceptance of the unity of a people.


To take an example outside Iraq, it's instructive to consider Northern Ireland. From 1920 until 1972, only the Ulster Unionist Party ever governed. There was no alternation in power, and no regard whatever for the civil and political rights of the minority Nationalist community. Precisely because formal equality was not guaranteed, and a large minority of the population had no desire to live under a regime constructed in the way that Ulster was - because their reference point as a people was Ireland itself rather than the UK or Northern Ireland - the tensions that this undemocratic formal democracy created resulted in almost 40 years of civil strife and war. And while the 1998 Easter agreement, which entrenched power sharing, was hailed as a victory for democracy, it has still failed to create the conditions of legitimacy and the volition to live in a particular state which are prerequisites for functional democracy.

Nor does the majoritarian reasoning that Northern Ireland could opt out of the UK and into the Republic of Ireland by a referendum in the future produce a settled and legitimate polity - because the situation unstabily lurches towards a perception by the Unionist majority that they could one day be an embattled minority in a state whose legitimacy they don't recognise. Hence the continued instability of the apparent democratic settlement of the Ulster troubles.

The key to a state enjoying democratic legitimacy is not just the presence of formal institutions or majority rule (which as in the case of Northern Ireland can be disastrously divisive) but rather the confidence of minorities that their rights and liberties will be respected and a joint identification of minority and majority as one people. It is much easier for this to be achieved when such majorities and minorities are defined on the basis of political identities rather than ethnic or religious identities. The civic Enlightenment tradition assumes that a people can coalesce through political means, but while such means are necessary, they are not sufficient.

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About the Author

Dr Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development. He founded the leading public affairs blog, Larvatus Prodeo.

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