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Democracy and the individual - the unconscious association?

By Adam Henry - posted Monday, 25 May 2009

It is perhaps fitting in the current climate of financial collapse and recession to utilise the ideas of John Ralston Saul (see The doubter’s companion - a dictionary of aggressive commonsense, Penguin Canada: 1994, p.95) to examine individual citizenship within Australian democracy. This article does not suggest that membership of a political party is necessarily bad. But we must remember that it is the party, or group, that serves the interests of the individual and not the other way around.

We are bombarded daily with concepts that diminish our personal individualism. For instance, in the form of nationalism, politics and economics Australians can be neatly reduced into subgroups or subcategories for mass media consumption and political analysis. If one doubts this you need look no further than Australian political media and election coverage. What exactly do I mean?

Modern Australian society is analysed from an understanding that Australian society is made up of various groups and special interests. Therefore, to truly understand Australia is to understand subgroups and special interests. These special interests and groups can be both formal and informal subcategories, but individualism remains irrelevant to the ultimate outcome. According to Saul (in The unconscious civilisation, Penguin Australia: 1997, p.91):


Citizens, who rise, citizens who win responsibility, who succeed, enter into these units. What about the distinction between public and private? [While] government services are slipping into private hands. [and] adopting private industry standards and methods.

An excellent example of this transition from individual to being a member of a subgroup can be seen in the political career of Peter Garrett, Minister for the Environment. More than two decades of individualistic political activism, largely based on his acceptance of common principles of ethics and morality (both humanist and religious), were an ideal foundation for a career as an independent Senator or MP. Yet he believed that only membership of one of Australia's major political parties would allow him the potential to achieve more. Having joined a major political group (the ALP), he has succeeded in becoming Minister for the Environment, but he has also had to publicly conform to views that stand in contrast to his individualistic past.

Malcolm Turnbull, the multimillionaire lawyer and merchant banker from North Sydney, has long understood the benefits of sub-group membership and special interests. However, with his enormous wealth and intelligence, Turnbull could have contributed as an individual in any number of ways to Australia's social and political life. Yet he has conformed to membership of another major Australian political group (the Liberal Party), because he believes that it is through this organisation that he might one day become the Prime Minister of Australia.

In the political and private capitalist spheres great efforts are made to understand the collective attitudes of various “sub-groups” and “special interests” in order to predict political and economic outcomes. This is ultimately done, not really to help certain subgroups (although they will benefit in the short term perhaps at the expense of other competing groups), but for the long-term benefit of a government, political party or large business enterprise.

The greatest danger of this situation is that individuals begin to define themselves as only members, or followers, without the benefit (or even a desire) to engage in any strong individualistic reflection. These are the sorts of conversations that cause eyes to roll and mouths to yawn, but these concepts are especially important when we consider the constrained nature of corporate Australia (ibid):

As for the individual, but one third to one half of the population who are part of the managerial elite [and the beaucracy] are indeed castrated citizens because their professions, their employment contracts and the general atmosphere of corporate loyalty make it impossible for them to participate in the public space.


To understand the fetish-like hold that subgroups and special interests hold for modern Australian government, Australian media and Australian finance we should examine the concept of corporatism. Australia has fast become a corporate society defined by the decisions that emerge from various negotiations between sub-groups, special interests and government (John Ralston Saul, The doubter’s companion - a dictionary of aggressive commonsense, Op. Cit., p.74):

Corporatism is a persistent rival school of representative government. In place of the Democratic idea of individual citizens who vote, confer legitimacy and participate to the best of their ability, individuals in the corporate state are reduced to the role of secondary participants. They belong to their professional or expert groups - their corporations - and the state is run by ongoing negotiations between those various interests this is the natural way of organising things in a civilisation based on expertise and devoted to the exercise of power through bureaucratic structures.

This is precisely the situation that engenders individual voter apathy, cynicism and general disinterest in politics and the Parliamentary processes. These processes are after all, foregone conclusions that are decided well ahead of time and indeed even punish individuals from the inner sanctum who dissent i.e. crossing the floor of Parliament.

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© Adam Hughes, 2009.

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About the Author

Adam Hughes Henry is the author of three books, Independent Nation - Australia, the British Empire and the Origins of Australian-Indonesian Relations (2010), The Gatekeepers of Australian Foreign Policy 1950–1966 (2015) and Reflections on War, Diplomacy, Human Rights and Liberalism: Blind Spots (2020). He was a Visiting Fellow in Human Rights, University of London (2016) and a Whitlam Research Fellow, Western Sydney University (2019). He is currently an Associate Editor for The International Journal of Human Rights (Taylor and Francis).

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