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Australia might be saving our democracy. Can the UK and US?

Almost precisely a year ago, John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations published an essay by this author entitled, “Think tanks have put British democracy at risk.” It was part of a trio of essays that explored the concept of “competitive authoritarianism” in Australia, the UK and the US.

Competitive authoritarianism is a most useful term to help understand how nations that consider themselves democratically governed can become illiberal or even authoritarian in nature. It was devised by two academics, Levitsky and Way in 2002. They described nations where the competitive process in elections still takes place. There is still the prospect of the incumbent losing. The scales, however, become by fits and starts almost insuperably weighted in the incumbent’s favour.

The academics use the analogy of a sporting field firmly tilted towards one side’s goal, with the referees working for the empowered team. The misuse of government money and partisan appointments are compounded by disinformation with a partisan media amplifying the government’s propaganda.

Lies, rorts and partisan appointments overwhelming statutory bodies are all familiar to Australians. The May election marked us as lucky. In part, our electorate is becoming increasingly jaded about the pro-government messaging of corporate media (and the battered national broadcaster). More protective still, however, is the strong system that operates our democracy. Ranked choice voting, compulsory preferential voting and an independent electoral commission are all factors that helped us pause the democratic decay, allowing us time to re-evaluate.

This week, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus introduced his integrity body, the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC). While the model has one substantial flaw, it is incomparably better than the previous government’s bogus version. More importantly, the AG’s office plans this body to be part of an integrity framework that addresses a number of the issues that put our democracy in such danger of decaying towards illiberalism. There are many forces that make this project difficult, not least pressures such as the one that had the limitation of “exceptional circumstances” crippling the ability to stage public hearings inserted into the NACC at the last minute.

As Australians saw in the AAT, cynical governments have the capacity to pervert bodies intended to act in a disinterested fashion. This fate could beset the NACC in future governments not committed to the democratic contest. The current design allows the government to appoint the NACC’s commissioner as well as to control the balance of power in the parliamentary committee that supervises it. While the post-democracy party is in opposition, that is a useful protection. When the post-democracy party takes office, it becomes risky. The government committee controls the body’s budget too, and in this way can limit the function of the commission, just as they tried to cripple the Auditor-General.

Both our powerful friends in the anglosphere are in considerably more urgent danger. Joe Biden’s Democrats face a crucial midterm election in a few weeks that might, if all the dice roll in their favour, enable them to take the steps to protect the USA from becoming a Christian Nationalist illiberal nation. Authoritarianism looms.

The first two years of Biden’s term have been crippled by only nominally holding the balance of power in the Senate. Technically Kamala Harris’s vote should break ties in the Democrat’s favour. Functionally two senators, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, have been playing for the Republican team, scuppering attempts to reform and protect their flawed democracy, hanging on by threads.

The hope is that Republican overreach in overturning Roe v Wade in the Supreme Court, with more threats of reactionary social oppression to come, might stimulate enough voter interest to overwhelm all the structural disadvantages faced by the Democrats. The results will be watched with bated breath.

Disastrous plunges in the British pound this week have signalled the crash and burn intent of dedicated ultra-free market Prime Minister Liz Truss and her academic economist Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng. The 2021 essay’s list of competitive authoritarian features in the UK government has become more extensive since then. Now, ultra libertarian ideologues have gone further than even their thinktank provocateurs observe is wise.

The crashing of the economy is not an accident. It is intentional and part of the extended plan should the government survive long enough to implement it. Cutting tax for the rich and robbing the government of the money it needs to function is part of killing statism. If there is no money to spend, the government must be shaved back to bloodied bones.

Brexit was born of the misery and anger forged from austerity measures that followed the 2008 global crash. Brexit has, in turn, compounded the economic misery of the British, augmented by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the pandemic. The idea that the Conservative government should crash the economy to restructure it based on more austerity appears foolhardy.

The whispered corollary for many ultra-free market spruikers is that the masses must suffer. The supply side or trickle-down economics being practiced by Truss and Kwarteng has long been established to be a farce based on faulty – or motivated – reasoning. It is clear that the more free market policies implemented, the more the UK, US and Australia have seen inequality mount with the rich and the masses divided by a chasm of social immobility.

This British experiment will show whether ultra free market ideology looks closer to fascism in practice. Surveillance and suppression of the suffering masses, as government cuts services, looks likely to be the result. Priti Patel’s time in the Home Office crushing the right to protest will become invaluable.

Truss is, as the 2021 essay forecast, entirely immersed in the world and personnel of the billionaires’ ultra free market lobby groups masquerading as thinktanks. Her Chancellor is an ideologue and true believer in the message. The “thinktanks” face the moment of testing: who was the liberty for that they championed? Only the Ultra High Net Worth class and their High Net Worth enablers?

Both the UK and the US stand on the brink of something unthinkable a decade ago. Australians must fight to ensure that our radicalised right (and the “thinktanks” that foster the internationally-networked radicalisation) don’t take us back down that path. We have a chance to rebalance the playing field. Will our right resume playing the game as a contest, or continue to try to trash the field?


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  1. Michael Taylor

    Liz Truss is to be congratulated for setting a course for the destruction of the Tories. From the latest polling (read out to me today), if there were an election this weekend the Tories would retain only two seats in the hallowed halls of Westminster.

    And don’t get me started on those two rogue Democrat senators in the US. What the hell is their agenda?

  2. Andrew J. Smith

    Important issues. Also London’s 55 Tufton St. think tanks, influencing the Tories, are finally getting attention from legacy media i.e. BBC in ’55 Tufton Street: The other black door shaping British politics’ (, but bland/anodyne (‘he said, she said’) compared to the more incisive investigative work of ByLine Times, New European, Open Democracy and (surprisingly) a little from The Guardian.

    What the BBC and Oz media miss, or avoid on think tanks, unlike indie media, are the clear links with US fossil fueled and nativist ‘radical right libertarians’ within global network ‘Atlas’ (inc.IPA & CIS), which is now known in the US indie media and academic circles as simply ‘#KochNetwork’, and their ‘public choice theory’ developed by ‘segregation’ economist James Buchanan, who made his allies Friedman and Rand ideas, appear soft.

    For deeper and broader understanding of ideology, concepts and early tactics, one always goes back to the great women in the US i.e. investigative work of NY’ers Jane Mayer in ‘Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right’ and historian Nancy MacLean’s* ‘Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America’, and too many others to mention here.

    *Credibility came from stumbling across Buchanan, not looking for him, when doing desk research and literature review on gender related issues of the segregation times.

  3. Andy56

    yes, the left play by marques de queensberry rules and the right kicks you in the nuts.

    But lets not kid ourselves. We have an ignorant electorate who are easily lied to. This is the real issue. We need more burning at the proverbial stake those who love to fuck us. Abbott and all the libs that followed, all abject arseholes.

    We can start by lowering the pay scales of our pollies. Make it a place you come, contribute and then piss off. Limit the terms, limit their ability to financially capitalise on their position. ABSOLUTELY NO OUTSIDE FUNDING. They dont like it, they can fuck off. Plenty more people volunteering who are probably more qualified to do a better job. Is pauline hanson worth $300,000 a year? Is Tony abbott worth $300,000 a year? Fuck we are a timid lot.

  4. A Commentator

    I think the greatest threat to democracy is the rise and expansion of autocracy, and the inclination of some to accept this as inevitable.
    We seem to focussed on the domestic partisan point scoring, rather than on the spread of neo fascist autocracy.
    Our complacency won’t be appreciated by future generations

  5. Canguro

    AC, with all due respect, I think future generations won’t be at all focused on what preceding generations did or didn’t do in relation to decisions in regard to the types of political systems chosen to govern society. The existential question of survival will predominate; don’t lose focus on the fact that the planet is undergoing the inception of an anthropogenically-based apocalyptic disaster, a making of our own ignorant decision to accord utter preference to allocating primacy to carbon-based fossil fuel sources, and that understandable but fatal decision to go with the carbon flow is ultimately the undoing of what we take for granted as the ‘modern age’ of humanity’s short existence on this multi-billion year old lump of planetary rock.

  6. Terence Mills

    Liz Truss is trying to explain her crazy policies with a media blitz to convince Brits that her policy of tax cuts for the wealthy, funded by massive borrowing at a time when interest rates and inflation are rising, is the way to go.

    I heard her on the BBC last night and she was far from convincing and couldn’t seem to cobble together any sensible arguments for the action she and her gung-ho Chancellor are taking.

    It seems that if you are going to get ahead in conservative politics these days you need to be a convincing liar ; Scotty knew that but Liz didn’t get the memo.

  7. Lucy Hamilton

    AC and Cangaru – you are both correct. The crises go hand in hand.

    As the crises, derived from and/or exacerbated by, the climate emergency escalate, people become scared. Cynical or rotten forces capitalise on the fear of the event or people displaced (or distractions like the minuscule number of trans people) to compound the emotional turmoil. Strong “man” politicians are chosen.

    These autocrats of the right support (are supported by?) fossil fuel. Chaos suits them and their kleptocrat pals. A melted Arctic suits Russian expansionist dreams and mining corporations around the globe. Disaster capitalism makes a fortune. A future panicked public will be exploitable.

    So the autocrats we elect (and lose the power to remove) are likely to steer us to the worse predictions of civilisational collapse.

    We may get our act together, but I find it ever harder to envisage reasoned global cooperation.

    Thanks for your excellent contribution – as usual – Andrew. It’s important that we understand the global and disastrous impact of these so-called thinktanks. The Atlas Network is made up of 100s (4 or 5, too early in the day to remember numbers) of organisations funded in large part by ff and friends. In most countries they push ultra free market policies with deregulation of all the harms that poison our lives. Britain is a live experiment in how this works.

    The Monbiot article linked in the piece quotes one of the senior ultra free-market men writing that climate change would likely cause trouble around the equator but would balance out with aiding Greenland. The loss of life occluded in that observation is monstrous. They literally don’t care how many go hungry in Britain or die in the global catastrophe underway. We’re all disposable. Thanos was kind by comparison.

  8. Henry Johnston

    Thank you, Lucy, for an incisive article. What amazes me about the Tories is their collective myopia about events in Scotland and across the Irish Sea in the northern portion of Ireland. As the acronym suggests the SNP dominate in Scotland under a nationalist banner. And as Tory econocrats work to sink the British economy in real time, the Scots — including those who recently voted to remain in the Union — are watching their hard-won prosperity, crash toward poverty levels. A similar shift is occurring in the occupied six counties of the north of Ireland. Both enclaves voted against BREXIT, and it seems likely Scots will vote to leave the Union and join the EU. Similarly it appears inevitable the occupied six counties will re-join the Irish Republic: despite the efforts of Unionists. Self-interest is a powerful motivator especially in the face of economic collapse. If the Tories continue their current trajectory, aided, and abetted by an apathetic electorate, their beloved Great Britain will continue to morph into pipsqueak Little Britain. Keir Starmer has his work cut out, whining pressure from think tanks, notwithstanding.

  9. Lucy Hamilton

    “Truss’s chief economic adviser is Matthew Sinclair, formerly chief executive of a similar lobbying group, the Taxpayers’ Alliance. It is also funded obscurely by foreign donors. Sinclair wrote a book called Let Them Eat Carbon, arguing against action to prevent climate breakdown. It claimed that: “Equatorial regions might suffer, but it is entirely possible that this will be balanced out by areas like Greenland.” In other words, we can trade the lives of billions of people against the prospects of some of the least inhabited places on Earth. It’s among the most callous and ignorant statements I’ve ever seen.”
    From the Monbiot link

  10. Lucy Hamilton

    Completely agree, Henry. The last shreds of empire are likely to crumble in the years ahead. Very Little England indeed.

    See the quote I added while you were typing. The ultra free-market ideologues aren’t “whining.” The call is coming from inside the house.

  11. A Commentator

    Today the world is closer to nuclear war than at any point in 60 years
    The issue most likely to cause many millions of deaths in the immediate future is nuclear war
    Autocratic regimes are emboldened and seeking to expand their territory and influence
    …but most posts and comments are about petty domestic politics or other international issues of far less significance
    I think it’s strange.

  12. New England Cocky


    Mike Seccombe, Exclusive: IPA has lost all funding from ASX 100; The Saturday Paper, 1 October 2022, p1, 10-11.

    Thinking economists have abandoned the IPA because the neo-liberal ideas have not changed since the 70s and they have failed to have any sensible new ideas since. Similar criticisms are made of the (right wing) Centre for Independent Studies and the Menzies Research Centre.

    Instead, the IPA now appears to be a training ground for potential inept candidates for pre-selection by the unelected political hacks of the Liarbral Party.

  13. Canguro

    AC, millions, billions of words have been uttered over generations, millennia, in relation to suspected or actual turns of events. Opinions earnestly offered. Arguments for and against the issues de jour. Weighty views. Trivial ones too. Pub talk. Kitchen talk. Pillow whispers. Views philosophical, social, temperate, intemperate; heated words, reasoned words, idiotic words, insane words.

    Life rolls on. What is, is. What will be, will be. Whether another war erupts and involves nuclear weapons, who knows. Until it does everything is mere speculation, and the proffering of views and the arguments against the speculative eruption of such a conflict have as much weight as the fly crawling across the kitchen bench. Your view of the strangeness is also strange.. you seem to believe earnest discussion on an internet blog can somehow lessen or mitigate what may or may not occur.

    People talk. It’s a genetic & psychological predisposition. Action is something else altogether. If somebody, somewhere, whether in France, Israel, India, Pakistan, America, England or Russia or somewhere else, under the ocean’s waves, hits a button that unleashes a nuclear weapon on a target far away, they won’t be considering the pros & cons and earnest discussions & fears of people like yourself. No siree…

  14. Steve Davis

    The history of liberalism compels a drift to authoritarianism, after all, liberalism is based on the sick Hobbesian view that members of society see all other members as enemies to be feared. When people think that way, they welcome strong leaders for the protection they provide.

    The autocratic regimes so feared by AC are not an anomaly – they are a natural progression – the point to which we are all heading.

  15. Greg

    AC, strange indeed, seems decades of msm training audiences to focus on the small fish is working. Humanity is above the neo-con tricks, distractions and cons supported by media, gov, think tanks etc. The official narrative is basic junk but because it is repeated every hour on the hour it holds some sway. Fortunately, sometimes humanity does manage to shine through. Take for example the journalistic distortions made about the new Italian PM as being “far right wing”. The hype of lying journalist is dispelled in a little over 2 mins here:
    YouTube video > “Italy’s new Prime Minister bells the cat” September 2022
    If every leader of every country was in contact with their own heart we could dispense the parasites of the WEF, WHO & UN overnight.

  16. Lucy Hamilton

    Oh dear, we have a “Great Resetter” in the house. For those not attuned to Greg’s tag words:

    I just tweeted about Seccombe’s article, Cocky. Great news. The various bodies (working to create a sense of momentum by their infinite replication) are still dominating the pages of The Australian. Read the Monbiot article I linked for the strategies they use to create the effect in the British sphere.

    I can’t remember the name of the global pol academic and specialist I heard saying that he thought the nuclear destruction threat was far more imminent and that we’d be lucky to live long enough to see how bad the climate crisis could become. Yay?

  17. Greg

    Hi Lucy, Klaus and his right-hand mam, Professor Yuval Noah ‘Humans are hackable animals, free will is over’ Harari are in the house? Cool.

  18. Michael Taylor

    …but most posts and comments are about petty domestic politics or other international issues of far less significance
    I think it’s strange.

    AC, there are over 10,000 articles on this site. Please feel free to paste your comment in every one of them that is not about what you want them to be about.

  19. Chris Davis

    Whilst the hairy-chested olde worlde ff plutocrats and the militarists quiver in the face of globalisation, it seems nothing will dissuade them from massive funding of racism, anti-science, ballistics, mindless bling-comfort and divisive religious fundamentalism. It matters not whether their merry-go-round of lies, concealment and largesse begins or ends with think-tanks, msm, or the emplacement of despots. Likely the innate feebleness and cowardice of aspiring autocrats and their harbouring of revenge behind righteous correctitude breeds the current rise of the model despots. The vicious mix of progressive oppression accompanied by guile sees the hapless masses again and again abrogate their responsibilities to those despots until it’s too late. And those despots will do anything to succeed in their quest from potty to grave – including the pressing of “red buttons” or any other convenient annihilation. “Civilisation” doesn’t have a good record in prevention, even via democracy, but it’s the best we’ve got, along with the ceaseless shout-out. Go for it!

  20. Phil Pryor

    M T, there are many posts and comments, but on this, more openness, awareness, relevance, perspective from some might help, so…I’ll go.

  21. Phil Pryor

    Just missed the edit, but, Jeffrey Sachs has a very good article, available on Menadue’s Pearls…

  22. Michael Taylor

    Point taken, Phil. But nonetheless, you know what AC’s like.

    He gets a tick for openness, awareness, and a different perspective, but he fails the “relevance” test.

    He only comments here to criticise. People, of course, do have a right to criticise, but he’s taken it way past boring.

    Have you noticed, btw, that he only comments on Binoy’s or Lucy’s posts? That’s a dead giveaway: He’s nothing but a sniper.

  23. Lucy Hamilton

    I didn’t realise that Binoy and I were his special targets. What did I do to upset you, AC?

    My big picture point is that autocrats endanger us from all these angles. We are more likely to suffer extreme climate catastrophe and/or nuclear harm under autocrats. I try to point out the way the radical right around the world is making autocrats more likely, with a special focus on the way the radical right has infected our own “conservative” parties.

  24. Michael Taylor

    PS: I’ve known AC for about 15 years and we get along rather well. I know him well enough to confess that gets his kicks out of annoying people.

    He’s caught me on a day where I have a low tolerance level. Knowing that he’s only here to annoy people – without offering anything constructive – has tested my patience.

    Perhaps I should bow out and come back when I’m in a better mood.

  25. Michael Taylor

    That’s got me beat, Lucy. My guess is that he only wants to hear about his bad guys so that is who he expects everyone else to write about.

    That he reserves 99% of his comments for you and Binoy should come as an honour. To me it shows you are good. To him, it shows he thinks you’re good enough to write about any topic. If you were to write about a topic of his choice he’d be the first one here to offer glowing praise.

    PS: His pet hates are people saying bad things about Qantas/Alan Joyce or people saying good things about unions.

    Gawd, now I’ve done it. Expecting an “Alan Joyce is wonderful and the unions killed Qantas” rant at any moment. 😁

  26. Michael Taylor

    Phil, when I get on the computer later I’ll have a look at how I can extend the edit period by another five minutes.

    It can be done – I’ve done it before – but I can’t remember how I did it. 😁

  27. Michael Taylor

    Hah, fluked it. Found it in five seconds.

    Editing time has been extended to 20 minutes.

  28. A Commentator

    1/. I think my first comment on this thread was directly relevant to the issue of the future of democracy. Some replied and the discussion took a different direction. Please note that I participated with a total of ONE further comment. I’m sure you’ve previously noticed on political blogs that the subject can move away from the original post.
    2/. I know I’ve commented on Binoy’s posts from time to time. But I had no idea that I’d made any point of specifically commenting on Lucy’s. In future I’ll try to spread the love more widely.
    3/. I’ve explained that (in the context of this serious international crisis) I’ve become somewhat disengaged with the triviality of domestic partisan politics. To me there are far more fundamental issues at stake and I will probably continue to say that.
    4/. These days, I rarely use a laptop. So while your offer (again) to post my opinon is appreciated, providing one via my phone from the deck of my beach house probably isn’t practical. But thank you again for the offer.
    5/. I think it was 2006 that I first annoyed you, so happy anniversary!

  29. A Commentator

    …and what a marvellous job Allan Joyce does!

  30. Michael Taylor

    … if it weren’t for those damned unions. 😀

  31. Michael Taylor

    PS: My rant was uncalled for. I’ll be removing it.

  32. A Commentator

    It’s fine no need to remove it ! I should be a little more circumspect

  33. Michael Taylor

    Too late. As the person you’ve come to love and respect… I did the honourable thing and removed it.

    Gawd, now I’m hijacking Lucy’s fine article. 🤦🏻‍♂️

    Let’s get the show back on the road.

  34. Douglas Pritchard

    Whether its a democracy or an autocratic government in power then it will only remain that way as long as it runs an effective, supporting, media campaign.
    A true democracy would proudly arrange for a guillotine to be displayed in every city centre, and tested now and again.
    Without it we have the likes of Morrison, Bush, Chaney et al enjoying a hearty breakfast each day, and a roof over their head.
    The peasants send their taxes off to France to pay for the unjustly terminated contract.
    And in Iraq, Afghanistan and a multitude of other US bomb disposal sites, they tend the grave sites of departed loved ones.

  35. Michael Taylor

    Douglas, you are right. Without Murdoch there wouldn’t have been a Trump, Johnson, Morrison et al. And neither would have Brexit got the ‘yes’ vote. Observing that the ‘no’ vote looked a clear winner, the Murdoch media in the UK played the ‘race card’ and timed it perfectly: just before the vote, appealing to the undecided.

  36. Michael Taylor

    Both the UK and the US stand on the brink of something unthinkable a decade ago.

    I can’t tell you how much I love that line. In a way, it is chilling.

  37. Andy56

    Chris Davis i take issue with you “but it’s the best we’ve got,” is such a cop out. Its just acceptance of the lowest common denominator. Democracy is fucked because we fail to improve it . We failed to get rid of inept governments hence encouraging that behaviour. Where is the control on control freaks? Where is the control on arbitrary war mongering, ie Howard and Iraq. We failed to question the basics. Economics and intents. We failed to hold to account those who choose to fuck us up like Abbott and NBN. Democracy has been allowed to wither on the vine. Governments no longer work for us but regulate a neo liberal economy. You want to know why the west is getting restless, here it is in its stark reality. And then we have idiots who say we dont pay pollies enough money. So who sets their salaries, their appointed bunnies. We need to take career out of politics. Make their salary the minimum salary, same pension entitlements as everyone else, not a penny till they turn 70. ( i am a pissed off soon to be pensioner). I bet the economy and democracy will work a charm when their arse is on the line. I take issue with those who say we shouldnt hound the ex PMs. They need to pay for their ineptitude and indifference. If its party first, line them up.

  38. Michael Taylor

    Truss’s approval rating is now at -37.

  39. wam

    “We have a chance to rebalance the playing field. Will our right resume playing the game as a contest, or continue to try to trash the field?” wow, lucy, vive la difference? The pommie poor got conned into brexit and are now sliding back to their pre-thatcher hardship. As for the septics they deserved trump but surely not again?
    the switch from no to yes, the switch from hillary to donald and the miracle are down to last minute traumas that were convincing to the sheep..

  40. Pingback: BBC: 55 Tufton Street London – Libertarian Think Tanks – Koch Network | Education Training Society

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