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Democracy: The Genie is out of the bottle

Equality and freedom are two core component of democracy. Whether it’s me, you or Malcolm Turnbull walking into that polling booth on election day – everybody’s vote is equal and we are free to vote however we like.

But there’s a lot more to democracy than that. In the often quoted words of American President Abraham Lincoln:

Democracy is government of the people, by the people, for the people.

The concept of democracy has been around for thousands of years, but the way it works in practice has started to change this century. And that change has seen the average person in the street unwittingly gain more power in the political process – here’s how…

The balance of power in a democracy

A democracy is arguably the only model of government that aims to distribute power equally – to give everyone an equal voice, an equal say. But history has shown that we – the people – are not particularly good at holding on to democracy.

Democracies have risen and fallen over the centuries. And when they’ve fallen, it’s been pretty much the same story every time – the average punter has let the balance of power that exists between the rights of the individual and the rights of the government shift too far in favour of the government. While this sometimes happens as a violent coup, more commonly it happens as people give up freedoms – like their right to privacy – one at a time. In the words of the 20th century’s most famous enemy of democracy, Mr Adolf Hitler:

“The best way to take control over a people and control them utterly is to take a little of their freedom at a time. To erode rights by a thousand tiny and almost imperceptible reductions. In this way, the people will not see those rights and freedoms being removed until past the point at which these changes cannot be reversed.” (Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf)

Historically, one of the reasons that people have let democracy slip away from them is that they have taken it for granted.

In Australia today, many people take democracy for granted because they misunderstand the crucial role that democracy plays in controlling so many key aspects of our daily lives. From what we learn in school, how we drive, how much pay we take home right through to which foods we are able to buy at the supermarket – there is scarcely an aspect of what we do that isn’t impacted by legislation which is created and managed by the government – and therefore ultimately controlled by the democratic process. And yet rather than embracing democracy – people are disillusioned by it.

Disillusionment with democracy

The main institution that most people associate with democracy is their right to vote for a Member of Parliament (an MP) to represent their area (or electorate). That MP – at least so the theory goes – takes their place in the House of Representatives and should be a voice for the people of their electorate. And through that MP – so the theory continues – we all have a say and a vote in how our country is run.

That’s how it’s supposed to be. But in practice, when we head to the polling booths these days – unless you vote for an independent – your vote is normally for one of two political parties rather than for someone to specifically represent your electorate.

When you combine this with the fact that elected MPs often act like they are voted in to rule over us rather than to serve us – the result has been many that many Australians have lost faith in the very concept of democracy, feeling both that their vote doesn’t actually represent their views and that those entrusted with political power through their vote are not using that power particularly well.

In the last federal election, despite it being compulsory to vote, the Australian Electoral commission estimate that one in five eligible voters didn’t vote! And one in four young voters didn’t even bother to enroll.

In fact, in a Lowy Institute poll earlier this year, only 65% of Australians felt that a democracy was preferable to any other kind of government. And among 18 to 29 year olds, it was under 50%. When the Lowy Institute delved into the reasons for this – it turned out that it wasn’t that people thought we should become a fascist state. In fact, the most common reason cited for not believing in democracy was:

“democracy only serves the interests of a few and not the majority of society”

Since democracy as an institution was intended to achieve the exact opposite of this – then the most important thing that this poll tells us is that there is something very wrong with the way we are ‘doing’ democracy today in Australia, and that if we don’t lift our game, we are at risk of losing it.

The good news is that although many don’t realise it, the face of democracy has been changing this century – and strangely enough, as a result, the balance of power has been shifting back in the people’s favour.

The changing face of democracy in the 21st century

The forgotten pillars of democracy

Despite the fact that the role of the average punter in the political process is often associated almost solely with our right to vote, the reality is that there are a number of other core principles of democracy that we often forget about – including our right to freedom of information and freedom of speech.

Our ability to take advantage of these freedoms has changed drastically this century – and that change has brought about what is arguably one of the biggest shifts in the way democracy works since Aristotle first said “Let’s have a show of hands” back in Ancient Greece. This shift has happened not through our antiquated parliamentary houses and the parliamentarians who sit in them – but through the information revolution brought about by the internet. Thanks to the internet, we now have far greater:

  • Freedom of Information through ready access to unfiltered primary sources of information around the Globe; and
  • Freedom of speech through an ability to both voice our opinion and connect with others in a way that we never have before.

And many politicians don’t like it.

Politicians are quite happy to talk philosophically about the importance of ‘Freedom of information’ and ‘Freedom of speech’ – because in days gone past, these were principals which in practice would cost an individual a tremendous amount of time, effort and money to use. This dissuaded most from doing so – and instead we all had to rely on the ‘fourth estate’ – the media – to check out and validate politicians’ claims and press releases.

This meant that the average punter had very little – if any – opportunity to personally check out whether what politicians were telling us was true. And we had very little opportunity to have a say about what was going on – other than through an organised protest march or perhaps a letter to the editor or your local MP. The media acted very much as an information filter – and on the whole , we had no option but to believe them and hope that they were doing their job to validate facts, identify discrepancies and tell us what need to know to make an informed judgment about who is running the country.

(Given the quality – or lack thereof – that comes out of some of the mainstream media outlets today, a number of whom seem to act more like extensions of the government’s press office than newspapers – this is somewhat disturbing.)

This century however, with so much information readily available on the internet, we don’t have to rely on the media to do our fact-checking for us. Each of us can download an individual politician’s expenses from the Department of Finance and see for ourselves exactly how many chopper rides they’ve taken. And once accessed, we can readily share this information with people around the globe – both known to us and unknown to us – in a matter of seconds.

The boundaries have shifted

Greater freedom of information and freedom of speech has brought about a shift in the boundaries of the democratic power-base. We – the people – have unwittingly claimed back some of the power that has been stripped away from us over the years. Politicians don’t have to wait for a poll now to hear what people think – they can go online and read all about it – in online comments on mainstream media news site, on independent news site like the AIMN, on social media, on blogs – the list goes on.

Where previously politicians could cultivate a relationship with key people in the media, and to some extent manage and control what was presented to the general populace and what was amplified – this has now become a lot more difficult. We now have a far greater say in what we think is important than we did before.

This shift in the balance of power has literally brought governments down. You need look no further than the recent Arab Spring democracy uprisings in the Middle East, which many argue would not have happened without social media.

Of course anything powerful can be used both for good and for bad – and we have also seen examples of how the internet and social media has been used to harm. But even taking that into account, the power to have a say in the destiny of our nation is now at least partially back where the founders of democracy intended it to be – in the people’s hands.

We now have REAL freedom of information and REAL freedom of speech – where previously we just had it in theory. Ok, maybe ‘real’ is a bit strong – we are living in the age of ‘on-water matters’ after all. So let’s just say that our ability to exercise freedom of information and freedom of speech is much greater now than it ever has been.

The Genie is out of the bottle

The internet – or information Genie – is out of the bottle, and governments around the world are feeling the pinch, and rushing to do what they can to get that Genie back under control again.

This change is upsetting the political apple-cart – and there are those in power who don’t like that they can no longer control the narrative quite as well as they used to be able to. Our recently dethroned ex-prime minister Tony Abbott was well known for criticising twitter – calling it ‘electronic graffiti‘ and Australia ‘at its worst’. And the government of Nauru recently shut down social media primarily to silence opposition.

The challenge that we now face is to understand and take advantage of this power shift, to use this Genie to correct the boundaries around our government’s power and restore the balance.

With these newly accessible freedoms, we can more actively participate in democracy – we can drive change from the bottom up instead of waiting for our politicians to get out of their hermetically sealed bubbles steeped in outdated political traditions. Without these freedoms, we risk going back to a nation fed on what the media tells us, blithely oblivious to key aspects of what our government is doing on our behalf and in our name.

There’s more to this …

Politics is not something many people talk about often. Democracy even less so. There’s a lot more to cover on this topic, so I’ve split the discussion on this into four articles – this one plus a further three – coming soon – which will cover:

  • Voting: it’s all about the money
  • Information: it’s all about control
  • Democracy: it’s all about you.

And finally – remember curiosity didn’t kill the cat, complacency did

One of the things our disengagement with democracy has done is to make many feel disempowered – like the things that are happening in the world today, or even just in our nation, are somebody else’s problem, that there is nothing that we can do to fix them. They aren’t somebody else’s problem. They are our problem. And there is plenty that each of us can do. Many pollies want us to stay out of it, to stay disengaged – a public that doesn’t ask questions doesn’t create problems.

But heed this warning from a previous president of the United States – John Adams:

“Remember, democracy never lasts long……There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”

The way to stop this from happening is to get and stay engaged with what is going on politically. To have your say. To engage with others about real issues.

Public opinion matters big-time now – arguably more than it ever did. And you play a role in forming that opinion every time you have a conversation with someone about national and global issues. It turns out we really are all only separated by six degrees – even less so within an individual country. This means that the conversations you have with your friends, family, colleagues and even online connections matter. Whether those conversations are in person, on Facebook, on a news site, a blog or on Twitter – it’s those conversations that change public opinion. And changing public opinion impacts the way our government acts.

That’s true democracy in action.

This article was first published on ProgressiveConversation.


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  1. Roswell

    I do enjoy your posts, Kate. This is no exception.

  2. Kate M

    Ta Roswell 🙂

  3. Matthew Oborne

    Democracy is funny, many soviets understood communism was a goal not something they had fully, yet we tend to think we have democracy, understanding it is a goal to work towards rather than thinking we did it! we are a democracy.

    As an ideology we are far from being a democracy.

    Our politicians will misrepresent their actual goals.

    Democracy needs to be free of this kind of fraud so people can make real choices rather than fall for fraud.

    Everything a government plans to achieve should be posted publicly and changes announced when decided not left to political timing.

    Electoral boundaries should ensure smaller inner suburbs electorates are shifted to reflect larger outer suburbs electorates.

    The public should have legal comeback when election promises are breached.

    The machinery of democracy is socialism, public ownership of the essentials of life and those essentials should always be affordable.

    We instead have internet sites we cant visit like wikileaks, we have attacks on the public broadcaster to force it to submit to being a propaganda tool.

    We have inner city electorates having the same representation as seats with over 100 000 populations.

    We have lobbyists from corporations having more say than the public.

    The AEC needs greater powers and pre enrolments of minors for when they turn 18. I would suggest a pre enrolement age of 14 to vote at 18 so snap elections dont disenfranchise the youth.

    capped campaigning where candidates are given access to the same resources as rich counterparts would be giving equal chance despite individual fiscal restraint.

    Basic rights. without a bill of rights that is upheld what democracy do we have anyway?

    To assume this is currently democracy, where a media baron with 70 percent saturation of the print media can bombard the public with lies and propaganda, where a party can make it’s election platform more secure by falsely agreeing to wedge issues like health education, public broadcasting welfare and taxes then break every wedge issue is not democracy.

    If this government was a consumer purchase we would have the right to return it because it is not as stated on the package.

    Australian Border force were clearly going to randomly stop and annoy people in Melbourne or the government would have immediately stopped it.

    Given that had Melbournians just accepted the goose stepping black shirts of the border force stopping people at will in public areas they would surely have expanded it to what would now be an even more tyrannical nation.

    Our rights have been under attack for as long as we have had rights.

    accepting democracy as a goal we can aim for.

    We deserve a democracy one day we might even get it.

  4. Kate M

    Great points Matthew. There’s a lot of ground to cover on this topic. That’s why I ended up splitting my article into four – and I haven’t even covered half of what you’ve noted above 🙂

  5. Matters Not

    Kate M, there’s much that troubles me with this article. In brief, the conclusions you reach are at odds with mine.

  6. i have a nugget of pure green

    democracy doesn’t suicide, it is slowly poisoned and murdered by the apathetic, who neither value democracy nor their role in it.

  7. Adrianne Haddow

    A thought provoking article, Kate. Excellent comments from Matthew.

    Sadly, although social media does give us access to more opinions and can make a difference to some of the policies paraded endlessly before us by those who hold the power (e.g changes brought about by petitions via change .org and get up) it often feels as though we opine a lot but don’t do a lot.

    The really important changes that the government is set on achieving, are usually unaffected by any amount of clamour from we plebs.

    The ongoing battle to save the Great Barrier Reef from the degradation that the Adani company and its very cashed up supporters in Australia wish to visit upon it, is a case in point. One step forward, three steps back has been the case. And it looks as if they are going to win.
    The attempt to stop the Shenhua coal mine from despoiling the water table on the Liverpool plains looks set to fail despite overwhelming support from the public.
    The vast number of “fracking’ licences handed out for WA and other states seems set to continue because Gina and her mates wish it so and doesn’t inspire confidence in our ability to change anything democratically.

    The weight of community opinion doesn’t work when we are fighting the cashed up lobbyists who have paid good money to have their will inflicted upon the community. At least not in this Australian version of democracy.

    The data retention laws smack of surveillance aimed at keeping those who dissent powerless, even more so those who manage to achieve an effective movement. Strange how the very things we criticise in other ‘less enlightened’ governments have found their way into our legislation.

    The stranglehold that Murdoch has on the media in this country prevents any real knowledge of what is happening. His ability to demonise opposing politicians ( Rudd, Gillard, Whitlam) and the constant barrage of spiteful commentary on them and their personal lives changes the perceptions of less informed voters, turning the political arena into a popularity contest rather than policy driven decision making.

    A good example is the shift to the Libs on the back of shiny Malcolm. Another example is the reputation for good governance afforded to squeaky clean Mike Baird who has been steadily selling off NSW infrastructure and attempting to nobble local councils through amalgamation.

    The ‘conversation’ on tax reform appears to be a one sided conversation. We all know what needs to be changed, yet handouts to mining companies are continuing, the obscene tax evasion by the Malcolms, the Ginas and Twiggys and their band of merry elites will continue, and the rest of us will pay increased GST.

    The ‘free’ trade agreements will continue to chip away at the fabric of our society for a long time to come. The government advertisements telling us what a great deal these agreements are, presented by ‘real’ people, are paid for with our taxes.
    The fact that the details of the TTP were not available to public scrutiny until the deal had been signed, doesn’t sit well with my idea of democracy.

    Until we have clear and independent scrutiny of this government, its lobbyists and its actions on their behalf, we cannot claim to live in a democracy.

  8. Chris the Greatly Dismayed

    It is a terrible thing that the term “social justice warrior” is becoming an epithet among some young people. Apparently being an apathetic ignoramus is quite fine though. : (
    Electronic communication certainly seems to suit controlling dissent. No one can ‘block’ the postie.

  9. Kate M

    MN – am interested in how your conclusions differ and why! I’m sure your ideas are well thought out – so I would love more info 🙂

  10. Kate M

    Adrianne – thanks for your comments. I agree completely with what you’ve said. The Shenhua mine is a perfect example of this. I wasn’t trying to suggest that we YET have the full power we should have in our democracy – and I will make that a little clearer in my further posts on this. What I was trying to suggest is that we have more power than we did – and we have the potential to take back even more if use the power that we do have. I don’t believe we can claim to live in a democracy – in the true sense of the word – and I’ll outline that more in my next article – but I do think there’s hope. And I think now is the first time there’s been hope for literally centuries. But I’ll be interested to hear what you think when you’ve read more of what I’ve written on this – if you have the time and the inclination to do so 🙂

  11. Trevr

    Ever since Women organised so as to have the right to vote, the Shitstem has acted and enacted a rear guard response to limit the right of Australians having meaningful intercourse with the Political Elite which would give Democracy its proper voice.

  12. ajcanberra

    A very good article.
    Apathy is always a killer, the best tool the powerful have. Unfortunately it’s my experience that most Australians are horrendously apathetic about politics and how we’re governed. So many have convinced themselves that nothing can be done, and therefore don’t notice the surfeit of information at their disposal.
    How to turn that around, well, I don’t know. I don’t even know if it can be done.

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