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Our democracy is weakening – here’s how we can stop the rot

By Matthew Butera

Australians are living through the longest period of sustained democratic dissatisfaction in the nation’s history, according to the Australian Electoral Study.

Since 2007, measures of satisfaction with democracy have consistently fallen, while measures of distrust in government have consistently risen. The establishment of a Democratic Commission at the Commonwealth level is the key institutional piece of our outdated democratic jigsaw puzzle that must be put together to reverse this trend.

In a century where our democracy will continue to be tested by known and unknown threats domestic and abroad, such a dearth of trust in, and satisfaction with, our governance system represents plainly unsustainable footing. Democracy’s strength over all other systems is its capacity for public dialogue, and its mechanisms that support the exercising of the populace’s will. These indicators are symptoms of a system in disrepair, its strengths decaying.

As Freedom House identifies annually, the democratic recession is a global problem, affecting traditional beacons of democracy, such as the United States and United Kingdom, as well as younger democracies, like India and Hungary. The drivers underpinning the democratic assault are many and varied. Internally, they include ineffective, self-interested governance that have eroded public trust, combined with more pronounced social, economic, and racial inequalities. Externally, carefully orchestrated, foreign-sponsored disinformation campaigns by more ambitious authoritarian regimes have sought to capitalise on these fragilities, further deepening social cleavages. Iraq and Afghanistan have not helped our cause, while the unfolding catastrophe in Ukraine is a case in point of the latter.

As members of a democratic society, when we express political support, it can be directed at an individual specifically, such as an MP, or can be expressed more broadly, by advocating for the rules and principles that comprise our democratic system’s foundation. The former is ‘specific’ support, the latter is ‘diffuse’ support. These categories also work in the inverse when we express dissatisfaction with politics. We can direct it at an individual, or to the system. Democracy scholar Mark Warren has written about “generalised distrust”, a phenomenon in which, after extended periods of democratic dissatisfaction and falling specific support, sections of society, alienated by a system they perceive as fundamentally broken, withdraw from it.

‘Generalised distrust’ is characterised by individuals who no longer participate in democratic processes, become non-participants in public discussions, and are more likely to commit criminal activity compared to the general population. Alternatively, these individuals can exercise their dissatisfaction by supporting political actors aiming to disrupt the system. In recent times, they’ve come in the form of Trump, Palmer, Farage, and Le Pen.

An electorate with an extended and growing trust deficit is harder to persuade to accept reform. They are far harder to persuade to accept reform that involves sacrifices for the greater good, such as forgoing benefits to fund support for societies’ vulnerable. In a century where these trade-off’s will be essential to maintaining Australia’s security and prosperity, there is an urgent need for a democratic breakthrough to restore public trust.

A Democratic Commission is a critical piece of the institutional puzzle required to effectively carry out this task. In the fashion of the Productivity Commission, the Democratic Commission would be an independent, arms-length public body whose core function would be to conduct research and advise the Commonwealth on Australia’s democratic performance. The Democratic Commission’s purpose would be to monitor and evaluate Australia’s democratic performance and recommend solutions to address areas in need of improvement. Relevant areas could include the functioning of the justice system, questions of integrity and governance, and the effectiveness of our human rights’ frameworks.

The Democratic Commission’s first task would be to undertake an extensive co-creation process to develop a shared conception of Australian Democracy. In similar fashion to Minister for Indigenous Australians’ Ken Wyatt and his Indigenous Voice co-design process, the Democratic Commission would traverse the country, combining townhalls with a national Democratic Summit, to establish a shared conception of Australian Democracy. This model would be used as the basis by which the Democratic Commission evaluates Australia’s democratic performance in a triennial Democratic Audit.

Currently, the Commonwealth Government does not possess a mechanism for the ongoing monitoring and evaluation of our democratic systems’ health and performance. This is a major risk, because it prevents attention and resources from being allocated systematically to addressing our democratic fragilities. The exposure of these fragilities to a substantial internal or external threat could undermine our ability to adequately respond to the next crisis.

There is an opportunity to restore Australian Democracy, by addressing the core issues that Australians nominate as underpinning their growing sense of distrust and dissatisfaction. A Democratic Commission should play a central role in this effort.

Failing to intervene in our democratic decline is a failure to appreciate Australian Democracy’s fragility, and its pre-eminence in underpinning our way of life. This is a mistake we cannot afford to make.


This article was originally published on Pearls and Irritations.


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  1. Phil Pryor

    It seems increasingly impossible to harness and develop talent, experence, skill, in general community politics, so, how can we retain what little we have, let alone do better in planning and consensus? Ignorant, aggressive, domineering loudmouths, together with cunning networkers, succeed.

  2. Douglas Pritchard

    We seem to spend a lot of time and effort telling other nations how they should behave, and at the same time we totallly ignore their core values.
    It is worth noting that China and India and burying the hatchet, so combined with Russia we have a lot of people adopting a common way of governing, and quite importantly (IMHO) an alternative core currency for trading.
    Russia, I believe is calling for payment in Roubles, for the gas that keeps Europe warm, and thats a legitimate move.
    What holds the West together has a lot to do with USA domination of arms, and currency, and energy, and they are fast losing their grip.

  3. New England Cocky

    “There is an opportunity to restore Australian Democracy, [Simples ….. vote below the line for every candidate and number COALiiton candidates last]

    ”by addressing the core issues that Australians nominate as underpinning their growing sense of distrust and dissatisfaction. [Simples ….. create a Federal ICAC to hold corrupt politicians and political parties accountable, with jail time preferably]

    ”A Democratic Commission should play a central role in this effort……[Why do we want another bureaucratic structure to tell us what we already know?]

  4. Josephus

    We can start by banning huge, secret donations from often corrupt corporations or mining interests. A register of donations, kept up to date. No tricks like dividing a huge sum into legal amounts. No persecution of whistleblowers. Education for conspiracy nutters. Prosecution of abusive men and sexual predators. No covering up of Ministers or similar for sex crimes, fraud, pseudo foundations for mates. No religious fanatics for PM or Ministers. A Third Voice. Human rights. Stop fossil fuels . Allow the rich to pay to decommission coal power- plants ; this lot are supposed to support business but they don’t when their influencers influence.

  5. Phil Pryor

    What delightful news, late Sat. Night, that C Ferriavanti Wells-Musso-lini-Substandard has been relevated to an appropriate level of relevance for low level consistency of anti-intellectual suppuration and public issuace of filth, depravity, misleading lines of intellectual unawareness and actual lost in the Sahara low levels of disputation.., so that she was, or must have been, or should have been , a shame and disgrace to this nation. The conservative line of political society is so low, below a bug’s botty and a snake’s sausage, that we are doomed as citizens to depravity, ignorance, theft, deception, betrayal, endless lying, duplicity, dishonesty and people like the doomed senator of self drenching fascist righteousness. VOMIT…

  6. Fred

    Actually i find the majority of politician,power hunger money grubbing liars.As for democracy its throw away word,it really does not exist,simple things like freedom of speech are censored more than ever,your rights as a individual have all but gone,the justice system is not on your side,and punish many innocents.The deplorable treatment of old aged people,the total disregard for our war veterans,the escalation abuse of our women and children,im sure i have missed a whole heap of stuff,but in a nutshell that’s your democracy

  7. Terence Mills

    Whilst it is not essential for a new ambassador to present his or her credentials to the prime minister they would normally do so to the Governor General representing the Queen as Australia’s Head of State.

    Convention dictates that High commissioners from realm countries (where Her Majesty The Queen is the Head of State) present letters of introduction to the Prime Minister rather than credentials to the Governor-General. They assume their place in the order of precedence from the date of their arrival in Canberra and may immediately perform all official functions.

    Protocol Branch arranges an appointment for a high commissioner to call on the Prime Minister for this purpose. There are no ceremonial elements to this call but, subject to the preferences of the Prime Minister of the day, photographs are usually taken.

    There is nothing in the protocol that prevents the prime minister from meeting with the new ambassador for China and, as he was carrying a message from President Xi Jinping and allowing for the parlous state of our relationship with China, it would probably have been diplomatically desirable for such a meeting to take place.

    However, this government are shaping up for a khaki election where they will want China to be positioned as the bogey-man and themselves as the strong national defender, so politics has stood in the way of us starting to mend the fractured relationship with our largest trading partner.

    I didn’t vote for them either !

  8. B Sullivan

    Just try giving everyone fair equal representation in Parliament so we can give genuine democracy a chance and see if it works. Proportional representation is fairer than the system currently in use which can potentially deny as many as half minus one of the voters in each electorate a voice in Parliament that actually represents their interests.

    Your entitlement to be represented and have a say in the running of this country depends on where you live and who your neighbours vote for. If you vote the same way as the majority in your electorate you get the representative of your choice. If you don’t vote the same way as the majority you get the representative of their choice.

    That’s why the Greens, who have the support of ten percent of all the votes in Australia only have one person in the House of Reps to voice their will, because only in one electorate have Greens voters had a majority. That is an awful lot of people being denied a fair go in saying how this country should be run. Fair democratic representation shouldn’t be denied because of where you live. Proportional voting is a much fairer solution.

    “Externally, carefully orchestrated, foreign-sponsored disinformation campaigns by more ambitious authoritarian regimes have sought to capitalise on these fragilities, further deepening social cleavages.”

    Why beat around the bush? You are obviously talking about the United States. No one disrupts democracies better than the US.

  9. Phil Lloyd

    Good article. I agree. This would provide a focus on a crucial part of a humane society that is in peril in Australia thanks in large part to Murdoch media power.
    I think “Democracy Commission” would be a simpler and better name.

  10. GL

    No, I don’t think he can because the disease of greed is always about finding new schemes to pay less tax and making ever bigger piles of money that can never be spent in his lifetime (or five lifetimes for that matter). It’s just Twiggy trying to wallpaper over the greedy power hungry Twiggy and creating an image of the New and Improved Kinder and Caring Environmental Twiggy.


  11. Stephengb

    NO !
    Not another commission full of government apparatchiks all commanding 6 figure salaries, writing reports that never see the light of day.

  12. wam

    An academic piece,
    You’re on the ball, NEC, more mates and donors with money for jam.
    Bring on an ICAC.

  13. Michael Taylor

    From Helen Haines’ Facebook page:

    “We know the election could be called any day now, and the misinformation has already started.

    After decades as a nurse and midwife, one of the reasons I entered politics was to bring the standards I saw in my medical life, upheld by everyday people, into politics.

    I’m clear with the people of Indi about the standard of political debate I abide by as the Independent Federal Member for Indi and will continue to uphold in the campaign.

    Unfortunately, personal insults and attacks, and even completely false statements will once again be thrown around in a bid to win votes. I’ll never do that.

    I call on all other candidates in Indi to vow not to spread misinformation this election campaign.

    We owe this to the people of Indi. The health of our democracy and Indi’s future depends on it.”

    I’m with Helen.

  14. Jack Cade

    In my files there is an article by Dr Lawrence Britt called ‘Fourteen Defining Characteristics If Fascism which I have just unearthed.
    I will list them for you (without the explanatory narratives);

    1.Powerful and Continuing Nationalism
    2. Disdain for the Recognition of Human Rights
    3.Identification of Enemies/Scapegoats as a unifying cause
    4. Supremacy of the Military
    5.Rampant Sexism
    6.Controlled Mass Media
    7.Obsession with National Security 8.Religion and Government are Intertwined
    9.Corporate Power is Protected
    10. Labour power is Suppressed
    11. Disdain for Intellectuals and The Arts 12.Obsession with Crime and Punishment 13.Rampant Cronyism and Corruption 14.Fraudulent Elections.
    How many do WE score?
    Umberto Eco also produced a list that I have not looked at yet.

  15. Terence Mills

    The prime minister likes to play a game over announcing the election date. Well, the AEC are booking halls and polling venues for 14 May, they at least know that preparations need to be put in hand early.

    We need fixed terms and fixed dates for elections.

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