According to political scientist Larry Diamond, democracy consists of four key elements: “1. A political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections. 2. The active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life. 3. Protection of the human rights of all citizens. 4. A rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens”.
On that definition, we no longer live in a democracy.
We certainly have a system by which we choose who represents us in parliament but with the misinformation handed out by the Murdoch press, the false advertising carried out by lobby groups, the influence of political donors, and the failure of politicians to keep their pre-election promises, the description “free and fair” could be questioned.
After that, it is all downhill.
The Abbott government’s obsession with secrecy and their draconian attempts to silence critics with threats of incarceration or withdrawal of funding is hindering the active participation of citizens in politics and civic life.
The examples are endless – the vitriolic attack on Gillian Triggs, the sacking of Save the Children staff, the gagging of public servants, doctors and teachers, the threat of removal of charitable status for environmental groups, removing funding from community legal centres if they engage in advocacy, the failure to include in the budget details on how different groups will be affected, a veil of secrecy in how foreign aid is being spent – to name but a few.
Tony Abbott’s response to allegations that our government paid people smugglers to sail boats back to Indonesia should send a shiver down our spines. Whatever it takes? By hook or by crook? Are we paying criminals? As Waleed Aly said, “When allegations are this serious, you don’t get to choose if you tell us or not.”
For the first time ever, Australia has been named on the Human Rights Watch list in 2014 and 2015.
The report criticises our treatment of asylum seekers, the high levels of Aboriginal incarceration and death from treatable and preventable conditions, the lack of support for the disabled with 45% of Australians with disabilities living near or below the poverty line, refusal to adopt marriage equality, and our new anti-terror and data retention laws.
When one of their first actions is to sack the Disability Commissioner and slash over $500 million from Indigenous funding, followed by their unrelenting attack on the Human Rights Commission and their dismissal of concerns raised by the UN, it is hard to believe this government has any concern at all about human rights. Instead, the report points to our tacit approval of, and active assistance to, corrupt regimes such as Sri Lanka and Cambodia.
And as for the rule of law applying equally to all citizens, we are seeing this government circumvent this most essential aspect of democracy by placing the power of judgement in the hands of the Minister with no necessity for him to justify his actions let alone prove any wrongdoing and with no right of appeal other than procedural.
We also see them prevaricating about marriage equality with people like George Christensen and Cory Bernardi believing they have the right to ignore what the vast majority see as a right that should be afforded to all Australians regardless of their sexuality.
Tony Abbott rightly says that it is a government’s job to protect its citizens but, to him, that only means upping the ante on all things military. He pays lip service to the damage being inflicted through domestic violence, he dismisses the danger posed by climate change, and he welcomes and facilitates the rapacious greed of global corporations.
As Diamond stated in his book, The Spirit of Democracy: The Struggle to Build Free Societies Throughout the World, “for democratic structures to endure – and be worthy of endurance – they must listen to their citizens’ voices, engage their participation, tolerate their protests, protect their freedoms, and respond to their needs.”
Take heed Mr Abbott or face the consequences of one of the few democratic rights we still possess, the ballot box.