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The premier of New South Wales, a person for whom I had held
a grudging respect, has just lost me, and possibly a large number of voters with her recent response to allegations of pork barrelling in grants to local government in electorates in her state.
“It does happen from time to time by every government,” she said.
In effect, suck it up. In so saying, Gladys Berejiklian added one more straw to one of the many burdens that democracy currently bears, a growing contempt for ‘politicians’. We need to clarify what we mean by the term.
I asked Google the question: ‘What is a politician?’ And it dodged the issue, responding: “A person who is professionally involved in politics, especially as a holder of an elected office”. But then it relented and went on to say: “A person who acts in
a manipulative and devious way, typically to gain advancement within an organisation”.
I think this is how most people in the street would think of them.
This is not new: we are instinctively averse to those on the make. The Western Australian Liberals have just elected a new leader – the third in about as many years, which tells us something – who, since 2004, has had on his business card the words “future prime minister of Australia”, which tells us something else again.
The Australian parliament has for some time been publishing
a series of Papers on Parliament, the most recent of which, number 66, is called The Contemporary Crisis of Representative Democracy. I don’t read the Papers on Parliament as often as I should, but they are uniformly excellent, and this one is no exception. The title of this one is, as the first paragraph reveals, just a bit misleading, in that it argues that the ‘crisis’ may be perceived rather than actual. This may be due to the phenomenon of ‘doomscrolling’, Macquarie Dictionary’s new word of the year, which is defined as “the practice of continuing to read news feeds online or on social media, despite the fact that the news is predominantly negative and often upsetting”.
Political scientists measure the health of representative democracy in various ways including voter turnout, party membership, trust in politicians, and interest in politics. Voter turnout is determined by dividing the sum of formal and informal votes in the final enrolment figure. In federal elections it has been steadily rising since 1922, when it was 60%, to 92% in 2019. Compulsory voting was introduced piecemeal from 1924, justifying British historian James Bryce’s judgement that this ‘newest of all the democracies ... has travelled farthest and fastest along the road which leads to the unlimited rule of the multitude”. The US has long been held up as the standard bearer of democracy until the recent presidential poll, the tumultuous nature of which has led to invidious comparisons with the Australian model.
Nonetheless, disenchantment with the political process in this country is so deep that, if a plebiscite were held today on whether compulsory voting could be dispensed with, the strength of the vote to discontinue it might be sufficient to carry the day. As to party membership, it is in steep decline for all parties, although many, including the National Party, are coy about their actual numbers. But we do know that the ALP has 53,000 members, the Liberal Party 50,000, and that numbers across the board are falling. Even One Nation has clearly lost a lot of its gloss if the recent Queensland election is anything to go by. The Greens are a significant minor party, with 15,000 members and growing.
Trump is not the threat to US democracy that we feared him to be. Enough people saw through him and came out to vote on the day to dislodge him (voting in the US is not compulsory, although it ought to be). The electoral system was heavily tested by the Republican Party and found to be sufficiently robust. I wouldn’t write the US off just yet: its political divides are about on the same scale nationally as here.
Statistically, for most of us, parties are not attractive nor effective, being playgrounds for, well, wannabe politicians. Nor is politics on the micro scale, judging by the discord occurring in small and local Facebook groups across the country. After a lifetime in and out of groups, from fire brigades to national associations, I can testify that their decline begins the moment factions and whispering appear within them, and social media is a hothouse for both.
Despite the naysayers, democracy is here to stay. We may elect clowns and corruptibles, but we do elect them. We just have to be more careful about whom we choose, and what we let the rotten apples get away with.
John Fleming II
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