Democracy under Siege

Article excerpt

Australians are justly proud of their democratic traditions. Australia's system of government, established in 1900, drew upon British and United States models, selecting many of the best features of each. Recently, however, there have been many worrying signs. There are four aspects of democracy in Australia today about which Australians should be deeply concerned.

The first is the degree to which our political system relies on unwritten conventions and is thus vulnerable to attack by determined governments in a period of unprecedented growth in executive power. The Australian Constitution says nothing about many aspects of our current electoral, parliamentary and executive arrangements and contains a minimal set of citizen rights. Compulsory voting, a key element of universal suffrage, is, for example, not mentioned in the Constitution. A government with a majority in both houses can introduce and pass legislation with minimum debate. Where the conventions are not set out in legislation, governments can act at their will.

The second is the degree to which Australians have lost confidence in their politicians and governments. Australians are generally satisfied and proud of their democracy but are mistrustful of politicians, the federal parliament, the legal system and the public service. There has been a significant decline in confidence in government and in the moral standards of members of parliament over the past two decades. Political cynicism is a cancer because it encourages apathy, deters action and provides a breeding ground for unbridled power-seeking. Restoring faith in democratic institutions is therefore an important challenge for Australia's political future.

The third is the increasing erosion of democratic practices. While Australia's formal democratic institutions remain proud and strong, there have been many worrying signs. Some recent attacks on democracy may seem of minor consequence. It is only when they are looked at as a whole that their significance stands out strongly. These attacks represent a serious threat to democracy in Australia.

The fourth is the degree to which other major democracies have acted in recent years to strengthen public accountability and extend democratic practices. Australia once led the world in democratic innovations. Today, Australia has fallen far behind other major democracies such as the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and New Zealand.

The erosion of democracy in Australia--some examples

Recent amendments to the Australian Electoral Act mean that electoral rolls are closed to new enrolments the day of the issuing of electoral writs and to re-enrolments three days after the issuing of the writs. If this arrangement had been in place at the last federal election it would have prevented over 300,000 citizens from voting. Many other countries are moving in quite the opposite direction, making enrolment as easy as possible even up to election day. …