Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Abbott's War on Democracy

Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Abbott's War on Democracy

Article excerpt

Mr Abbott's displacement from the prime ministership on 14 September 2015 does not of itself indicate that he was at war with democracy. Nevertheless, Mr Turnbull's announcement that he would challenge for the leadership of the Liberal Party did suggest that Abbott had failed to communicate adequately with the people, and a number of voces populi on the day had interviewees saying that Abbott was 'out of touch with the people'.

Before we accuse anyone of debellation, it is as well to be clear about what is being fought against. Democracy is often said to be a promiscuous concept, one 'essentially contested'. But it bears historical experience and arose in ancient society as rule by the citizens of an entire community - that is, 'rule by the people'. Hiding behind modern confusions in the understanding of democracy, the Abbott Government relegated 'the people' from a central place in the polity and pandered to the rich and powerful, operating to enhance their power. Its first budget was in effect a frontal assault on the ordinary people of the land, particularly the poorest. The contrast between its actions and the historical theme of democracy could scarcely be starker.

The model is ancient Athens, where all authority was vested in the assembly of the entire citizen body. There is much debate about the democratic purity of this system, but there is no avoiding that the Greeks invented the idea of democracy, and bequeathed to the world the possibility of popular rule, and the ideals of freedom, equality and community (koinonia). When these ideals are assailed, democracy is under threat (Vlastos 1983).

The historical 'model' is relevant to modern conceptions of democracy because a clear focus on the ideals of the original democracy, and on the benefits its institutions were designed to produce, cuts through the surge of obfuscations that redefine democracy to suit factional tastes and to invite the criticism that the term is promiscuous and 'contested'. The institutions of Athens can scarcely be reproduced in a modern, territorial state, but its procedures and ideals can interrogate all modern applications of the term 'democracy' (Ober 1993).

In order to address the problems of promiscuity and essential contestation it is useful to turn to the famous characterisation of democracy by Abraham Lincoln: democracy is rule 'of the people by the people for the people' (Lincoln 1863). Nowadays some may regard this formula as simplistic, but it has the virtue of restoring the people to the heart of any conception of democracy. We may usefully address each part of Lincoln's definition in turn.

Of the people

Obviously this includes rule over the people. A government is elected to protect the people and create law and order throughout society. It is also expected to provide a safety net of subsistence to all. On public safety, the Abbott Government vigorously paraded its credentials to contrast with the alleged weakness on the other side of politics.

Government of the people has a yet more significant claim on our attention. It means that the government belongs to the people, and democracy is a system of government based on popular sovereignty. At the base of the whole system the people are in authority. Democracy originally means 'the power of the people'.

By the people

The power of the people implies rule by the people. Here the promiscuous spectre of democracy heaves into view. How is rule by the people to be organised? In ancient Athens the assembly of citizens held the highest authority in all matters of state. In the modern world, such an arrangement, assembly government, seems an impossibility for most territorial states. In the United States a 'realist' definition of democracy by the Austrian economist, Joseph A. Schumpeter, gained wide acceptance. In suggesting that a definition that did not describe what was actually happening was useless, Schumpeter defined democracy as a competition among elites for the people's vote (Schumpeter 1954: 269). …

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