Democracy: Use it or we may lose it

Democracy: Use it or we may lose it

It's a worrying development that so many people who live in democracies are either dissatisfied with politics or, worse still, have little faith in democracy as a system.

If having little faith in a system meant you were prepared to put some effort into making it better that might not be such a bad thing. But you and I know how how little effort most people would be prepared to expend in trying to do that. So we have a problem.

A new report shows countries cannot assume economic development and broader democratic freedoms guarantee electoral integrity.

A new report shows countries cannot assume economic development and broader democratic freedoms guarantee electoral integrity.Credit:Joe Castro

The annual Lowy survey confirms this. Around a quarter of young Australians think that in some circumstances a non-democratic government could be better. In a society that is so absorbed with expressing individual opinion, it would be interesting to understand the circumstances under which young people would be happy to have their opinion counting for nothing, zip, zero.

Some may feel their opinion counts for nothing now and ask "What's the difference?" The difference is in a democracy they get a vote, a chance to use their collective numbers to make their voice heard. When your view isn't adopted by fellow Australians it is all too easy to respond by saying that no one is listening and that the system doesn't work. They may have listened and simply disagreed.


Sadly, some people think democracy is working only when the majority thinks their way. For the majority to disagree with the self obsessed and over confident – surely there must be something wrong! What is wrong is that far too many people think there is always a right and a wrong. In their world there is no place for a difference of opinion or nuance.

Perhaps even more worryingly is that when people are asked to choose between a strong economy or a good democracy, democracy only just wins. Some 53 per cent want a good democracy; 42 per cent will apparently chuck out the right to vote and the associated freedoms in favour of a strong economy. "Give me riches rather than freedom" seems lunacy to me. Which non-democratic countries do 42 per cent of our fellow citizens have in mind? What do they think they will do when the unelected government makes mistakes and messes up the strong economy?

In part we can blame politicians. We are all sick of either blah blah blah or vitriol.

We say we want government to be unified and coherent but when members say the same thing, because they are unified on it, we call them morons. Add to that the obsession in the media with finding the slightest difference in wording from ministers and blowing it up to be a schism, and we can understand why politicians chose their words carefully and end up sounding like blah blah blah.

When you all agree on something it is understandable to have some overlap in language to describe it. We should expect and accept that. But equally we might say that while the subject is agreed, what is needed is politicians to engage us in it and convince us to adopt that in which they believe. We want sincerity more than soundbites.

If you think the last sentence "says it all "then you will understand the problem, because that phrase is in itself a soundbite. We like them because they short-form things for us. Political parties try to use them because we like them and when well-chosen they convey the appropriate meaning.

We say we are sick of all the vitriol, but deep down it may simply reflect our own standard. Research in the United States has shown a new divide now joins race and religion – and that is politics. This may be true in Australia as well. Yes, fewer people are locked into the tribe of one major party or the other, but those who remain may well be much more tribal, primal and dogmatic.

Those who remain tribal are made up of people with strong views and an articulate voice: the media, commentators, business and academics. It is no wonder political discourse has shifted to the sharper, more dogmatic and nastier end of the spectrum. Politics is an emotive business and emotions may well rule our brains.

I've heard it said that our brain function can be compared to a monkey on an elephant. The elephant is our emotions and the monkey our intelligent reasoning ability. The emotions go charging around and only call on the monkey to back us up in an argument or when we get into trouble. Far too often when someone makes a pronouncement we choose our corner and then call on the monkey to help us out. We need to listen to the monkey before we choose our side.

The Howard years give us some insight into this. Many disliked John Howard and for their own reasons demonised him. When I said to some people, "You have more in common with him than you think", they were appalled. But some simple questions proved the point. "Do you want a stronger Australia where anyone who wants a job can get one?" "Do you think we should have a world-class medical system?". We actually agree on an enormous amount, both in principle and practice. Where we differ is in the pathway to get to an agreed destination – and sadly that's what gets all the coverage.

I admit that once I have made up my mind about someone I hear what they say through that prism. When someone of whom I think very little says anything with which I have a scintilla of sympathy I am genuinely annoyed. I do not want feel as though I have anything in common.

The truth is we are all like this. We all need a mahout up in our brain to keep the emotive elephant in line and let the monkey have a better run. The monkey will use less blah blah blah and less vitriol – and politics will be the better for it.

Amanda Vanstone was a minister in the Howard government.

Amanda Vanstone is a former Howard government minister, and regular columnist.

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