Democracy is messy and expansive rather than neat and narrow.
Australian democracy today features challenging elements such as ministerial (ir)responsibility, conflict of interest, proven allegations of corruption, trash talking by elites and growing public alienation. Given that, it is a brave move for any government to operate an institution like the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House, and not surprising it causes controversy.
The same is true of all our national institutions, including the National Museum, the War Memorial, the National Library and the National Gallery. When so much history is contested, and institutions seek to push the boundaries by navigating between contesting views of the Australian story, controversy is inevitable.
Democracy itself is such an all-encompassing term. Broken down into component parts it includes constitutional democracy, parliamentary democracy, electoral democracy and social democracy, amid other elements. A museum dedicated to the topic being lodged in Old Parliament House may seem to privilege constitutional, parliamentary and electoral democracy. That is true to some extent, and MOAD aims to "bring alive the importance of Parliament in the lives of Australians", but it also strives to extend the definition considerably.
Within its ambit, Democracy 2025, described as a bold new initiative by MOAD and the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra, aims "to drive a process of national renewal and reflection on how we can rebuild trust and strengthen democratic practice in Australia".
Its current major permanent exhibition, Truth, Power and a Free Press, pulls no punches. One of its opening statements is that media freedom is a messy problem. Prominent political journalist Hamish Macdonald tells the audience that people with power push back against the whole concept.
Democracy: Are you In? describes democracy as "a living system".
"It works best when there is a healthy balance between trust and distrust," it states.
"But that balance is tipping. Distrust is on the rise, and confidence in our political and social institutions is at its lowest point in decades".
MOAD has been under the microscope before. How, for instance, should it treat big social causes such as Indigenous recognition and the republic without implicitly expressing views or priorities?
The latest controversy surrounds the statement of expectations from the responsible minister, Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister, Ben Morton. Presumably these views will be considered for adoption by the board and the director, Daryl Karp.
The board is tasked with deciding "the objectives, strategies and policies to be followed by OPH" while the minister "may give the board a written statement setting out strategic guidance for OPH". That is what Morton, an ANU political science graduate, has now done.
The board itself is itself a balanced microcosm of Australian democracy, chaired by former Howard minister Nick Minchin and including as deputy chair the former clerk of the House of Representatives, Bernard Wright, and former Labor members Simon Crean and Gai Brodtmann, as well as representatives of academia, the media and public life.
There is a conflict between the mindset of the minister and the current operations of MOAD, which must be sorted out with him by the board and the director. Morton challenges key elements of the current program, including Democracy 2025. In his view such programs, and a proposed "democratic audit of Australia" in collaboration with the London School of Economics, were "perhaps best left to academic think tanks". As chair of a 2018 parliamentary committee inquiry, Morton oversaw similar criticism that a focus on critical debates about democracy was mission creep and inappropriate for MOAD.
His alternative view is that the purpose of a visit to MOAD is to be "educated, inspired and engaged". You should leave with increased pride in, appreciation of and affection for Australia's democratic systems. He accuses the museum in strong terms of a fundamental failure in the lack of a permanent exhibition on how our voting system works.
Morton's criticisms show a public lack of confidence in an admirable institution, but they are not necessarily partisan - though they are conservative. They will presumably generate heated debate by at least some on the board. He professes the view that increased engagement can lead to membership in any political party, not just the Liberals but Labor or the Greens.
This is, however, narrow and simplistic. What if the prospective active citizen emerges from MOAD knowing more about the limitations of parliamentary democracy, and believing that the best response to party politics is saying a pox on all your houses rather than engagement with the established parties? Surely that too would be a success - but not according to Morton.
In a tantalizing comparison, which should be addressed by science educators as well as political scientists, Morton compares expectations of Questacon and MOAD.
"You don't go to Questacon leaving doubting science, and you shouldn't go to the Museum of Australian Democracy and leave doubting the strength of Australian democracy," he says.
In both cases presumably the purpose of a visit should be to gain a better understanding through probing questioning of both the strengths and achievements as well as the limitations and weaknesses of the subject under consideration.
Ideally both can be achieved in the same engagement, and that should be the aim of MOAD. Rote learning and basic instruction can go hand in hand with critical thinking, with variations according to age group and educational level. In more than a decade's involvement with a comparable activity, the annual National Schools Constitutional Convention, I have observed this happen. Year 11 and 12 students leave inspired and engaged with real public democratic life, not a narrowly constructed, idealised version.
- John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a regular columnist.