Our Modern Australian Democracy


Henry Parkes stood here [in Tenterfield]in 1889 and called for the Australian colonies to work towards Federation. Twelve years later, Australia became a nation.

I find it hard to imagine Australians today having enough faith in our political classes to bring the Commonwealth Government into existence. But then, Henry Parkes was not asking his contemporaries for that much faith. His appeal was for a government of limited powers compared to our government today, and by insisting on a directly democratic model, Parkes’s model of federalism extended the power of the Australian people rather than the power of Australian politicians.

Henry Parkes

Henry Parkes

That was the genius of Parkes and our other democratic pioneers: they were designing institutions “ federal democracy, universal suffrage, free State schooling “ to operate in a climate that they hoped would be created by the institutions themselves.

But in the rapidly changing twentieth century, our nineteenth century democracy developed in unexpected ways.

Our parliament was first imagined when modern political parties were only beginning to emerge, by men who assumed that the interests of a local community would be the most important factor in voting decisions. Universal voting, public education and an Australian government accelerated the development of an Australian identity.

Voters went to the polls thinking of the nation as a whole. Importantly for the development of the political system we see today, Australian workers took their sense of class solidarity to the ballot box. For survival, non-Labor politicians banded together. The two-party system was born and from then on candidates’ party allegiance, not their personal view or individual abilities, were the most important factor in their election.

Changing Times
Nineteenth century democrats saw the vote as a right to be fought for and prized. They did not anticipate voter turnout declining to less than 60 per cent, prompting the introduction of compulsory voting in 1924.

Nor could they possibly have imagined the technological changes the twentieth century brought, or the social transformations that resulted.

From telegraph to email, from horse and carriage to jet plane, from newspaper to television technology has shrunk and accelerated our world. Today’s media is far more immediate than ever before. Events are reported on-line moments after they happen. Rapid turnover leads to the constant search for the latest scoop “ however flimsy the connection to the public interest. News now comes packaged, enhanced with manipulative sound and image. Stories that don’t suit simplistic illustrations are dropped. Stories about scandals boost circulation, and take priority over complex discussions on policy.

One wonders how Henry Parkes would have fared, forced to resign from public life for bankruptcy not once but twice “ once with debts so huge he narrowly escaped fraud charges.

The short attention spans of today’s media ‘consumers’ are trained by infotainment that seeks to reduce our political process to a more boring version of Survivor. With the increased demands on our time in the modern world, there is little incentive for citizens to dig deeper. Work and family commitments grow ever greater as more families have two wage-earners. But the greatest increased demand on our time is from multiplying kinds of leisure, most prominently television.

Opinion pollsters report a lack of political interest or understanding from the very same people racking up massive mobile bills trying to save or evict a Big Brother housemate or an Australian Idol contestant.

The Decline of Membership
Political parties and community organisations around the world are suffering declining and ageing membership. As volunteer associations and community organisations fade, our society suffers. As mass political parties wither, our democracy suffers. My own party, the Australian Labor Party (ALP), feels this most keenly. We are the oldest Australian political party and the only one in existence today that was founded in Henry Parkes’s life-time.

Like Henry Parkes’s democracy, the ALP was conceived in the nineteenth century and endured throughout the twentieth. Now at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Labor is not the only party facing new challenges and new struggles but as Australia’s best example of a mass democratic party, the decline in political activity among Australians affects not only Labor’s strategies but also Labor’s soul.

The last decades of the twentieth century saw the introduction of public funding for election campaigns, an effort by the ALP to combat massive corporate donations to the non-Labor parties. It didn’t work. Campaigns have merely become more expensive, and parties have spent even more time chasing corporate donations to pay for them. Shrinking membership means a greater need for big donors, but the pursuit of big donors alienates the remaining members.

Instead of a broad political movement, Labor has become a party of parliamentarians with a machine element dedicated to funding campaigns and influencing the composition and behaviour of the parliamentarians elected. Grass-roots members are an afterthought and for many in the machine, an inconvenience. They shouldn’t worry. If things keep going as they are, they won’t have to worry about party members at all.

Another substantial change since the time of Henry Parkes is the decline of the power of the nation-state in the face of multinational corporations and international organisations. In the past, economic policy has been the main ground of debate between politicians. Australia’s first political parties were called Protectionist, Free Trader, and Labor. Now, there is a general agreement between political parties and public commentators that there is only one real way to run the economy: by ‘free market’ precepts.

National sovereignty is diminished as global markets, multinational corporations and international institutions play a major role in shaping Australia’s economy. For most people, the strength and the structure of the economy is the single greatest contribution the government can make to their well-being. It is little wonder that Australians lose interest in politics when the economy so often seems beyond the reach of their democratic power.

Our society, our technology and the institutions that govern our lives have changed radically since Henry Parkes stood here and called for a federal and a democratic government of the Commonwealth of Australia. The environment we do politics in has changed dramatically, but the way we do politics has hardly changed at all.

All these are convincing reasons for the indifference of many Australians to our political processes.

Taking Responsibility
But politicians must take some responsibility for the pervasive sense of political impotence. Low-content, high-colour campaigning, slogans as vague as they are reassuring and the deliberate downplaying of ideals, vision and hopes for the country leave Australians with the impression that there’s little politicians can do, and less they’d try. Australian politicians sometimes seem to believe that Australian voters have all taken to heart Bernard Baruch’s advice to ‘Vote for the man who promises least; he’ll be the least disappointing.’

Baruch’s cynical joke is popular among political aficionados who compete to seem the most jaded and disillusioned. Few know or care that Baruch left a more lasting legacy as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s economic advisor. He voted “ and worked “ for the man who promised the most “ and delivered.

In the modern climate of ever-lowering expectations, apathy and disengagement are self-protective reactions to an equally powerful and dangerous current: anger.

Politics is a valuable activity, a way to bring about real change for the better, and a means of managing substantial disagreements within a society or a community. Cynicism about politicians and our motives corrodes faith in that process. And if the pervasive belief is that politicians have nothing but self-interest at heart, then their allowances, their pay, their very existence is the subject of resentment.

We need more than a press-release and a campaign commercial to cure the powerful, potent, destructive mix of apathy and anger in our community. And we need more than facile appeals for idealism and civility.

If Australians are to once again see their government as the instrument of the nation’s collective will, and their national parliament as the place where consensus is forged, then we have to learn again from Henry Parkes the importance of direct democracy. As Parkes said in this place in 1889, it is through democracy that governments gain legitimacy. As our nineteenth century political institutions creak and groan with the effort to keep up with changing times, we are experiencing an increasing deficit of democracy.

The apathy and anger that marks our modern Australian democracy is a sign that the deficit of democracy is becoming a lack of legitimacy.

Party Reform
Today I would like to recommend three main areas of reform.

The first is in Australia’s political parties. In our two-party system, the selection of candidates and the setting of policies within the political parties has as great an influence on Australia’s governance as general elections. It is therefore essential that Australia’s political parties are open, transparent and democratic “ no code-words, no cabals, no secret handshakes.

This applies most acutely to the Australian Labor Party “ not because we are the party most in need of change or least democratic as things stand, but because as Australia’s progressive political party dedicated to principles of inclusiveness, democracy, and merit, we have to practice what we preach.

A hundred years ago, the difficulty of travel and communication around our huge continent made party members’ direct participation in the ALP’s organisation impractical. The solution was for local members to delegate their democratic rights. Today, the problem and the solution are out-of-date. A hundred years ago, the ALP’s structures provided for the greatest possible participatory democracy under the circumstances. Today, the abuse of those structures too often smothers party democracy. Today, we can do better.

Undemocratic practices are often blamed on factions and factionalism. There is nothing inherently wrong or undemocratic about like-minded people voting together to maximise their chances of success. It is, after all, the principle of party politics. When such groupings are based not on shared beliefs but on shared venality, factionalism goes bad. When factional interests are put ahead of the party’s interests, the party rots.

As party membership declines, the influence of factional warriors increases. They maximise their influence by excluding those who disagree, not through leadership and persuasion. Those who defer to the powerbrokers are rewarded with positions in the party and with employment.

This is not factionalism. It is feudalism, and it is killing the ALP.

Mark Latham, having benefited from this system throughout his career, ultimately turned on it. His conclusion was that since he could see no way to reform the ALP, it was unreformable. I have a higher opinion of Labor’s capacity for renewal.

Democracy and transparency must be the watchwords of our reform. Under Simon Crean’s leadership, some reforms were made, and they have been moderately successful. Our national Party President is directly elected by the membership. And delegates representing unions at conference have to actually be members of the union they represent “ a long overdue change.

The sky did not fall, as was prophesied when Simon introduced these reforms. I think it’s time we went further.

If our national President can be popularly elected, then why not our State Presidents? I believe it is time for the State and Territory branches to follow the lead of the national ALP and introduce direct democracy in electing their branch presidents. Indeed, I believe as many as possible party officials, executives, committees and for that matter Senators, ought to be directly elected or preselected by the party membership.

These reforms would give Labor’s supporters confidence in the party’s commitment to democracy.

Media Reform
The next area of reform I think is important is media reform. Our ideas of press freedoms and rights are based very much in the nineteenth century. When Henry Parkes ran The Empire newspaper, the ‘professional’ model of peer regulation seemed adequate protection for the public interest, particularly given the narrow influence of the nineteenth century newspaper and the diverse range of newspapers published.

Today, we deal with massive media corporations that pursue their business interests on a multinational scale. In many of Australia’s media markets, one single company dominates. Accurate reporting and the public interest struggle to compete with the imperative for advertising sales and pursuing the corporate agenda. Media proprietors use the best marketing techniques to shape public opinion in the guise of news.

For 30 years, no government of any political persuasion has done enough to ensure diversity, although media diversity is the greatest protection of the media’s vital role in scrutinising and informing our democracy. Neither the Press Council in its present form nor industry watchdogs like the ABC’s MediaWatch can force our media outlets to be honest and accurate, or discourage huge corporations from putting their own interests ahead of the public interest.

The media’s freedom to publish was once a safeguard for our democracy. Today, as trash tabloids and opinion-for-hire commentators destroy any semblance of a debate of ideas, the principle of informed decision-making at the heart of democracy drowns beneath racy headlines and print-now-retract-later coverage. Radio shock-jocks and shallow television infotainment do the same.

If Australian democracy is to recover its health, one essential step is for standards of accuracy and responsibility to be set for all media outlets “ print, radio, television and online “ and enforced with meaningful remedies. For one thing, retractions ought to receive the same coverage and the same emphasis as the original incorrect reporting. Putting the lie on page one and burying the retraction inside makes a mockery of press responsibility.

Extending the role of the Press Council to cover all forms of media and ensuring it has adequate staff and resources would be steps in the right direction. We are entitled to insist that the media’s self-regulation mechanisms are strong and effective, and that any self-regulatory body is vigorous and independent.

Constitutional Reform
The third area of reform I would like to deal with is perhaps the closest to Henry Parkes’s original purpose here at Tenterfield in 1889. The reason we remember the speech Parkes made here is that he set out the argument for the nation of Australia, and in advocating a Constitutional Convention he recommended the machinery to establish that nation.

In the nineteenth century colonial environment, the main preoccupation for our pioneer national democrats was to preserve the rights of the residents of the colonies while creating a new democratic institution. To do so, they adopted the model of a federal parliament, not a national one. Our Senate, and our mechanisms for constitutional reform, are designed to protect the rights of the States against the power of the Commonwealth.

Australia has been a nation for more than 100 years, I believe it is time our machinery of government recognised that fact. We are all first and foremost Australian citizens.

But part of the difficulty in changing our Constitution has been the federalist requirement for a referendum to be passed in a majority of States, as well as receive a majority of votes nationally.

There are many important constitutional reforms that would vastly improve our national democracy. Fixed, simultaneous, four-year terms for both Houses of Parliament and the removal of the Senate’s power to block supply are two overdue reforms. An Australian Republic is a more substantial constitutional change, but one I strongly support.

In Henry Parkes’s time, the federal system protected democratic rights. Today, I’m sure we can do better. We need our Constitution and our mechanisms of constitutional change to reflect the reality that Australia is today ‘a nation for a continent.’

I believe we need, as a starting point, a commission into constitutional reform. Its task should be to explore the best ways to maximise democratic participation in the constitutional reform process. This is, of course, only a beginning: as our nation continually grows, so the suitability of our Constitution ought to be under constant review.

Ladies and gentlemen, I began today talking about the apathy and anger that characterise modern Australian democracy. I believe both are symptoms of the widening gap between the Australian people and the Australian polity. Without both an understanding of the practicalities of political change, and the confidence that the citizen can shape the State, Australians will drift further and further into disengagement and resentment. It is a dangerous moment for our democracy.

I hope it will be the impetus for renewal.

This is an edited version of the 2005 Henry Parkes Oration, delivered by Senator John Faulkner at the Henry Parkes Memorial School of Arts, Tenterfield, New South Wales on 22 October 2005.

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