Democratic resilience has become a front-burner issue of our time.
Just before Christmas, the Albanese government established a Strengthening Democracy Taskforce to further guard against foreign interference, misinformation and extremism. This month, Malcolm Turnbull launched a new podcast called , which began with a timely warning that the biggest threats “come not from without, but from within”.
Anyone who thinks Australia is immune from the forces that led to the January 6 insurrection in Washington, or its Brazilian copycat attack on January 8 this year, has not been paying attention. During the anti-lockdown protests, a gallows was paraded through the streets of Melbourne. Members of a MAGA-like mob urinated on the city’s Shrine of Remembrance. Last year, anti-vaccine mandate protesters converged on the Australian parliament in a self-styled “convoy to Canberra”, while the doors of Old Parliament House were set alight in a separate protest in December 2021.
Those in the “it couldn’t happen here” camp have short historical memories. Decades before Canberra earned a reputation for being the coup capital of the democratic world – because of the knifing of so many prime ministers – it witnessed the dismissal crisis, in which the Governor-General John Kerr acted more like a potentate.
Throw in Scott Morrison’s ministerial power grab and the robo-debt crisis, and the guardrails of Australian democracy look frailer still.
Any democratic audit should survey the good, the bad and the ugly, but let’s start with the positive. Confessedly, I have not always been a fan of compulsory voting, looking upon it as an offshoot of Australia’s punishment culture. Yet in the Trump years, its benefits have become obvious: as a bulwark against polarisation and extremism, and as a means of legitimising the electoral process.
The Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) is another vital piece of democratic infrastructure, the kind of impartial and independent national body that the United States should emulate to run its elections – not that it ever will.
Weekend voting is a no-brainer, which countries such as the UK and US should adopt. The problem of voter fraud is “vanishingly small” in the words of the AEC, another marker of democratic health.
Preferential voting takes us into more controversial terrain because it disproportionately favours the major parties. Yet it also acts as a consensus builder, another useful safety valve at a time of extreme polarisation.
Proportional representation in the Senate comes both with strengths and vulnerabilities. As a recent report from the Australia Institute highlighted, the upper chamber is more reflective of the country’s diversity than the House of Representatives.
Its members have included the first two Indigenous members elected to parliament (Neville Bonner and Aden Ridgeway), the first Asian-Australian (Tsebin Tchen), as well as the first openly gay man (Bob Brown) and openly gay woman (Penny Wong). Yet, it can also provide something of a backdoor into parliament for fringe players. Ricky Muir of the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party highlighted this anomaly in 2013, when he reached the Senate with just 0.51 per cent of the primary vote in Victoria.
Three-year parliamentary terms are a weakness, for they encourage short-termism in government decision-making and turn the triennial political cycle into a permanent campaign. The daily Question Time – which always involves the prime minister – fuels an excessively combative political culture. The bush capital has often felt like a partisan garrison town overly consumed by political warfare, although the presence of so many independents has helped.
The present campaign finance laws are a vulnerability because they allow for multi-million dollar undisclosed “dark money” contributions. The threat from China has made Australia something of a pioneer in crafting political interference laws, but they need regularly updating.
The threat from information disorder – highlighted most recently by the role of Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News in promoting the Trumpian “big lie” – should be part of the equation. So, too, the often malign influence of big tech.
Australia shares a foundational problem with America. Standing in the way of much-needed renovation is an antique constitution notoriously hard to amend. The last time a referendum produced constitutional change in Australia was 1977.
Democratic resilience should not be looked upon in isolation, purely as a structural and procedural question. The problem is all-encompassing. Over the past 50 years, for example, political polarisation in America has closely tracked income polarisation. Voters who feel like economic castaways are easily alienated from democracy.
Reimagining politics, as the teals have shown, also helps build resilience. An Indigenous Voice to parliament would do so too.
The very words “democratic resilience” could easily conjure up thoughts of a civic version of “fortress Australia”, an impregnable parliamentary bastion. But Australia could be a global leader here, as it renovates its democracy on a hill.
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