Law – Strategy – Policy

Democracy in a state like Australia

(Well, France’s democracy is a bit like Australia’s, isn’t it?)

Because I’m me and I live in Australia, which some have touted as one of the world’s most stable democracies, when I consider the form the state should take I tend towards a democratic state. Maybe if I’d ever experienced a benevolent autocracy I’d have a different opinion, but I haven’t so I don’t.

‘Democracy’ is contested ground, though, and we need to be sure what it is we mean when we use it. Returning to some fundamentals is essential if we are to conceptualise the ideal towards which we should be heading. Surely no one suggests that the form of democracy we endure in Australia today is that ideal form. To assert the contrary is would mean that Indigenous incarceration rates are a bi-product of our ideal democracy, for example, or that Australia’s position on carbon pollution pricing is an ideally democratic outcome.

Let’s adopt a pretty basic approach as our starting point: democracy in 21st century states manifests as the right to have an indirect role in determining the laws that govern those states by exercising decision making power about whether to vote and, if so, who to vote for.

If exercising this right results in an attempt to vote (regardless of the validity of the attempt), this decision at the very least implies acquiescence to the laws that result from any government elected. Our votes legitimise the electoral process and are evidence of our endorsement of the manner of state apparatus we employ and those we elect to operate that apparatus.

This is as close as we actually get to an active representation of the social contract. It is, though, an active demonstration of acquiescence to the chimera that we voluntarily agree to receive the benefits of a state so long as we accept certain obligations as a result.

This act of individual decision making power is enough for those inclined to do so to extend the language of democratic rights to democratic duties.

The argument goes that if, for example, the rule of law is a defining principle of our democracy, and the right to trial by jury a defining principle of our criminal legal system, then it is reasonable to extend the proposition of jury duty as a democratic duty. By exercising our basic democratic right to vote in an election we, at the very least, impliedly endorse the imposition of this duty, regardless of whether an individual compelled to so serve themselves endorses those principles or the laws that result from the state that governs them.

Furthermore, we are compelled to observe the civic duties imposed upon all of us equally regardless of our relative privilege to affect the laws to which we each are subject or indeed to even know the extent of those laws.

You may be privileged enough to enjoy more than the indirect role of lodging your vote, but at its most fundamental this is the only decision making power that our states guarantee us as citizens. We each have differing levels of capacity to involve ourselves more deeply in some level of democratic decision-making, and we do not each have the same privilege that permits us to influence or decide at the highest levels.

There are many who would argue that we do a great deal to empower citizens and increase participation in deliberative processes, community consultations and the like, and that’s entirely true. This notion of ‘participatory democracy’ is one where we all get to participate in influencing decisions and it sounds great, and it is great, but it is still an exercise in relative privilege.

The circumstances into which we are born can be enough to make the difference.

The manner in which we have obtained the knowledge we claim is itself open to dispute and those disputes offer those inclined to do so another opportunity to exclude. What constitutes ‘life experience’ can be the subject of an argument itself, let alone the relative merits of any ‘life experience’ against ‘book learning’ (which again, is of contestable value such as the relative value of a degree from one university over another).

The labour we must dedicate to alleviating crippling net debt to income ratios may be a significant constraint on how willing or able we are to participate in community forums on the future of the local shopping precinct, let alone provide a written submission to a Senate inquiry.

The Director General or Secretary of a government department has multiple opportunities every day to influence or direct the decision making authority of the state. An eighteen year-old former ward of the state recently released from juvenile detention has no such opportunity.

But our democracy, built on our equal votes, is not founded on recognition of our varying circumstances (other than our citizenship) and does not demand of us ‘participation’ beyond our vote.

Those who govern impose laws and use the lawful violence of the state, or the mere threat of such violence, to compel compliance. In 21st century democracies the legitimacy of the state the apparatus of which is effectively operated by far less than 0.1% of its population on any given day is derived from nothing more than our attendance at a ballot box and the tallying of numbers.

Fifty per cent plus one is the magic formula, and it’s a formula in which every individual unit is assumed equal by virtue of their status as an individual human. In almost every other aspect of our society we see that individuals are not equal, and yet when it comes to determining who it is that will create laws to which we are all subject suddenly equality is assumed.

I would hope that whatever our ideal of ‘democracy’ is, it’s more than this. Surely our obligation to ensure that the least privileged in our society are not unfairly discriminated against as a result of democratic decision-making demands more than that we ‘consult’ with them before we pass laws to their detriment.

Perhaps the notion of democracy demands more of our society than this simplistic, immature numbers game. If we recognise that some interests are more privileged than others, more capable of influencing decision making, perhaps this ought to be recognised in the calculation of our votes. Perhaps the votes of those whose capacity to influence is significantly less than others ought to be given more weight, a form of ‘horizontal electoral equalization’ based on privilege.

If a democracy is to avoid entrenching disadvantage on an intergenerational basis, surely it must recognise relative privilege in the essential, for many only, decision-making process that defines it as a democracy. Yet our system does quite the opposite. It is designed to favour some interests over others, and deliver disproportionate benefits to those favoured few. It is an imperfect democracy with little evidence at hand to suggest any significant movement towards a more ideal form.

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