Blue Sky Democracy, Part 1: Why this and why now?

I’m a big fan of democracy.

I love the pomp and bluster of a campaign, the little rituals of election day, the chaotic mess of ideas and values and assumptions that run through your mind in the voting booth.

Part of loving democracy is also loving or at least respecting the sometimes ugly side too. A truly representative democracy means people whose opinions you find distasteful or confusing get representation as well.

A democratic system doesn’t always spit out the smartest leaders, dourly going through the motions of governance, decisions dripping with integrity.

It should look like the people it represents in all their quirks, exciting and libidinal — and most importantly it should let people grasp at power, feel hope and let them dream of something better.

First up, democracy is more than just elections and Parliament and campaigns.

Democracy is how we come together to make decisions about our common future. Democracy works because the more people are genuinely involved in making those decisions, the better the decisions are likely to be.

We will never restore trust in democracy until we embed democracy in every aspect of people’s lives and equip people with the time and resources to turn their minds to politics.

Democracy starts at home, in the workplace, at the shops, in your soccer club. Democracy is about shifting power (and influence and wealth) from the people who hoard it to everyone more equally. It’s about giving everyday people control over the hidden levers of power that direct their lives.

Elections are just one way we do that — and as good democrats, we should want to do it everywhere else too.

But short of penning an unhinged manifesto on reconnecting people with power, I’m going to stick with what I know: the annoying, technical, bureaucratic minutiae of administrative reform — how our governments, elections, Parliaments and bureaucracies work.

Australia was for a long time the laboratory for democratic reforms around the world. We lead the way on the secret ballot, women’s suffrage, a living wage for MPs, compulsory voting, preferential voting and more.

But over the last twenty years, we’ve stalled. Political parties, unions and civil society have retreated from the idea of growing democracy into bureaucratic-technocratic tweaks that ultimately don’t trust people.

Other countries have big, bold campaigns to reinvent every aspect of democracy — outfits like the US’s Common Cause and FairVote, the UK’s Election Reform Society and Unlock Democracy and Canada’s Democracy Watch.

The groups that campaign for a better democracy in Australia have much narrower scopes. They focus on technical fixes or tinkering at the edges of elite decision-making. These organisations like the Australian Democracy Network, newDemocracy, the Accountability Roundtable and the Proportional Representation Society do great and important work.

Their ideas though are trapped in a narrow box of what’s possible. They agitate over worthy issues like corporate donation caps, fairer grants, independent integrity commissions or citizen’s assemblies to close the democratic deficit and rebuild the public’s trust in democracy. But these ideas show they have even less faith in democracy — and the messy, agonistic capital P politics that go along with it — than the “populists” they wring their hands over.

It comes from a totally understandable place: civil rights, charities and unions have been under constant attack from a ruthless Coalition Government more than happy to use their political power and capital to preemptively crush their civil society opponents. But this means our only fights are reactive, on the defensive, letting the Coalition set the narratives for the fights we need to have.

What I’m getting at is that democracy isn’t about how a government functions or how elections are managed. It’s about people and power and struggle. Democratic reformers need to be prepared to get their hands dirty with the muckiness of politics and be prepared to make some cynical compromises in the meantime.

It’s time we did some blue sky dreaming again.

Reading list

None of these ideas are original and if you want to read actual smart people writing about them, here’s a few places you can look.

AJ Brown (2013). “From Intuition to Reality: Measuring Federal Political Culture in Australia”. Working paper.

Alexander Reilly and Tiziana Torresi (2016). “Voting rights of permanent residents” in UNSW Law Journal.

Anika Gauja (2010). Political Parties and Elections: Legislating for Representative Democracy. Routledge.

Anika Gauja (2014). “Public funding of election campaigns won’t end improper influence” in The Conversation.

Anika Gauja and Marian Sawer (2016). “Party Rules? Dilemmas of political party regulation in Australia”. ANU Press.

Anne Davis (2020). “Party hardly: why Australia’s big political parties are struggling to compete with grassroots campaigns” in Guardian Australia.

Anne Tiernan (2007). Power without Responsibility: Ministerial staffers in Australian governments from Whitlam to Howard. UNSW Press.

Bill Browne (2018). “It’s time … for more politicians” for the Australia Institute.

Bill Browne (2020). “Comes with the territory: Ensuring fair political representation for Northern Territorians — and all Australians” for the Australia Institute.

Bret Walker (2018). “The information that democracy needs” for the Whitlam Institute.

Cathy Alexander (2013). “The party’s over: which clubs have the most members?” in Crikey.

Danielle Wood and John Daley (2018). “A Crisis of Trust: The rise of protest politics in Australia” for the Grattan Institute.

Gerry Stoker and Mark Evans (2016). “Political participation in Australia: contingency in the behaviour and attitudes of citizens” in the Australian Journal of Political Science.

Gerry Stoker, Mark Evans and Jamal Nasir (2013). “How do Australians imagine their democracy? Australian Survey of Political Engagement findings 2013”.

Gerry Stoker, Mark Evans and Max Halupka (2016). “Who do you trust to run the country? Democracy, trust and politics in Australia” for Democracy 2025.

Gerry Stoker, Mark Evans and Max Halupka (2017). “How Australians imagine their democracy: The “power of us” — Australian Survey of Political Engagement findings 2017”.

Gerry Stoker, Mark Evans and Max Halupka (2018). “Bridging the trust divide: Lessons from international experience” for Democracy 2025.

Gerry Stoker, Mark Evans and Max Halupka (2018). “Trust and democracy in Australia: Democratic decline and renewal” for Democracy 2025.

Gerry Stoker, Mark Evans and Max Halupka (2019). “How Australian federal politicians would like to reform their democracy” for Democracy 2025.

Graeme Orr (2003). “Australian Electoral Systems — How Well Do They Serve Political Equality?” for the Democratic Audit of Australia. Recovered from the Australian Policy Observatory.

Graeme Orr (2013). “Private association and public brand: the dualistic conception of political parties in the common law world” for the Electoral Regulation Research Network.

Graeme Orr (2019). The Law of Politics: Elections, parties and money in Australia. 2nd edition. Federation Press.

John Kilcullen (2011). “How can Australia’s politics be improved?” in The Conversation.

Joo-Cheong Tham (2018). “Australia’s growing democracy gap” in Inside Story.

Joo-Cheong Tham (2019). “Democracy before Dollars — the Problems with Money in Australian Politics and How to Fix Them” for the Parliament of Australia’s Papers on Parliament series no. 70.

Joo-Cheong Tham (2016). “Eight ways to clean up money in Australian politics” in The Conversation.

Joo-Cheong Tham and Graeme Orr (2011). “The case for transparent funding and better regulation of political parties” in The Conversation.

Lisa Hill and Serrin Rutledge-Prior (2016). “Young people and intentional informal voting in Australia” in Australian Journal of Political Science

Mike Steketee (2017). “Why we need full public funding of election campaigns” in Inside Story.

Paolo Gerbaudo (2018). “The digital party: Political organisation and online democracy”. Pluto Press.

Peter Chen (2019). “The role of new media in increasing youth political engagement” for the Electoral Regulation Research Network.

Stephen Mills (2013). “Party professionalisation: electoral regulation and national party officials” for the Electoral Regulation Research Network.

Stephen Mills (2014). “Professionalisation: Of what, since when and for whom?” for the Electoral Regulation Research Network.

Tom Daly (2019). “Electoral democracy in Australia: Crisis, resilience and renewal” for the Electoral Regulation Research Network.

Yee-Fui Ng (2016). Ministerial Advisers in Australia: The Modern Legal Context. Federation Press.

Yee-Fui Ng (2018). The Rise of Political Advisers in the Westminster System. Routledge.

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