November 18th 2000

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Articles from this issue:

QUARANTINE: Apples decision set to rile city electorates

EDITORIAL: IVF unlimited - time to call a halt

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Vote rigging - the ripples widen

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Don’t bank on the banks


LAW: International Criminal Court - Parliament by-passed


Straws in the Wind

INTERVIEW: Democracy needs a "virtuous" society - George Weigel

ECONOMICS: Globalisation - what it is, what it isn’t

ASIA: Taiwan enters uncertain waters

COMMENT: Australia before multiculturalism

Reading the trends

AD 2000 and the sky isn’t falling

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Straws in the Wind

by Max Teichmann

News Weekly, November 18, 2000
Just a song at twilight?

News Weekly, (November 4) contained an extract from an article from G. Calvin McKenzie, (Times Literary Supplement, October 13) which was entitled "The Revolution Nobody Wanted". It was a comprehensive diagnosis of the state of American democracy - the reality rather than the appearance. So important is this account, in its own right, but also in exhibiting so many parallels with the state of our political system, that I will summarise McKenzie’s analysis, omitting those points contained in the extract we previously published, then discuss our two democracies.

One. The American system is one in which political parties are moribund, and are dominated by huge amounts of money invested by special interests.

Two. Many of the best qualified people in the country refuse to seek elected office or accept political appointment. (In passing, De Tocqueville predicted that this would happen, in his Democracy in America in 1835. The field would be left clear for "hacks and mercenaries").

Three. The national legislature has become so bogged down in its own internal procedures and unyielding political conflicts (My italics), that it is barely competent to perform the most basic tasks of a legislature: to legislate.

Four. The US has a system in which the executive and legislative branches are constantly locked in a kind of political Jujitsu which disables them both. More and more policy decisions are shifted from the most democratic institutions, the legislature and the executive, to the least democratic, the courts and the bureaucracy.

Five. This system is now so distasteful to the people it governs that more than half of them now decline to participate in its elections. More than half tell pollsters that they do not trust the government in Washington to do what is right.

When asked whether the US needed a third party, Gore Vidal replied, "No, a second."

I can see few substantive differences between our two democracies. We have compulsory voting, otherwise voter participation figures would fall below the American. (Victoria and Queensland come immediately to mind).

We do have two parties, whose hard core voters have quite different views of the world, but the superstructures, i.e. their parties, and policies, do not vary markedly. So a great many Australians wanted and still want, a third party.

But what is this system of ours? It might be described as a "plutocracy" - the rule of the rich, with the most powerful pressure groups being the de facto government, calling the shots. Quite possibly, most of the other systemic defects enumerated above may be the consequences of these fateful, core developments. The death of ideology or political belief, may be a case of the widespread rejection of our official ideologies rather than a permanent turning away from politics per se.

Disengagement and alienation from politics by masses of citizens; the replacement of party programs by a patchwork of deals struck with pressure groups; and the increasing success of big money, some of dubious origins, in determining political outcomes, are all bad in their own right, but for different reasons.

If rulers don’t have to deny citizens the vote, with all the resistance that can engender; if they don’t have to maintain a non-stop campaign of lies and disinformation through their friendly media, so as to keep voters confused and more or less in the dark - but instead can watch delightedly while the voters turn their backs on politics, and leave it to some one else, then the despot’s dream has come true. The power and unaccountability of government increases, to the extent that the public don’t know or don’t care where they are being led.

Which is perhaps why we are hearing so much from the populist media as to how all politicians are greedy crooks and rorters, that politics (not journalism!) stinks, and that there is no difference between the parties. The Far Right and Far Left have always argued this way, hoping that the populace will, in despair at all the other alternatives, turn to them.

The history of democracy is not one of being despised, but of being feared. Far more energy and money has gone into seeing that it doesn’t work, rather than helping to make it work. (Most of the contemporary campaigns to make it work better, turn out, upon examination, to be a lobby or pressure group trying to get it to work for them - no matter what befalls the rest of the system, which has often been bent or pushed out of shape, as a consequence).

But isn’t the determining role of money in political transactions a situation to be found in other parts of contemporary life, and society? Grading, and valuing everything in material terms is the universal blight which is falling on mankind, with politics merely the most visible and portentous example. We may need a transformation of social values, generally, before we can expect greater probity or an enhanced sense of responsibility in our leaders.

The end of ideology in politics, and the decay of rules and taboos in social life, removes some of the most important checks to selfish and delinquent behaviour by politicians, and by people and institutions generally.

Thus, a man driven by a powerful ideological belief, or a strong moral or religious conviction, is not greatly motivated for any lust for riches. He is less likely to be bribable, or easily turned from his path - which is intended to lead him to power and a kind of transcendence; not filthy lucre and a Mercedes Benz. The danger comes when he loses his ideology, discards his moral codes and taboos. Then you will get your greedy time-server - who changes his stand and turns his coat.

Power and wealth seem, almost inevitably, central and indispensable parts of politics, as practised. When power drives out wealth, you seem to get a tyranny - when wealth swamps power - a plutocracy, which is really the tyranny of money. We have that at present.

Organised, politicised wealth not only weakens the political institutions upon which it bears down, but take advantage of a weak or fragmented political system, which it seeks to turn into its creature. Failing that, it ignores the formal structure while it gets on with its wealth creation and resource exploitation viz the basic situation in the US and Australia.

Democrats understand that political power and private wealth have to be balanced: they know that behind much of the fine talk about equality, rights, even accountability - politics is about the fight over the social product, who gets what, when and how. They are not surprised to find that, except in the case of some very basic rights, eg. life, liberty, the single issue pressure groups are too frequently about redistributing the social product, or rejigging the society’s status ladder, to their future advantage.

But what democrats past and present, have not been prepared for, is the multiplication of pressure groups and their penetration into the very heart of government - legislation, decision making and policy making; (some would add the judiciary) to the grave detriment of erstwhile key democratic institutions viz parliament, the parties, the traditional bureaucracies, and the very principle of representative government.

Nor have they been really prepared for the degree of successful manipulation of public opinion, and the setting of the political agenda, by a quite small number of immensely wealthy and powerful media groups, with extensive foreign connections, as well as close linkages with local banks and corporations.

It is to these powerful forces - multimedia, and lavishly funded and strategically sited pressure groups - to whom governments are listening, willingly or not. Not to Vox Populi. And this is the crisis of modern liberal democracy.

Calvin McKenzie simply provided a concise list of symptoms, ailments and malfunctionings - important, but, hopefully, not the end of the story. The question, yet again - what can be done?

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