March 7th 2020

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Beyond the Great Divide

EDITORIAL Holden, China, covid19: Time for industry reset

CANBERRA OBSERVED Political promises on the Never Never never never work well for the nation

CLIMATE POLITICS Business joins in climate change chorus

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Divided Democrats will help re-elect Donald Trump

GENDER POLITICS Project Nettie: Science takes on ideology

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Myth-busting China's 'soft power'

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Covid19 outbreak hits China's growth, imperils Communist Party

POLITICS AND SOCIETY What should the champions of democracy care about?

HISTORY Putting Lenin on the train: History's biggest blunder

NCC CONFERENCE 2020 Strengthening family, freedom, and sovereignty in a hostile world

HUMOUR Hooray for our premiers

MUSIC Handel: A composer who knew the value of a quick turnaround

CINEMA Emma: Handsome, clever, rich

BOOK REVIEW Useful but limited analysis of the breakdown of distinctions today

BOOK REVIEW The successive possessors of the West's first printed book




NATIONAL AFFAIRS Cardinal Pell's appeal in the High Court this week

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What should the champions of democracy care about?

by Colin Teese

News Weekly, March 7, 2020

In the immediate post-Christmas period, my favourite vicar prepared and delivered a brilliant sermon entitled, “What should Christians care about?”

It began with a story. A fellow priest in the same diocese had been called by the press and asked what he thought about the fact that supermarkets were selling hot cross buns on Boxing Day. His friend answered that he didn’t care about the timing of hot cross bun sales in supermarkets.

Why? Because he asked himself what Jesus might have thought. He could find no evidence that Christ cared about such things. Christ, he believed, did care about injustice and looking after the poor. And, no doubt, His sympathies lay with the victims of the bushfires that have ravaged the country.

About the same time, I began to ask myself at, admittedly, a somewhat less elevated level, “What should the champions of democracy care about?” To the extent that Jesus had a view about political organisations He, no doubt, would consider that the first duty of politicians, too, would be to care about injustice and poverty, and do whatever was within their power to build societies that minimised, if not eliminated, it.

To be sure, a big responsibility.

But it got me thinking. Throughout at least most of the developed world, democracy is much discussed. Over the last 30 or 40 years, it has been assumed, not always with good reason, that all Western-aligned countries are democratic, and those that stand against us are not. We called ourselves the “free world”.

Still, over the last 30 or 40 years, we have come to accept the idea that democratic governments have no necessary obligation to look after the poor or needy.

Going back to the Reagan/Thatcher days, it had been proclaimed that governments needed to stand back from such responsibilities. The best possible outcomes for all could only be delivered if governments promoted the unfettered operation of free markets; these could do a much better job at creating wealth and distributing prosperity. It is becoming ever more clear, however, that market economics has not done its job very well. More poor, more unemployed, than ever before, outside the Great Depression, is a feature of most modern democracies, including Australia’s.

Tragically, most in our democracies came to accept what we were being told about the virtues of markets. Some even believed that “free markets” and democracy were synonymous. Only they could protect the poor and disadvantaged and, as well, defend and provide shelter for basic human freedoms.

In the process, the essence of democracy was recast.

In many minds there remains still a firm belief that any nation can be regarded as “democratic” so long as its government derives from freely elected parliaments operating within a properly designed framework of rules. Part of this process is the freedom to support political parties of choice, and to allow chosen candidates to be elected to parliament on the basis of majority vote.

“Government of the people, by the people, for the people,” it was once called.

It was never so simple. The sad fact is that even better democracies, especially in a “free market” context, are susceptible to capture by interest groups. Perhaps it has always been so.

It is well established that the city-state of Athens provided the first democracy. Thus, Greece has been celebrated as the cradle of democracy. But the fact is that the slave class in the city-state of Athens played no part in the democratic process.


Could it be that the democratic process was flawed from the start, and has remained so ever since?

I’m going to look only at a couple of older English-speaking democracies. How well do they stand up?

The Founding Fathers of the United States never intended to embrace democracy. Their purpose was to create a Republic with a Congress and a Presidency elected by property holders. Its purpose was, above all, to avoid any form of government derived from the idea of the British monarchy. It was not until the 20th century that the U.S. republic was prepared to adopt the idea of universal voting.

And that did not, of course, include black slaves or, until much later, women.

Britain, a monarchy with an established religion, limited the power of its Crowned Head much earlier than did Europe. By the mid-17th century, the powers of the British crown were constrained by law. Even then Britain did not really become a democracy until the 20th century.

Interestingly, the Commonwealth of Australia was one of the earliest democracies. From its outset in 1901, all males of adult age (then 21) were not only eligible to vote, but were required under law to do so.

Australia was also one of the first nations to allow women to vote.

But even we were not perfect. In state government elections, property ownership was a prerequisite for election to many state upper houses well into the 20th century.

And what about voting? Even today, in what many regard as the leading democracy, the U.S., voting is far from fair. Many electoral districts are slanted to favour (mostly) the Republican Party. Such are the rules for defining electoral districts, that these gerrymanders are impossible to correct. Voting is not compulsory. Indeed, for many, it is made difficult, if not impossible.

Let’s assume that, despite all the shortcomings mentioned above, by and large, reasonably competent people get elected. That, of itself, is no guarantee that the best possible outcomes will be delivered.

Liberal democracies, and that’s the kind we have in the West, will not necessarily agree on what constitutes a “best outcome” on any particular issue. One of the unfortunate characteristics of liberalism is that it allows people the right to disagree about fundamentals. Policymaking in such circumstances is difficult; those making decisions cannot please all sides.

Here lies a particular dilemma of democracy. In pre-democracy times, those with power to govern (on the basis of wealth, power or position) were answerable only to their class. How likely was it that they would disappoint those with whom they identified in making important decisions?

Modern democracy was supposed to change all of that and, to an extent, it has. But elected officials in liberal democracies, even when they are dealing with matters of poverty and fairness, will always be subject to pressures from competing and often irreconcilable interests. It would be fanciful to imagine that political leaders will always make the right decisions about the public interest in a framework where powerful pressure groups are divided on what that interest is.

Democracies embracing globalisation have built in another problem for their leaders. In a situation where leadership is difficult to exercise, political leaders have been all too willing to surrender control to markets – and especially to global markets over which they have virtually no control.


When all the important decisions about democratic operation were under the undisputed domination of the United States, all of this was much more easily managed. However, the emergence of China as a major power, which makes no secret of the fact that it is not a democracy, has changed all that.

More needs to be said about the emergence of China, but it is first necessary to make an important point. Until recent times, it could be said with some certainty that democracies were able to deliver better outcomes, especially when it came to the delivery of human rights and personal freedoms. Most importantly, these were protected by the legal system – including reasonable access to the court system.

These privileges in most of the important democracies – including Australia – are now circumscribed in serious ways. Associated with what are considered national security and terrorism control measures, laws are now in place that can deny citizens basic legal protections with what many consider inadequate safeguards against misuse.

For example, it is now possible for Australians to be detained without being charged with any offence. In some cases it is unlawful even to publicise the fact that such persons are so detained.

Moreover, the access such detainees have to full legal representation is limited. In many ways these infringements on civil liberties would be more appropriate in authoritarian regimes than in democracies.

Effectively, what our leaders are saying is that, in order to defend our democracy, we must diminish democratic freedoms.

Against that background, a word about China. China, now a major world power, makes no secret of the fact that it rejects the idea of democracy. As a matter of fact, its rise over the last 30 years has seen a billion Chinese people come out of poverty.

It is also true, as Donald Trump maintains, that 1 billion Chinese became prosperous at the expense of U.S. workers; and Trump wants that to change. That is another story, outside the scope of this article.

But there is a question worth asking that is perhaps unanswerable: Would the 1 billion better-off Chinese workers give up their improved financial status in authoritarian China, for life in a democracy governed by neoliberal economics? Especially if those democracies were actually limiting personal freedoms in ways not dissimilar from authoritarian states?

The best response from democratic leaders would be to better recognise and eliminate the impediments to effective democratic leadership to ensure, above all else, that just and appropriate policies are put in place to alleviate poverty and injustice.

If this can be done, we can rest assured democracy will always triumph over authoritarianism.

Colin Teese is a former deputy secretary of the Department of Trade.

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