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Australia's failing democracy: Activism has never been more urgent

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(Cartoon by Mark David | @MDavidCartoons)

For the sake of our democracy, Australia needs an activist not beholden to political affiliation or corporate interest to advocate for all citizens — someone like Ralph Nader, writes Dr Amanda McLeod.

BIG BUSINESS, big media, climate denial, right-wing politics, the mega-rich, political corruption and lack of political oversight all seek to undermine active citizenship and social democracy. Australia is far from immune to such threats.

Moreover, the record-breaking profits of big business, the war in Ukraine, natural disasters and accelerating interest rates have put pressure on citizens who have to face a significant and rising cost of living.

Australia lacks a trustworthy advocate who puts citizen rights at the forefront of his or her activism rather than pursuing self-interest.

The Morrison Government refused to establish a federal anti-corruption commission or reign in right-wing extremists. Australia lacks strong leadership on climate change, political donations and the protection of democratic freedoms and citizen rights. We lack activists outside the two-party system who will advocate on behalf of all citizens.

As most National Anti-Corruption Commission hearings will be held in private unless there are "exceptional" circumstances, will Labor’s version lack transparency and teeth?

Lack of political will is hardly a new problem. Neither is the absence of strident citizen activism that focuses on a wide range of issues rather than single-issue politics.

By the early 1970s, despite decades of successful consumer activism, the Australian consumer movement had stalled and needed a fresh injection of energy and commitment. It had become increasingly evident that Australia needed a strong consumer advocate, which led to the Sydney Morning Herald reporting 'Australia needs a Nader'.  

Source: Sydney Morning Herald 10 August 1971, p. 26

Ralph Nader, an attorney educated at Princeton and Harvard, had found fame as the author of ground-breaking book Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile.

The book quickly became a best-seller and game-changer: Nader's work exposing General Motors’ deliberate opposition to motor car safety. It led to major changes in car design and safety features in the U.S. and beyond.

There were an important few who could claim credit for the development of the Australian consumer movement: the Australian Consumers Association, the publishers of CHOICE magazine (formed in 1959); David Bottomley, the first chairman of the Victorian Government’s Consumer Protection Council in 1964 and Lionel Murphy, the Labor Attorney-General who was instrumental in the drafting and enactment of the Trade Practices Act 1974. The latter two reported being significantly influenced by Nader.

There were, of course, others who advocated on behalf of consumer citizens, but Australia had no one like Nader.

Nader’s advocacy had few limitations. He was not beholden to political affiliation or corporate interests. While CHOICE took no money from businesses, it confined itself to helping consumers choose the best products rather than following a wider political agenda to influence democratic change.

Nader was probably Australia’s most influential citizen advocate throughout the 1970s and '80s when it came to legislative change and other consumer protection measures. His visits to Australia during this time coincided with increased interest in Australian citizen-led organisations and membership in local consumer groups grew significantly due to his publicity.

When Life magazine named him one of the 20th Century’s most influential Americans in 1990, it was clear that Nader had become far more than a mere consumer crusader. He was an uncompromising defender of liberal democracy and citizen rights more generally.

Nader campaigned on issues as diverse as consumer rights, corporate interference in politics, nuclear disarmament, corporate accountability, law reform, freedom of information and climate change.

When the Labor Government drafted the landmark Trade Practices Act 1974, Lionel Murphy visited the United States to seek Nader’s counsel. When Labor proposed a Bill of Rights in the 1980s, albeit unsuccessfully, Nader came to Australia to give keynote addresses and interviews and raise the profile of citizen rights.

His visits spurred the formation of Australian chapters of his Public Interest Research Group, with members known as Nader’s Raiders, who sought to promote and protect democracy and other progressive freedoms.

By the late-1980s, however, Australian politics had changed. Democratic reform was no longer at the centre of political life. Corporate interests were becoming stronger and citizenship was reframed to those of the consumer. And public-interest advocates had largely grown disaffected or confined to the fringes of politics.

The Australian Labor Party, too, had changed. As the 1980s progressed, Labor began to form closer ties with the business community and focused its attention on economic rather than social policy. Universities, too, were no longer hotbeds of activism driving social change.

Despite this, Nader continued to advocate on behalf of citizens in both the U.S. and abroad. He spoke at the National Press Club in 1994 on a myriad of issues, all focused on capitalism and its discontents.

At 89 years of age, Nader continues to hold politicians and corporations to account and to influence democratic change. Since Professor Allan Fels, perhaps, Australia has had no equivalent citizen advocate — and certainly, no one as well known as Nader. Other potential advocates have kept a low profile, reluctant to pursue such wide-ranging issues.

The Australian Greens and the wider environmental movement have a broad but limited focus and as a result, their impact has been diluted and fractured. Indeed, the confines of a political party or single-issue organisation make broader citizen activism difficult.

Despite his own unsuccessful political foray, Nader remains committed to defending democracy, corporate accountability and citizen rights outside party politics.

Nader did not visit Australia again after the mid-1990s and we are the poorer for it.

Many years later, we still need an advocate who works tirelessly on behalf of citizens. One who seeks to expose corporate interference and influence in politics — someone who shines a light on vested interests and defends rights and democratic freedoms.

As citizen rights have become equated with those of the consumer due to the predominance of the economy in Australian life, the need for broader activism that places democracy and other rights at the forefront has never been more urgent.

If Australia needed a Nader in the 1970s, it needs one now more than ever.

Dr Amanda McLeod has a BA (Honours), majoring in history and philosophy and a PhD in consumer history. She writes on politics, economics and Australian life.

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