The democracy deficit — it’s an economic problem, too

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Democracy - power to the (wealthy) people (Image by Dan Jensen)

Whether or not the Turnbull Government intends to sell the ABC, political editor Dr Martin Hirst argues that the Liberal Party’s internal debate on the issue highlights the democratic deficit at the heart of our system.

WE LIVE IN a democracy, right?

It just seems like common sense, something so secure and simple it’s hardly worth thinking about, right?

But what if I told you that what we have is not a democracy?

Would you be outraged? Would you think I’m some sort of unhinged leftie? Or would you be prepared to at least consider my arguments?

I’ll assume the latter, because you’re still reading. Aren’t you?

My argument, in a nutshell, is that despite the formal features of our political system matching most aspects of the dictionary definition, any sense of real democratic practice is an illusion. This is because our apparently democratic institutions are functionally designed to give power to money, not people.

Let’s start with an example from last week.

We will, or we will not, sell the ABC

I don’t know about you, but I was not at all surprised when the Liberal Party’s Federal Council voted overwhelmingly to sell-off the embattled national broadcaster at its annual conference on the weekend of 16-17 June.

The Liberal Party apparatus has been captured by conservative forces inspired by the Institute of Public Affairs and loyal to factions led by Tony Abbott in NSW, Peter Dutton in Queensland and Eric Abetz in Tasmania.

We can only expect this rightward drift to continue into the future, too. Moderates were roundly defeated in votes for the incoming executive and the Young Liberals grouping engineered the vote. The overlap between wealthy student apparatchiks and the besuited, bespectacled cadre of the IPA is very evident in the ranks of the Young Libs.

No delegates spoke against the sell motion, not even the several ministers who were present.

So, we can assume from this that the Liberal Party rank-and-file are committed to privatising the ABC and probably SBS as well.

Okay, we might disagree with this policy position (here at IA we certainly do), but in a democracy, the people have spoken.

In this case, the people are members of the Liberal Party — they elect a leadership, set policy and pre-select party candidates to stand in elections.

Yep, all totally democratic — except for the fact that the parliamentary grouping of the Liberals have said they will ignore the party’s rank-and-file.

The parliamentary wing of the Liberal Party has apparently been wedged by the conservative wing of the party. In the days after the Federal Council, senior Liberal ministers, from the PM down, were publicly vocal in claiming the Government has no plans to privatise the ABC.


That’s right, the Liberal Party representatives in Parliament – those whose positions on the comfy leather benches depends on the party rank-and-file – have no intention of carrying out party policy as set by the Liberals’ highest decision-making body.

Well, that’s one interpretation if the loud protestations of “never, never” from Turnbull cabinet are to be believed.

But are they to be believed?

I think we have earned the right to be cynical and wary when it comes to the COALition and honouring commitments.

It’s no secret that this Government hates the ABC and would love to see it sold off. The Minister for Communication, Senator Fifield, has demonstrated his loathing of the national broadcaster in a series of vexatious, but nevertheless damaging, complaints. The Government stripped out over $100 million in funding to the ABC in the 2018 Budget, forcing cuts in news and other divisions. The appointment of former Murdoch executive Michelle Guthrie as managing director is also widely seen as a Trojan horse for dismantling the ABC.

None of us should be surprised if the Dutton/Turnbull Government moves to chop up the ABC if it wins the next Federal election.

The take out from this is that either way, democratic processes – both inside and outside of party structures – are a sham, a veil of decency to give a shred of respect to an otherwise broken, decrepit and corrupt system.

And, just so you don’t think I’m being one-eyed about this, the ALP deserves some criticism in this area, too.

In May this year, the so-called “left” unions (a block of bureaucrats and careerists) procedurally shut down the Victorian conference of the ALP so that a motion on ending offshore detention of refugees could not be debated. But it’s actually worse than that: motions on several key issues were blocked by the suspension of business.

On Sunday the industrial left teamed up with the Labor right to close the Victorian state conference, shutting down urgency motions on live exports, gender inequality in superannuation, closure of offshore detention centres, the right to strike, the rate of Newstart and recognition of Palestine.

The same grouping also combined to vote against senators being preselected by an equal vote of rank-and-file members and affiliated union delegates to state conference.

How is this different in principle to the Liberal leadership ignoring the wishes of the rank-and-file over privatising the ABC?

Perhaps the ALP’s cowardice and refusal to debate refugee policy is actually worse. According to recent polling, we overwhelmingly want an end to the torture of asylum-seekers on Manus and Nauru. Over 75 per cent of voters also want the government to allow resettlement of refugees in New Zealand.

Despite this clear public preference – an expression of our collective will – the bipartisan policy of continued cruelty and indifference to the deaths and suffering in our offshore gulags is not going to be changed any time soon.

Our leaders are failing us

Party leaders and the coterie of cushion warmers in Parliament engineer party “democracy” so that they can do whatever they like and ignore the wishes of the membership.

It’s not that democratic principles are failing us. The clearer, yet less palatable, reasoning is that our politicians are failing to live up to their own rhetoric on the value of liberal democracy.

They don’t care, they enjoy the benefits of office (even in opposition) and they are beholden to the real rulers of Australia — the rich and powerful who benefit from racism, low wages, tax cuts for the rich and famous, and divide and rule tactics against the rest of us to hold onto their wealth.

Our Prime Minister is the perfect embodiment of this caste of charlatans and its disdain for democracy. He is the richest individual ever to lead the nation. Not only does he enjoy one of the highest salaries among global leaders, he was able to invest $1.75 million of his own spare change in buying the top cushion on the government benches.

The system formally known as Democracy

Formal definitions of democracy look good "on paper" (Screenshots by author)

Just take a look at the first line in the second definition given above:

‘... government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.’

Well, first of all we don’t have “government by the people” who exercise power “directly”. Many apologists for the current system would argue that direct rule just not “practical”, but real democracy requires something close to it. This is where the idea of “representative democracy” comes from.

The problem is – as I argued above – that “our” representatives don’t actually represent us very well, if at all. We are regularly ignored or gaslighted with weasel words.

One more brief example: Earlier last week, the Prime Minister and the Minister for Homeland Security Home Affairs, Immigration and Border Security had the front to turn up at a Parliamentary function to acknowledge Refugee Week.

From this photo-op, we are supposed to infer that these two actually care about refugees.

We know they don’t and I wouldn’t be surprised if one, or both, of them was wearing an “I really don’t care, do you?” t-shirt under their suit.

The formal definitions suggest that democracy is a system “in which the supreme power is vested in the people”. Okay, so liberals might tell us that this has been the case since the signing of the Magna Carta in the early 13th Century. However, the “people” vested with power under Magna Carta were the English nobility, not the peasants, indentured serfs and artisans of feudal England.

The Magna Carta has been the basis for assuming that nations have liberal democratic form now for over 600 years. It encapsulates many of the original principles which underlie both the British and the American political systems — the separation of powers, a system of checks and balances on executive power, the “rule of law”, habeus corpus (formalised by the British parliament in the 17th Century) and justice meted out by peers of the accused (the modern jury system).

You would think that humans are smart enough to have perfected a system after 700 years of practice. That it hasn’t been the case is obvious; the question is: Why not?

The simple answer is that the real inheritors of the power vested in the feudal nobles are not you and me, they are the captains of industry and their lackeys on the cushions of power.

Why has the great liberal project of democracy increasingly become a hollow shell of perfunctory elections in which the candidates are largely indistinguishable clones of each other?

We are promised so much each time we go to the polls, but it seems no matter who we vote for a politician always wins.

What we have in Australia is defined as liberal democracy, but it is really a form of oligarchy — rule by a political caste without regard for the feelings, wishes or will of the people. Yes, we are literally on the same level as Russia. In fact, oligarchs run the entire planet.

Our very own oligarchs set policy in many areas – think Twiggy Forrest and Gina Rinehart in mining and Indigenous affairs; add to them all the CEOs who earn multiple millions of dollars as they consign thousands of workers to the scrap heap and clamour loudly for pay cuts for those lucky enough to still have a job. These rich and greedy individuals have the ear of government and they mostly get what they pay for.

Australia, like most of the developed capitalist world (which is all of it), is suffering from a democracy deficit.

(Screenshot from Britannica.com)

Talking about the democracy deficit has become trendy in political science in the last couple of years.

It’s trendy to talk about, but in typical academic fashion there is no real appetite for the type of activism necessary to fix it. Instead, the system-protecting political scientists would like the very institutions that embody the democratic deficit to fix it without our participation in the process.

The reason why such analysis fails to provide a solution to the democratic deficit is that it focuses only on formal political aspects of the problem. However, this is superficial and ignores the crucial link between political form – the superstructure of society – and the economic base; the relations of production.

Simple political economy tells us that form follows function in such matters. This means that the form of limited representative democracy as the superstructure that sits over a capitalist economy reflects the needs of private capital.

The political system is in place to ensure the “smooth” running of the economy — in our case, the realisation of private profit at the expense of collective wellbeing.

For political economists, there is strong and indissoluble link between the democracy deficit and the dominant neo-liberal economics of globalisation.

This is how Saskia Sassen described it in an article for Open Democracy:

'Some parts of the liberal state (including the executive branch of government and some of the key agencies under its control) actually gain power; at the same time, the various policies promoting corporate economic globalisation (privatisation and liberalisation) have the effect of eliminating oversight functions and thus hollowing out the legislature.'

Sassen argues that, since the 1980s, neo-liberal economic policies of privatisation, decommissioning important elements of state regulation of economic activity, coupled with a strong libertarian ideology falsely linking private enterprise with political and personal freedom, have hollowed out liberal democracies, vesting more and more power in so-called “executive” functions beyond public control.

'This in turn feeds the power of the executive branch, especially insofar as the executive seeks to control the public administration. Further, key actors in the supranational system, such as the IMF and the WTO, will deal only with the executive branch, further removing it from democratic accountability.'

For Sassen, the key principle of political economy that informs her analysis is the “extractive economy”, as she explained in a 2017 interview:

"What marks the specificity of our current period is that we have extracted so many resources from our planet and pushed so many people and whole communities off their land to do so, that this extractive logic is now becoming highly visible. Elsewhere, I have argued that this extractive mode has also generated new types of migrations. And it is not clear to me how this all ends, but it can’t be very good."

We can see this locally, too, in the actions of the Turnbull Government. In an attempt to further shift wealth into the hands of the already rich, tax and welfare policy is focused on rewarding business (many of them among the world’s largest multinationals) with massive tax cuts, and also rewarding themselves with similarly large personal tax cuts.

In the economy, we also see this in action when companies such as Telstra announce 8,000 layoffs in order to extract more value for shareholders at the expense of the public good.

The democratic deficit is a function of capitalist economics. We need to overcome capitalism to restore real democracy.

You can follow political editor Dr Martin Hirst on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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