Politics Analysis

The pitiful decline of Australia's democratic institutions

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Free the refugees protest in Broadmeadows, Melbourne (Image by John Englart | Flickr)

From Whitlam to Albanese – from a thriving powerful free-thinking society to today – Australia's democracy has been in decline for some time, Victor Kline writes.

ANY SYSTEM of government depends for its success on the goodwill of human beings. There are no doubt hundreds of millions of people of goodwill on the earth, all of whom can be depended upon for their honesty and their steadfast desire to do the right thing.

But these are not the people who rise to the top in government.

People who become the leaders of countries are the very opposite of steadfast. They are ruthless and narcissistic. They have to be, to beat off the other ruthless and narcissistic people who are also clambering for power.

So no matter how wonderful the system devised for governing the people, it will be in the hands of the ruthless and narcissistic. Eventually, they will decide that that system – however beneficial for the people – doesn’t continue to suit them personally.

They will then not hesitate to jettison the form of government which artists and philosophers have worked so hard to devise. Equity and justice for the people will be as a bitter taste in their mouths and will be discarded like a cup of cold coffee.

This is what has happened in every era, in every part of the world, on every occasion that the genius of humankind has devised a good and fair system of government.

The great democracy of Athens was taken over by tyrants. The Roman Republic ate itself alive from within.

In more modern times, Wiliam Wordsworth said in his poetry of the French Revolution, which swept away the injustice of millennia:

'Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.'

And yet, within five years, France had been plunged into war and The Terror — a bloodbath as unique as the Republic it mocked.

The Russian Revolution seemed barely five minutes old, when the new Czars set up their own form of oppression to rival those they had deposed. And now the USA’s new manifest destiny is to sink into the mire of civil strife and civil war until it is nothing but a third-world haunt for gangsters. 

Australia is no different. What has happened here over the last 50 years might not be immediately obvious to us. But that is because we are up too close.

A few steps back and objectivity will reveal a degeneration of our democracy which is bleak and almost complete. In the 1950s and 1960s, Australia was the most egalitarian country in the world. The rich were rich but not obscenely so. 

The middle class were very comfortable. The workers all had jobs which paid enough for them to easily afford the necessities of life and have enough left over for a car and a holiday. 

Full employment was considered the most important part of the economy —  so much so that the founding charter of the Reserve Bank made it a legal requirement for full employment to be its number one priority.

Anyone who wanted a job could have one and could keep it for life if they chose. Unions were not only strong but were respected.

Even the conservative Prime Minister Robert Menzies felt the need to make public statements at election time about how much he supported the rights of collective bargaining.

Former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam took all that and parlayed it into a country where justice and equality reign supreme. A Medicare system where health care was, in effect, free.

A legal aid system in which no one was disadvantaged because of lack of funds. Free tertiary education. Humane treatment of refugees, and a hundred and one just and laudable innovations besides.

Now that is all gone, ironically at the behest of the next Labor leader after Whitlam. Former PM Bob Hawke introduced neo-liberal economic public policy and media monopolies in Australia.

But he was a clever man. He managed to destroy the unions and the lucky country along with them — and at the same time have everyone believe he was a "good bloke".

Former PM John Howard thanked Hawke for making such a good start and successfully set about removing every remaining wonderful aspect of our hitherto magnificent democracy.

Today the Reserve Bank daily breaches the law by ignoring its statutory obligation to fight for full employment. Massive unemployment is masked by massaged employment figures.

Millions of Australian citizens live below the poverty line. Hundreds of thousands are homeless. The rich are so rich it is almost impossible to imagine how much they have. The middle class is struggling. 

The working class fights daily to avoid falling off the looming precipice into homelessness and starvation. Young people have to work at several jobs just to survive and have been taught to blame the baby boomers instead of Hawke and his media mogul buddies, who took away the good life the people enjoyed and gave it to the billionaires.

Deadly holes are opening up in the area of medical care. Law now completely dedicates itself to the support of the rich and powerful. There is, in effect, no legal aid. Refugees are tortured physically and mentally and present a tragically high level of mental illness and suicide.

Unions might as well close up shop for all they can achieve. Higher education has become a corrupt whore, leaning on a lamppost, accosting any passing foreign student to whom it can offer its wares.

Most politicians happily make themselves the puppets of the billionaires and the media moguls, and those who refuse to are crushed.

I would go so far as to say we had the best democracy the world has ever seen. Better even than the halcyon days of classical Athens, better than anything the American revolutionaries could win or put into practice in their pursuit of happiness.

Now we resemble Britain in the 18th and 19th Centuries. A democracy in name only. A land of hypocrisy and pain.

Why has this happened? For the reason I mentioned at the start. No system, however wonderful or workable, can go on indefinitely. This is because every system depends on a social compact between its citizens and its leaders. And sooner or later a leader or leaders will come along, so pathological in their narcissism, that the social compact is meaningless to them.

If greater personal wealth and glory can be obtained by the destruction of the system, they will not hesitate to destroy it. In this case, it was Bob Hawke and John Howard.

But if it hadn’t been them, it would have been someone else, sooner or later.

Is there a solution? Potentially, yes. When philosophers invent systems of government, they debate and analyse every possible moving part in endless detail — except one.

The most crucial moving part, human nature, is ignored. This is because it is felt nothing can be done about human nature. No one can teach or induce the greedy and the narcissistic to be other than they are. And that is true. Human nature cannot be changed. So the answer is to take human nature out of the game.

Let me give you a real-life example. In divorce proceedings, the settling of property disputes between the warring parties was always fraught.

No rawer example of debased human nature could be found. Husbands and wives displayed the very worst of themselves, cheating and deceiving one another and squabbling over every item of property.

But the very wise Justice Nye – of CBS's The Good Wife – came up with a solution which took human nature out of the game. He told one of the parties, let’s say the husband, to divide all the property into two lists.

Then the wife got to choose which list she wanted. There was no way the parties’ greedy human nature could undermine this system. If the husband tried to load one list with more valuable goods, the wife would just choose it. If the husband left anything off the list, that automatically went to the wife. This was lateral thinking at its best. It took a complicated and knotty system and reduced it to the most sublime simplicity. 

And speaking of knots, remember the Gordian Knot, the most complex knot ever tied. The idea was that whoever could untie it would be destined to rule Asia.

Many tried, spending hours struggling with the complexities of the knot, until Alexander the Great simply took his sword and sliced through it — the ultimate example of standing above the complexity and reducing it to a simple solution.

With our leaders, we must take human nature out of the equation, by standing above them and cutting the Gordian Knot. 

We must lock them into a position as Justice Nye locked in his litigants, where they are absolutely free to achieve all they have been employed to achieve, but with no opportunity to even tweak the system to their own advantage or to the advantage of their cronies.

It could be something as simple as requiring every politician, before taking their seat in parliament, to agree to wear a bracelet that lit up every time he or she told a lie. There would need to be the technology to support such an approach. But assuming there were, it is a simple idea which would make Justice Nye and Alexander the Great proud.

Of course, those who make their fortunes from the duplicity of politicians would howl about the breach of human rights. But in the modern world, human rights are continually being sacrificed for what is claimed to be the greater good. 

From prosecuting whistleblowers to the abolition of juries. From detention without trial to the use of defamation to silence free speech.

By comparison with those horrors, this minor imposition on politicians, which would cut the ground out from under all the corrupt multinationals, bureaucrats, media bosses and spin doctors, and which would give 26 million Australians a government they could actually depend upon, would seem to me to be an elegant solution.

However, this is just one idea to make the point.

More and better ideas will no doubt be conceived by wiser heads than mine – once it is clear where the thinking needs to focus – on how to remove the temptation for the worst of human beings to behave in the worst of ways.

Victor Kline is a writer and a barrister whose practice focuses on pro bono work for refugees and asylum seekers. You can follow Victor on Twitter @victorklineTNL.

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