This 'democracy' thing: China and Australia compared

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Why are we so smug? (Image via @EnglishAlwaght)

Many Australians are rather proud of our "democracy", but how much more democratic than China are we really? Colin Cook considers.

THE DEMONISATION of China in our media – mainstream and not-so – is constant. Our biggest trading partner is often the subject of critical comments because it is not "a democracy’’ — not like us. It is worth reflecting on a few comparative news items.

Last October, the China Daily news site reported that a province in China had just elected over 400 new lawmakers, saying:

‘The new legislators were elected Tuesday and Wednesday in 14 cities in the province. The 12th Liaoning Provincial People's Congress now has 594 deputies.’

Why would a province in China need 600 lawmakers when for our central government we elect a mere total of 226 members?

It transpires that Liaoning has a population of 43.9 million. Adjoing North Korea, Liaoning has 14 prefectures, 100 counties and 1,511 townships (2012 figures). Thus this northern Chinese population elected, on the above figures, 13.5 lawmakers per million of population, whereas we make do with about ten per million. Increases in population since 2012 would reduce both figures, but the indications are that Liaoning has at least as many elected lawmakers as Australia has federally.

Of course, there are many differences.

The article in the China Daily also advised:

‘The by-elections for lawmakers were carried out in Liaoning after an election fraud scandal in January 2013 that implicated 523 deputies to the Liaoning Provincial People's Congress. They either resigned or had their qualification as deputies terminated.’

Which just goes to show what a crooked bunch they are, or what an effective anti-corruption watchdog they now have — take your pick.

Than again, our Parliament has an estimated 900 registered lobbyists.If we add just half these to our 225 representatives giving us 676 lawmakers in Canberra, then we can boast as having 30 lawmakers per million population. Lobbying is a tax deductible business expense, so they are all on our payroll one way or another; but only ten are democratically elected.

The phrase ‘qualification as deputies terminated’ indicates that there is a mandatory qualification before a Chinese would-be lawmaker can stand for election. In Australia, almost anyone can stand for election, but one has a much better chance of success if one has been "pre-selected" by an existing political party — proven party loyalty and compliance being prerequisites to get the party’s "blessing".

Thus, both in Liaoning and Australia, voters do get a choice of candidates — but in practice it is just a choice between candidates who have already been singled out, nominated, by some other body.

Doubtless, too, the successful Chinese candidates must espouse the Communist system with specific adherence to the current five-year plan that has been developed by some higher authority, the central government in Beijing. In Australia, it is assumed that one accepts capitalism – any other "ism" will create difficulties for one’s public image – especially the variety embracing the neoliberal philosophy of globalisation, reduced regulation, privatisation programs and balanced budgets. Thus, both sets of candidates have prescribed ideologies.

That the Liaoning Provincial People's Congress does not have any say about what the Beijing government does in the South China Sea goes without saying. Similarly, our national Parliament has no say in the deployment of Australian forces in foreign parts or the deployment of foreign troops in Australian parts such as Darwin.

So can "democracy" be rated? It is not just a binary matter that a country either has it or it doesn’t and it is not just a matter of ‘free and fair’ elections. Democracy does not stop at the ballot box, it is a system and the way it functions and serves its purpose is the true measure of it. Is it not time that we realised that ‘democracy’ is a work in progress and that we would do well to concentrate on improving ours and let other countries attend to theirs.

We could begin by accepting:

  • that "democracy" was a dirty word at the beginning of white settlement;
  • our first governments were top down affairs — grass roots were to be trodden on;
  • the ethos of white settlement was of centralist government of all aspects of society — it was, after all, a prison; 
  • our democracy is not the result of a lengthy, natural gestation.

This is in contrast to Indigenous, old societies where, in the very beginning, tribal groups managed their own resources and affairs and, over millennia, coalesced – with much skullduggery and bloodshed – into larger more extensive governing bodies and, finally, central, national governments. In this sense, Australia got it the "wrong way up" and has never sought to accept that local communities are best at managing their own affairs and resources; at present in Australia, local government exists only at the convenience of State governments.

This status quo is firmly ensconced in our "community DNA"; witness how often local initiatives and programs are conditional upon grants – bestowed by Government – and how revered are those who are skilled at writing the applications. No thought that the grant money may have been extracted from other communities lacking the "nous" and application skills.

If we do aim to improve our democracy, the way it works and what it delivers, we must recognize that democratic governance naturally grows from the small to the big; witness how the states came together to form the Federal body. Sadly, our states lack legitimacy in the sense that they did not grow from self-governing communities.

We need local governance to be fully, constitutionally recognised — it is the bedrock of genuine, effective democracy.

In an unsourced quote, a Chinese national explains to an Australian:

"The difference is that you can change the party governing but not the economic system, whereas we cannot change the governing party but we can change the system."

You can follow Colin Cook on his blog Sour Dough

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