Democracy and its discontents — part 1

Marcus Crowley
Nov 19 · 5 min read

Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four.
George Orwell

tldr

  • Australians are unhappy with their democracy and politicians
  • Big hairy issues are not getting tackled
  • Dishonesty can be a helpful political strategy

Canberra to Cambridge

The Museum of Australian Democracy at the Old Parliament House in Canberra has just launched a new exhibition on the topic of ‘truth decay’. According to the Canberra Times, it focuses on the importance of journalism in holding governments to account. Given the results of recent polls, it is timely.

The ABC’s Australia Talks survey — which has been completed by 54,000 people and is still running — tells us that 90% of Australians don’t trust politicians to tell the truth. Admittedly such surveys are likely to appeal primarily to the frustrated and the digitally savvy, but it’s a shocking outcome.

Ipsos’ survey from December 2018 concurs — Australians trust politicians less than any almost every other profession:

Credit: https://www.ipsos.com/en-au/its-fact-scientists-are-most-trusted-people-world

In the same vein, the Essential Report indicates that Australians trust political parties the least (15%) while our various levels of government enjoy diminishing levels of trust the more remote they are: local (42%), state (31%) and federal (28%).

This is a relatively new crisis for us down under. The University of Canberra tracks our satisfaction with democracy and found that there was a huge drop between 2013 (72%) and 2016 (42%) which has not recovered since. It doesn’t help that we’ve had six changes of prime minister in 12 years, some of which have been caused by internal rifts in the ruling party.

Australian prime ministers, from left to right: Rudd, Gillard, Abbott, Turnbull, Morrison. Credit: Matt Golding, Cartoonist of the Year

And Australians are not alone. As you can imagine, the Brits, the French, the Hong Kongers, the Italians and the Americans aren’t chuffed either:

Credit: https://www.people-press.org/2019/04/11/public-trust-in-government-1958-2019/

You literally have to go the ends of the earth to find healthy democracy: Norway and New Zealand.

So what?

If the people cannot trust their government to do the job for which it exists — to protect them and to promote their common welfare — all else is lost.
Barack Obama

There are — to my mind — four big, hairy problems in the world today:

  1. Inequality
  2. Overpopulation
  3. Climate change
  4. Pollution

These are in no particular order. (I’ll refer to these as the Big Four. Please comment below if you have others to suggest.)

Millions of articles, reports, studies, blogs, speeches, books, phone calls, emails, podcasts, documentaries, and UN debates have addressed these matters. Despite these efforts, in my lifetime, all Four problems have worsened.

The problems are interrelated. For example, sending US manufacturing jobs to China so that US companies can improve their profitability means more money for the shareholders and fewer jobs at home. That’s bad for inequality (B1). It also results in more greenhouse gas emissions as products manufactured in one country are shipped to another, instead of being made and sold nearby (B3). And weak environmental protection in China — at least for the first few decades — meant that increasing water and air pollution affected those living beside those factories and further afield (B4). The saving grace here was that China — and only China — put a lid on population growth, but that lid has now partly been removed (B2).

While the Big Four are older than the developed world’s democratic decline — let’s call this DD for brevity — they are multilateral issues which touch everyone on the planet whose solution will require consensus and sacrifice.

Here’s the rub. Without fixing DD we will never solve the Big Four.

Try telling people…

  • who are wealthy, to pay more taxes
  • to have fewer children, or — even less palatable — to forget about trying to cure the sick
  • to stop eating so much meat, and reduce plane travel
  • to stop producing / using plastic

Off on a bit of a tangent, I’ll concede that climate change (B3) could also be solved by discovering and industrialising a new, stable, safe, powerful and non-polluting energy source. And we can hope that chemical recycling or some other similar breakthrough will eventually help us with pollution (B4). But these feel like science fiction at the moment: more akin to the discovery of electricity and quantum mechanics, than to inventing steam engines and smartphones. They will not transform the world within the next 12 years, but by all means let’s race down that path, and invest heavily in scientists and their research.

Ask not what your country can do for you

An assault on truth is an assault on democracy.
Tony Hall
- BBC director general

If we all agree that the Big Four need to be tackled urgently — not that this consensus exists right now — then how do we go about it?

The normal path to democratic change involves electing leaders who can ensure that laws and taxation and spending patterns are adjusted to address an issue. So how does this work if we no longer trust the democratic process and politicians lie?

Statements made by Trump (red) and Clinton (blue) during the 2016 US presidential race. Credit: Politifact

It doesn’t. We need absolute integrity and honesty in our representatives. But if they are dishonest during the campaign, how can we know which candidate to choose?

Three years on, the candidate that lied the most is now the 45th president of the United States and — as was reported by USAFacts today — there is now an eye-popping disagreement about what a fact is.

Meanwhile the Poms are still trying to pin down what Brexit meant and how much of the money that the UK was sending to the European Union will actually get spent on the National Health Service instead.

In Australia, our last national election (in May 2019) saw the incumbent government returned to power, meaning that we’ve voted for more global warming and more inequality. We’re not an ill-educated, insecure, desperate nation. Yet there it is.

Not only, but also

In Part 2, I explain the importance the news media has been playing in our democracy. In Part 3 I’ll suggest some remedies for DD.

democra.me Blog

Marcus Crowley

Written by

Father, husband, founder of democra.me

democra.me Blog

Discussion of worldwide democratic decay and solutions

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade