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National Affairs

Australian democracy’s mixed scorecard

29 July 2009

Norman Abjorensen, co-author of Australia: The State of Democracy, runs a tape-measure over the nation’s democratic institutions and practices


David Sag/Flickr/ CC

David Sag/Flickr/ CC

A CENTURY AGO the bright new Commonwealth of Australia was regarded as a social laboratory of democracy, leading the way for universal suffrage, a fair, equal and just society and civil rights. But how democratic is Australia now?

This is what we at the Democratic Audit of Australia set out to investigate, analysing data over a period of years from all Australian jurisdictions and testing what we found against four internationally accepted principles adopted by the Stockholm-based IDEA, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance: political quality, popular control of government, civil liberties and human rights, and the quality and extent of public debate and discussion.

The report card is mixed: sound in many respects but disappointingly lagging in others. In a word: Australia could do better. What comes through the whole project is the extent to which we take our democratic values for granted but all too often fail to realise their fragility and the gradual erosion of their substance.

For example, on any scale at all, Australia is one of the wealthiest of nations, and also one in which its citizens enjoy a high degree of contentment. The 2007 Human Development Index compiled by the United Nations ranks countries on the basis of key indicators such as life expectancy, literacy, education and per capita GDP. Australia scores well across the board, coming in third behind Iceland and Norway and just ahead of Canada in fourth place. Other comparable countries are well down the list – the United States (twelfth), the United Kingdom (sixteenth) and New Zealand (nineteenth).

But behind the statistics are troubling clouds. The ultra-rosy picture of employment masks a grimmer reality, as the definition of employed is anyone who has worked at least one hour of paid employment in the preceding week, quite overlooking the rapid growth in casual and part-time employment and its attendant insecurity. The appalling life expectancy of Indigenous Australians – seventeen years less than for non-Indigenous – and the growing extent of homelessness are but two of the other serious blemishes that call into question just how inclusive we are as a society.

Inclusiveness is difficult to measure, but it nevertheless remains an important indicator of our collective democratic health, notably in regard to the state of political equality and its implications for social cohesion. There is clearly a broad commitment to the idea of equal citizenship, but the practice does not always reflect this. For example, gender can (and does) affect the practical day-to-day experience of citizenship, just as ethnicity and race do. It is only a few decades since the time when Indigenous Australians or women forfeited their Australian citizenship if they married a “foreigner.” In contrast to Britain, Australia’s citizenship legislation, enacted in 1948, did not set out the rights and obligations attached to citizenship; rather, these were left to be determined by the complexity of other legislative provisions that continue to discriminate on the basis of citizenship, the 2007 Australian Citizenship Act notwithstanding.

Despite the well-entrenched system of compulsory voting, it is a little known fact that only some 84 per cent of the eligible adult population is enrolled to vote – a situation due not only to problems with youth enrolment but also to the number of permanent residents who are not citizens and are excluded from voting. Permanent residents also experience different rights in different states when they try to vote in local government elections.

Australia scores comparatively well in regard to the rule of law and access to justice, but again a closer examination reveals flaws and shortcomings. In general, the rule of law is respected and operates widely across the country. A positive democratic trend can be seen in the gradual spread of judicial review of both administrative decisions and actions by government, but the process has often failed those fleeing persecution and seeking asylum in Australia.

Australia has frequently been found in breach of its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by arbitrarily detaining asylum seekers, a policy introduced by the Keating government in 1992. Australia also avoided its obligations under the UN Refugee Convention between 2001 and 2005 when the Commonwealth amended the Migration Act to remove areas from declared immigration zone, with the result that asylum seekers landing in excised areas would no longer have claim to asylum.

Inequalities in the legal system are also apparent in the way prisoners are treated. For example, the system is not geared to the needs of women who, while a small minority, are rising proportionally in relation to men. Women’s prisons are fewer and as a result women often have to serve custodial sentences further from home. Indigenous Australians also fare very poorly under the existing system, comprising just on 2.4 per cent of the general population but 24 per cent of the prison population.

For many decades Australia was at the forefront of advances in conferring and protecting the economic and social rights of its citizens. But much of the achievement of these rights came through a unique centralised and quasi-judicial system of determining wages and conditions, so the dismantling of this system has effectively eroded many of those rights. Such rights have become vulnerable in the context of the decentralisation of wage bargaining, the attrition of the award system and sharp increases in non-standard employment, such as casualisation.

In such an outwardly affluent society, the prevalence of poverty and deprivation remains a real concern. In the ten years from 1997, the Commonwealth reduced its share of housing funding by 25 per cent and state governments made matching cuts as a result. With the switch of policy focus from providing public housing to subsidising rents in the private sector, which have in no way kept pace with soaring rentals, especially in Perth, more and more people have been excluded. The economic boom in Western Australia was accompanied by a rise in homelessness, with sixty-eight out of every 10,000 West Australians estimated to be homeless in 2006, compared to a national rate of fifty-three out of 10,000. Unaffordable rents have impacted particularly severely on groups such as single parents, 87 per cent of whom are women, and of all groups single women pay the highest proportion of their income on rent.

In terms of corruption, Australia fares better than most countries, but the AWB affair hurt its reputation badly, causing a slip from near the top of the table to equal ninth in the corruption perceptions index compiled annually by Transparency International. While the Commonwealth performs reasonably well, the record at state level is far from unblemished, with two former premiers of Western Australia, and former ministers in Queensland and Western Australia imprisoned for corruption over the past two decades.

In terms of public deliberation, Australia scores some major positives with the existence of two independent, publicly funded national broadcasters, a news media that is generally free, greater uniformity in formerly inhibiting defamation laws and a welcome self-scrutiny by the media industry in such forums as the ABC’s Media Watch. On the debit side, though, there is the abnormally high concentration of media ownership, the political and financial pressures on public broadcasters, tighter restrictions on news reporting through draconian anti-terror laws, lack of protection for journalists who protect their sources and generally inadequate and ineffectual freedom of information laws.

While we have free and fair elections that are the envy of much of the developing world, the extent of genuine popular control of government is questionable. For example, the lack of public support for privatisation of public enterprises has not deterred governments of all persuasions from selling off public assets. Similarly, there are real questions about accountability of governments to parliament and to the people, with the clerk of the Senate, Harry Evans, noting just last week that Australian parliaments were among the weakest in the democratic world in this regard.

Overall, it’s not an entirely bleak picture, but we are nowhere near as good as we like to think we are, and arguably we have slipped from what we were a century ago. •

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Broad church: Marise Payne at a Senate Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee hearing on the Anti-Terrorism (No 2) Bill 2005. Mick Tsikas/AAP Image

Broad church: Marise Payne at a Senate Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee hearing on the Anti-Terrorism (No 2) Bill 2005. Mick Tsikas/AAP Image