Must try harder: A report card on Australian democracy

William Bowe, University of Western Australia

Marian Sawer, Norman Abjorensen and Phil Larkin Australia: The State of Democracy, Leichhardt, Federation Press, 2009 (322 pp). ISBN 9-78186287-725-2 (paperback) RRP $59.95.

The qualities or otherwise of democracy have been provoking controversy since ancient Greece. According to Plato’s Republic, Socrates believed democracy to be motivated by ‘an excessive desire for liberty at the expense of everything else’, which led in turn to ‘the demand for tyranny’ (1955, p. 386). Somewhat more recently, American founding father James Madison (2008, p. 52) argued that democracies in their pure form were ‘incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths’ (2008 (1787), p. 52). Now that democracy has lost its pejorative connotations, contemporary argument turns upon the particular formulation of good things which can be said to constitute it. In Australia, the meaning of the term has been one more battleground in the culture wars, over which the Howard Government continues to cast a long shadow. Depending which side one is on, the former Prime Minister can be said to have launched a full-scale assault on democracy, having ‘cowed his critics, muffled the press, intimidated the ABC, gagged scientists, silenced non-government organisations, neutered Canberra’s mandarins, curtailed parliamentary scrutiny, censored the arts, banned books, criminalised protest and prosecuted whistleblowers’ (Marr 2007, p. 4); or, on the other side of the fence, to have ‘juggled the various imperatives that now face any democratic leader’—not the least being to ‘prevent ‘bad things’ happening to Australians’ (Melleuish 2006, p. 8).

The Democratic Audit of Australia is a project hosted by Swinburne University of Technology’s Institute for Social Research (formerly at the Australian National University) which seeks to place appraisal of Australia’s democratic credentials on a more substantial footing. It was founded in 2002 on a model established by the Democratic Audit of the United Kingdom, which has inspired similar endeavours in Canada, Sweden and Denmark. The Audit’s evaluation framework consists of fifteen principles, all but one of which (federalism) has been adopted from the British model. As noted by an associate director of the British Audit, David Beetham (1999, p. 569), the framework’s conception of democracy is broader than that of earlier evaluative studies, which followed the example of the American political scientist Robert Dahl in emphasising electoral competition and civil and political rights. The overarching principles are ‘popular control of government’ and ‘political equality’, from which the Democratic Audit of Australia deems two further sets of values to be implicit: ‘civil liberties and human rights’ and ‘quality of public debate and discussion’. These nuances sharpen the distinction between the Audit’s rights-based conception of democracy and the principle of majority rule commonly associated with the Westminster tradition (Lijphart 1984), which remains alive and well in popular Australian discourse. They also set the Audit on a still more powerful collision course with the Howard legacy.

The Audit regularly finds the actions of the previous government in its sights.

Australia: The State of Democracy is the Democratic Audit of Australia’s most significant undertaking to date: a systematic evaluation of Australian state and society in a single volume, echoing the British Audit’s 2002 publication Democracy Under Blair: A Democratic Audit of the United Kingdom (Beetham, Byrne & Ngan 2002). Whether addressing its subject through the narrow lens of electoral law or more broadly through rights protection, the Audit regularly finds the actions of the previous government in its sights. Just one of the fifteen chapters, on ‘civil and political rights’, turns up accounts of the Howard Government’s failure to ratify United Nations protocols on human rights and the elimination of discrimination (pp. 47–48), curtailment of Indigenous land rights during the 2007 intervention into Northern Territory communities (p. 49), under-resourcing of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission (pp. 53–54), disallowance of Australian Capital Territory legislation providing for civil unions for same-sex couples (p. 61), national security legislation allowing for detention without charge and reviving sedition laws (pp. 62–65) and operation of mandatory detention policies for asylum seekers and denial of permanent protection to refugees arriving by boat (pp. 65–68). Notwithstanding that advocates of majority rule might object to the short shrift given to public opinion in some of these areas, the authors pursue their clearly defined objectives meticulously and authoritatively, such that the book serves as a valuable reference work on Australia’s recent human rights record.

The account of strictly electoral matters offers less ground for demarcation controversies, but is no less scathing of the Howard Government for that. Many of the developments Sawer and colleagues identify stem from the Electoral and Referendum (Electoral Integrity and Other Measures) Act 2006, which was pushed through parliament after the Coalition’s Senate majority took effect in 2005. The Act introduced stringent evidentiary requirements for enrolment and brought forward the closure of the electoral roll from a week before polling day to the start of the campaign, despite the insistence of the Australian Electoral Commission (2001) that there was no basis for concern about the integrity of the electoral roll. It was widely argued that the amendments’ disproportionate impact on the young and those who frequently changed address would be to the electoral advantage of the Coalition (Doherty 2007). The change came as comparable countries such as Canada and New Zealand were heading in the opposite direction in pursuit of one of the Audit’s defining concerns: public participation.

The late Howard years exposed the dangerous opportunities afforded by a Senate majority.

As well as sending Australia backwards in areas where it had traditionally performed well, the Audit finds the Act aggravated existing weaknesses in regulation of campaign finance (pp. 140–141). The threshold for public declaration of donations was hiked from $1,500 to $10,000, effectively allowing undisclosed donations of nearly $90,000 if a loophole treating each state and territory party branch as a separate entity was fully exploited. This was justified through comparisons with disclosure limits in the United Kingdom and New Zealand. However, these jurisdictions have tackled the problem of the donations ‘arms race’ from the other end by imposing limits on parties’ and candidates’ campaign expenditure, which have no parallel in Australia. Such concern for best practice around the Commonwealth might be expected to have prompted a ban on donors other than private individuals, as is the case in Canada, but the Act went the other way by granting tax deductibility to donations from companies.

Partisan or otherwise ideological explanations for the Howard Government’s excesses will satisfy many, but it’s notable that many of the most potent criticisms of its record relate to concentration of power in the federal tier and executive branch. Such trends are associated not only with the Westminster tradition, but also with the majoritarian philosophy of the Australian Labor Party, which in the past has sought to abolish upper houses and bypass state governments in pursuit of its reform agenda (Gallop 2007). A more satisfying conclusion is that the late Howard years in particular exposed a vulnerability of the system to governments of any stripe which are afforded the dangerous opportunity of a Senate majority. On this, The State of Democracy might have had more to say: while approving references are made to an electoral system that allows minor parties representation in the Senate, little is said of the chamber’s evident vulnerability to control by major parties which lack the support of an absolute majority of voters.

The vulnerability of electoral law in the event of a government Senate majority raises further questions about the weak constitutional protection of basic democratic principles, which the book might also have more thoroughly addressed. The High Court has interpreted the Constitution’s injunction that members of parliament must be ‘chosen directly by the people’ as a guarantee of representative democracy, but the scope of this protection is uncertain and has varied with the composition of the court (Lynch 2001). The High Court thus curtailed one element of the Howard Government’s 2006 bill—the extension of bans on voting by prisoners (Roach v Electoral Commissioner 2007)—while other, more far-reaching incursions went undisturbed.

The book arrives too early to evaluate the new government’s record.

When The State of Democracy turns its attention to the new government, it’s often possible to discern a tone of relief. Evidence is offered of progress on asylum seekers (p. 27), gay and lesbian equality (p. 60), dental health (p. 88), workplace relations (p. 94), codes of conduct for ministers and their staff (p. 169), freedom of information (p. 169), parliamentary oversight of the Australian Federal Police (pp. 181–182), MPs’ printing allowances (p. 204), government advertising (p. 204) and foreign aid for family planning programs (p. 291) (to give some measure of the breadth of the Audit’s concerns). The new government also introduce a bill to reverse some of the restrictive measures of the Electoral and Referendum (Electoral Integrity and Other Measures) Act (p. 144). However, this bill was blocked due to Family First Senator Steve Fielding’s insistence on an amendment capping public funding of political parties at an arbitrary $10 million. The bill as defeated was commendable in seeking to reduce the threshold for disclosure of donations from $10,000 to $1,000 (below its 2006 starting point of $1,500), but it is hard to say why the government felt it could only reduce the disclosure period from yearly to six-monthly when comparable countries are able to require disclosures during the campaign.

Unfortunately, the book arrives too early to evaluate the new government’s record in significant areas. Two particular tests of its mettle are currently at early stages, one being the National Human Rights Consultation process. This offers considerable prospects for the adoption of a federal-level human rights charter on the Victorian or Australian Capital Territory model, which could potentially provide recognition of many of the Audit’s central concerns. The other is the green paper process on donations, funding and expenditure initiated in December 2008 (Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet 2008). This seems likely to produce a more tightly regulated campaign environment based on some formulation of caps, bans or more rigorous disclosure of donations and expenditure. A test for the government will be its handling of donations from unions, given the apparently healthy trend in comparable democracies towards allowing donations from private individuals only. Any assault on corporate donations, such as reversing the Howard Government’s decision to grant them tax deductibility, can expect to meet a well-mobilised response if it does not equally draw blood from Labor’s relationship with the union movement.

Australia: The State of Democracy has little to say of Australia’s record as the ‘democratic laboratory’ that led the world in extending the franchise, introducing the secret ballot and granting payment to members of parliament. The high standard of Australian electoral administration is acknowledged (p. 101), but not at great length. A certain stripe of critic might go so far as to label the book a black armband view of Australian democracy. However, the determination to engage with the system’s failures rather than celebrate its successes is entirely appropriate at a time when the proudest elements of Australia’s democratic history belong to the past. Many blights on the contemporary record—moribund party organisations (pp. 134–137), declining public confidence (pp. 258–260) and a campaign finance regime built on piecemeal acts of self-interest by governments past (pp. 140–142)—are substantial and in real danger of going unresolved. As a forensic survey of precisely where Australia is going wrong, The State of Democracy performs a valuable service that will bear repeating later in the life of the Rudd Government.


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William Bowe is a doctoral candidate at the University of Western Australia’s Discipline of Political Science and International Relations and co-ordinator of the Australian Government unit at Edith Cowan University. He also runs the electoral studies website The Poll Bludger (, published through Crikey Blogs.