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  • Bronwyn Kelly

We can increase our shares of power in democracy if we devise a national long term plan


For those Australians who have taken it for granted that we live in a free and open democracy in which we’re able to influence political decisions to improve our lives, the 21st century must have come as a disappointment. Gradually, over the last two decades, it’s become apparent that our democracy hasn’t been helping everyone to a better quality of life.


We only need to look at how inequality, poverty, hunger, homelessness, Indigenous disadvantage, and mental health problems have all grown over the last twenty years to see that the privilege of living in a democracy doesn’t automatically translate to a better life. To these sorry trends we can add the stark and steady decline in educational attainment for school children; the increasing unaffordability of higher education; the growth in government corruption and corporate irresponsibility; the loss of a swathe of human and legal rights and freedoms since September 11 2001; the attacks on vulnerable Australians under schemes like Robodebt and the cashless debit card; the failure to provide sufficient access to essential services for children, the aged and domestic violence victims; the continuing imbalance between genders on income and superannuation balances; the significant growth in prevalence of diabetes and obesity; the reprehensible and completely unnecessary exposure of our economy to the risk of climate change; the massive losses of the biodiversity on which our future depends; the flattening of wage increases for workers, even as profits rise steeply for business; and the sorry rate of growth in GDP since the Global Financial Crisis. With all that, what do we have but a panoply of evidence suggesting the failure of our system of democracy?


These multiple failures have become so apparent in the last decade that some Australians are beginning to look over their shoulder at other models of political leadership. Gazing at the success of the autocracy of China in lifting over 800 million Chinese out of poverty in only 40 years, more Australians are beginning to wonder whether giving up the blessings of democracy – the freedoms, the self-determination, the feeling that we have some autonomy and control over our own lives and decisions – might be the price we have to pay to reverse the decline of the middle class in Australia.


While few if any Australians would go so far as to suggest chucking in their democracy at this point, the fact is that confidence in its effectiveness has declined. According to the Museum of Australian Democracy and the University of Canberra’s Democracy 2025 project, between 2007 and 2018 Australians’ satisfaction with democracy plummeted from 86% down to 41%. And is it any wonder? Should we really expect it to operate at full capacity to our benefit in the 21st century when the basis of our democracy – Australia’s Constitution – was established in another country more than 120 years ago and, aside from a small amount of tinkering in some referendums, hasn’t been revised to ensure it can meet the needs of a modern, technologically advanced society?


Chief among the Australian Constitution’s weaknesses is the fact that it provides for we the people only insofar as we can elect people to represent us, not insofar as we might play a more influential role in a participatory democracy. This means – as it does in every representative democracy – that for the sake of decision making and orderly control, we deliberately consign ourselves to powerlessness at the ballot box. And then when things go wrong in society we try to exert what little power we have left through activism and protest.


Australians still energise our democracy quite well through activism, despite the fact that our rights in activism have been whittled away quietly by multiple legislative amendments since 2002. But the progressive things that we should be able to achieve through activism, like Indigenous recognition and reconciliation or climate change prevention, take decades longer than they should. While we give up power in exchange for a promise of orderly decision making, the decisions we are seeking on things that really matter – like climate change – often don’t eventuate until it’s too late. Sometimes they don’t eventuate at all.


So while activism is a real sign of a healthy democracy, it is inefficient and far too time consuming for those with busy lives. If activism is all we can ever hope to rely on, vital though it is, we will see more and more Australians disengaging from participation in democracy with the result being disempowerment for the many and overweening unaccountable authority for a tiny few.


Democracy is for the people. But the fact is, throughout the 21st century, ours hasn’t been working as it should – for the people. The coronavirus pandemic has only served to heighten what is now routinely characterised by epidemiologists like Professor Sir Michael Marmot as “an epidemic of disempowerment” – an epidemic he characterises as one of the main “causes of the causes” of our mental and physical health problems, drug addiction, domestic violence and suicide.


Powerlessness causes hopelessness. This, however, doesn’t mean we can’t sharpen up our power as individuals within our democracy – even with our ragged Constitution – and give ourselves some greater measure of optimism and hope for the future. By no means is it game over just yet for an open, wealthy democracy like Australia’s. This is because it’s not so much democracy itself that is the problem. It’s more the way we use it.


Many thinkers reflecting on this situation have suggested that we try new modes of democratic process. Professor of Politics, David Runciman, from Cambridge University has said that with democracy in crisis, “What we need is not a fix, but experiments. We should try new things.” He suggests there are lots of ways to think about reform or experiments including deliberative democracy, citizen’s juries, citizen’s assemblies, or enfranchising younger voters – perhaps 16-year-olds. These sorts of suggestions all have something in common. They are all striving to increase the power of individuals in democracy – the implication being that it’s not democracy itself that is in crisis and needs the fix. It’s more that our influence within it needs to be increased. An increase in our empowerment within our existing democracy would go a long way towards increasing our confidence that it will be useful in delivering a better future for us all.


One proposal that could be classed as an experiment along the lines called for by Professor Runciman is being offered by a new independent community based organisation called Australian Community Futures Planning. Their suggestion is to insert a practical extra step into our existing sequence of democracy to increase the possibility and efficiency of our participation in it. The suggested step is a variation on the idea of citizen’s assemblies for breaking impasses in decision making and for problem solving. This variation isn’t a reform to change the voting system. Instead it introduces an opportunity to assemble ourselves better to develop a long term plan – not a legislative assembly to fix problems but a planning assembly to prevent them. It is a space and process to help us anticipate what a better future should look like for the whole nation – for everyone – and use that to decide how best to prevent crises and travel safely to the particular future that each of us would love to have a share of. The plan we can develop can function as a set of clear instructions to our leaders about how we prefer the power we give them in elections to be used for the benefit of all.


This proposal can be implemented without the need for legislative reform and has a structure that supports Australians to connect and communicate better with political leaders. It can strengthen democracy and our shares of power within it. It’s an idea that can be added to Professor Runciman’s list. And it is relatively easy to make it work. Find out how at Australian Community Futures Planning.