Australian democracy’s mixed scorecard

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

29 July 2009



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Photo: 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. •

Norman Abjorensen is a member of the Democratic Audit of Australia and co-author of the Audit’s new book, Australia: The State of Democracy.

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3 Comments

  1. Stephen Jones added this comment on 30 July 2009 | Permalink

    A closer look at the operation of the law in Australia will show that the legal system is almost entirely ineffective when it comes to commercial disputes.

    Firstly, there is the problem of lack of knowledge amongst arbiters, magistrates and judges, who have little or no commercial experience (upper streams at school, direct to uni, then directly into legal practice). Additionally, many lawyers seem to have little social contact with people in business.

    Secondly, the delays inherent in the archaic systems under which the legal system operates often make it impractical to pursue litigation, no matter what the provocation.

    Thirdly, lawyers can, and regularly do, corrupt the process by various means.

    Judges often reveal they have not even a basic understanding of the commercial considerations in business.

    Also, in my experience, lawyers take on too much work, resulting in extraordinary delays and, increasingly, turn to barristers for even the most trivial advice – resulting in substantial additional costs for the litigant.

    And then they have a propensity to engage with the other side in an expensive and often pointless barrage of letters.

    When an incompetent lawyer is involved (I suspect this happens all too often) the process can turn into a nightmare.

    In a recent case in which I was a litigant, suing a client for breach of contract, the solicitor I engaged evidently had little of no knowledge of contract law – yet took the case and composed a letter terminating the contract. This matter went all the way to the court of appeal – resulting in costs in excess of 6 times the value of the contract.

    Despite the court clearly finding that the letter of termination was incorrectly composed, Lawcover initially declined to settle the matter.

    In the washup,even after Lawcover came to the party (avoiding yet another round of court battles) the cost to me was more than the value of the contract.

    My business associates agree that this is the norm, rather than the exception.

    The rule of law is one thing – the manner in which it is conducted is another. Major changes to the manner in which commercial litigation operates are required. In fact, from a systems viewpoint, the existing legal framework should be thrown out and something new written from scratch.

    However, the legal community exerts enormous influence – many become politicians, and many become public servants. I suggest that there is no incentive for any lawyer to push for changes to the law that would result in a reduction in fees for their brethren.

    The legal systems of most western countries are no doubt just as unworkable as Australia’s. You only have to look at the number of lawyers employed in this country to see how inefficient and ill-conceived our legal system is. The cost of all these lawyers to the Australian economy is mind-numbingly large. Office rents alone – often in the most prestigious city buildings – are outrageous.

    But who would change this? And how would it be accomplished?

    When we have 90% fewer lawyers I will agree that the rule of law is working efficiently. In the meantime, it is terminally ill – and we all pay the price for that!

    There is no mention of local government – and I would argue that in much of Australia, this level of government is extremely corrupt. In both state and federal electorates, branches are stacked, party tickets are organised to suit the most dominant faction and rigid party voting rules trample the voice of the electorate.

    The adversarial party-dominated parliamentary system distorts the true voice of the electorate, and encourages a “win at all costs” attitude on both sides, but currently best demonstrated by Mr Turnbull’s performance since the last election. At no time does there seem to be much though about what is best for the country – just what is the best way to gain and maintain power.

    Our systems rely on the assumption that people will, on the whole, behave well. Times have changed – people are less honest, greedier, more irresponsible and more selfish than ever. It’s too easy for those who care little for their own reputation to corrupt our processes.

    In the USA things are significantly worse in this respect – high profile arrests of judges, rabbis, politicans, financiers and CEOs bely the idea that corruption is the result of a few bad apples. It is ENDEMIC in US society, and getting that way here.

    I have 30 years in IT. I have designed, written, implemented and supported systems of various kinds for much of that time. From such a perspective, not one of our “systems” works effectively. If you were a manufacturer relying on a system which ran the way our legal system does, you would employ 100 production line specialists on the factory floor and an apple tart would cost $1,000.

    A complete rewrite, from first principles, is required.

  2. Mike Angley added this comment on 31 July 2009 | Permalink

    While the Brennan committee considering a Bill of Rights received over 30,000 submissions the discussion suggests very few of them relate to the real sessence of democracy ‘popular control of goverment’. In that background it this article is very welcoming.

    I would like to see more about the actual electoral processes we use, and government of the day seems able to alter without referendum. I think an international comparison would show compulsory voting and preferential voting to be close to best practice for ‘popular control of goverment’. Yet our system has allowed government to implement above the line voting in the Senate, and to deny voters even knowing where the preferences will go.

    I look forward to a time when we were proud of the strong democratic practices and anyone proposing above the line voting, removing compulsory voting or introducing optional preferential voting would be branding with that damning tag of UnAustralian.

  3. Joyce Parkes added this comment on 31 July 2009 | Permalink

    Many thanks to Norman Abjornson’s astute insights. Two issues in his essay speak to me especially:

    1) That we still have homeless people in our
    midst – how could this be in a country as prosperous as Australia? Could we not forsake some of the billions spent on Sport to build shelters for the homeless instead and ask those who want to be a good sport and stay fit to help build these shelters?

    2)that the law is far too expensive for all but the extremely privileged. How could we even contemplate adopting a Bill of Rights for Australia when so few of us could afford access to the law? Rather than have a ‘just dessert’ we could develop an affordable one for the many.

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  1. Minister launches Audit book on 2 November 2009

    [...] the book for the Canberra Times is here, and Norman Abjorensen summarised the main findings in this piece for Inside [...]

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