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Labor lost in democracy's gaps


'Voter Influence' by Chris Johnston. Sleazy looking men in suits pester a man as he tries to cast his vote.I was sitting in a pub in North Melbourne when Treasurer Wayne Swan delivered his sixth budget. I was there with other 'wonks', Twitter tragics with a robust interest in politics, and we had purposely congregated to watch Swan sketch out the funding for Labor's big-ticket policies.

As strange as it sounds for normal people to be doing this on a rainy Tuesday night, it got weirder for me when I received a text from my sister. 'There must be hope', it said. The initial tally for the mayoral elections in my Philippine birthtown showed the opposition in the lead.

My sister added that people were scrutinising the numbers, which in the local context means they were watching for anomalies. It is an open secret that the incumbent engages in undemocratic methods to stay in office.

The juxtaposition threw me in many ways, such as by highlighting how much Australians take for granted that elections would be tamper-free. When I heard Swan being heckled in the parliamentary chamber at the start of his speech, I also realised democracy will always be an unfinished project.

As a mechanism for national self-reflection, representational democracy is still the best model we have. It is how our sense of identity and aspiration finds collective — and cacophonous — expression. The ideal endures despite the cacophony because silence is even more unbearable.

But reality often falls short of this ideal, especially in places like the Philippines where political dynasties have long had a stranglehold on government. Nearly all the names on the senatorial line-up in the latest elections are entirely familiar, fielded by families who have walked the halls of power for decades.

It is hard to tell whether this feudal state of things is sustained by grinding poverty or perpetuates it, but it is clear enough that it is a legacy of the colonial era.

The intersection of the Philippine revolution with the Spanish-American War swept Filipinos into a second period of colonisation under the United States. Spain lost the war and, after ruling for almost 400 years, ceded the Philippines to the US at the price of $20 million at the 1898 Treaty of Paris. The Philippines would not become an independent state until 1946.

The strata of society that flourished under Spain were entrenched when the colonial administration under William Howard Taft limited suffrage to those who could speak or write in English or Spanish, had a specified annual income, and had past experience as an official under Spain. (He must have missed the irony in advising the senate that turning government over to the natives would result in absolute oligarchy.)

The gist of all this is that the Philippine political culture has been shaped by patronage, a cycle of favour and debt that has led people to perceive merit based solely on a familiar last name. This, along with run-of-the mill vested interests, interferes with democratic representation — making a veneer of it.

But it's worth considering that similar points of incongruence between public and political interest exist in other democracies. In April, the US senate voted against a bill that would have expanded background checks on gun sales. Noting that nearly 90 per cent of Americans favour the policy, President Barack Obama demanded, 'Who are we here to represent?'

The same question may be asked of our MPs in relation to same-sex marriage. The most recent Galaxy poll on the issue found that almost two in three Australians believe same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, the highest proportion since 2009. Yet federal bills and a recent referendum proposal have not resolved the impasse.

In both cases, acquiescing to popular, reasonable opinion seems to be political suicide. It doesn't make sense.

Such dissonance seems to be the emerging feature of our democratic milieu. How do we make sense of the perception that the economy is being mishandled when every objective measure shows Australia is performing far better than other western countries? Or the fact that Labor faces a grim outcome in September despite overwhelming support for banner policies like DisabilityCare, school funding reform and the NBN?

These inconsistencies seem to belie the idea that democracy is an end in itself, or even merely a framework for self-governance. If it were, then good governance would make for good politics, which doesn't seem to be the case. Perhaps, we have been too caught up with the idea of the ballot as validation of the people's will, and been inattentive to the conditions in which it is cast.

The true work of democracy may be creating the conditions that would make each vote as authentic as possible — insulated from manipulation or distortion by patronage culture, powerful lobbies, or dissembling politicians.

Fatima Measham headshotFatima Measham is a Melbourne-based social commentator and . Twitter @foomeister

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, democracy, gay marriage, gun control, Obama, Philippines



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Existing comments

Democracy is more than the sum of its parts. National decisions can not be made simply based on polls or surveys that apparently show a majority want something like gay marriage. As a social commentator you would know that extracting the right information from the population in order to push forward your own agenda can be as simple as how you pose a question on a survey. Most first year uni students would have been taught this when studying social research methods- I certainly did. Secondly, with today's powerful social media 'majority positions' can be swayed suddenly and dramatically by a scandal or even a bit of gossip. Democratic decisions must therefore be made using much more information than simply a survey that shows 'the majority want it'.

Miriam | 19 May 2013  

I think the traditional British parliamentary system ("British" and not just "English" - Wales and Ireland already incorporated into the English system - after the Act of Union with Scotland in 1707), Fatima, until the introduction and passing of the Reform Act of 1832 and its successors, was very similar to that you talk about in the Philippines today. The House of Lords (originally mostly hereditary peers with the Lords Spiritual - territorial bishops of the Church of England: the national Church which some of our ancestors belonged to by compulsion unless they were prepared to pay stiff fines and suffer certain forms of civil discrimination - was the chamber where the great territorial magnates (e.g. the Duke of Newcastle; Duke of Westminster; Marquess of Queensberry et sim) held sway. Up till the 19th Century the Prime Minister often came from the Lords. After the Commonwealth of Australia was established in 1901 it was very much the educated middle class (the English would call them "upper middle class") who provided most MPs and Senators. The first Prime Minister, Edmund Barton, was educated at Sydney Grammar School and Sydney University; his successor, Alfred Deakin at Melbourne Grammar School and Melbourne University. This was in the days when the majority of the population had limited primary education. The graziers often held almost hereditary upper house seats. Australian democracy did not spring fresh from the Old Dart in 1788. Far from it. It has taken us years to get to where we are. Aborigines, unless they served in the Armed Services during wartime, were not citizens. From memory it was the referendum of 1966 which gave them paper equality with the rest of us. You draw attention to, but do not mention by name, the National Rifle Association in the USA and the Australian Christian Lobby in relation to the matters of gun control and gay marriage in their respectives countries. Lobbying, especially by ex-politicians; defence force chiefs and former high level public servants is a very dodgy business and needs to be looked at very closely and carefully controlled. Both gun control and gay marriage are enormously controversial issues. The latter is one of the "hot" local topics. I think the opinionati and political class may well be in favour. I am unsure as to how strongly it would be supported ("supported" as against "äccepted") in places like Penrith or Mooroolbark i.e. outside the trendy inner city. One of the traditional concepts we seem to have lost is the concept of ministerial responsibilty. That was very strong in the Mother of Parliaments and here till fairly recently. It needs to be revived. Democracy, as we have it, is a fragile plant. We need to constantly water it. We need to be concerned about politics as they are in Western Europe. Passionately. Otherwise, over the years, it could wither. Hopefully the Phillipines will move towards the sort of setup they have in Spain although they don't have a monarch. Post Franco the King has been a great upholder of democracy. I wish the Philippines and its people well. They deserve better.

Edward F | 21 May 2013  

"Almost 2 in 3" is not the same as "almost 90 per cent". We do not want to be ruled by simple majorities.

Jenni Gormley | 21 May 2013  

Thanks, Fatima. Yes, I think you've hit the nail on the head. Australians simply don't understand that manipulation of the electorate is not restricted to 'over there' somewhere where people get shot trying to vote, ballot boxes get stolen, etcet. It's happening to us right now. I believe this election will turn out to be the most important in our history because, while lobby groups and media interests have always been with us, they have never had the power they have today. We really must learn to think for ourselves, keep ourselves informed, and refuse to be manipulated. And let's be wary of the polls - there are all sorts of ways these can be, and are being manipulated. For Fair Media Alliance, http://fairmediaalliance.wordpress.com/wp-admin/edit-comments.php

Kate Ahearne | 21 May 2013  

Hi Miriam. Thanks for taking time to respond. I don't think I was advocating for poll-driven decision-making, but making a point about dissonance. If we frame democracy as a conversation, then ignoring trends in public opinion (as opposed to a single poll) could hardly serve the polity well in the long run. Progress in civil rights, for example, is always facilitated from below and features incremental change. As for sudden changes in opinion, I don't see how the momentum for US gun reform, for instance, was an inappropriate response to the deaths at Newtown. I understand there is such a thing as the tyranny of the majority, which is why I also made the point that the work of democracy lies in the conditions within which people vote, not just the act of voting itself (e.g. quality of their political education, a discerning media).

Fatima Measham | 21 May 2013  

It is hard to lose the lot when there is so much of it.

Fred Dunn | 21 May 2013  

Uncertaintimes,notnew,ourdemocracy ofEnlightenment,old&moststable-theideal somewish&fightforwenotfoundwanting,noteour obligations notentitlements,Christlesson&tosupportrightinsociety notpersons.

Sue Duncan | 21 May 2013  

Thanks Fatima. In Ireland shortly after the Howard "referendum" "Which would you rather or the Queen?" Many people asked me what the .... was Australia doing and how could the no republic have happened. It was difficult to explain to plain speaking folk who have had to learn to manage unscrupulous overloards. It will be equally difficult to explain to coming generations how a government with such high marks on big matters,excepting refugees and defense, could be out voted by a mob who will destroy what has been built. It seems that just as horse and cart transport has been overrun by cars and planes, door-knocking and speeches in parks have been replaced by much more psychologically sophisticated group change techniques. The GFC the world is having is simply the natural extension without conscience or controls of the evolutionary development of capitalist banking. As you and your commentators suggest the context of democratic processes are is all important, so unless children are educated in critical reading and interpretation and basic statistics and research methods they and they will be led by PR manipulators, shock jocks, media barons and fanatical demagogues. A lot to ask to preserve democracy, but as transport developed, horsemen had to learn to drive a car,then they had to undergo driving tests, just to keep up. So we have to teach kids to keep up and that democracy is not a spectator sport.

Michael D. Breen | 21 May 2013  

Democracy - the worst form of government, except for all others. If one could take the long view of history in the West the crude form of democracy as put into practice by the Greeks has had more ups and downs than the Big Dipper in Luna Park.The greatest lesson of history is that we (mankind) do not learn from history. And yet we make progress, sometimes two steps forward and one step back. Our progress is not necessarily a "survival of the best", or "survival of the most powerful" or "survival of the most adaptable" evolution. In the end it seems to depend on how much possessing material comfort , or selfishness, becomes more important than sharing the goods of the earth, or altruism. The current farce of the Coalition, two parties claiming moral rectitude & free enterprise, going to the September election with a toe-the-party (no conscience vote allowed) line on same-sex marriage, while the ALP, the party of moral ambiquity and a state interventionism, has an open mind on same-sex marriage and allows its members a conscience vote, indicates to me the gaping hole of ignorance the political process exposes about why we are here on earth.

Uncle Pat | 21 May 2013  

Thanks everyone for your thoughts. It's a good discussion to be having. I was particularly taken by Michael's reference to 'spectator sport' It does feel like elections have become a form of race calling, hence the obsession with 'spills' or leadership contests. Our discourse reminds me of playground dynamics, too, with the bullying and 'if you're not for us then you're against us' sort of inflexibility. I find it very frustrating, for example, when I criticise aspects of Labor policy and get told that I might as well roll out the red carpet for the Coalition. Nuance seems to be the first casualty when issues are reduced to taking sides.

Fatima Measham | 22 May 2013  

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