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We need a robust democracy now more than ever



COVID-19 brings many tests. Amid the health, economic and financial crises brought about by the pandemic, our greatest test is to conduct ourselves as a robust democracy and to demonstrate that we are a fair society. Neither test will be easy to pass, but we must aim to emerge at the other end as a better society.

Parliament House Canberra (Getty Images/timstarkey)

Already some aspects of the language surrounding the government actions to address the pandemic are not encouraging. Let’s drop any more references to Team Australia and allegedly un-Australian behavior.

But the most problematic language surrounds the allusions to war that are frequently used by many of our political leaders and some of our economists and health experts. The attraction of this language is obvious, because warlike imagery plays up the desired notions of a huge task, a threatening enemy and a unified effort to combat it. It conjures up the reality of a life or death situation in which the very existence of our nation is put at risk.

But all these things can be said without using warlike imagery and such imagery brings dangers with it. Just like the so-called war on terror, wars can threaten civil liberties, centralise power and intimidate opposition. Sacrifices for the cause are called for, without too much emphasise on equality of sacrifice.

The cultural test during the pandemic is how we best manage to balance having a clear and unified national strategy with being open  to robust democratic expression, which is more necessary than ever. Both at the political level and within the community there will be pressure against asking reasonable questions and calling out inadequate and confusing government responses.

Already opposition leaders in all jurisdictions have been reduced in status. They will have to tread carefully to avoid the accusation of party politics, but they should resist being silenced. Open discussion was threatened during the bushfire crisis by the trick that 'now is not the time' to ask awkward questions. Climate change activists were shut down. Already critical journalists have been put down by the federal Minister for Health as armchair experts.


'The danger is that the big end of town gets greater support than the vulnerable, on the grounds that support will trickle down into the community. That assumption must be questioned whenever economic stimulus/survival packages are designed.'


The pandemic will also test our commitment as a nation to a fair go for all. That is always the case during national crises. During the GFC, for instance, the welfare community had to fight hard to be included on an equal basis in the various stimulus packages.

The danger is that the big end of town gets greater support than the vulnerable, on the grounds that support will trickle down into the community. That assumption must be questioned whenever economic stimulus/survival packages are designed.

When belt-tightening is discussed, such as cuts in salary and wages to maintain employment in industries such as retail, tourism, the arts or football, it must be based on protecting the interests of those on the margins. Equal treatment, such as percentage cuts, does not necessarily mean fair treatment.

The two elements — practicing robust democracy and ensuring a fair society — go together. Its early days yet and some signs are positive, even if the doubling of the unemployment benefits after years of resisting calls to raise it is ironic. Voices like ACOSS, the ACTU, and, one hopes, church leaders and church agencies, are essential in using robust democracy to call out any threats to a fair society under cover of a crisis. Voices like Vinnies and Catholic Social Services Australia should be treasured.

This means that all elements of our politics, including the design of the stimulus packages, the sittings of parliament and the operation of the national cabinet, must be subject to the same robust analysis as has always been the case. It should even be stepped up.

It is a hard time to be a leader. They can be cut personal slack for their performances under trying and testing circumstances but never critical slack.



John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and Chair of Concerned Catholics Canberra Goulburn. He is a PC 2020 delegate from the Archdiocese of Canberra-Goulburn.

Main image: Parliament House Canberra (Getty Images/timstarkey)

Topic tags: John Warhurst, COVID-19, auspol



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Existing comments

We’ll certainly need robust democracy in a fortnight’s time, if there is no proportionate spike in NSW from the beachgoers, to raise the question of whether this shutting down of the economy is overkill. Singapore hasn’t shut down and the countermeasures there are, as one would expect in a polity with a semi-police state mentality, very extensive. Tasmanian doctor Dale Fisher, who is an infection control expert at the National University of Singapore and its adjunct hospital, has a contribution in The Conversation. Erring on the side of caution is a bias (reasonable or unreasonable depending on other than purely medical circumstances) because there is no downside for the career and reputation of a medical expert to be over-cautious and no upside for the same expert to balance any other objective against a strictly medical one. Hence, it’s no surprise that experts are meant to be on tap but not on top and it is the job of the medically lay cabinets of ministers, critiqued by medically lay leaders of the opposition, to work out if the cure of mass economic dislocation is worse than the disease.

roy chen yee | 23 March 2020  

Our political leaders face a momentous task. I was impressed by Anthony Albanese's commitment to work with the government while remaining open to challenge. Scott Morrison realises the gravity of the situation and is attempting to be statesman-like(!). He must focus on the most vulnerable if he is to retain credibility. It is now clear that this situation could continue for some months and, after reading about Italy's continuing awful ordeal, our government must throw everything into not replicating that ordeal.

Pam | 24 March 2020  

Too true John. It happened in 2001 when to question the idiocy of the Iraq war was unpatriotic. Skepticism and honest questioning is essential. Don’t rave on. Be skilful.??

Steve Carey | 24 March 2020  

An excellent balanced analysis of the manner in which the public policy issues raised by the coronavirus need to be addressed. A major oversight of the government to date in ensuring equality and fairness with good economic management is the need for contributions from those whose finances are not threatened by the lockdown, perhaps a temporary wealth tax. The removal of the franking credits subsidy from those who do not pay tax would be a good start.

Peter Johnstone | 24 March 2020  

Thanks so much, John, for these gems of wisdom. Maintaining a robust democracy and ensuring a fair society are indeed priorities. As you identify, we can do better without the images of war; we need to resist pressure against asking reasonable questions;; we should cut personal slack for the performances of leaders under trying and testing circumstances, but not give up on critical analysis. Let’s hope and work that as a nation we can integrate this approach with actions to protect health, manage financial and economic turmoil, etc.

Denis Fitzgerald | 24 March 2020  

It is almost midday and no comments for me to read. You see if some commentator has already said what I am thinking, then I am content to remain silent. The idea I had privately has been put "out there" - among the discerning readership of ES. So it falls to myself to show my hand. I abhor the metaphor of "war". I try to follow George Orwell's guidance that it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one's meaning as clear as one can through pictures or sensations. His rule number 1 is: Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. Stale metaphors carry much baggage. But they can also activate sub-conscious prejudices. When Donald Trump declares War on the Chinese disease he conflates his role as POTUS and the nation's Commander in Chief. And since he's already in a Trade War with China it gives him further justification for putting America on a war footing. In a robust democracy words ought to be used to reveal the truth not to conceal it. Many politicians, and not just demagogues, have developed a knack of using stale images, prefabricated phrases, needless repetitions and vagueness generally.

Uncle Pat | 24 March 2020  

Thank you so much John, for a balanced and insightful article, and reading on the politics here. The term "Team Australia" makes me squirm, as does patriotism generally. y Yes, we must sustain a robust, balanced debate to ensure, if for no other reason right now, that all are treated as needs require, equally. The language of war is totally unnecessary also. It's how the 'pollies' give the illusion of power.

Julie | 24 March 2020  

Many economists are predicting a deep, long recession (and I might for once agree with Roy Chen Yee). We know from past experience this will cause family breakdowns, more mental illness/suicide, older workers who will never be re-employed etc. But, as far as democracy goes, the danger is having a large number of angry, bitter people who feel the existing democratic system isn't working for them. They are then available for other, extreme ideologies who promise them a better deal. Dangerous.

Russell | 24 March 2020  

I think the word war has different meanings for different people. Those who remember the first, and who have lived through the 2nd, no doubt have a different feeling when this word is mentioned, a feeling different experienced by 2O year old. The word war to me sounds like the words wake up!..But everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that is illuminated becomes a light itself. So it is said: “Wake up, O sleeper, rise up from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” Pay careful attention, then, to how you walk, not as unwise but as wise... Ephesians 5:15

AO | 24 March 2020  

Well said throughout John. It was very disappointing to see that even in this time of crisis, “The Weekend Australian” cannot shake its being a newsletter of the big end of town and big money’s Coalition ventriloquist’s dolls. Greg Sheridan has the hide to say the pandemic demonstrates the failure of globalism and of open borders. The exact opposite is true. Authentic globalism would have seen the disease attacked at its Wuhan origins in an international effort.

Gerard Hore | 24 March 2020  

Thanks John. It's a strange feeling having your rights removed, even if I do understand the need for courageous action to prevent spread of COVID-19. It made me wonder how people felt around the time of WW2. I'm concerned, though, about the removal of restrictions once the crisis has passed.

Eric | 24 March 2020  

John, As usual, a balanced warning for us all to heed. I am nauseated by some of Scott Morrison's comments over the past week or so. Appealing to the "Anzac Tradition" , (a veteran myself, I believe it is a pious myth), or "Team Australia" ( God knows what that means ) is jingoistic nonsense . What surprises me is the switch from neoliberalism and its "individual effort", remember Joe Hockey's comment as Treasurer ; to pouring out money like there is no tomorrow, mostly to the "big end of town".(Maybe there is NO tomorrow! ) I hope they realise this could last two years, not two months.I wonder who will pay the tab when this is all over?

Gavin O'Brien | 25 March 2020  

I agree that imagery matters in times like this and that war imagery creates a 'bunker' mentality. However, I would like to see a 'war cabinet' model of government adopted, where the opposition is part of the cabinet decision making process. I think that would help the fundamentally divisive politics.

Ursula O'Brien | 25 March 2020  

Thanks for the article John. Neoliberal ideology, in part, also creates the social conditions for self centred and serving cognitions and behaviours - witness the panic buying and disregard for reasonable social distancing measures in recent weeks. These behaviours also place the most financially and physically marginal at risk. John, to avoid the political and structural dynamics you outlined in your article, at this time of national and global challenge (not war), would we be better served with a national unity government?

PAUL JENSEN | 25 March 2020  

Thank you yet again John for your balanced comments. -such a contrast to so many media statements which often serve to heighten fears and distort the truth. At times like this we all need 'voices crying in the wilderness' to keep us balanced as well. Thank you.

Margaret Atchison | 25 March 2020  

Great Piece, John! Given my garrulous proclivities, I have been forwarding a joke a day to help boost the spirits of isolated persons whom I know. This backfired badly this morning when a fellow member of my Glee Club sent me and 57 others a supposedly humorous anti-Chinese video that showed him up to be mellifluously-voiced but brain-dead as well as thick-skinned (although I'm told that, like COVID-19, such unfortunate symptoms are not unknown to coexist in the same patient). Keep writing insightfully and, as always, for justice to be put at the forefront of our personal and policy behaviour!

Michael Furtado | 25 March 2020  

Roy Chen Yee your comment is very adeptly expressed. Indeed the situation is: " it’s no surprise that experts are meant to be on tap but not on top and it is the job of the medically lay cabinets of ministers, critiqued by medically lay leaders of the opposition, to work out if the cure of mass economic dislocation is worse than the disease." I'd only add, it is evidenced that the state/territory jurisdictions in major crisis times (e.g. the recent bushfires and this pandemic) are the ones that really count in our federalist system. I don't necessarily have a view on the merits or otherwise of this, however when Covid 19 is 'done and dusted' it must be thoroughly considered to have the agility and coordination needed for crisis response in the future.

Jon S Kaub | 25 March 2020  

As you demonstrate, John, when there is rumour of war, a threat to the survival of the group, there is a 'fight flight dynamic' within the group. This is a form of mania, just look at the fighting for selected items in shops. Unfortunately those in power love the fight and flight. Fighting to be the one giving the right orders and flight into snake oil. Meantime who keeps Border Force or NSW Gov responsible for the spread of the virus from a cruise ship?

Michael D. Breen | 25 March 2020  

Of course, there's another war on that many of us are waging in these columns: for the love and life and survival of the Word! My friend, Terry Flanagan from Perth, writes this morning: 'Some months ago the people and clergy of the Amazon asked their brothers and sisters of the Universal Church to support them in having mature people in their communities to be ordained as priests so they could have regular Mass and the Sacraments. There was opposition and general lack of engagement by the majority of Bishops, Clergy and some Laity; now a Virus has welcomed us all to be members of the Church of Amazonia: no Mass, no Sacraments and Churches closed. (With a bit of luck, even, no Synod!) At last we all have a chance to become one universal Community. Can it be that the Paraclete speaks?

Michael Furtado | 26 March 2020  

This is a fantastic article John and spells out exactly what we need to do as a nation and international community to survive the corona virus challenge we face. And it is good to see that many others think the same. It is absolutely correct that we need far more viable democratic processes and a world community that puts peace, social justice and human rights at the very top of its operating agenda to ensure that the most vulnerable can survive the risk we face. It should go without saying that the strategy of conservative governments to give support to the wealthy in the hope that financial benefits will trickle down to the neediest should be condemned. Even those with little understanding of economics know that this strategy does not work. It just ensures that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. To ensure that all are cared for, governments need to have support financial schemes to assist the poorest and to spend money on public works so that more people can be employed - similar to the Keynesian strategy during the 1930s Depression and the Rudd government'approach to spend big on school buildings. This time though, governments could be initiating much more effective programs to protect and decontaminate the environment given that we have been very slow off the mark in this regards eg better recycling, more tree planting, greater production of solar panels and windmill blades, the establishment of dumps to store dangerous substances in the safest possible way and helping industries that want to switch to producing more medical masks, sanitary lotion and urgently needed medical equipment. In addition, there will need to be more public servants to ensure that the most vulnerable will obtain the support they need as quickly as possible. Many will claim we lack the funds for such programs. I would argue that if governments made the super wealthy and corporations pay their fair share of taxes, stopped getting involved in unnecessary wars and spending billions on the defence and space industries and wasting money on non productive programs (eg the sports rorts program), there would be far more money to spend on the necessary programs so that we can be kind to the environment and the people in it.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 27 March 2020  

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