Bold Thinking: Is democracy broken?

Bold Thinking: Is democracy broken?

At our Bold Thinking event, we asked: ‘Is democracy broken?’

With seven prime ministers in 10 years, it’s tempting to greet the question with a mournful ‘yes’. But take heart – there may be more hope on the Australian political horizon than you think.

At the event, we heard from Liberal party strategist Mark Textor, political advisor Geoff Walsh AO, Guardian Australia political editor Katharine Murphy and Roy Morgan pollster Michele Levine. The presenter was Walkley award-winning journalist and Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow Tony Walker.

We sat down with Tony to discuss the current state of democracy.

 What’s involved in answering the question: ‘Is democracy broken?’

Tony: I think it’s clear that confidence, trust if you like, in the Australian political system is at a low ebb. The question then becomes: what remedies might be available to restore trust in the system? What the country is facing is a leadership deficit. Whether that deficit can be overcome in present circumstances is not clear to me.

Globally, confidence in mainstream parties is low. We are experiencing the same thing here. How the major parties overcome that trust deficit is shaping as a big test for both sides of politics.

We may be in for a long and disruptive period in which voters continue to drift away to fringe parties.

This will do nothing for political stability and good policymaking in the national interest.

Will the current state of Australian politics push voters towards fringe parties? Walkley award-winning journalist Tony Walker believes this could be a strong possibility if our nation’s leaders don’t find a way to rebuild the public’s trust.

A recent Conversation article you wrote about the rise of strongman politics concluded with a terrifying quote: that our ‘greatest threat may be the strongmen yet to come’. Do you think this style of leadership will continue to prevail?

Tony: Unfortunately, and given populist trends globally, I believe that ‘strongman politics’ is with us for the time being. When I worked in America from 2004 to 2010, I witnessed the rise of political movements like the Tea Party movement, whose members felt alienated from the status quo. What we’ve seen in America in recent years is an expression of that frustration. I don’t see that dissipating soon, but on the other hand, if enough people get spooked by an unpredictable leader then the tendency will be to seek a safer haven. That is the question for Americans in the lead-up to mid-term elections for Congress.

What we should all pray for in Western democracies is that institutions remain resilient enough to withstand undemocratic tendencies. If these institutions break, then we really are in trouble.

I do worry about antagonism towards the media. This is a slippery slope, and one that should concern us all.

When Trump was first elected, you wrote that the world was likely in for a ‘prolonged period of uncertainty’. From an historical perspective, do you think it’s inevitable that periods of uncertainty produce political leaders like Trump?

Tony: Unfortunately, if you delve back into history, disillusionment and disaffection play into the hands of authoritarian leaders. What you’ve got to hope is that institutions remain strong enough to withstand an erosion in individual rights, freedom of the press, a legislature free of cant and prejudice, and a court system that retains public confidence. If those institutions begin to crumble, then we really are in trouble.

Again, it may be naive of me, but as far as the United States is concerned, I have confidence in the resilience of American institutions. As Margaret Thatcher might’ve said, the American media is not for turning.

One of today’s most controversial and divisive political leaders, Trump may be the result of a period of uncertainty. According to Tony, history shows that ‘disillusionment and disaffection play into the hands of authoritarian leaders’.

Part of Trump’s appeal was that many voters felt they could relate to him as an individual. Do you think Australia has had a problem in recent years with producing political leaders the public can relate to? Is democracy even a priority for our political leaders anymore?

Tony: Australian political leaders would be very foolish to take democratic processes for granted. They may not like the scrutiny that arises from a free press and an adversarial parliamentary system, but like Churchill said, while democracy might not be ideal, it’s a long way ahead of the alternatives (or words to that effect).

Lastly, is there any hope for the future of democracy in Australia?

Tony: The short answer is: unquestionably.

I have a great deal of confidence in the basic decency and common sense of Australians and their willingness to do the right thing. Our history shows that.

The issue is not whether democracy itself is in peril, rather whether the country can rise above what is, in my view, its greatest challenge. That is complacency because of our good fortune.