Australia is a country of contradictions; a young democracy constructed over a proud and ancient civilisation. Amends have never been made, the wounds have not yet been tended to.
The contradictions, in reality and in the symbols we used to describe the nation, are slowly being resolved. Earlier this year the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, announced the change of a word in the national anthem: Australians will no longer sing that we are 'young and free' but 'one and free'. This is a welcome symbolic acknowledgment that people have inhabited this land for more than 60,000 years, and not only since British settlement in 1788. The choice of the anniversary of that settlement as the national day, however, remains contentious for many Australians.
A spirit of equality, of mateship, the 'fair go', has sat alongside policies of exclusion and erasure. The shadows of racism remain today, resurfacing, creating tensions and divisions, impacting lives and livelihoods, leaving some Australians less able to enjoy our society than others.
Our history is one of convicts, outcasts, explorers, farmers, itinerant workers, soldiers, gold miners, refugees, immigrants and settler families trying their luck in a strange and inhospitable land. It is a story of courage, bravery, ingenuity, resilience, hope and triumph. Of an emerging nation its own way in a far flung corner of the world and slowly constructing its own destiny.
But it is also a story with dark chapters. The frontier battles and massacres of Indigenous tribes; the gruelling experiences of the early Jewish, Afghan and Chinese immigrants; the racism and social exclusion faced by European prisoners of war as they tried to make new lives in a 'white' country; and the 'blackbirding' of Pacific Islanders, to name a few.
Once upon a time we may have struggled with these contradictions, but modern Australians have grown up in a complex, interconnected world. We can handle contradictions; we can come to terms with a complex past and not shrink from the truth.
Most Australians are wise enough to know that Australia is not perfect. This knowledge does not dent our love of it. We accept its diversity, and respect tolerance and difference.
It is arguably our democratic system – its freedoms, its benefits, and its supports – that make this country great. Why then, do Australians love their country, but not their democracy?
One only need take a look at what Australians see. Most Australians never see politicians or federal public servants at work. We do not see the legislative work of parliaments, the policy work of the public service, the consultative work done through committees.
Australians see politicians dragging each other down in public, undermining the whole profession by casting doubt on the trustworthiness and professionalism of their opponents. Fighting and backstabbing, rather than getting work done. It is not becoming to our great democracy.
In addition, Australians are exposed to a constant stream of media reports about scandals and integrity breaches. Social media feeds us 'fake news' and conspiracy theories. Malicious actors seek to influence politics through online platforms, targeting the vulnerable, and spreading disinformation. Much of this is out of the control of politicians, but there are things that can be done to lessen the impact, as have been explored in this report.
Restoring faith in democracy
There is no one thing that will restore public faith in politicians and governments, and increase satisfaction with democracy. We may be coming from a low point, but evidence suggests Australians are a forgiving people. Satisfaction with democracy has been almost as low in the past (lower according to some data sources), and rebounded to historic highs.
It is likely that Australians will be willing to believe in democracy again but governments cannot afford to take this for granted. And some indicators of democratic decline are on a clear downward trajectory, and show no sign improvement, such as citizens' faith in the major political parties. Australians continue to support democracy, despite being deeply dissatisfied and disenchanted with politics and politicians.
COVID-19 provided a refreshing reprieve from politics as usual, and Australians embraced it. All of a sudden, political leaders were fronting up to the media, accompanied by experts, spending significant amounts of time explaining their decisions, providing evidence and justifying their actions. Political leaders took questions, they were serious and contrite, they treated journalists with respect, they stayed until no one had any more questions left to ask, they published data, and they admitted when they were worried.
Our leaders worked together, across political divides; they acted swiftly and decisively, with a sense of shared purpose. This gave Australians confidence and made us feel safer and more secure in uncertain times.
Perhaps most importantly, the government announced unprecedented financial support. The restrictions put in place to stop the spread of COVID-19 impacted the lives and livelihoods of many Australians. If the government had not stepped in swiftly to help these people, it is possible Australians may not have been so accepting of the restrictions placed upon us. Poverty and inequality are the enemies of democracy.
A functioning democracy requires give and take – if the government wants citizens to give up some of our freedoms, in exchange it must provide protection, resources and dignity. This is why Australia has been able to effectively suppress COVID-19. On the whole, while citizens may be cynical towards governments, we still trust that our governments will look after us when times get tough.
Outside times of crisis, Australians just want politicians to be better. We want our politicians to act with decency, humanity, dignity and respect – towards the public, towards others and towards their opponents.
We want to see better government. Moments like the tabling of the National Report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, the tabling of the Bringing Them Home Report and the later Apology to the Stolen Generations, the Apology to Forgotten Australians, and the passage of legislation for marriage equality are moments that reflect the dignity and value of the great institution of parliament. These are the moments Australians should be able to associate with our democracy. Governments must ensure they get the attention they deserve.
Empowering parliamentary committees to conduct more and better inquiries, and ensuring they are better resourced, has the capacity to provide more avenues of connection between the parliament and citizenry. This will help provide for better quality legislation, a greater variety of viewpoints on policy development, and more opportunities to hold governments to account.
Governments need to actively defend democracy. We need to monitor its health, promote it, and protect it. Civics, history, politics and democratic theory should be front and centre in our schools; delivered by well-trained teachers, and supported with excellent resources.
Governments must nurture an appreciation of civics and democracy among Australia's youth, and encourage their participation in civil society. In addition, governments must build strong democratic citizens, including through developing programs for media and information literacy.
Governments must submit themselves to further scrutiny and integrity measures, and they must do it willingly. Democracies with the most satisfied populations are those with highly transparent and participatory government practices, codes of conduct, integrity commissions, and opportunities for citizens to scrutinise government decisions and participate in decision‑making.
Becoming more insular, secretive and opaque can only serve to further weaken trust in democracy.
Touching hearts and minds
The best way to defend democracy is to convince Australians of the many reasons our democracy is worth defending. The freedoms, dignity, choices and opportunities that our democracy provides; the protections of our welfare safety net; universal education and healthcare; our liberal democratic values of equality, fairness, and the rule law.
Governments can tell Australians we should value these things, but it is meaningless rhetoric if Australians do not feel that those things are expressed in the way our country is run, the actions of our politicians, and decisions taken in our parliaments.
In uncertain times, where many of the old social bonds have broken down, and communities are more fragmented than ever, Australians have turned away from combative, partisan politics. We are looking to our governments for leadership, cooperation, bravery, dignity…and heart.
It is up to the governments, parliaments and political parties of today, to look past short-term political imperatives, and implement the changes required to strengthen democracy for tomorrow.