Nationhood, National Identity and Democracy: Australia in the wider world
This is not a typical report for a Senate inquiry. It makes relatively few policy recommendations. But its subject matter – trust in government and the democratic process, and how these can be sustained – underlies all policymaking. When trust declines, our system of government is threatened.
In the past decade, popular trust in public institutions has been in decline in liberal democracies around the world. The optimism about a bright democratic future based on the Western model that held sway after the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s has waned. In some countries, liberal democracy has been all but extinguished as right-wing populists have gained power and re-imposed authoritarian rule.
Some commentators attribute this loss of public confidence to the stresses unleashed by the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-08. The inequalities laid bare by that upheaval did indeed contribute to citizens in many democracies, including Australia, feeling that the system no longer works for them. The decline in trust, however, preceded both the financial crisis and the sense of threat arising from the terrorist attacks on the United States (US) in 2001 and the subsequent Middle East wars.
The seeds of the decline can be discerned in the circumstances in which the Cold War came to an end. As Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes have argued in their book The Light that Failed: Why the West is Losing the Fight for Democracy, the triumph of the West in the Cold War did not result in the inculcation of a liberal ethos in the political institutions of the former Soviet Union and its allies, despite the expectations of many Western liberals at the time.
This was partly because the unchallenged ascendancy of the US meant that the US and its Western allies no longer used the vigorous assertion of an international order based on respect for human rights as a means of defining the difference between their own systems and those of other countries. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the beginning of what President George W. Bush called the ‘war on terror’, unwavering adherence to the defence of human rights even came to be seen as a liability by some Western governments. They wanted to fight terrorists not only with enhanced surveillance and the restriction of liberties, but also with measures that terrorists themselves would use – kidnapping, torture and arbitrary detention.
Internationally, this hypocrisy fuelled a cynicism that is perhaps the deepest reason for the decline in trust. Ultimately this is a cynicism not only about democratic institutions, but about the Enlightenment ideals that underpin those institutions, and which have animated both liberal democracy and social democracy in the West. In the former communist states of Eastern Europe, this cynicism was exploited by astute and ruthless political operators, as right-wing populists convinced voters that they, and not those perceived to be liberal elites, were better able to advance their interests.
The reaffirmation of local and national identities, and the hostility to elites, in this kind of populism also resonated with many voters in Western countries who felt that they were excluded from full participation in the economic and social opportunities the elites enjoyed. Right-wing populism drove the rise of ultra-nationalists such as Marine Le Pen in France and the Alternative fur Deutschland in Germany, the Brexit vote in Britain, and the election of Donald Trump as US president in 2016.
As yet there is no indication that Trump’s defeat by Joe Biden will also mean the eclipse of populist nationalism. It is not only that more than 70 million Americans voted for Trump; physical reminders of his style of politics, such as the unfinished wall on the Mexican border, remain as a challenge to the new administration. The proliferation of such barriers has ironically become a feature of post-Cold War politics. As Krastev and Holmes have noted, when the Berlin Wall was torn down in 1989 there were only 16 walled borders in the world. Now there are 65, either complete or under construction. The destruction of the Berlin Wall once seemed to be the great symbol of liberalisation through freedom of movement, but that symbol has been emphatically repudiated.
Australia has not had to endure the chaos and the virulent manipulation of hatreds, deceits and conspiracy theories that have characterised the Trump administration in the US. Nor does the full-blown authoritarianism that has unravelled democracy in Hungary under Viktor Orban seem likely to gain traction here. We have not been immune, however, to the decline in trust in public institutions that has afflicted other democracies with which we compare ourselves. The decline in trust is measurable: the Democracy 2025 research project, based in Old Parliament House in Canberra, has tracked a fall in public satisfaction with democracy from 78 per cent of survey respondents in 1996, down to 41 per cent in 2018.
It has not been a relentless downward plunge; Democracy 2025’s surveys record peaks and troughs in public satisfaction. But it is clear that increasing numbers of Australians feel disconnected from democratic institutions and processes; they do not feel they are full participants in, or beneficiaries of, a system that works for them.
That is why the Senate referred this inquiry into Nationhood, National Identity and Democracy to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee in July 2019. The inquiry drew submissions and testimony from across the political spectrum and from all sectors of Australian society. The committee’s work was affected, like so much else in public life, by the COVID-19 pandemic. The decline in trust in government that seemed widespread when our deliberations began seemed to be replaced by a renewed confidence in the power of the Commonwealth and the states to keep Australians safe. Whether this revival of trust will outlast the pandemic is an open question.
Measured against the essential elements of a democratic society, Australia mostly performs well. Our electoral system is highly regarded, and we have a largely independent judiciary, despite recent moves to impose mandatory sentencing for some crimes. The news media, too, are independent despite the concentration of ownership. Although there are disturbing levels of inequality, Australia remains a much more equal society than many of those with which we compare ourselves. Historically, populism has not only been a right-wing phenomenon, as Thomas Frank explains in his recent book People without Power: The War on Populism and the Fight for Democracy. Denigrating all forms of populism ignores the fact that there are grounds for complaint. In Australia, we do not meet the needs of all our citizens or always satisfy the highest standards of human rights.
What is undoubtedly true is that the level of civic engagement and debate in this country is disturbingly low. This report concentrates on the need to rebuild public trust by strengthening democratic institutions, especially parliament. The committee’s report calls for strengthening of the work of parliamentary committees, which play a key role in reaching out to the Australian people. Committee inquiries shine a light on the performance of government, draw on ideas and creativity from across our society, and bring the public into the work of the parliament. This report starts from the premise that our parliament and other core democratic institutions must be respected, because through them we can build a higher level of civic engagement. That is the best defence of democracy, and the best means of building a more just and equal society.
The committee believes, however, that this report demonstrates why Australia’s democratic institutions matter, and why reinvigorating them is an urgent task. It is a task in some ways made harder by developments in the institutions themselves: one of the consequences of the pandemic has been an increase in the amount of delegated legislation, that is regulations made by the executive government, rather than bills debated by parliament. The committee argues that members of parliament must be more vigilant when it comes to defending democratic processes, discharging their responsibilities as elected representatives, and ensuring adequate scrutiny. Nearly half of all legislation is now delegated legislation, and some of it cannot be disallowed by parliament. That figure must be reduced if the government is to restore trust in its accountability to the people’s elected representatives. This report is a snapshot of Australia at a turbulent time in its history and in that of the wider world. The committee commends the report to all Australians in the hope that it will become a benchmark and a starting point when they debate ways to preserve and extend this country’s vigorous democratic history. Australians will respond if they are persuaded that politicians and the parliament are acting in defence of their living standards, their liberty and their democratic rights.