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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

democracy vs ? « Previous | |Next »
October 9, 2007

Apparently Australians are not as politically disengaged as we’re often led to believe. This is the conclusion reached by Ian McAllister from ANU and Juliet Clark from Deakin Uni using data mostly from the Australian Election Study.*

Voters have noticed there’s not all that much difference between the two parties, we’re not as enamoured of personality politics as media seems to think, and are overall unimpressed with the way any of them go about the business of politics.

Despite being unhappy with the state of the much vaunted (by those with a stake in it, or steak, a few oysters and a decent quaff, whatever) public sphere we’re still happy with democracy. The big message in all of this is that deep down in our little Aussie hearts we’re a thoroughly democratic people let down by politics. That is to say, the way politics is conducted.

While politicians, parties and the media have been enjoying urinating in one another’s pockets, the public are increasingly getting our recommended daily intake of democracy from the internet where the less sanitized and more human version of events gets an airing. McAllister writes:

“The message of 40 years’ worth of academic surveys is that Australian voters remain interested in politics and highly adaptive. It seems that politicians, and the parties that they represent, are less effective in providing what voters want.”

The Australian Election Survey started up in 1987, but some of the data from this study goes as far back as the 1960s. This is not so much about policies, leaders or fashionable theories about how to run economies as it is about our version of democracy and how it should work. Stick that in your citizenship test.

And speaking of citizenship tests, you only have to take a quick squiz at the graphs at the end of this report to realise why politicians and media are so disappointing. Our social attitudes are way more progressive than either of them would have us believe. Our ‘democracy’ is effectively being run by a small handful of people swayed by every moral panic on offer.

And why is health such an important issue this election? Could it possibly be because the ALP also has access to this stuff? At the last election, which you might recall revolved around interest rates, we were actually more interested in health. Unfortunately, we think the ALP is better at health than the coalition, so we had the election on interest rates instead.

So far that switch from what concerns the public to what suits the incumbents hasn’t worked this election, so we’re seeing the incumbents struggling with a bunch of issues that concern the people, but don’t work so well for the incumbents. Health, the environment, education, generally Labor kinds of things.

Finding out what people think is important then doing something about it seems like a decent and democratic way to run a country and legitimately stay in power. It also seems like a partial solution to the gulf between politics and our culturally valued version of democracy.

Basically, we the people have been living in a whole other country than the one our media and politicians have been living in, for much longer than a mere decade. The first party/leader/media configuration to realise this will be entitled to lecture us about our values.

*Anyone can access this wonderful resource. It takes a bit of figuring out but once you’ve worked out how to use it you can learn all kinds of things about who we are, what we actually believe and who among us believe what. 'Mainstream' will never look the same again.

| Posted by Lyn at 7:53 PM | | Comments (7)


How does this data and your interpretation of it square with David Marr's argument in His Masters Voice Quarterly essay about Australian passivity, and his explanation of this to a race memory of being British, an odd amalgam of settlement stories, horsehair wigs, practicality and Enlightenment values, a world in which children are taught to keep quiet and authority is respected.

anyone who imagines oz is a democracy is living in looking-glass-land, the blinkered slaves of doublethink and newspeak. but young people are exposed to a globeful of ideas, not just the usual fore-lock tugging school texts. perhaps some reality is creeping in. we live in hope...


One possible explanation is in al loomis' comment. Australian schools have been teaching critical literacy for going on 30 years. Nowadays Goldilocks is a burglar and a vandal and Little Red Riding Hood is soft in the head for wandering around a wolf-packed forest.

Maybe as younger citizens are replacing older ones there's more awareness of the disconnect between the ideal of democracy and what we've actually got?
Maybe the differences between the pictures of McDonalds food and the lived experience of it has taught us all something?
Maybe Marr is talking about his own generation?
Maybe we're not really passive, just too polite to openly revolt?

all the passivity stuff was overthrown by the libertarian 1960s. Neo-consevatism is the big response to that challenge and overthrow of the traditional conservative orderb in the name of freedom as self-realization. 1968 and all that.

Marr seems to have forgotten this history he lived through. Irving Kristol didn't.

In a recently published, best-selling book, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, which has a dust jacket featuring voters as a flock of sheep, the American economist Bryan Caplan writes that democracies are usually bad for most people. Why? "Voters are worse than ignorant," he says, "they are irrational - and vote accordingly."

Many who don't like democracy speak the language of "the people". They don't dare say they hate democracy. Others, such as the Howard government want to simplify democracy so it simply means winning elections. For this government executive control is everything.

Will Rudd be any different?


Politicians must have a strange relationship with democracy. They'd love it for putting them there and hate it for constantly threatening them with redundancy.

It's true that they all manipulate whatever they can to retain power once they've got it and it's unrealistic to think Rudd wouldn't do the same.

It cheered me up no end to read this study and find that, regardless of how shonky politicians are, it's still valued by ordinary people. At the risk of romanticising the whole thing, the spirit or the ideal of democracy belongs with the people, and Australians have it stronger even than Americans, who supposedly own the copyright.

I'm choosing to be optimistic.