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Forum Home > democracy in the 21st century > Tim Costello talks on democracy -the rule of people

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Let me talk a bit about democracy tonight, as an idea and as an ideal.

Lewis Carroll might have been thinking of democracy when he wrote Alice Through the Looking Glass: “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less”.

Because democracy, in all its infinite variety, has been many things to many people. Literally, demos is the Greek word for people, kratos for rule, literally the rule of the people. But throughout history, and even around our institutions in the world today, we have seen direct democracy. I lived in Switzerland for four years in the early 80s and I used to go up to Appenzell, one of the cantons, where they still gathered in the city square and voted on issues – direct democracy. I am sure those protesting about the trees wish it was like that in Newcastle today. By the way, women had only been given the vote in Appenzell in 1981. In fact women had only won the right to vote in Switzerland in 1967, so it was a direct maledemocracy. We know representative democracy in terms of our own parliamentary system and we use the terms liberal democracy and people’s democracy, guided democracy and participatory democracy. Around the world parties have proclaimed themselves Social Democrats, Christian Democrats, Liberal Democrats and New Democrats and we even had, for some time,Australian Democrats, remember them?

Democracy has been hailed as the foundation of the best of all possible human futures, and damned as the road to the downfall of civilisation. In time of war and crisis it’s been praised as a source of strength and pushed aside as a threat to unity.

Karl Marx called it ‘the path to socialism’

– but he failed to anticipate the electoral success of Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan.

Here in Australia too, democracy has been conscripted by both the left and the right of politics, in many diverse ways atdifferent times in our history. What is clear is that democracy has enduredas a constant and dominant force in Australian society. Australia is one of just a handful of countries that has sustained a stable and mostly peaceful democracy throughout the 20th century – one of just a few places where the shadows of dictatorship and foreign occupation never overcame the democratic system. We rightly should be proud that we have one of the longest continuous democratic traditions in the world, which surprises you when you think of how new a nation we are.

Let me talk about the national narrative, the Australian story about democracy.

But what kind of democracy has Australia been? The Australian experience of democracy reflects its multiple personality. At different times democracy has been the sidekick of quite different political and social trends. But for most of its history, the democratic system has been an effective means for linking the operation of the Australian state to the developing aspirations of the society. It is very important to keep in mind that the state – largely about politics and power and who pulls the levers – is not the same as the nation. Democracy is purported to be representing both, the state and how it rules and the health of the nation.

In the politics of late colonial Australia , radical democracy was the vehicle for (or the accomplice of) both nationalism and the emerging labour movement in politics. The kind of demands for democratic process that had driven the Chartist movement in Britain found strong acceptance in Australia by the end of the 19th century. The Chartists did believe in suffrage, not just property rights to get a vote. Features of that in Australia meant a broad franchise and as we know in Britain, where the House of Lords could amend legislation and send it back to the

House of Commons, by virtue of birth, by virtue of pedigree, by virtue of religious positions. It is still foreign to our ears that you can have an Upper House that rules, when nobody voted you in. We’ve had a broad franchise, free and fair elections, a secret ballot. The secret ballot was known around the world as the Aussie ballot and it is something that Australian children should be taught and know about. It was incredibly important. Coming from Africa, where I know that there are now very few autocrats or dictators – they have seen that that has gone out of fashion, so even a Mugabe has to run the gauntlet of an election – but there you can intimidate, and buy votes and manipulate the count. A secret ballot first started in Ballarat in Victoria, with the notion that this would give the voter protection from someone stealing, buying or intimidating their vote because it is a locked ballot box, no-one will know. So, if you like, when you arrive there you could take the money but they don’t know how you vote. It is a secret ballot, it is a locked ballot box. This was novel, first experienced in Australia and then around the world.

We have short parliaments, payment for Members of Parliament – reading the press in Nairobi, where I’ve flown from overnight, they have brought in a new constitution in Nairobi, which slipped under the politicians’ guard. The fine print of the constitution insisted that, for the first time in Kenyan history, politicians would have to pay tax. Well,there is outrage. Only five of their politicians have fronted up to pay the tax. There is a hasty re-convening of parliament, where they are going to vote down this part of the constitution. There is going to be constitutional havoc in Kenya – why should politicians have to pay tax? We have always said, you will be paid, you will pay tax and there will be transparencyaround it.



June 11, 2013 at 8:47 AM Flag Quote & Reply

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June 11, 2013 at 8:49 AM Flag Quote & Reply

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