A Realistic Vision for Democracy

Imagine all Australians having secure and sufficient income, and a good job if they want it.

Imagine all Australians having secure housing, excellent healthcare, and education that enables them to realise their potential. Imagine all Australians having high quality transport, telecommunications, childcare and other forms of care if they require it, abundant cultural and recreational opportunities, and a beautiful, sustainable environment.

Imagine all Australians being treated with respect in their home, work and public lives. Being free from discrimination, violence and abuse. Their diversity valued and celebrated. Imagine all Australians belonging to strong communities in which they help one another and enjoy life together.

This may seem like a pie-in-the-sky dream. But let’s briefly consider it more closely in the context of our economy and history.

Economically, Australia is a very prosperous, well-endowed nation. There is no practical reason why all Australians cannot have the income, jobs, goods and services we need for a good life. What’s more, if these needs are met we are then more able to contribute to others, and a virtuous circle is created. For example, providing jobs for all who want them also meets other needs through the goods and services these jobs create, and better education enables us to live and work smarter.

Historically, if we look at the lives of Australians over the past 150 years, there have been, on average, enormous improvements in our political and civil rights, in our standard of living, in the services we can access, in the ways we are protected, and in indicators of our health and wellbeing.

All adults gained the vote, regardless of gender, race or wealth. Australians gained access to universal education and health care, and income support for those who couldn’t work. As well, public housing was provided for many who needed it, and childcare, elder care and services for those with disabilities became widely available. Also introduced were mandated standards for consumer goods and services, environmental laws, road safety laws and building regulations. Laws against discrimination and verbal and physical abuse were implemented. Government provided infrastructure and services have included roads, public transport, ports, airports, power, telecommunications, water, sanitation, parks, museums, galleries, libraries, sport and fitness facilities, public media and more. These are just some of the more important areas where government action has improved our lives. There is enormous scope for further improvement and certain sectors of our society, and in particular Indigenous Australians, have not benefited in the ways that others have. 

But as a result of progress to date, Australians on average live much longer, we are better educated and housed, we’re materially better off, working conditions are safer, those of us with special needs usually fare much better, there are fewer road deaths, the environment is cleaner in most respects, and we can communicate more widely and access more information, recreation and culture.

Economic and technological developments have of course contributed greatly to this progress, but the role of political change should not be underestimated. In almost all cases this political change has been spurred by ordinary people engaging in collective action, and if that push for change is then translated into legislation and government action, then real change occurs.

So, historically, there is a trajectory of progressive change, and we are capable of continuing that trajectory. Unfortunately, in our day-to-day experience of politics it is generally the lack of progress that’s most obvious – the vested interests, the ignoring of evidence, the divisive political culture, the inane utterances – but over time, amongst all this dross, there will usually be some gems of progress. There are many good people in politics and good policies do get enacted, and these can add up to something significant.

It could, however, be much, much better. Less dross and more gems. But it’s up to us as citizens to make this happen. We need to ensure that politics and politicians stay focused on what matters to us – our values, our needs, our priorities. For example, the great majority of us support limitations on election spending and political donations, we want stronger action to combat climate change, and we want a decent level of benefits for the unemployed (not just during the pandemic), but these things are not happening.

This is a sign of a lack of responsiveness in our political system at this point in time. The number of people involved in political decision-making is diminishing. Party memberships have shrunk, and party decision-making is more centralised at the top. Governments feel that they can ignore popular campaigns with impunity. MPs rarely consult their constituents on policy, and this leaves voters feeling ignored and alienated.  As a society we need to be moving in exactly the opposite direction. As voters we need to keep our hand on the tiller of the ship of state. In each electorate we need to be engaging more actively with our MPs, and there should be consequences if they don’t respond as we would want them to. We have the power to collectively direct our votes towards candidates – independents or party candidates – willing to do things differently, and we need to realise this collective power in each electorate and across all electorates.

We don’t need to get rid of parties (even if this were politically possible). In every democracy in the world, the great majority of elected representatives belong to parties, and this will be the case for the foreseeable future. Evidence from around the world shows us that the prevalence of parties does not prevent governments from adopting excellent policies that really meet people’s needs. Certainly, independent MPs can perform valuable roles in parliament and in public debate, and it would be very beneficial to our democracy if more independents with broad community support were elected. But there will still be a need for voters to use their collective power to reform the way parties function.

The next section, What Electorate Groups Can Do, will give you ideas of how you can work towards realising our vision of what democracy could be.