No Democracy without Dissent

20 / 06 / 2014

You can’t have a fair society without dissent. But how do ordinary Australians go about voicing their opinions to a selectively deaf political elite?  The Budget proved a rude awakening for many, with burgeoning public anger and disbelief at its austerity measures. 

In his first piece for Sheilas, Tim Dunlop argues that when governments, unchecked by a beleaguered mainstream media, stop listening and start shutting down debate, we lose the very essence of our democratic form of government. 


By Tim Dunlop

The Abbott Government’s first Budget has stirred up a lot of debate about some very basic features of Australian democracy.

Chief amongst these has been the issue of fairness.  Many voters have been genuinely shocked that an Australian government has so obviously and shamelessly targeted the less well off in its attempts to bring the Budget back into “balance.”

Another matter that has received attention is the issue of truth and trust in democratic governance.

Again, voters have been stunned that the Prime Minister, who as leader of the Opposition so ruthlessly pursued Julia Gillard for her alleged dishonesty over the carbon tax, and who so resolutely set himself up as a person who would be as good as his word and run a government of “no surprises,” has so completely abandoned those commitments.

It has been a fairly brutal wake-up call for a lot of Australians.

I mean, it’s not as if we hold our politicians in very high regard at the best of times, but I think it is fair to say that few people expected the level of dishonesty and unfairness that the first Abbott/Hockey Budget has delivered.

It is not surprising, then, that a third concern that has arisen is the matter of dissent.  How exactly are we meant to speak back to power?

In a democracy, as should go without saying, people have a right to voice their opposition to the actions of governments.  Indeed, the whole notion of “opposition” is so integral to our parliamentary system that we recognise the existence of an actual Opposition as an official part of our democratic architecture.

The existence of that official Opposition, generally the second largest party in the Lower House, is meant to underline that all governments owe their power to the consent of the people and that this consent can be withdrawn at anytime; most commonly by a vote at regularly scheduled elections.

In other words, the “Opposition” is understood to be the alternative government, and it is supported within the system with everything from offices in Parliament House, to wages and superannuation for its members, to funding for its election campaigns.

To put it simply, democracy is not a winner-takes-all operation.  An election victory does not install the winning party as a temporary dictatorship.   At most elections, not much less than half of the voters choose someone else, and their views don’t simply disappear, or become invalidated, just because their first preference didn’t win.

Consequently, Parliament is meant to be a deliberative forum, a place where issues are debated under rules that protect the rights of the minority.  Yes, decisions are ultimately decided by a vote and the party with the most numbers tends to win, but that doesn’t mean parliament is a mere rubber stamp.

As important as it is, then, an official Opposition could never be enough in a true democracy.  The idea that a single opposition party, or even a number of them along with some independents, could ever encapsulate all the shades of opinion likely to exist in the broader electorate, is reductive to say the least.

This is especially true when an argument can be made that never in our history have the mainstream parties been less representative of the population than they are now.  Their memberships have shrunk, their internal structures are dominated by factional professionals who have totally usurped most involvement by the rank-and-file, and these professionals now dominate everything from pre-selection to policy formation.

Our dissatisfaction with Labor and the Coalition is evident in our changing voting patterns which show that we are drifting away from the majors at a pretty decent rate and trying desperately to find alternatives in the various small parties and independents.

So the existence of an official Opposition is not enough.

Democratic practice requires other voices in the mix, which is why it is predicated on the recognition of certain rights, chief amongst them being free speech and the right to assembly.  These in turn presume the legitimacy of other forms of dissent; everything from street protests to workplace strikes to the existence of various non-profit advocacy and advisory organisations.

What has been truly stunning in the brief period of the Abbott Government is the extent to which all of these forms of democratic dissent have been attacked, and not just by the government.

We’ve had ABC journalist Annabel Crabb letting fly with this mealy-mouthed piece criticising student protests, while her counterpart Tony Jones was very upset when some students dared to protest on the set of his Q&A panel show.  He declared their actions, “not what democracy is all about.”  No really, he said that.

And of course, most of the tabloids in the country have a long history of treating all street demonstrations as unacceptable and of  representing such dissent in the worst possible light.

Those who use social media to voice their concerns are also targeted.  The mainstream media is full of articles deploring the (allegedly) low standard of discussion that happens on Twitter and Facebook and other such sites.  As I’ve noted elsewhere, “Their responses to what they call ‘trolling’ often seem less about combating abuse than reasserting their role as gatekeeper, to restore to themselves the right to decide who gets to speak in public and who doesn’t.”

If we took these sorts of complaints seriously, we could conclude that significant sections of the political class think that ordinary people should simply not have a voice in the running of the country outside of voting once every three years.

Most insidious of all, however, is the Abbott Government’s efforts at defunding various interest groups, as well as their open attacks on the trade union movement.

So we have not only seen them instigate a Royal Commission into trade union activities, they have been willing to violate long-respected parliamentary practice by allowing cabinet-in-confidence documents to be accessed in an attempt to embarrass the previous government via that Royal Commission.

They are also trying to reinstitute the Australian Building and Construction Commission which is designed to police union activities on building sites, and they are even enacting new rules that mean those who go on strike could be putting their family homes at risk.

Even if we accept that conservative governments are not exactly in love with unions at the best of times (and vice versa), these developments should be of concern to anyone who cares about legitimate protest in a democratic nation.

Equally concerning is the government’s approach to various interest and advisory groups.

Just as our democracy funds an official Opposition as part of our commitment to supporting a diversity of political views, so too have we funded from the public purse certain organisations whose job it is to represent minority interests, everything from refugees to LGBT rights.

So it is disturbing — and ultimately damaging to our democracy — to see such organisations defunded in the way that is currently happening.

For instance, Scott Morrison recently announced he was cutting funding for the Refugee Council.  In doing so, he said: “It’s not my view, it’s not the Government’s view, that taxpayer funding should be there to support what is effectively an advocacy group.”

Really, Mr Morrison?

But it hardly stops at the Refugee Council.  The government has also defunded The Alcohol and Drug Council of Australia, the National Congress of Australia’s First Peoples and National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, and the Australian Youth Affairs Council.

In a recent article, Peter Martin also noted that:

“Advisory groups axed include the Social Inclusion Board, the National Housing Supply Council, the Prime Minister’s Council on Homelessness, the National Policy Commission on Indigenous Housing, the National Children and Family Roundtable, the Advisory Panel on Positive Ageing, and the Immigration Health Advisory Group.”

Wendy Harmer, who was part of the National People With Disabilities And Carer Council for eight years, wrote the other day that the government didn’t even bother to contact anyone from the Council before announcing that the organisation’s funding was being cancelled.  She went on to say:

“The list of high-profile government agencies to be sold or merged is long. The lesser-known advisory bodies already abolished include groups working on sustainability, climate change, social inclusion, charities, homelessness, indigenous leadership, education, positive ageing, animal welfare, gambling, firearms, children and family, corporate wrongdoing and insurance reform.

This leafy maze of committees, councils and forums may have needed some creative topiary, but the sheer scale of the cuts has reduced it to a bare stump.

If the government message is “La, la, la … Not listening”, it will cost them, and us, dearly.”

The pattern is unmistakable and deeply worrying and it is worth stepping back a little to try and appreciate the full context.

We live in a period when the mainstream media, our main tool for watching over those who rule us — whether directly in the form of the government, or indirectly in the form of the powerful interests groups who have their ear — is in a period of terminal decay.

The media’s business model has been destroyed by the rise of the internet, and so it struggles to fulfill its role as a “fourth estate.”  It simply lacks the resources necessary to do the job properly.

New media, including the various social media sites, have filled the gap somewhat, but they are not really a substitute for the big media organisations who could employ professional reporters to investigate government and business malfeasance in all its myriad forms.  New media may eventually become that, but for now, we are in a period of transition.

As already noted, the major political parties have ceased to be genuine grassroots organisations, and so are less representative than ever of the broader population.  Nonetheless, the electoral system still props them up and so acts as an impediment to the rise of alternative political formations.

Structural changes to the employment environment mean that unions no longer command the sort of support and reach they once had, and so that is another key element of civil society and legitimate dissent that is diminished.

And now we have a government that, more than any in our recent history, is willing to use the power they have over the Budget to defund various organisations whose opinions they see as hostile to their own.

In fact, they are not only cutting funding to such groups, they are actually funding a bunch of business-friendly alternatives in their stead.  To quote Peter Martin again:

“In their place are a smaller number of new advisory groups dominated by business such as the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council, the Australian Treasury Advisory Council and the Prime Minister’s Community Business Partnership.”

So let’s try and sum it all up.

The media can no longer fulfill its function as a watchdog on power and channel people’s concerns.  Social media provides something of an alternative, but currently lacks the reach and influence of the mainstream.  Nonetheless, the mainstream media is hostile to new media (and thus their own audience) and constantly represents it as uncivil and unworthy and actively campaigns against it in order to prop up their traditional role as a gatekeeper.

The main political parties no longer represent us or welcome us in, and the electoral system actively mitigates against the rise of new parties.  The odd independent gets through, but the only moderately successful new party of late is one that appears nothing more than the influence machine of a self-interested billionaire, which should tell us something.

The union movement still does good work, but it is under particular attack from an ideological government and is struggling to find a place in a changed world of work.

To top it all off, the government is now on a mission to defund the various interest groups, advisory boards and other representatives of views other than the government’s own, and replace them with business-led formations whose loyalty is, at best, to shareholders not citizens.

People have rightly been appalled at the financial unfairness at the heart of the Budget, but a fair society is built on more than the equitable distribution of tax revenue into things like health and education.  It is built on alternative voices being able to be heard in public debate.  It is the very essence of democratic governance that non-government voices be supported by the public purse.

So the next time you hear some cosseted journalist or another member of the establishment or the political class — someone who takes for granted their access to the public sphere and the ear of government — complain about street protests or strikes or even online forms of dissent, ask them this:

When all forms of ‘authorised’ dissent are being closed down or demonised, what the hell else are ordinary people meant to do to voice their concerns?