Ballot Box: Is Australian democracy sustainable?

In the last 18 months or so, there have been a few shake-ups in Australian politics. People have quit and created new parties and the conservative movement seems to be going from strength to strength. What does this mean for the future of Australian democracy? Is all of this volatility sustainable?

We took this question to two student politicians from opposing sides of the political spectrum to find out what their thoughts on this issue are. 

Right Wing | Liam Straughan

Yes, it is sustainable. Democracy isn’t going to hell in Australia. It should be protected and maintained the way it is at the moment. It prevents our elected government or other select groups from having too much control on our lives.

I was posed the question of whether Australia’s system of democracy is sustainable, in the context of the greatly publicised series of events on Australia’s right side of federal politics. We saw Pauline Hanson’s One Nation coming under investigation for financial disclosures (or lack thereof) during the 2016 election. Then, Cory Bernardi formed his Australian Conservatives Party after breaking ranks with the ‘large tent’ of the Liberal Party, and speculation rose of yet another looming leadership challenge.

Australia’s system of democracy is specifically designed so that it is stable, and it ensures that despite all of the chaos afflicting both the left and the right sides of politics, that our society remains similarly stable. It maintains that not one branch of government has overwhelming power.

The Westminster system, although not perfect, ensures that our elected government may pass laws faster. However it ensures that the government must contend with and cooperate with others, in order to pass the laws efficiently. The power is divided up within the two houses of our Parliament, to ensure that power over different matters is in the hands of multiple people, as opposed to just one.

You may be asking yourself, but what about the Prime Minister? Don’t they have all the power? No, the Prime Minister serves merely as a representative of the country, but not its head of state, or the all-powerful identity of Australia. They remain only the influencer of policy by a government which can be (and has been) changed in a number of ways, when things don’t objectively work.  

Recently, a proposal for controversial changes to our democratic system has been put forward. These arguably contravene the purported values of egalitarianism and equality embedded into our nation’s social and political fabric, and within our code of Common Law.

This proposal is the Uluru summit, calling for an advisory committee comprised of purely Indigenous Australians, to act as an authority within Parliament. If implemented, this proposal would place the influence of a particular demographic above all other Australians. I believe it would dilute the purpose of our institutions of democracy, as it wouldn’t protect and ensure equality of all men and women in this country before the law.  

It will drive our country into two distinctive groups; Indigenous Australians and non-Indigenous Australians, which both hold power and influence at the local level. This goes against our ideals of a successful multicultural Australian society. It poses a major challenge to our democracy. Where would we draw the line if this is successfully implemented?    

I think that any change such as this, which is a shift away from our existing system, will unbalance our ability to live peacefully as a multicultural society, under one set of standards and with one elected body to represent us at the national level. We must maintain our nation’s democracy and ensure that it is sustainable.


Left Wing | Declan Williams 

The simple answer is yes, of course democracy is sustainable but we must stop flirting with dictators.

Dictatorship, in the modern world, is synonymous with evil. However, throughout history, there have been many instances where ceding total power to one individual was not only logical but necessary. The Romans were a prime example of this; in their Republic system (before Julius Caesar) the Romans would routinely elect a ‘Dictator’ in times of great strife—which, in the Ancient world, was common.

Against the modern concept of a dictator, many Roman dictators bolstered the power of the working class and gave greater rights to non-wealthy citizens. Of course, there were bad dictators, however it’s clear that when a situation appears dire, some societies find a more totalitarian regime to be appealing.

The question calls into account ‘democracy’ as a concept. Australia follows a system of democracy that is effectively ‘representative democracy’ – where we elect people to represent their electorates on issues.

In a rudimentary interpretation of democracy, the majority should be able to make all of the decisions by virtue of them being ‘the majority’. Our system protects against that, by adhering to rules that give protection to those who may be at the mercy of said majority.

Robert Kaplan discussed the issue with democracy in his book ‘Warrior Politics’, making an apt point that democracy was a system created over generations, rather than overnight.

Some countries have pulled it off—the USA being the prime example. However, many modern democracies that we see in the West today needed centuries to develop. Although the book was published in the early 2000s, he made a prediction that if democracy were to be forced onto less democratic Middle-Eastern states that their immediate reaction would to elect a party that is against democracy and wishes to rule with a style akin to totalitarianism. He was correct.

Lack of stability was leading to food shortages, corruption and increasing hostility—if a dictatorial structure can fix that, then is it still evil by its oppressive virtue?

So, if we’ve established that a dictatorial structure is not an inherently ‘bad’ system and that democracy may not always suit a people at a certain time, then why shouldn’t I say that democracy IS in fact an unsustainable system?

The answer is simple; in Australia, we have never been able to create a system that empowers so many at the expense of so few.

We are undoubtedly in a fractured time where we are constantly embroiled in war, effects of climate change and global financial insecurity. The path forward for Australia may need to enact change—Republicanism, constitutional change and shifting political attitudes can all lead to a solution.

Leading on from my point about a situation that creates a dictator, it is clear that conservatives in Australia are desperately trying to push that view. They are sowing hatred and fear into political discourse to argue for a less democratic state.

Don’t buy the hard conservative viewpoint on how to change this country for the better. Don’t believe that through the discrimination of minorities, policies that treat people differently and a divisive mentality towards our society will lead to an answer on how to fix this great country of ours. Don’t believe in the totalitarian answer that the conservatives put to society.

Their viewpoint is an affront to the basic modern democratic virtue of protecting the rights of the people. Scapegoating only seeks to empower those who want to believe that a false answer is indeed still an answer.


Catalyst has been the student publication of RMIT University since 1944. We may be older than your parents but we’re still going strong!

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