Four words that spell disaster for Australia


Our way of life is falling apart at the seams. Most of those under democracy's rule no longer trust its effectiveness. And Australia is among the most disaffected.

A loud, raucous democracy is supposed to be a healthy democracy.

It's the rough-and-tumble alternative to molotov cocktails and guillotines.

But society sorting itself out on the floors of parliament is being seen as a sign of weakness. Much ado is made of the one or two bills that fail to pass. But little attention is paid to the multitude pushed through before the Question Time spectacle.

Is democracy bogged down in a political quagmire?

Are elected representatives truly totally beholden to big business and lobby groups?

Is there an alternative to name-calling, spin and rubbery figures?

One international survey says 80 per cent of voters think so.

But Britain's wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill once warned: "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time".

So why is this decline in democracy happening? How bad is it? Where is it taking us? And … do we care?


After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, totalitarian and authoritarian regimes around the world toppled. The number of democracies rapidly rose.

It took less than a decade for that trend to turn around.

Vladimir Putin in Russia. Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. Viktor Orbán in Hungary. Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela. These are among the most prominent examples.

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Picture: Charles Platiau/Pool via AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin. Picture: Charles Platiau/Pool via AP

Then there is India. Poland. Israel. Mexico. South Africa. These are democracies imposing harsh new restrictions on independent organisations, clamping-down on dissenting voices and concentrating power in the hands of a few.

Australian federal, state and local governments - as well as business and media - have been judged among the least trusted in the world.

"By 2025, if current trends continue, fewer than 10 per cent of Australians will trust their politicians and political institutions," Professor Mark Evans of the University of Canberra wrote earlier this year.

"The result will be ineffective and illegitimate government, and declining social and economic wellbeing."


Brookings Institution and Lowy Institute researcher Dhruva Jaishankar pins the blame on four simple words he calls the "four Is": Identity, inequality, information and interference.

"The deepening of identity in political organisation and discourse is becoming more pronounced, whether among religious majorities, ethnic minorities, or regions," he writes.

"A second shared challenge relates to inequality, especially real and perceived inequality of opportunity. Despite consistent economic growth in many parts of the world … the perception of growing inequality has tested the functioning of democracy.

"The third shared challenge is the new information environment. Although the availability of information via digital telecommunications had been expected to bolster democracy, it has also paradoxically resulted in the undermining of democratic functioning.

"Finally, while less uniform, all democracies remain vulnerable to interference by external actors."

Trust in Australia’s politicians is reportedly at an all-time low. Picture: AAP Image/Lukas Coch
Trust in Australia’s politicians is reportedly at an all-time low. Picture: AAP Image/Lukas Coch


Information campaigns. Cyber operations. Coercion. Australia's Defence Force chief General Angus Campbell has warned Western democracies are under assault by totalitarian powers.

In a speech to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, he warned of a "willingness and increasing ability of other states to control information, people and events".

"Political warfare subverts and undermines," he said. "It penetrates the mind. It seeks to influence, to subdue, to overpower, to disrupt. It can be covert or overt, a background of white noise or loud and compelling.

"It's not limited by the constructs or constructions of peace or peacetime. It's constant and scalable, and most importantly, it adapts."

And the principal target of political warfare is trust.

"Without trust, we have diminished capacity to meet complex, long-term challenges," Prof Evans says.

"Weakening political trust erodes authority and civic engagement, reduces support for evidence-based public policies and promotes risk aversion in government."

And easily undermined, trust is incredibly hard to restore.

"Offering more participation or consultation can turn into a tokenistic exercise, which generates more cynicism and negativity among citizens," Prof Evans says.

It's a similar story for measured performance: government officials will usually try to "manipulate" these figures. And that further promotes cynicism.

The current crop of politicians are part of the problem, not the solution, he says. "The past decade has probably produced more instances of politicians trying to exploit the trust divide to garner support rather than attempts to resolve the issue."


What does a Google search or the news on your Facebook feed have to do with democracy?

The internet economy is built around knowing everything about you. Corporations gather thousands of "data-points" on your behaviours, preferences and personality - usually without you knowing.

Harvard professor emerita Shoshana Zuboff warns voters have become "free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales".

It's all about pre-emptive advertising and subliminal suggestion. They want to hit you with an advert when you're most vulnerable to its sales pitch. They want to "nudge" you in a paying advertiser's direction.

And, as the Cambridge Analytica scandal revealed, those customers can be political parties - or foreign governments.


Google and Twitter are taking some steps towards curtailing political propaganda. But Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg insists the lies and falsehoods of politicians - that he gets paid to promote - are not his problem.

"What I believe is that in a democracy, it's really important that people can see for themselves what politicians are saying, so they can make their own judgments," Mr Zuckerberg recently told CBS.

But Prof Zuboff, in her book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, says social media is being used to manipulate those judgments.

"Facebook owns an unprecedented means of behaviour modification that operates covertly, at scale, and in the absence of social or legal mechanisms of agreement, contest, and control," she writes.

The US Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission have launched antitrust investigations on Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. In July, the FTC levied a $US5 billion fine on Facebook for violating its own privacy policies.


A world racked with the fear of terrorism has produced an environment in which strength trumps sensibility.

Harsh laws with widespread impact have been able to pass previously suspicious parliaments in the name of national security.

Restrictions. Surveillance. Secrecy. Extraordinary powers placed in the hands of a few.

It's an environment some see as an opportunity.

"Abusing emergency powers or executive orders, sidelining parliament and government agencies, and weakening judicial independence and the 'referees' that ensure political leaders play by the rules make it more likely that government decisions will not balance the interests of all citizens," says University of Oxford school of government dean Ngaire Woods.

"Patronage, personal influence and favours are being used to create loyalty to the leader, and those who fall out of favour are being bullied from office or arbitrarily fired. Political leaders are also making ever-bolder attempts to cow the media and business community into silence, or to co-opt them by offering special privileges."

Independent organisations and not-for-profit groups are finding their funding cut and operations curtailed for not toeing the party line. Even peaceful protesters can quickly find themselves labelled terrorists for openly disagreeing with the government of the day.

"By my count, at least 58 per cent of the world's strongest democracies have adopted at least one restrictive civil society law since 1990. Counting proposed laws, another 5 per cent are in this growing category," writes political scientist Chrystie Flournoy Swiney of Georgetown University.

Examples include laws being used to suppress animal cruelty revelations through to crushing corporate and political whistleblowers.

Democracy watchdogs no longer doubt there is trouble afoot, Ms Swiney says. "They no longer debate whether democracy is imperilled, but by how much and whether it's reversible."


People forget that - in democracies - it's the law, not the president or prime minister, that's in charge.

"The emergence of a populist trope - in which the hopeful politician presents themselves as the one who speaks the truth, is not part of the corrupt elite and who will get things done - is one of the most dominant political trends of the last decade," Prof Evans notes.

Mr Woods agrees: "The personalisation of power replaces formal and fair processes with discretionary decisions and favours. It erodes the democratic principle that all citizens - including the head of state - are subject to the rule of law, and that politicians exercise delegated power, not a personal fiat."

The result can be a country that looks like a democracy - but isn't.

Russia has a parliament. China has its councils of Party representatives.

But both are autocratic regimes that masquerade as democracies.

President Putin and Chairman Xi have cemented power through centralising control over wealth, resources - and information.

"Autocracies that look like democracies are different because their leaders permit political opponents to run for election - even though they rarely win," Professor Richard Carney of the China Europe International Business School wrote in The Conversation.

"These countries' capitalist systems have some of the trappings of liberal democracies in the West. But these regimes use capitalism to further their authoritarian rule."

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the number of "dominant party authoritarian regimes" has leapt from about 13 per cent to 33 per cent of all nations.

"Russia is one of them," he says, "so are Turkey, Malaysia, Singapore and Venezuela".

And while they desire the validity the appearance of democracy offers, their leaders reject any real challenge to their power.

President Putin, for example, has introduced laws against protesters and legislators voicing opposition to his rule. All who do so are designated enemies of the state.

Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan' jailed more than 100,000 judges, civil servants, police and teachers after a failed coup in 2016.

Both justified such draconian acts as moves to safeguard their nations' future.



The 2019 Freedom in the World annual report found democracy had declined globally for 13 years in a row.

Authoritarian states are shedding "the thin facade of democratic practice that they established in previous decades," the report warns, while "countries that democratised after the end of the Cold War have regressed in the face of rampant corruption, antiliberal populist movements, and breakdowns in the rule of law".

Even the world's most established democracies - including Australia - are under immense pressure. The report found widespread corruption, corrosion of democratic institutions, rolling back of civil rights and a rewriting of cultural norms.

Advertising agencies, through social media, have long since moved on from "from automating information flows about you to automating you," says Prof Zuboff.

Those who do not wish to embrace authoritarianism must work to keep politicians and corporations afraid, instead of being afraid themselves, warns Mr Wood.

"Rather than relying on outrage, democrats around the world need to apply with rigour the rules that prevent the personalisation of power," he says, "while defending the institutions that protect individuals and minorities".

"Public officials shouldn't be allowed to use their office to insulate themselves from accountability … or to hide evidence of their illegal behaviour. We all must insist on clear and inviolable standards of transparency regarding the private interests of those in public office.

"Citizens need to understand that if they don't defend the institutions that protect minorities today, they themselves may come under attack tomorrow."

Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer. Continue the conversation @JamieSeidel

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