Active citizens, constructive answers

Taking control of the processes of democracy

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  • Published 20200204
  • ISBN: 9781925773804
  • Extent: 264pp
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IN THE DAYS after Labor’s unexpected defeat at the May 2019 federal election, a social media storm raged. ‘What the hell is wrong with Queensland?’ was a common starting point ahead of calls for the state to be excised from the rest of Australia. In response, two Griffith University colleagues and I wrote an article that sought to explain the result from a Queensland perspective.[i] Putting to one side that the swings against Labor were no bigger in Queensland than in other parts of the country, and that the state held the most marginal seats going into the vote, this instinct to blame and deride Queenslanders highlighted exactly what had gone so wrong for those anticipating a Coalition defeat.

It was hard to recall an election where generational, philosophical and ideological differences, concerns about growing inequity – including questions of access to services and opportunities in different parts of our country – were so prominent. And most of the feedback we received endorsed this interpretation of causes, including economic insecurity and concerns about perceptions of ‘fairness’, or the extent to which the benefits of economic growth have been widely shared.

The outcome reflected the widening political and cultural divide that has developed between urban, rural and regional Australians described by journalist Gabrielle Chan in Rusted Off (Vintage, 2018). According to Chan:

…metropolitan and non, city and country, are becoming two different nations, and that is dangerous for cohesiveness. The economic and cultural differences between small-town and big-city Australia are vast. These two countries look different, speak differently and make different choices about their lives.[ii]

The causes and consequences of voter disengagement, the hollowing out of the political parties, their vulnerability to domination by relatively small numbers of careerists and zealots bent on appealing to an ever-dwindling ‘base’, growing cynicism and distrust are well known, and have been consistently – indeed exhaustively – rehearsed. Far less attention has been given to what, if anything, might be done about it – how, or by whom.

The Coalition’s return to government sparked a tirade of recrimination from more affluent and ‘progressive’ electorates towards the many communities and places that had voted to stick with the devil they knew. And this made me wonder whether my previous efforts to understand the problems of democracy – and those that need so urgently to be fixed – had been insufficient, misdirected or both.

Like many political analysts both here and internationally, my search for answers has focused on political leaders, on officials – both elected and unelected – and on political institutions and policy processes. I have looked to structural factors that might account for Australia’s lost decade of political instability and reform stasis. While all the time, the challenges our country faces have both increased and become more complex.

I realised that nowhere – either in response to our article, or in the voluminous commentary that documented Scott Morrison’s ‘miracle’ win – did I see business, industry, civic or other leaders proposing strategies to address the fragmentation, alienation and disengagement of voters not only in Queensland, but also northern Tasmania, Western Australia, western Sydney and other places where the fear of being forgotten and left behind was palpable. This dearth of constructive engagement from people and organisations with relevant experience, expertise, capacities, resources and ideas to assist – to propose and enact solutions – was striking. Why were they content to be observers rather than protagonists in the shared national project of bridging political and economic divides? Was the muscular rhetoric from Coalition ministers post-election, accusing corporate Australia of being too focused on ‘fashionable social issues’ and warning business leaders not to be ‘seduced by noisy elites’,[iii] deterring them – and others concerned about the growing distance between people in different parts of our country – from taking a more active stance?

These observations may have revealed more than the outcome of the election itself. They remind Australians that we can choose whether to remain passive while principles and traditions that we supposedly value – fairness, equality of opportunity and respect for institutions, differences of opinion and perspective – are eroded and undermined, or we can choose to get involved. There are parallels between these choices and the recent efforts that have been made to engage bystanders in helping to address bullying, domestic violence and mental health issues. Programs in these contexts are premised on the need for collective leadership to address problems of violence and abuse throughout the community. They highlight individuals’ potential to recognise, prevent and reduce social harms when they see them, and to challenge attitudes, behaviour and culture that enable violence and abuse in their own spheres of influence. Rather than focusing on broad and often abstract social problems and challenges, violence-prevention initiatives such as Griffith University’s ‘Motivating Action Through Empowerment’ (MATE) program seek to empower bystanders to overcome their reticence to step in, speak up and offer support to those experiencing, or at risk of, violence.[iv]

Paul Mazerolle, Shaan Ross-Smith and Anoushka Dowling outlined the development and evolution of the MATE program in an essay in Griffith Review 65: Crimes and Punishments. And the analogues to overcoming democratic disengagement seem palpable – to me at least – which makes their catalogue of the ‘many reasons why bystanders often fail to intervene’ all the more significant. These include: fear for one’s safety, particularly in domestic violence situations; social and cultural norms that have construed personal relationships as private matters; together with a lack of knowledge about appropriate tools for approaching or intervening in the situation as a bystander. Surmounting these barriers requires participants ‘to unlearn a number of lessons’ society has taught them and, through engaging with a framework that emphasises the transformative, long-term impacts that can be achieved through individual acts of leadership, to recognise that ‘doing nothing is no longer an option’.

As Labor ponders the review of its election loss, as corruption scandals continue to plague the political parties and royal commissions further fuel the cynicism and distrust Australians feel towards institutions and political processes, it is time to ask whether our current malaise is less a crisis of political leadership than the inevitable consequence of abrogating our collective responsibilities to be active, engaged citizens.

ATTITUDES TOWARDS, AND expectations of, Australians towards their governments contrast starkly with the suspicion and disdain held by many Americans towards theirs. This was famously expressed by Ronald Reagan, who used his presidential inauguration speech to argue that ‘government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem’.[v] The benign view that most non-Indigenous Australians have of government has its roots in colonial settlement. The combination of timing, in terms of reformist ideas that saw convicts afforded far greater legal and political rights than would have been available to them in Britain allied with the idealism of early colonial governors, embedded democratic improvisation and pragmatism deep in Australia’s political culture – for those from a European background at least. Lisa Hill, professor of politics at the University of Adelaide, argues that our tendency to democratic innovation was enabled by a uniquely pragmatic political culture less concerned with ‘personal, individualised rights than with utility, fairness and equality’. This inheritance creates mutuality between the Australian state and its citizens, who, in return for the provision of high-quality public services, exhibit ‘an unusually strong willingness to perform such civic duties as obeying laws, paying taxes and voting’.[vi]

Even before Keynesianism emerged as the dominant economic orthodoxy to counter the Great Depression, historian WK Hancock claimed that Australians regarded government as a huge commissariat ‘whose duty is to provide the greatest happiness for the greatest number’.[vii] And notwithstanding the bipartisan embrace of neoliberal economic reforms from the mid-1980s under the Hawke, Keating and early Howard governments, public expectations of an active state – where government builds infrastructure, provides public services and intervenes to address market failures – endure in the nation’s political culture.

This is reflected in survey data such as the 2018 Committee for the Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) Community Pulse report,[viii] in which respondents cited access to reliable and affordable public services as fundamental to their quality of life, and expressed concerns about growing inequality. Social researcher Rebecca Huntley’s decades of survey and focus-group research similarly confirms the resilience of Australia’s public-policy tradition, which was founded on ‘the fair go’ – a commitment to social protection through a policy focus on full employment, the ‘living wage’, affordable housing and other government interventions that aimed to protect vulnerable groups from exogenous shocks. Thus when servicemen returned from war, and people displaced from Europe needed to be resettled, large infrastructure and reconstruction projects were launched, along with other ambitious social programs. When Darwin was almost destroyed by Cyclone Tracy in 1974, its rebuilding became a national priority, lessons from which have since earned Australia an international reputation for excellence in disaster resilience and recovery. This suggests that market-led reforms of the 1980s to early 2000s, which sought to reduce governments’ role in the economy, have not weakened Australians’ instinct for more inclusive and distributionally fair policies, particularly among those who live outside the nation’s populous and prosperous capitals.

To a large extent, modern democratic Australia is built on the resilience of shared values about inclusion and fairness, and the connections such values create. This was illustrated most recently by the community-led ‘Every Australian Counts’ campaign that advocated for the National Disability Insurance Scheme, and by the 61.6 per cent of Australians from across the country who voted to support marriage equality in the 2017 postal survey.

A MYRIAD OF complex and interdependent issues blight the lives of many Australians. Persistent long-term unemployment traps certain groups – including young people, the unskilled and older workers  (especially women and individuals with a disability) – in a cycle of poverty and disadvantage. Our First Nations’ peoples continue to face higher levels of unemployment and incarceration alongside lower levels of life expectancy and education. Like growth and prosperity, inequality is not evenly distributed. Poverty and disadvantage are not only experienced by people as members of particular demographic groups and cohorts; they can also be concentrated spatially and associated with a particular place. Political fragmentation and growing disparities of income and opportunity exacerbate the sense of disconnection and discontent felt between postcodes, generations, genders and First Peoples as well as among newly arrived migrants and refugees.

The 2019 election exposed Australia’s growing diversity and difference, and the challenges that governments and political parties alike confront in responding to a fragmented and fragmenting polity. And these underscore the enduring relevance of Australia’s federal design. The fusion of federalism’s capacity to accommodate diversity and difference with the inheritance of Westminster governance – with its own implicit hierarchy in both funding appropriations and lines of accountability to parliament – was the improvisational genius of the Australian Constitution that was adopted by popular vote in 1901. Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Queensland, Nicholas Aroney, describes the lengthy process of drafting the Constitution, where elected delegates of each of the Australian colonies met in a series of conferences and conventions to negotiate a federation based on principles articulated by Henry Parkes, Samuel Griffith and Edmund Barton. The Constitution provides safeguards to protect the small, less populous and less affluent against domination by the big, rich and powerful.

The role played by our key federal founders in designing and negotiating a balance that created a framework for national governance while also maintaining local flexibility should be a matter of civic pride. That many Australians aren’t aware of, or don’t recall, these achievements reflects the dearth of civics education and a lack of understanding of our own history that weakens our democracy. It also highlights the loss of a sense of local agency associated with centralisation and the contractualisation of relationships that underpin the delivery of public services across Australia, including with the not-for-profit sector.[ix] But the next phase of reforms to our system of governance needs to focus beyond government – it should aim to harness capacities and resources that exist in interdisciplinary, cross-sectoral and intergenerational networks and mobilise them towards collective action on priorities and challenges that are nuanced to people and place.

AUSTRALIA STANDS AS one of the world’s most successful and enduring liberal democracies. If we acknowledge the democratic practices of Indigenous Australians that Bunurong and Yuin writer Bruce Pascoe describes as the ‘great Australian peace’,[x] it is arguably also the oldest. Indeed, in Meanjin in 2015 Melissa Lucashenko argued  that it was Australian Aborigines who invented democracy:

Australian government, democracy and diplomacy were already ancient here when Cook set out from Plymouth in 1768. Like those of the Athenians, many ancient Australian governments privileged the male and the old. They were nevertheless a lot more democratic (especially for Aboriginal purposes) than any Australian government operating today.[xi]

At the turn of the twentieth century, Australia was recognised internationally as ‘an inspiration, a model and innovator’[xii] in the practice of democratic politics for, among other things, its early adoption of the secret ballot, of women’s suffrage and, later, of compulsory Saturday voting. It was also acknowledged for its political innovation, as it adopted policies that promoted economic participation and inclusion through education, horizontal fiscal equalisation, needs-based wages and targeted welfare. Jim Walter, emeritus professor of political science at Monash University, argues that ‘a history of improvisation and adaptation generated the ingenuity that made Australian adoption of mainstream Anglophone ideas distinctive’.

This sense of history is important because it both offers perspective about the complexity of our current challenges and shows which lessons learnt in the past might be salient now. Australia’s responses to external shocks – economic crises, world wars, demographic change, pandemics, droughts, natural disasters – have always combined capabilities and resources drawn from diverse sectors. Such responses were collaborative and purpose-oriented, and reflected a willingness to embrace collective leadership and shared responsibility. They were also relational rather than transactional, reflecting the best traditions of Australian democracy and governance. They drew on political and parliamentary leadership at all levels and reflected trusted and respectful partnerships between governments and the public service.

But a respect for knowledge, expertise and experience – and for alternative perspectives from networks outside of government – were also a feature. This was particularly so after World War I. Prime Minister Stanley Bruce characterised himself as ‘a plain soldier and businessman’, but he brought significant commercial experience and organisational discipline to government, and was ‘an early advocate of evidence-based policy’.[xiii] He launched royal commissions, reviews and inquiries and sought support from scientists, businesspeople, economists and others to help guide Australian democracy into its next phase amid rapid technological, economic and social change as the nation struggled to rebuild and come to terms with the loss of a generation of young Australians to war, injury and the Spanish flu epidemic that followed.

Respect was also characteristic of the relationships that developed between federal governments and expert economic advisers during the Depression and the postwar reconstruction effort – and again through the reforms of the Hawke-Keating and early Howard eras.

In all of this, there was a willingness to debate, to compromise and to make decisions in the national interest rather than in any narrow sectoral or self-interested way. There was a willingness to experiment and to learn.

And Australia emerged from this – in aggregate – an advanced and prosperous country. On paper, we have the third-highest ranking on the United Nations’s Human Development Index, indicating a high standard of living, high levels of education and an average life expectancy of eighty-three years. And notwithstanding anxieties about stagnation amid an uncertain global outlook, we have enjoyed twenty-eight years of uninterrupted economic growth  underpinned by reforms that were negotiated across traditional boundaries of ideology, jurisdiction, politics and class.

There are numerous imperfections beneath these claims, the most egregious of which is the treatment of Australia’s First Peoples. But our democracy has also delivered stable government, social cohesion, high levels of social protection and an enviable quality of life for the majority of our citizens, including successive waves of migrants.

AUSTRALIA’S REPUTATION FOR democratic innovation was won by generations of men and women whose institutional thinking and commitment to political, economic and social inclusion shaped our inheritance. From outside parliament, and often excluded from the corridors of power, they campaigned across the divides of age, gender, class and geography – and later, race – for the right to have a voice, and to be represented in the places where the decisions and laws that affect everyone are taken and made. By way of example, Jim Walter chronicles how the campaign by small farmers to ‘unlock the lands’ from squatters in the 1860s ‘created alliances between former miners and townspeople, the middle class and immigrants, all united against the men of property on the Legislative Councils’. Historian Clare Wright describes the unconventional alliances that developed between federationists and suffragists at the end of the nineteenth century in pursuit of different but compatible aims. Gabrielle Chan cites contemporary examples of rural communities self-organising and partnering to address educational and other service shortcomings.

The cumulative actions of countless Australians working together, with and through – or, if necessary, beyond and around – our democratic institutions have stood us in good stead. Throughout, the resilience of distinctively Australian practices and values have supported improvisation, pragmatic and incremental adaptation. People from diverse backgrounds and experiences have been involved, building alliances and embracing the values of tolerance, compromise, fairness and respect for legitimate differences of opinion, experience and perspective. As this suggests, ‘the promise of Australia’ is not the vacuous political slogan that Scott Morrison invoked at his official campaign launch. It’s an inherent capability of our democracy; it’s also a historical fact.

This is not to ignore the realities of our unfinished business with Indigenous Australians, who were excluded and denied their voice in the nation’s future. In 2018, Reconciliation Australia reported that 95 per cent of Australians believe it is important for Indigenous people to have a say in matters that affect them. Proving again that people and organisations are ahead of governments on many issues, an alliance that comprised mining companies, the Australian Medical Association and the Law Council of Australia joined with universities, sporting clubs and national sporting associations, trade unions, professional services firms and Qantas in May 2019 to collaborate on a Response to the Uluru Statement and indicate their support for the processes of truth-telling and agreement-making proposed by Indigenous Australians in 2017.

If anything, hyper-partisanship and declining trust in political institutions and processes present opportunities for a return to ‘unconventional alliances’ from our past and a tendency towards activism and advocacy to achieve outcomes in the long-term public interest. The Your Right to Know campaign – a coalition of leading media outlets and organisations that has mounted a co-ordinated public campaign to highlight government restrictions on press freedom – presents an interesting case in point. The revival of the Right to Know coalition, formed in 2007 to challenge government secrecy, was prompted by the Australian Federal Police raids on journalists and media organisations in the week that followed the May 2019 federal election, and by renewed concerns that Australian governments are using national security laws, the public service and law-enforcement agencies to avoid scrutiny and democratic accountability. Chair of the ABC Ita Buttrose has acknowledged the irony of the unlikely alliance between Channel Nine, News Corp, The Guardian, SBS and the ABC itself, and refuted claims that Australians aren’t much interested in the issue of media freedom. It’s a reminder of the need for vigilance, and that active citizenship – getting involved and exercising hard-won democratic rights, including the right to protest – is a powerful antidote against cynicism cultivated by populist leaders who, as The Economist put it in a 2019 leader, ‘denigrate institutions, then vandalise them’.[xiv]

THE GROWING DISTANCE between rural, regional and urban communities, rich and poor, old and young in Australia has many causes. But our essential empathy and yearning for connection continues to find expression in our responses to drought and disaster, or in the outrage expressed when a lack of respect and care for the vulnerable is laid bare in investigative reporting, or through reviews and inquiries often catalysed by public-interest journalism.

It’s likely that many of the concepts that can assist in bridging the divides between Australians might feel old and familiar; some are baked into Australia’s constitutional design and reflect our capacity for democratic innovation. The complexity and interdependence of so many of our problems require sustained collaboration and engagement, and the interdisciplinary knowledge, expertise, capability and resources to address them is already embedded in, and distributed across, many of the networks that exist between sectors and jurisdictions. The capacity and expertise is evident across government, business, not-for-profit organisations, universities and research institutes, local communities and in the lived experience of citizens. To acknowledge this requires seeing government as just one among many stakeholders who share responsibility for responding to complex challenges.

Political churn and the drive to centralisation that has characterised Australian politics in recent decades has obscured the capacity, the resources and the will of individuals, groups, communities and organisations  to act together for better, shared outcomes. In my work at Griffith University, I witness organic collaborations developing to confront challenges such as homelessness, maternal and child health, social isolation, school readiness and entrenched disadvantage – often in between the gaps of service systems that are uncoordinated. I see others where shared purpose and entrepreneurial drive are creating new businesses, employment and other opportunities to improve wellbeing and create flourishing places.

It’s this, as much as Australia’s democratic past, that makes me cautiously optimistic about our future. After the shock of Scott Morrison’s unlikely victory, the wave of anger and vitriol directed towards Queensland and other regional electorates subsided. People got on, as they do, because, for the most part, they accept and respect the rules of the game. Attention turned to understanding what had happened outside the major cities and for cohorts and groups who had rejected Labor’s sweeping and contentious agenda for policy reforms. Issues and concerns that had previously received little attention – economic insecurity, inequality, a lack of services and opportunity in less populous areas – were suddenly front and centre. But as we’ve seen only too clearly both here and internationally, the rules of the game are more fragile than we understood previously. They are prone to being undermined by cynicism and the cravenness of those who stand to profit from any weakening – which is why we must remain engaged and not stand by as key pillars of our democracy and public policy tradition are damaged and undermined. We share a collective responsibility as custodians of a democratic inheritance that is both the world’s oldest and, arguably, its most successful.

IN A FAREWELL letter written by US Senator John McCain and published shortly after his death, McCain – who dedicated his life to public service – urged Americans to put aside their tribal rivalries and to focus on what unites them:

Do not despair of our present difficulties but believe always in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here.

Nothing is inevitable in Australia either. Prosperity, good governance and quality public services don’t happen by accident – they are a choice, an investment, a design. They reflect shared values and are the outcome of a social contract between governments and the governed. In a political and policy environment as volatile as the one we are witnessing both here and internationally, they are not guaranteed. Our challenge is to embrace our collective and shared responsibilities for the changes we say we want to see. That requires action not only from political parties, but also from business and community organisations, public institutions, private corporations – all of us. As citizens, we need to stop being ‘audience democrats’ and get involved.


[i] Tiernan, A., Deem, J. and Menzies, J. (2019) ‘To all those #Quexiteers: Don’t judge, try to understand us and the federal election result’, ABC News, 22 May [online]. Available at:

[ii] Chan, G. (2018). Rusted Off. North Sydney: Vintage Australia, p.14.

[iii] See, for example, Assistant Minister to the Prime Minister Ben Morton’s speech to the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry in September 2019.

[iv] Bystander intervention approaches are widely used in domestic violence and crime prevention programs. Anti-bullying campaigns often emphasise the role that helpful bystanders can play in confronting and discouraging bullying and supporting the victim.

[v] Reagan, R. (2020). President Ronald Reagan Inaugural Address. Available at:

[vi] Hill, L. (forthcoming). ‘Australia’s electoral innovations’ in Lewis, J. and Tiernan, A. (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Australian Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[vii] Hancock, W.K. (1930) Australia. London: Ernest Benn.

[viii] CEDA (2018). Community pulse 2018: the economic disconnect. [online] Melbourne: CEDA. Available at:

[ix] See, for example, Drew, B. (2019). From subjects to authors – reconnecting community organisations to their core practice. Australian Journal of Political Science, pp.1–12.

[x] Pascoe, B. (2014). Dark Emu. Broome: Magabala Books.

[xi] See also Lucashenko, M. (2015). ‘The first Australian democracy’, Meanjin. 74(3). Available at:

[xii] Wright, C. (2018). You Daughters of Freedom. Melbourne: Text Publishing, p. 12.

[xiii] Strangio, P., t’ Hart, P and Walter, J. (2016). Settling the Office: The Australian Prime Ministership from Federation to Reconstruction. Carlton: MUP, p. 129.

[xiv] ‘Democracy’s enemy within’, The Economist, 29 August 2019.

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