Australian Democracy


According to The Australian Oxford Dictionary, the term democracy refers to 'government by the whole population, usually through elected representatives; nation so governed or classless and tolerant society' (p284). This term is derived from the Greek word 'dēmokratia' meaning 'rule of the people'. Democracy is specified as:
1) The idea that all people in a country have identical rights.
2) A political system of social organisation where a representative and accountable government is elected and given the responsibility of ensuring the maintenance of law and order.

The two main principles of democracy includes: freedom and equality. For all citizens, equality under the law is a fundamental right. Citizens should also be able to enjoy freedom. Democracy is a philosophy of government, not a form of government. A quote by the famous Greek philosopher Aristotle states "In a democracy the poor will have more power than the rich, because there are more of them, and the will of the majority is supreme".

According to McNair (2003,17), "democracy was real, only when it involved the participation of an informed, rational electorate. For Italian political sociologist, Norberto Bobbio, liberal democracy assumes that citizens, "once they are entrusted with the right to choose who governs them, are sufficiently well-informed to vote for the wisest, the most honest, the most enlightened of their fellow citizens." (Ironically, it does not seem to be the case in Italy at the moment). However, the main concern of liberal democratic theory was thus "to grant individuals civil liberties against the incursion of the state".

McNair (2003,17-18) identify the characteristics of a democratic regime as following terms:
  • Constitutionality: there must be an agreed set of procedures and rules governing the conduct of elections, the behaviour of those who win them and the legitimate activities of dissenters. Such rules will typically take the form of a constitution of bill of rights.
  • Participation: those who participate in the democratic process must comprise substantial proportion of the people.
  • Rational choice: is the availability of choice (eg: different parties), while fourth is the ability of citizens to exercise that choice rationally. This in turn presupposes a knowledgeable, educated citizenry.

The History of Democracy in Australia

Maddox (1996: 188-197) observed that ideas of constitutional government that began to emerge in 18th century Great Britain were not initially transported to the penal colony of New South Wales. The population of the new settlement (a majority of which were convicts) were not afforded the principle of liberal democracy as a high priority. Indeed prior to 1823 during its first five decades, responsibility of the administration of the New South Wales colony rested with the seven successive Governors who remained under instruction by the British Crown.

As early as the 1850's Representative Governments have been in place. Prior to Federation in 1901, these governments were only associated with each separate colony. The first of these colonies was New South Wales, formed in 1788 followed by Van Dieman's Land (Tasmania) in 1825, Western Australia in 1827, South Australia in 1836, Victoria in 1851, Queensland in 1859, Australian Capital Territory in 1911 and the Northern Territory in 1912.

Skipping forward to the modern Australian democracy, one of the most influential decisions in Australian political history was the dismissal of the Whitlam labour government in November 1975 by Governor General Sir John Kerr. The political dispute between Gough Whitlam and opposition leader Malcolm Fraser stemmed from discussions over the rights of the Senate and the House of Representatives to control government. Whitlam supported the democratic majority he claimed within the House of Representatives whilst Fraser highlighted the need for the Senate to support Supply to a coalition government. In this context, many constitutional conventions were reviewed, and the role of democracy was questioned in terms of its link to the rule of the people (majority?) and Australia's continued link to the British colony.

The present state of Australian Democracy

With Australia being a democratic society, the parliament in our democratic system is said to be a parliament 'of the people, for the people and by the people'. This is because any member of the public may stand for election to parliament and be voted in by other members of the public (Alderson, 1995).
Australia is a liberal democratic state distinguished by its elections, the high value of freedom and a diversity of interests and the promotion of a well-functioning system. Freedom is understood as "freedom from state control and direction", which is firmly associated with freedom of political expression (Economou and Tanner 2008:19). The free press is regarded as synonymous with liberal democracy. Its existence necessarily implies that the diffusion of political power is separated away from the state actors in order to empower citizenry (Economou and Tanner 2008:24). As in any modern liberal democratic state, 'the press' plays a crucial role in the Australian political culture, which is to facilitate debates on public policy decisions between the state and citizenry. This is to ensure a diversity of opinions are expressed and exchanged.
The reality of the "the press" is indeed the media which plays an important role in covering political debates (Economou and Tanner 2008:20). Therefore, the media can be seen as instruments of democracy.

The Democratic Audit of Australia - A Democracy Health Check

Privileges of Democracy

The rights and responsibilities that make up a democratic system are not unlimited, of course. Some restrictions are necessary. There are limits of fair play, of common sense, of safety. While people in a democracy are free, they may not injure the health or the good name of others.
Recognising these necessary limits, let us examine the substance of democracy.
Freedom of speech and the press gives citizens the right to speak their minds without fear of punishment. A person who can not speak freely can not think freely. It includes freedom of expression in various forms of media communication, extending to the arts (theater, dance, music, painting). It includes the right to disagree and take a different view from the accepted and popular one. In a democracy a citizen may express an opinion even though it is contrary to the opinion of others.
Australia does not have a all-encompassing law that protects freedom of speech (such as the United State's Bill of Rights). However, freedom of speech is still mostly a reality and the laws that contradict this freedom are those that seek to prevent discrimination and vilification (see Free Speech/Hate Speech).
Freedom of Assembly. Citizens in a democracy may join in a meeting or convention to support their government or to criticize it, to debate foreign policy, to start a new political party, or to reshape an old one. They may discuss controversial issues that are important to them. They may argue, pass resolutions, or send petitions to the mayor, the governor, or even to the prime minister or president.
Popular Sovereignty. This is the heart of democracy, meaning the people are supreme, not a king, not a leader, nor a clique of despots, but the people. Popular sovereignty give voters the right to keep their officials in office or to vote them out. Balloting is free, secret and the privacy of every voter is assured. Officials in a democracy are responsible to the people. While Australia is technically a constitutional monarchy, the operation of the country is such that is essentially a popular sovereignty.
Political Freedom. Citizens in a democracy may belong to the party of their choice. This may be a major party or a minor party. The minor parties may propose ideas that are unpopular or even freakish. But citizens are free to vote for them just the same. Often a major party supports an idea that was first suggested years earlier by a minor party.
Civil Rights and Civil liberties These include the right to vote, hold office, to have a fair trial, to enjoy the privileges of full citizenship. As an Australian citizen there are a number of rights and responsibilites you are privileged with.
Religious Freedom. The Constitution of Australia prohibits government support to any religion or interference with anybody's religious beliefs. People may not be barred from holding office because of their religion or lack of religion. Some other democracies (E.g. England) support a state church. Religious freedom is guaranteed to all.
Freedom of Movement. All citizens have the rights to choose their residence. They are also free to move about the country without any permission or passport.
Economic Opportunity. In a democracy, people may go into business for themselves. If they prosper, they enjoy the rewards that go with success. If they fail, they may try again or change their work. The decisions, the risks and the rewards are their own.
Workers may join unions. They may strike without losing their rights as citizens. In a democracy, people may seek work in any profession, craft or industry, without regard for race, creed or sex. People may work in private industry or become civil servants. The choice is theirs, based on their own abilities.
Education. Democracy provides equal educational opportunities for all, without regard to race, creed, colour or social position.
Equality of Men and Women. Men and women have equal rights in Australia. Both men and women can serve in the military and in the government. They are given equal opportunity in employment.

'Silencing Dissent' - One Diagnosis

Silencing Dissent
- is a book that seeks to uncover the tactics used by John Howard and his colleagues to undermine dissenting and independent opinion. The victims are charities, academics, researchers, journalists, judges, public sector organisations, even parliament itself. Deeply disturbing, Silencing Dissent raises serious questions about the state of democracy in Australia... The health of a democracy relies in many different things: limited government; strong civil society, the independence of autonomous institution; the encouragement of dissident opinion, wide-ranging debate. All these values are presently under threat. The Howard Government has become more intolerant of criticism and greedy for control the longer it has been in power... (Robert Manne, 2006).

His Master's Voice: The Corruption of Public Debate under Howard by David Marr
A similar point of view was put forward by journalist David Marr in the Quarterly Essay His Master's Voice: The Corruption of Public Debate under Howard. Published in June 2007, Marr argues that although all recent Prime Ministers have made efforts to undermine and stifle any criticising voices, none have done so to the extent of John Howard. Among the various tactics that Marr lists as having being used by the former Coalition government, include the distribution of 'dirt sheets' on figues who present a contrary view on government policies, as well as threats to withdraw the charitable status from non-profit organisations that are though of as 'too political'. Marr says his main concern is that method of stifling debate has become normalised in Australian political culture and so will remain after John Howard's tenure as Prime Minister.

It should be noted however that the current Prime Minister, Mr Kevin Rudd, has increased his predecessor's National Media Liaison Service to an extent never experienced in the history of Australian politics. The situation has been named by political scientists such as Dr Ian Ward as a PR State and criticised for its dictatorial control over the leader's image.

Australian Bill of Rights - A positive non-existence? Or a negative omission?

Should Australia have their own Bill of Rights ? Why doesn't Australia have one?

Australia should have its own Bill of Rights because the current Constitution does not protect basic freedoms and a Bill of Rights can correct this failure. A Bill of Rights could not only classify with the international standard of rights, but it would also be a guideline for the Australian legal system to be fair, equitable and just for everyone (Behrendt, 2003). There is a need to have a Bill of Rights because 'although international law prohibits inhumane and arbitrary detention, Australian law does not' which is 'legally correct yet morally reprehensible' (Von Doussa, 2008).

The Bill of Rights detractors argue that the existing legal system works properly, therefore, there is not need to have one.

The Federal Government last year asked a committee headed by Father Frank Brennan to investigate whether Australia needed a bill of rights. Victoria and the ACT had already adopted their own human rights charter.

Former Prime Minister John Howard recently spoke out against an Australian Bill of Rights when presenting the 2009 Menzies lecture in Perth. His argument is that such a change would undermine Australian democracy as the authority to make certain decisions would be taken from the people's elected representative and given, instead, to the judiciary. Howard decried the introduction of a Bill of Rights, claiming that if it went through it would be the "last triumph of elitism in Australian politics".

Amnesty's human rights act campaign coordinator Jenny Leong; "We need to remember that it was under the Howard government that so many of the human rights of this country and our reputation internationally for respecting human rights were eroded," (Collerton,2009). She has also said that Australia is the only liberal democracy left not to have a formal human rights protection.

The Evolution of Democratic-Liberalism - Towards a Liberalisation

While democracy must have its organisation and controls, its vital breath is individual liberty. (Busha)

Corporation State, Neo-Corporatism
The ideal of corporate state is derived from Neo-corporatist theory, which is a liberal-version of middle state to be considered as a satisfactory compromise between Liberty and Authority. Corporate state refers to the idealised vision of a hierarchical society, with a state bargaining between various functional interests, which would be the antithesis of both liberal-democratic and socialist ideal-typical political form. Alternatively, it is also regarded as a pluralist version of liberal theory which has dominated by democratic theory over the past half-centaury. The tradition of pluralist theory emphases on open competition between groups with a relatively neutral state with the expect of there to be no continuous or pervasive influence by any single or collective interest. (Cox & O'Sullivan 1988:16,27)

Cox & O'Sullivan(1988)defines three main features of corporatism.

  • "voluntary method for securing social integration"
  • it is marked by the privileged position in the political process which is conferred by government upon elite representatives of relatively small number of broad-based and well-organised economic interest groups.
  • by the belief that corporatist arrangements are uniquely appropriate to advanced industrial societies in which ideological change no longer appear to be a retreat to stability.

Liberal Pluralism

Galston(2002: 5)Liberalism resting on two ideas: value pluralism and negative liberty -The capacity of individuals, unimpeded by external coercion or constraint, to choose for themselves among competing conceptions of good or valuable life.( comment: In political sphere, these two ideas are somewhat incompatible)

Neo-Liberalism(Laissez Faire)

Economic Rationalism is an Australian political program introduced since the 1980s(in equivalence to Neo-Liberalism). As a theory derived from the philosophy of liberty, it believes that rational individuals should be allowed to enjoy greater freedom to express their choices in order to maximise their own interests, while those choices are purchased at a price that determines by market supply and demand, thereby resources can be allocated in the most efficient way. In essence, the theory signifies that a competitive market economy will be best able to serve the public interest.

As consistent to the philosophy of liberty, the state represents the will of people of the majority. The interest of private business for profit maximisation has successfully accepted to be the majority interest in the capitalist societies. The neo-liberal theorists believe that a market economy performs the best in a free environment subjects to minimal government interventions as opposed to Keynesian idea of the welfare state. The Keynesian economic theory is stating that active government intervention in the marketplace and monetary policy is the best method of ensuring economic growth and stability. Its advocate believes it is the government that is responsible to mitigate the effect of business cycles through intervention which is constructed on the adjustment of government expenditure and taxes.

On the other hand, proponents of the neo-liberal believe that the state has a lack of management capability to deliver positive results to the economy welfare. Far from being beneficial, state ownership and state regulation of wages and economic policy should be avoided, as the constitution of these interventions are perceived as unnatural, distorting pattern of resource allocation and undermine entrepreneur activity. The role of the neo-liberal state is to support the environment for business to sustain profit generation and survival in order to maintain economic and political stability and welfare of the society.

The introduction of Neo-liberalism(Economic Rationalism) leads to vast regulatory re-arrangement such as privatisation and deregulations in various Australian industries. The rhetoric of liberalisation and deregulation was particularly powerful in the Media because it provided a new notion of freedom from government interference. In Australia, Media ownership is known to be highly concentrated in the hands of private conglomerates, and were promoted to encourage democratic public expression through further separation from government institutions control.

The right to free expression is a fundamental aspect of democratic liberal thought, and the "superficial" underlying assumption is government regulation may appear to undermines these rights (Hesmondhalph 2007:108). However, Hesmondhalph also suggested that terms such as deregulation and liberalisation can potentially confuse the removal of censorship with measures that are actually intended to increase the access of citizens to a wider variety of personal and political expression. He (2007:108) further critised that the term "deregulation" does not essentially imply those government legislation and regulations were removed to further liberate political debates, but favouring the interest of private corporations and their shareholders.

Analysis of "Murder By Media" - a critique of Australian Media

Works Cited:

“The Fourth Estate: Liberal Democracy and the Press” Media, Power and Politics in Australia. Pearson 2008. pp. 1-26
''Silencing Dissent: Foreword by Robert Manne" 2006 <>
"The Hesmondhalph,D(2007) "The Cultural Industries",Sage
Alderson, P. (1995). "Legal Dictionary for Australians", 2nd edition. The McGraw Hill companies, Australia.
Argyrous, G. and Stilwell, F.(2003). Economics as a Social Science, 2nd edition, Pluto Press, Sydney, pp. 119-146.
Balson, S. ‎Murder by Media: Death of Democracy in Australia. 302.230994/33(4)
Busha, Charles (1972). 'Freedom versus Suppression and Censorship'. Libraries Unlimited Inc. Littleton, Colorado p23.
Collerton, S. (2009) “Howard'' fear-mongering' on bill of rights”, August 27. <> Accessed August 30, 2009.
James, C. 2003. ‘Economic Rationalism and Public Sector Ethics: Conflicts and Catalysts’ Australian Journal of Public Administration, vol. 62, no.1, pp. 95-108.
Larner. W. (2000).'Neo-liberalism: Policy, Ideology, Governmentality' Studies in Political Economy, vol. 63, no. 5, pp 25-51
Maddox, G.(1996) “Government, Parliament and Judiciary in Australian Democracy in Theory and Practice", 3rd Edition, Melbourne:Longman.
Marr, David. "His Master's Voice: The Corruption of Public Debate under Howard". Quarterly Essay No. 26. June 2007. ISBN 978-1-86395-405-1
McNair, B (2003) "Politics, Democracy and the Media'. Chapter 2 in his An Introduction to Political Communication. 3rd edn, Pg 16-28; 227-8.
Orchard,L. 1998. 'Managerialism, Economic Rationalism and Public Sector Reform in Australia: Connections, Divergences, Alternatives', Australian Journal of Public Administration, vol.57, no.1, pp19-32
Parker, L. And Gould, G. (1999) ' Changing public sector accountability: critiquing new directions', Accounting Forum, vol.23, no. Pp109-135, I "An Australian PR State?", ANZCA 03 Conference, Brisbane, 2003.
Galson(2002) Liberal Pluralism: the implications of value pluralism for political theory, Cambridge Unverisity Press, New York
COX &O'Sullivan (1988), The Corporate State: Corporatism and the State Tradition in Western Europe, Edward Elger, Aldershot

Student Comments on Australian Democracy

--Should democracy have boundary?

- I would just like to suggest that we abolish state governments. Thoughts?

- The danger with that is an imposing central government that is not capable of managing local issues such as farming policies. Deforestation in Queensland (ancient rainforest) is not the same as deforestation in Central Australian bushland (although that too is debatable re. soil salination and desertification).
There is a responsibility for the Government to those specific contexts, a responsibility to be sensitive to their differences.
Not that State governments do that particularly well anyway...

- Perhaps state governments make it easier, as the focus is on smaller parts of the country (ie. states). Even still, these sections are huge. The problem with governing Australia, it that it is so vast, in space and in environment. A federal government would not be able to address local issues, as stated above, however, perhaps mayors of each shire could have a more active role, as they have a better idea of what is needed in that community.

Thinker 1: The issue is much more complicated in my opinion. I think you need to be focusing on the philosophy of Liberty in mills account. The issue is not about the structure of government but "the nature and limit of the powers which can be legitimately excercised over individual" and the "struggle between Liberty and Authority." I suggest you to look at the discrepancies between democracy and liberalism in the current society. Power is the keyword.Who rules? Why is the problem between dissendents and the ruler? Good luck!