Witnessing Democracy

Democracy is like an accident – ask what happened to witnesses and you get many different interpretations.

Accidents aside, most Australians would accept the following definition of democracy: “Participation by the mass of people in the decisions that shape their lives; government by majority rule, with recognition of the rights of minorities; freedom of speech, press, and assembly; freedom to form opposition political parties and to run for office; commitment to individual dignity and to equal opportunities for people to develop their full potential”.

But, of course, we get less and less of this. The crisis in Australian democracy is really a worldwide phenomenon. Our particular tyranny of distance no longer buffers us from the events of the world, so our context has to be a cosmopolitan one.

Australians, like many in the Western world, have grown too lazy in their wealth to worry much about democracy. Our modern managerial skills lead us to believe that that process will take care of itself, therefore producing the outcomes necessary for us to live in the style we’re accustomed – a kind of perpetual motion democracy. As a result, we elect colourless and bloodless individuals devoid of passion as our stewards. We forget that participatory democratic society, due to the blood, sweat, tears and passion of those before us, should constantly re-invent itself to circumstances. The fight for a basic form of democracy in Bolivia and Georgia is an example of this. This democratic crisis in Western countries (our Georgian moment?) came to a head at the anti-war peace marches in February, when millions marched and little notice was taken. In fact, there was barely disguised contempt by our leaders for this massive display of public reluctance. It has now become clear that democracy is just another fashion or brand, something to be marketed by politicians and corporations for their convenience – all style, but typically empty of substance.

The public has connected that kind of contempt and lack of substance to the unease they feel about the direction of the societies in which they live. That direction is the neo-liberal myth of a market society and a market democracy that will somehow make government redundant and its citizens wealthier. As a result, in today’s Australia we’re no longer viewed as citizens and voters but consumers and shareholders, our value as citizens now based on stock portfolios, managed funds or waterfront property. George Soros, no less, is quoted as saying, “The untrammelled intensification of laissez-faire capitalism and the spread of market values into all areas of life endangers an open and democratic society.” We feel this, and are uneasy about our ability to shape our own destiny in a globalised world.

This market society has neutered our voices. Locally and globally, corporations now claim rights enjoyed by individual citizens, while being exempt from many of the responsibilities and duties of citizenship. They decide what we think and talk about. They have a great capacity to influence governments with lobbyists and money. This pits us, the individual Australian citizen, against the resources of corporations and exposes the pretence that all citizens have an equal voice in the great debates of our society.

Governments use methods both subtle and profane in which to control, obfuscate and generally abuse our basic democratic rights. For example, the Howard Liberal Government in Australia tacitly accepts a claim of equivalent or greater access for corporations by drafting policy and laws that further diminish and threaten the ability of citizens to participate with these corporations equally in political, social and cultural debates through NGO’s. The laws are designed to curtail the activities of NGO’s through penalties attacking their independence and non-profit status. This creates a chilling effect on the NGO’s, causing them to restrict attacks on government policy their stakeholders do not agree with, all in order to keep their tax status. This will no doubt cause many non-profits to fold or become a compliant arm of the government, therefore lessening public discussion.

Another aspect of this subtle attack on democratic rights is the Government’s increasing use of outside consultants in the making of policy (Where this leaves the various departmental bureaucrats is another question.) This might seem a benign development but many of these consultants were once in the employ of the very corporate sectors in which they consult, and as a consequence create policy in that industrial sectors favour. Energy policy is but one example. The application of commercial in confidence clauses in the Government/private sector relationship prevents us from analysing the effectiveness and impartiality of this advice.

Any attempts to use laws supporting freedom of information (FOI) are constantly abused by politicians in order to thwart the public right to know. In what can only be described as a richly ironic speech to the Australian Press Council recently, News Ltd CEO John Hartigan complained about his organization’s difficulty in obtaining information on government. He said, “not only do media companies face exorbitant costs, endless delays, and spurious claims of exemption, but governments themselves are failing to take value from the investment in good governance that FOI can provide through early warnings of the waste of public funds, fraud, and failures in policy and service”.

He then went on to detail how attempts by his newspaper to find information from the Treasury department on topics directly related to sound economic governance were being stymied by the Federal Treasurer, Peter Costello, using a mechanism called “conclusive certificates” – a kind of executive privilege – and excused by Treasury on the grounds that it will  “create or fan ill-informed criticism,” “confuse and mislead the public”, “create confusion and unnecessary debate” or “encourage ill-informed speculation.” If the largest media organization in the world, one that is sympathetic to this Government’s policy directions, finds it difficult, how can the average man in the street compete in this market democracy?

Of course many of us in Australia are now witnessing the ultimate in profanity, with the slow destruction of our democracy through the introduction of laws in response to a terrorist attack that occurred on another nation. Laws that reek of arbitrary executive power are ones that no sane nation should ever give its politicians or police. Needless to say, most of these laws are in total violation of our assumed civil rights and can only be described as the apparatus of a fledgling police state which come in absence of a local bill of rights to test it’s validity. For example, under our new laws, anti-terrorism police have the right to hold anyone under suspicion for forty-eight hours without any legal representation. This individual, if released, cannot speak of his detention for two years or he faces imprisonment of five years. They are also compelled to answer any questions asked or face imprisonment of five years. The corporate version of democracy is now cloaked in the shroud of terrorism and commercial in confidence. There is an urgency to define, protect and expand real democracy in direct contrast to our evolution as a market based society.

But who will shine some light on this brave new world? Certainly not the corporate media. That important pillar of our democracy, a free and diverse media, is now the most opportunistic and enthusiastic player – via consolidation – in our new market society. The media oligopolies are attempting to impose their will, and that of their corporate friends, on Australia and other countries, via international trade instruments. Global media corporations are currently lobbying the World Trade Organization and other multilateral organizations to accept a system of trade sanctions against countries that subsidise public broadcasting. It is an attempt to limit foreign ownership of media systems or local content standards which are designed to protect national and regional culture. This is something Australians are about to experience here via bi-lateral and multilateral Free Trade Agreements with America and other trading blocs. This trading system poses a threat to even the most basic elements of a modern democracy with its capacity to centralize all information within the hands of an un-elected few.

The more we give media organizations (and other global conglomerates) in terms of deregulation and consolidation, the less we get. Sure they’re there to entertain, but it should also serve to inform and illuminate. But information and illumination might shine some light on negative aspects of our market society and the vertically and laterally integrated nature of the media corporations themselves. Here in Australia we cannot expect Channel Nine’s A Current Affair to investigate it’s owner, Publishing and Broadcasting Ltd’s interests in the magazine industry. And globally, we can’t expect Vivendi Entertainment Group to aggressively investigate the consequences of privatisation initiatives for water on the poor in third world countries by it’s subsidiary, Veolia Environment. It’s also clear that the big media players will not even investigate the interests of their big business mates. After all, they sit on each other’s boards – having a stake in the creation of this market society – so the corporate media cannot serve our interests in this environment. This can only lead to compliance and corruption.

In Australia, current media laws only go a short way in saving us from completely losing this important pillar of democracy. The current government is hell bent on driving for a total rejection of culturally beneficial regulation of our current media landscape. These changes can be pushed through in the negotiations on the FTA (Free Trade Agreement) with America. The Australian government can’t win it’s own proposed amendments in its Senate, so it will do a backdoor “reform” of media regulation the big media players may not like, in the guise of a bilateral agreement. Secondly, if they can’t do it in the FTA with America, they’ll certainly get their way as a signatory to WTO trade regulations in GATTS. In any case, we stand to lose our unique Australian voice.

Of course the lie given by Australian media proprietors to extend their dominance over Australian free speech and democracy is that it’s about Australian media corporations becoming competitive in a global marketplace. Rupert Murdoch aside, this is a fantasy for media minnows like Australia. The local discussion should be about media companies providing alternatives rich with ideas and information, for and about Australians. Nothing less that re-regulation and de-consolidation of the media will do.

Our elected representatives should listen and act in our interests, not for some culturally dominant nation, distant multinational or lapsed Australian. A bold statement by them would signal to a sceptical and cynical public that democracy can work and that our elected representatives do work in our interests. Only then will we be able to exercise our rights as citizens and only then can we claim to be reliable witnesses to democracy.

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Philip Gomes is an activist, writer and racing cyclist living in Sydney, Australia, whose beliefs are a “strange amalgam of libertarian/left/green.” He lives by a maxim summed up neatly by Pierre Trudeau that “government has no business in the bedrooms of the nation”.

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