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Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Amber light for democracy?


Who or what is trashing the democracy brand?

Rohan Callick in The Australian (subscription) this week, writing about the just published Lowy Institute Public Opinion and Foreign Policy Poll 2012, singled out
 "..the shock result.. that only 39 per cent of young Australians are prepared to unequivocally back democracy. Lowy chief Michael Wesley may be partly right in attributing our lack of trust in democracy to perceptions of poor behaviour by our politicians. But the poll was conducted before this became the major media talking point it is today. The broader context is a turning away from the teaching of subjects such as civics in schools, and a rejection of earlier generations' values, not because they have been proven wrong in rational debate, but because they come from a world view of values and discernment now deemed culturally inappropriate. Winston Churchill, if mentioned in educational circles, is as likely to be denigrated for his political incorrectness as celebrated for asserting that "democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."
Callick didn't mention a possibly more alarming result that "fifteen per cent of Australians say ‘for someone like me, it doesn’t matter what kind of government we have', with a quarter (23%) of 18 to 29 year olds holding this view."

Those of us over 60 (74% back democracy) need to have a go explaining to 18-29 year olds of our acquaintance-that in itself may be a challenge-why democracy warts and all, even ours at the moment, is not just wallpaper or an abstract idea. Governments, federal, state and local also need to reinforce their democratic credentials by living the dream.

A fundamental of course is open and transparent government. Hence the Freedom of Information Act (some state equivalents have something close) gives access to government information a relevant public purpose by stating right up front
The Parliament intends, by these objects, to promote Australia's representative democracy by contributing towards.. increasing public participation in Government processes, with a view to promoting better-informed decision-making.. increasing scrutiny, discussion, comment and review of the Government's activities.
Sentiment echoed in the Declaration of Open Government:
The Australian Government now declares that, in order to promote greater participation in Australia’s democracy, it is committed to open government based on a culture of engagement, built on better access to and use of government held information, and sustained by the innovative use of technology. 
Interesting to speculate on the extent of public awareness of these grand democratic ideals. And how public perceptions of what federal, state and local government says and does (Attorney General Roxon for example currently looking to fix the "anomaly" that parliament is subject to the FOI act ), or disappointing personal experience in taking government at its word plays into the narrative that democracy isn't all its cracked up to be.

This is the extract-the first time these questions have been asked in the annual poll- from the Lowy Institute Report (emphasis added):

In 2011, the Lowy Institute conducted opinion polls in Indonesia and Fiji, which included questions on democracy and human rights. To see how views in these countries compare with those in Australia we repeated some of the questions in the 2012 Lowy Institute Poll.
Results suggest some Australians are quite blasé about democracy. Presented with three statements about democracy and asked to say ‘which one of the three statements comes closest to your own personal views about democracy’, just 60% of Australians say ‘democracy is preferable to any other kind of government’, similar to the proportion of Indonesians (62%) and Fijians (53%) who say this. Interestingly, only 39% of Australians 18 to 29 years old hold this view, with support increasing with age to 74% for those 60 years and older. A quarter (23%) of Australians say ‘in some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable’, more than Indonesians (16%) but a similar proportion as in Fiji (25%), which is currently under military dictatorship. Fifteen per cent of Australians say ‘for someone like me, it doesn’t matter what kind of government we have’, with a quarter (23%) of 18 to 29 year olds holding this view. Seventeen per cent of Indonesians say this and 21% of people in Fiji.

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