Is Australia becoming a guided democracy?

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Sunday, 16 March 2014 18:30 by 2353

On 8 February 2014, there was a by-election for the federal seat of Griffith due to the resignation from politics of the former member Kevin Rudd. Terri Butler, representing the ALP, won the seat. This comment was posted on the Fairfax Media’s on-line coverage of the event:

I think I'd prefer a highly programmed robot rather than anything that's really been on offer from either right side of politics. They'll have to start making a new suit for the ALPLNP Party, a suit with two right arms with one just a little further right than the other.

It demonstrates the opinion of a considerable number of the population of Australia and can be summed up as ‘there is no or little difference between the ALP and LNP’, that whichever party one votes for the outcome will be the same.

Where countries seem to have free and fair elections but the result really doesn’t matter there is, as you would expect, a name for the concept — Guided Democracy. Wikipedia suggests that there have been a number of countries that have operated in this fashion either in the past or the present. They include Indonesia, Putin’s Russia and possibly even the USA.

Indonesia’s history since the end of World War 2 and independence from the Dutch is interesting. Between 1950 and 1998, there were only two Indonesian presidents — Sukarno and Suharto. The first, Sukarno, actually promoted his leadership as guided democracy or ‘Demokrasi Terpimpin’ from 1957. Rather than the traditional leadership model where the political elite devises and implements the policy of the government, Sukarno’s belief was that the government should be led in a similar way to traditional villages where the ‘elders’ consider and discuss the problem and then agree on a solution.

A central council of 42 people from a cross section of Indonesia was formed and tasked with considering issues and providing advice to Sukarno’s cabinet. While there was no requirement to comply with the advice, it was rarely ignored. The process was introduced in the late 1950’s apparently in an attempt to placate the military, religious groups and communists.

The military, religious groupings and communists then naturally attempted to increase their ‘power bases’. The military nationalised a number of Dutch companies; the religious commenced the ‘Islamic State’ debate; and the PKI (Communist Party) entrenched itself into all state institutions except for the cabinet. By the early 60’s, there was significant corruption and jockeying for position. However the PKI had ensured that it was the only political party with any strength.

Suharto was a ‘trusted’ major-general during Sukarno’s rule and was effectively ‘the last man standing’ after a coup attempt and became president in 1968. Although elections continued, the government also appointed 100 members to parliament. A People’s Consultative Assembly was also created to which the government appointed one-third of members.

The next ‘western’ style democratic election in Indonesia, after the declaration of Demokrasi Terpimpin, was not until 1999 after the fall of Suharto.

Vladimir Putin is the current president of Russia. On 9 August 1999, then President Yeltsin appointed Putin as one of the three deputy prime ministers and later that day he was appointed the acting prime minister of the Russian Federation. Later again on the same day, Yeltsin was reported as suggesting that Putin should be his successor — and Putin agreed to run for president. A week later, the State Duma (parliament) confirmed Putin as prime minister.

Yeltsin resigned as president on 31 December 1999 and Putin was appointed acting president. Putin’s first decree was to ensure that corruption charges against Yeltsin and his family were not pursued. Putin then comfortably won the subsequent presidential election held in March 2000 (three months ahead of the scheduled date and before the opposition parties could organise).

Putin was re-elected president in 2004 and was legally not able to run in the 2008 presidential election. First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was elected in his place. The day after the election, Putin was appointed to the position of prime minister of the Russian Federation. Putin was subsequently re-elected as president in 2012, appointed Medvedev as prime minister and commenced action to stifle protest groups by imprisoning the leaders, removing the influence of non-governmental organisations that received foreign assistance, and pursuing a campaign of anti-American rhetoric, including the granting of asylum to Edward Snowdon — who is accused of leaking US diplomatic cables to various news organisations around the world.

A theory promoted by Sheldon Wolin suggests that the USA is heading on a similar path to the examples of guided democracy we have looked at above. Wolin’s theory is that instead of a ‘strong leader’ who is able to influence the country’s direction for an extended period (and the seemingly inevitable corruption that goes with that), corporations through lobbying and donations control government actions; the rise of political apathy is promoted (the only expectation is to vote and low turnouts are thought of as successful); and the election of ‘personalities’ rather than ‘people’ is supported. Wolin also claims there are similarities between the propaganda of Nazi Germany (as we recently briefly discussed here on The Political Sword) and the USA’s regular claim that they are the only world superpower and the home of democracy, which gives the US the ‘right’ to declare war and participate in actions that are clearly not democratic.

It could be suggested that a couple of state governments in Australia have been close to running a guided democracy — the prime examples being Queensland under the Country/National Party and South Australia under Playford.

The Country/Nationals & Liberal Party Coalition (subsequently the Nationals solely) were in power in Queensland for a 30 year period from 1957 to 1987 because those that lived west of the Great Dividing Range generally had a considerably greater number of MP’s for the level of population. Bjelke-Petersen was premier from 1968 to 1987. While Bjelke-Petersen didn’t implement the gerrymander, he certainly used it to his advantage. The embedded corruption in Queensland during the Bjelke-Petersen era is well documented: there were proven corruption charges against a number of National Party ‘identities’ and Bjelke-Petersen himself was never cleared of corruption charges that were made against him. The then acting premier of Queensland (when Bjelke-Petersen was overseas) initiated the Fitzgerald enquiry, which eventually led to a fairer election system, as well as the reduction in influence that was held by National Party ‘connections’ and the police force.

Playford served as premier of South Australia from 1938 to 1965 despite losing each election from 1947 on the popular vote. It took a protest by the public to start the process of fair and equitable boundaries, introduced by Playford’s successor.

So, is Australia in danger of becoming a guided democracy? A guided democracy seems to be reliant on a group of people being in power for decades and power being shared around the same group of people. That certainly isn’t the case in Australia with frequent leadership contests for parliamentary leadership. While corporations attempt to influence politicians, they cannot openly ‘buy a vote in Congress’ as they seem to be able to do in the USA. The military is not an economic force to be reckoned with or sharing power in Australia as seems to be the case in Indonesia. The Australian government allows open dissent to their position on any issue – unlike Putin’s Russia.

Let’s look at Australia’s record.

Are the same small groups of people continually power sharing? Occasionally someone who can demonstrate that they don’t follow the standard political norms in Australia can get up and win, such as Cathy McGowan in Indi at the 2013 federal election, or Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott effectively deciding who would be prime minister in the last parliament — they are certainly results that the ‘political establishment’ didn’t see coming. Has the same leader been ‘in power’ for a long period of time? The Coalition holds the federal record for a 23 year term, due in part to the ALP/DLP split of the 1950’s: although Menzies was prime minister for 17 of those years, there were another four leaders in the last six years. On the ALP side, the Hawke/Keating government lasted 13 years with two prime ministers.

Is there institutionalized corruption in Australia? Potentially yes — but not to the same level as Indonesia and Russia (and one could say parts of the USA where the politicians draw up the electoral boundaries and corporations can fund political campaigns).

Are political opponents jailed or killed? No — otherwise Abbott, Gillard, Rudd and Howard would have never become prime ministers!

Are Australians encouraged not to vote? No — voting is compulsory.

While economic policies, and unfortunately refugee policies, are similar, there are also significant differences in policy between the two major political parties in Australia, including in the areas of industrial relations, social policy, education and treatment of those that are less well off. Most importantly, there are genuine free and fair elections in Australia. There is also little doubt that the election results are fair and do not benefit any particular group. This was recently demonstrated by the Australian Electoral Commission requesting the court system to decide what action to take when it was found that almost 1400 votes were missing in the Western Australia senate election.

While there are certainly similarities between the policies and operation of the ALP and LNP, the actions of the current government in abolishing programs of the previous government demonstrates that the parties are not the same. Rather the comment that started this piece demonstrates that, rather than heading towards a guided democracy, both political parties are playing safe options to try and attract the majority of votes. While the tactic seems to be successful to a point, it has allowed smaller parties such as the Greens and Katter/Palmer to win over voters who are disaffected with what could be considered a move to the centre by both major parties in Australia. The rise and success of those smaller parties, and the influence they can wield in the senate, really is the nail in the coffin of any idea that Australia is heading towards a guided democracy.

What do you think?