Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Where's Australia's robust discussions on democracy, openness and transparency?

Australia is an interesting country.

We're one of the world's oldest democracies, with a strong tradition of free and independent (of government) media.

We have universal public health care and a strong separation between politics and religion and between politics and the enforcement of our laws.

We have an apolitical civil service with an extremely low corruption rate. As a nation we punch above our weight in Sports and Science globally.

However we appear to lack a robust public discussion on our own democracy, on government openness, transparency and the role of Gov 2.0 in this mix.

We have plenty of right-wing and left-wing thinktanks (with some intriguing backers) prepared to give their perspectives on various policy issues to influence government decisions, but rarely opine on the democratic institutions Australia has developed.

We have many media commentators willing to report bad or controversial news (or spin news in that way) about government decisions and activities, but rarely questioning the systems and traditions on which they are based.

We do have the OpenAustralia Foundation, building and maintaining several pro-openness tools - with little or no financial support from Australian Governments or philanthropists.

There's the New Democracy Foundation which, with some big name supports from politics and academic worlds, is looking at new ways of governing for a new millenium.

And there's the Institute of Public Affairs, which has an agenda to promote political and market freedom - though it is hard to assess its impact on public views.

Some scattered individuals also run small communities and services that look at whether and how governments should transform themselves to cope with changing environments and public needs.

However there's not really a broader discussion, as occurs through a network of organisations in the US (spearheaded by the Sunlight Foundation), or the more concentrated efforts in the UK through groups such as the Hansard Society.

Australia is not even a member of the Open Government Partnership (per the image below).

Nations that are members of the Open Government Partnership

So why is this the case? Is our government already so transparent and effective that we don't need more active discussions about our system of democracy, our openness and our processes?

Is it we're not interested in 'navel-gazing' about our own systems, or that we trust politicians, public servants, academics and the media to work out the best system for us and keep it working?

Is it simply that Australians don't actually care, so long as the government stays out of most of their lives - reflecting recent research from the Lowy Institute, as reported by the Institute of Public Affairs, that found that 23 percent of Australians aged 18 to 29 said: "For someone like me, it doesn't matter what kind of government we have." and that "Thirty-eight per cent said: "In some circumstances a non-democratic government can be preferable."

I really don't have an answer, and this worries and concerns me.

As they say in the US, "eternal vigilance is the price of liberty".

Where is Australia's vigilance regarding our democracy?


  1. Can data about levels of interest in politics in times such as during the Great Depression or significant war efforts (world wars, Vietnam etc) be found?

    This may give some context to today's level of interest.

    Just a thought.

  2. Hi Elton,

    Hard to compare given the changes in Australian culture and media landscape.

    However if that Lowe study has a track record over time, it might be comparable :)

  3. Craig, I'm also wondering, what is the reason for this apathy? Is it really that young people "don't care"? I find this overly simplistic.

    Perhaps the problem lies with democracy itself and the way it's communicated to young people? Let's face it, how can we expect democracy to win over hearts and minds when the only "advertising campaign" for it is done just every four years? and how can anyone become good at something they do once every four years?

    If democracy is so important shouldn't we talk about it, practice it and improve it constantly?

    Why not start at the local level, having citizens vote for pools, parks, elderly care, community gardens etc.?

    What will it take to get these young people saying: "In a democracy, I am part of government"?