Sunday, November 1, 2015


Talk to group in Maitland, NSW, November, 2015

Particularly for those of us of a progressive or left-of-centre perspective, it’s easy to doubt whether democracy still works in the 21st century.

You look around and see so much you don’t like. You see governments - even Labor governments - pursuing policies that seem to be always giving big business what it wants and disadvantaging ordinary people.

  • Making so-called free trade agreements in great secrecy - clauses that allow foreign businesses

  • Planning to increase the regressive GST so as to finance a cut in the rate of company tax and probably cut the top personal tax rate

  • Allowing the incomes of top executives and others in the top 1 pc to grow far more rapidly

We see all this and we wonder whether we still live in an effective democracy.

I believe we do. Democracy still works - when enough of us want it to.

But let’s not delude ourselves about how democracy works.

Democracy was never designed to deliver perfection.

It doesn’t promise that no government ever does anything we personally disapprove of.

It never gives any individual exactly what they want it to. It’s designed to give most of us a mixture of good and bad we’re prepared to live with.

In particular, it doesn’t give any of us a world that never changes. The world we live in is continually being changed by factors beyond the control of any democratically elected government. Many of these factors originate beyond our shores.

The biggest single factor that’s rapidly changing our world is technological advance. Most of us like most of the technological change that comes into our lives. No elected government is going to try to halt technological change. With things like the internet, it wouldn’t get far if it tried.

Consider digital disruption. It’s caused massive and unpleasant change in various industries - the music industry, movies, book-sellers, it’s ripping the heart out of newspapers, it will hit retailers hard as ecommerce grows, it’s starting tear into the taxi industry, Airbnb is taking business away from hotels. And digital disruption has much, much further to run. It’s cost thousands of workers their jobs.

And yet the great majority of the customers of these industries are left better off by digital disruption - which is why it’s happening and why no democratically elected government will ever seriously try to stop it.

Democracy is democracy. It’s government by the majority for the majority. So it gives us governance most of us are willing to cop.

You think big business is being allowed to ride roughshod over the rest of us and it’s all terribly unfair? Sorry, you may be right but not enough people agree with you.

Democracy brings about or allows changes you may not like, but plenty of others do:

  • Harsh treatment of people who arrive by boat

  • An end to the carbon tax that was adding too much to the cost of living

Democracy doesn’t protect voters who go to sleep on the job. Who aren’t sufficiently interested to pay attention, don’t notice what’s being done to them and don’t make sure they get all the facts.

The way a democracy works is one person, one vote.

The way a market economy works is one dollar, on vote. Those who have more dollars end up with more of what they want.

You may think that gives the rich and powerful a built-in advantage in any democracy.

That’s true - but when the chips are down, I’d still put my money on democracy winning the day.

The trick is that politicians care most about votes. If they don’t get enough votes they’re out on their ear.

They care about dollars only to the extent they think they will help them buy votes. Sometimes that works, but in the end it doesn’t.

Consider the GST tax package. No matter how much Malcolm would like to deliver for his business mates, his primary concern will be to make sure he gets re-elected. To ensure he does, he’ll end up with a package that, even though you don’t like it, business won’t like much either.

In recent times we’ve seen two powerful indications that votes beat dollars. Campbell Newman in Queensland. The first-term Liberal government in Victoria. Murdoch press.

Is it all terribly unfair? I don’t think it can be. Why? Because so few of the people you believe are victims are dissatisfied enough to bother voting against it. That’s actually why the two parties don’t give voters a very wide choice - they don’t think more extreme policies would win them many votes.

My final point is the one Winston Churchill so famously made: what’s the alternative you’re proposing?