LET me think for just a few seconds. What has been “the most disgraceful thing to happen to our democracy”?
Malcolm Fraser’s blocking of Supply to the democratically elected Whitlam government? The dismissal of that Government by the Queen’s representative in Australia? The Senate preference system given to us by the Hawke Government that elected Senator Steve Fielding on less than 2 per cent of the primary vote? The election of Bob Hawke in 1990 and John Howard in 1998 with fewer votes than the Opposition?
No, no no.
None of the above.
According to broadcaster Alan Jones “the most disgraceful thing to happen to our democracy” was the delay (if there was one) by three minutes of a small part of this week’s trucking “convoy of no confidence” on the outskirts of the ACT.
Usually, talk-back shock jocks are all in favour of the police. The thin blue line and all that, defending us against the ravages of drunks, unAustralian youths and the lawless rabble. But as soon as the police, in the interests of public safety, impose a slight delay on tonnes and tonnes of trucks rumbling through public streets, it becomes an assault against democracy.
Hyperbole aside, ACT police in fact changed the normal traffic arrangements in Canberra to make sure the trucks got through the city, around Parliament House and out to some sensible parking place as quickly as possible. They gave priority to the trucks over Canberra commuters.
As it happened, what was planned as an assault against Australian democracy by a bunch of truckwits flopped. Only a few hundred turned up. They were demanding a double dissolution election, even though the constitutional requirements for one had not been met. Presumably, if enough trucks had turned up they might have attempted to blockade the government. Demanding with the menace of large trucks an unconstitutional election seems to me to be a far more “disgraceful thing to happen to our democracy” than a few sensible ACT police officers ensuring an orderly movement of trucks through the city so as to minimise risk of life and limb.
That’s what police — in a society governed by the rule of law and the separation of powers and respecting the democratically elected government — do.
The normal, democratic pattern in Australia is that the person who has the majority in the House of Representatives forms the government and can stay governing for three years. Jones, however, thinks that our “democracy is dead” if an election is not held now, just because the government looks bad in the polls.
If an election were triggered every time a government looked bad in the polls that would make the system unworkable and our democracy really would be dead.
Democracy is not the tyranny of transient majorities but government by elected representatives of the people according to a set of rules.
Another element of Australian democracy is freedom of speech and free media. But for Jones that usually means his freedom of speech and freedom to use his radio station, with little respect for contrary points of view or other media doing their job.
A reporter from The Sydney Morning Herald at the rally, Jacqueline Maley, reported that after she asked Jones whether he was being paid for his appearance (he said he was not), Jones singled her out during an address to the rally with the inevitable result that the crowd jeered and booed her.
Maley’s question was a fair one given Jones’s track record of being paid for commercial spruiking without telling his listeners.
I’m not into hyperbole, so I will not call it a disgraceful thing to happen to our democracy — just bad manners. I was going to write “bad manners to a fellow journalist”, but Jones is not a journalist.
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WHY was the rally a flop? I had to drive into town around 7am and later out past Canberra Stadium and I hardly saw a truck. The “convoy of no confidence” drew about 200 trucks.
Compare that to the thousands of people who marched against the Vietnam war in the late 1960s and early 1970s; in reconciliation marches in 2000; and against South African rugby tours – or the Martin Luther King marches in the US and the anti-nuclear marches in Britain in the 1960s.
The important ingredients for large turnouts seem to be the nature of the issue and grievance and the government’s action over it.
To get big demonstrations, you need a sense of moral outrage – that some injustice is being perpetrated against people other than those demonstrating. And you need a sense that the government is either causing it or is not doing what it should to stop it.
The convoy of no confidence, on the other hand, had no moral purpose. The aims of the protest were in confluence with the economic purpose of the protestors. So the protest was morally compromised. It was not a protest for a better society, for justice or equality. It was merely a selfish whinge — a protest by protesters for a bigger slice of the cake.
Well, we all want a bigger slice of the cake. That is not unexceptional. Moreover, no sense of moral outrage can be sustained against a government that gives or does not give this or that sector and bigger or lesser slice of the cake, especially when organised wealthy lobby groups can finance their own behind-closed-doors protest to government.
Large protests require moral outrage and a sense that the government is not merely incompetent or misguided in the way it slices the pie but that government is responsible for or complicit in the immorality.
The self-serving Opposition Leader and a self-aggrandising Alan Jones simply did not arouse a legitimate sense of community outrage. They aroused a couple of hundred self-interested truck drivers.
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AND on the subject of democracy and Australian society, take note. This week in the High Court we saw a few of the most repressed, down and out, hopeless, desperate people in our nation – some flotsam and jetsam on Christmas Island who are not even citizens or permanent residents — take one of the highest and mightiest, a federal minister, to the highest court in the land. Who says democracy or the rule of law is dead in Australia.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times on 27 August 2011