In summarising the Federal Parliament's bicameral legislature (two Houses of Parliament), we touched on the tensions inherent to liberal democratic systems. This tension is responsible for much confusion in debates regarding Australia's political system and is used by all sides of politics as a form of rhetorical baiting. Without qualification of the components we are about to discuss, these debates are unable to actually say anything at all.
Liberal democratic societies have dominated the political environment amongst developed nations, particularly in the Global North, since the 1980s. At one point leading an overzealous academic, Francis Fukuyama, to proclaim "the end of history" as if this turn in political organisation represented the pinnacle of humanity's political achievements and capacity. This is roughly a decade before the Global Financial Crisis, which laid bare the falsehood economic conservatives had sold us on the plausibility and desirability of a self-regulating "free market". Reflecting times of The Great Depression, ushered in by the ideological grandson of its maker, the world was brought again to the point of financial collapse and instability.
Despite these failings, which I'm sure somebody is itching to argue, it highlights the prevalence of liberal democracies in modern life; a world where everyone purports to know the meanings of these terms but one in which they are used with reckless abandon by those would-be stewards in the media and parliament. The following chapter will try to explain this as simply as possible, using the Senate reforms passed in 2016 and the political campaigns around them as examples.
Democracy is a term everybody can define to some degree. It is the rule of the people, at its most basic. In representative democracies, such as Australia's, the general will of the people is theoretically carried out by our elected representatives. Defining features of a democracy are often said to be one person one vote, universal suffrage, protection for the opposition, free/fair/regular elections, and rule by majority.
Liberalism, in contrast, is best defined by its emphasis on the individual and the imperative to protect this figure, regardless of its form. Often this is against a potential "tyranny of the majority". Traditional liberal thinkers, such as Locke and Kant, believed it ethically wrong to treat people as a means to an end as they viewed them as ends in themselves. From this school of thought came the concept of human rights, which gradually grew and expanded as liberal ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity, spread during the Enlightenment leading to today's Universal Declaration of Human Rights developed by the United Nations - a distinctly liberal institution - in 1984 and ratified by the UN General Assembly.
A system that emphasises majority rule yet enshrines protections for individuals is at odds with itself, particularly in modern pluralistic societies. This is not necessarily a bad thing, just the reality of such a system and the ideas underpinning it. The key is finding the correct balance at a given point in time. However, in debates over the electoral system it is extremely common to here cries of one's views being "undemocratic". This stems from ignorance of the above contradiction.
The 2016 Senate reforms saw the Greens and LNP remove the ability of the Parties to control voter preferences, instead requiring voters to list 1 - 6 above the line or 1 - 12 below. While this reform gives greater control to the voters, if they choose to express it, it also threatened the minor party vote by allowing it to become completely dispersed and it was a blatant political tactic by the LNP to call a double dissolution and wipe out a troublesome crossbench. Weakening the minor party vote, which was the political intent of this act, would indeed make the Upper House more democratic as it theoretically reduces the number of individual, dissident voices in the House who may upset majority rule. And so the two or three week long campaign was run, with anybody questioning the reform condemned as anti-democratic, and the most significant reform to any of our political institutions in decades was hammered through for a expediency.
Ironically, this backfired spectacularly on both the Greens, who failed to capitalise on the losses of less-established parties and gained no additional seats, and the LNP, who ended up having to deal with an even wider crossbench which now included Pauline Hanson. This might seem like a bad story, but it was chosen to highlight how extremely complex these discussions can become with just a few paragraphs. Nobody predicted this outcome yet clearly the Electorate had enough of the games played in Canberra and the reduced quota value of a double dissolution had an effect. Since then the minor party vote has only continued to grow while the Greens continue to stagnate and the major parties slowly leak votes.
Liberalism, Democracy and Corporatism
A way liberalism can be said to have infiltrated and undermined democracy is with regard to the economic model endorsed in its name and the subsequent treatment of corporations as "people", individuals, which require our protection and are entitled to certain rights. The economic model is that of neoliberalism; a concept that can take on a range of meanings. From a strictly theoretical standpoint on the economy, it can be said to follow neoclassical economic prescriptions and readings of the market. Essentially, neoliberals believe state intervention in the economy can only bring about ruin and, consequently, delivers specific policy solutions in the form of lowering taxes, deregulating industries and privatising any and all state assets. In a child's sentence: anything the state can do the private sector can do better.
At the social level neoliberalism can be characterised as staunch individualism and a rejection of external structures impacting on one's life. Society is seen as little more than a collection of fragmented individuals with their own roles and functions. As Thatcher famously said, "there is no such thing as society". This view is most commonly criticised for failing to take into account the relations between those individuals which create the potential for society to be more than just the sum of its parts.
While this theory was, arguably, of use during the economic crises and stagflation of the 1970s it has, like all economic theories before it, seemingly run its course. However, through constant deregulation and adoption of varying degrees of corporatism the state slowly began to succumb to these emerging actors, such as multinational corporations, with sufficient wealth to influence political outcomes. Democracy never said anything about rule by corporation, and neither am I proposing every government is just a mob of corporatist swine, yet nobody can deny the influence they currently exert across the globe and how this threatens democracy. When corporate interests prevail over public interests all manner of perverse outcomes can occur.