The Spill: Australia’s Perfect Democracy

Australia spilling

I see you, American, yearning for a less polarized electorate, for parties that are pragmatic, a public sphere less riven by ideology, a president with less power—I hear how you name these things, with a hopeful quiver in your voice, democracy. That voice echoes through the internet’s halls: we have to make the political process more transparent, more approachable, more representative. Whatever the problem is, you, good Deweyite, insist that it will only be solved with more and better democracy. Policies are passed that you find distressing? The problem is that our wizened representatives have been bought by special interests. If only they would respond better to the population’s voice! Let us, then, redemocratize the polity. It would all work so smoothly: the public will make its wishes known, and the representatives will then put in place whichever policies the people prefer.

And yet…

Sit down sailor, for I have a tale to tell ye—a tale of a perfectly democratic polity. Let us go to Australia, one of the world’s oldest, most stable democracies. Australia has never fought a civil war; it achieved independence early, and easily. For large stretches of the twentieth century, there was genuine consensus as to what politicians ought to do: support the respectable poor, don’t steal from the rich, keep out the Asians (the consensus was not necessarily a good thing). Today, the country has the world’s highest living standards. Four or five Australian cities routinely make it into those world’s most livable places lists, even when those lists are only ten cities long.

So unless you’re Australian, or pay a lot of attention to international news, you’ll be surprised to learn that Australia’s Prime Minister, the astonishingly unpopular Tony Abbott has been thrown out by his own party. His replacement, Malcolm Turnbull, is Australia’s fifth prime minister in five years (and fourth in two). Three of the five got in thanks to backroom party machinations (Julia Gillard became Prime Minister by spilling Kevin Rudd, then ‘won’ an election that ended in a hung parliament). The two prime ministers who won national elections were both dumped by their own parties, though the electorate certainly would have dumped them both given the chance.

Compare: over the last five years America has had one president. The U.K. has had two prime ministers, as has Canada. So has New Zealand. Afghanistan has had two presidents. Iraq too. Australia, which is by most measures one of the best, say, five countries in the world to live in, is at the same time one of the world’s least stable political regimes.

How can this be explained? It certainly isn’t because of economic or social upheaval. Some issues divide the population, but Australia is nowhere near as polarized as America. The Australian economy is also far stronger than most other developed nations’ (this strength is unsustainable, but no politician can change that). Yes, Australian politicians are bad, but most countries have bad politicians at the moment. And the system is partly to blame; the party, rather than the electorate, votes in the Australian prime minister, so the party can also chuck out its leader at any moment. And the parties themselves are sclerotic at best. But this is also true of many other nations. Bad politicians in bad parties in a bad system might be necessary for this kind of instability. But they’re not sufficient.

No, this instability is only possible because Australian politics is almost entirely free of ideology, and is almost perfectly democratic. The Labor party, as the name suggests, should fight for the working class against the rich; the Coalition (made up of the Liberal and National parties) should fight for small business owners and farmers. But since the eighties, these parties have fought over nothing: as their websites both suggest, both parties want a “stronger” Australia. Labor and the Coalition are now just election-winning machines, and, when it comes to elections, they act with a perfect, if ferocious, representative-democratic rationality. They do what the people demand, because that is how one wins elections.

And the result has been ethically and socially catastrophic. Consider one of the few divisive issues in Australian politics: refugees. For a massively wealthy, sparsely populated country, Australia takes an almost inhumanly cruel line on refugees. There is outrage over this, of course, in some of Australia’s media, but the two major parties don’t seem to care. Why? There are no votes in a humane refugee policy. People who care about refugees vote for Labor, and they’re not going to suddenly start voting for the coalition, any more than most American Democrats would start voting for the Republicans if the Republicans somehow proved they weren’t the party of racism. On the other hand, the major parties could win from the lunatic right the votes of people who hate refugees. Australia’s refugee policy is inhuman, neocolonial, and electorally rational. It is democratic.

Of course, the two parties disagree on some matters. The Coalition would like to do nothing about climate change that costs more than a dollar, while Labor, as a matter of not being completely divorced from reality, would like to help avoid its worst effects. But this is also electorally rational. People who care deeply about climate change will never vote for the Coalition, so the party has no incentive to, for instance, control the coal mining industry. And Labor has no incentive to push hard on climate change, because doing might lose them some votes, without winning any new votes as compensation.

So Australian leadership spills are not like leadership challenges in other countries. U.K. Labor voted in Jeremy Corbyn to pull the party back to the left; the Republicans are trying to sort out who is the most conservative candidate. In Australia, the party wants only to win the next election. The sole duty of today’s political leaders in Australia is to present their party to the public in such a way that the public will vote that party into office. These recurring leadership spills are just electoral rationality carried out at the highest (lowest) levels. All that really matters about Malcolm Turnbull is that he’s far more likable than Tony Abbott.

It’s true that Australian politics sometimes appears ideological. Winning elections requires the support of the media, particularly Rupert Murdoch’s News Ltd conglomerate, which means politicians will do what media figures (whether talk show crazies or the editorial boards of respectable papers) suggest they have to do. Winning elections also requires the support of the rich, which means politicians will do what’s in the interests of the rich. But this is not (always) right-wing shenanigans, is not one percenter pandering. It is just democratic rationality: the parties will do whatever the population wants, at that given moment.




Why should the rest of the world care? Australia’s instability is an important reminder that politics can be just as dangerous when democratic as when undemocratic. Australian voters are just like those in other countries: ignorant of economics, foreign policy, and the structures of government. Of course, like politicians in other countries, Australian politicians are similarly ignorant. And, as well as having a political system based on representative democracy, Australian values are ‘democratic,’ in the sense of liberal, individualist, and invested in the discourse of human rights.

But despite these similarities politics in Australia is a very simplified version of politics in other industrialized countries. Australian politicians don’t need to worry about constituencies (Australia just does not have them the way more populous countries do; there’s no reason to chase the gay conservative vote in Australia, because there just aren’t that many people of any kind), and, since voting is compulsory, there’s no need to energize the base. Everyone’s going to vote, and most of us know who we’re going to vote for. Without the complications of ideology, Australian election results come down to things like how people are feeling about the party’s leader on that day. The leader just has to avoid alienating people.

From an American perspective, this might sound great. The 2016 election is shaping up as an ideological doozy, from Paul and Trump through Jeb and Hillary to Bernie on the way other side. As we all know, ideology blinds the people to their real interests: convince poor Americans that Mexican criminals are taking their jobs, and poor Americans won’t talk about tax codes. Should Trump or Sanders win the election, there will be immediate hand-wringing about excessive presidential power and polarization and wistful glances back to Bush I and/or Clinton, who were so much more reasonable. Pundits will point to low voter turnout and disenfranchisement and so on and so on, and claim that democracy has been distorted, again.

But, as Australia makes clear, the opposite case isn’t necessarily any better. Once two parties achieve a monopoly over the electoral process, and focus their energies on elections rather than ideology, democracy rules, but politics is distorted. Matters of little actual importance (the tiny trickle of refugees willing to go to Australia) take on enormous political significance, because they’re the only things that can win votes from the five percent of the population that is undecided. The corresponding policies grow more and more extreme, because there are no votes in moderate good sense. People of moderate good sense having long ago chosen their party (like consensus, of course, moderation is no virtue in itself).

Australia’s political upheaval lays bare democracy’s awful dialectic. Representative democracy relies on the idea that the voting public will be minimally aware of its own interests (broadly conceived), will be minimally aware of which parties are aligned with those interests (broadly conceived), and will vote accordingly. When politicians care only about being elected, however, the dance has no fixed point. The public can’t look to a party to learn what it thinks because the party is looking at one tiny fraction of the public to learn what it thinks, and set its policies accordingly. The nation’s discourse and policies become ever more extreme.

And this is not a flaw in democracy; this is democracy working with maximum efficiency. The electorate decides on the few things it really cares about, and the government kowtows to those whims. Democracy will not produce good results in any of the most important decisions democratic polities face this year: the war in Syria, the consequent refugee crisis in Europe, the politics of climate change, global inequality, and, at least in the U.S., the astonishing deadlock on gun policy.

I suspect it’s time to resurrect the old arguments against democracy.*


* Many readers will suggest that I have blurred the important distinction between democracy-as-mere-voting-mechanism, and democracy-as-broad-philosophical-system (what is taught in high school as “democratic values”), and that the former is only a pale shadow of the latter. This is not the place to have the argument, but there are plenty of good responses to this point. First, the former is democracy, the latter is, for instance, human rights liberalism. Second, the distinction doesn’t really matter in this case: the point is that allowing the desires of individuals to drive public policy is often a bad idea, and the broad-philosophical-system assumes that those desires are just. Third, it’s hard to understand what political system would be consistent with the philosophical system, other than today’s voting mechanisms. In a different world we might be able to deal with climate change in consensus-based town hall meetings, but we don’t live in that post-capitalist world and, unfortunately, won’t live in it any time soon.