The UN’s International Day of Democracy
The 15th of September is the UN’s International Day of Democracy, first instituted in 2007 to promote and uphold the principles of democracy. A cursory examination of the health of democratic nations suggests the International Day’s mission statement isn’t working out so well. By wide consensus the global health of democracy has suffered in the past decade, as ordinary people experience an increasing sense of disconnect from not simply the state and its various functions, but from their elected representatives, the politicians and the political class more generally. The challenge is to increase the fundamental sense of investment, interest, buy-in, to the political process. In the long-term self-government can’t exist without it. National plebiscites, currently under keen debate, might be one way of increasing the amount of direct individual involvement of ordinary people in the governing of a democratic society.
Recently I came across an account of the Age newspaper’s description of an enormous ‘YES’ demonstration at the MCG (‘Fully 100,000 People Present... Remarkable Enthusiasm... Stirring Appeals’) on the eve of the second Conscription plebiscite in December 1917. Intrigued, I freely admit it, by the beguiling sub-header which promised ‘Prime Minister Stoned’ (cue mental pictures of Billy Hughes fitted out in tie-die and paisley, succumbing to reefer madness), I read on, and was struck by two things.
First of all was the amount of raw, open physical violence. The event had been carefully ticketed, but clearly with these sorts of numbers, hundreds of ‘Antis’ were always going to get in, and they did. After preliminary skirmishes throwing eggs and fire crackers at the warm-up speakers, the Antis made for the great prize, PM Billy Hughes, as soon as he came out on the main stage. A mob surged at him, men fighting to break through the barriers, reach the platform and get at Hughes, overwhelming the police and special constables trying to hold them off. After a large chunk of road bitumen was thrown and missed Hughes by about a metre, crashing into the back of the platform, the Prime Minister evacuated to one of the other speaking platforms where greater order prevailed.
Then there was the nature of the debate itself – about as intensely divisive as you could hope to get. For Hughes, there were ‘men in Australia today who were masquerading as Australians, but who were the enemies of Australia... They asked the people to put Australia first, but their real purpose was to destroy Australia, and liberty, (Cheers).’ In their own publicity material, the Antis, for their part, insisted that conscription was ‘a racket’ to ‘get complete control of the people’ and ensure the ‘enslavement of the workers’ bringing the nation under absolute military rule.
Extreme, intemperate words on both sides, and given the sectarian, political and class divisions which the war had already opened up, we can appreciate how much these two plebiscites contributed to the damaged, traumatised state Australia finished the war in. It took decades to recover. Allied with the public violence, hardly a picture postcard advertisement for national plebiscites as a way to increase the health of our democracy then.
Or so we might conclude. But there might be worse things. Yes, democracy, especially active, fully engaged and passionately direct democracy, can be a remarkably dirty, ugly, nasty animal. But right now we suffer from the opposite problem of too much directly engaged, participatory democracy. Surveys consistently indicate that cynicism, political disconnection and apathy are all increasing. Would it be the worst thing for the health of our polity if there were more occasions when every citizen had the chance to have their own say on the greatest, most charged issues of the day?