Is Australian Democracy in Decline?

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How healthy is democracy today?

I’ve been thinking a lot about that question lately, after reporting on what’s needed to strengthen the liberal world order after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and as Australia’s campaign season has intensified.

Worldwide, the diagnosis isn’t great.

“Antidemocratic alliances.”

“A rot within democracies.”

“Dropping the pretense of competitive elections.”

These are a few of the subheads in the latest Freedom House report about global governance. An even more data-driven study from more than 3,000 global scholars associated with the V-Dem Institute in Sweden recently reached similar conclusions, noting that liberal democracies like Australia are increasingly rare.

Their numbers peaked in 2012 with 42 countries and are now down to the lowest levels in over 25 years, with 34 nations and just 13 percent of the world population.

“Electoral autocracy” remains the most common form of government, with 44 percent of the world’s population. And it’s not hard to see why. Under electoral autocracy, there is enough systemic suppression to keep opponents disadvantaged, but elections exist. They’re just manipulated to serve those in power. I saw a version of this when I covered Cuba — the government there held elections that were far from free, and returned the Communist Party to power again and again.

But more recently, democracies have slipped in that direction gradually rather than through revolution.

“Since the end of the Cold War, most democratic breakdowns have been caused not by generals and soldiers but by elected governments themselves,” wrote Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in “How Democracies Die,” their 2018 book. “Like Chávez in Venezuela, elected leaders have subverted democratic institutions in Georgia, Hungary, Nicaragua, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Ukraine. Democratic backsliding today begins at the ballot box.”

Their book and these global reports make the same point: Democracy is fragile and should not be taken for granted. No country — as the United States has discovered in recent years — should consider itself immune to the slippery slope of democratic decline.

Where does Australia fit into this dismal portrait?

Australia is stronger than most. Freedom House gave the country a score of 95 out of 100. The experts at V-Dem ranked Oz 14th in its measure of liberal democracy, below New Zealand (coming in at No. 5) but far above the United States (at 29).

A big part of that has to do with the way Australia runs elections. Compulsory voting ensures high turnout; the independent Australian Electoral Commission runs the election with technocratic efficiency according to national standards that are widely supported and respected by political parties and the public. Politicians do not decide district boundaries, or where to put polling booths, or how many polling sites to set up.

“All of those ways that partisan politics can distort outcomes, it’s just not there,” said Judith Brett, an emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University, who is also the author of a book on Australia’s electoral history called “From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage.”

But there are still many causes for concern. Polls have been showing for years that a growing number of Australians distrust the government and feel disconnected from politics.

Australia’s leaders and major political parties have also shown a disturbing tolerance for secrecy — especially when it comes to the money that finances their campaigns. As I wrote in February, Research from the Center for Public Integrity shows that over the past two decades, the source of nearly $1 billion in party income has been hidden.

The combination of big money and a disaffected electorate is reshaping Australian democracy in other ways as well. Professor Brett pointed out that the government of Prime Minister Scott Morrison has a habit of spraying government funds all over districts it needs to win to stay in power, often for projects that defy logic but come pretty close to attempted vote buying — from dams to BMX courses to footpaths.

The Australian media has taken to calling these “election sweeteners.” Critics call it soft corruption, and they fear that it could become the norm, making Australian election results more transactional, while encouraging leaders avoid the broader challenges society faces.

“We have an electorate where party loyalty is less strong,” Professor Brett said. “It’s up for grabs and if the way those votes are grabbed is with money for a sporting facility, and serious policy issues are neglected, I think we’re in big trouble.”

So what can be done? Solutions are out there, and according to democracy scholars, interactions that bring people together across political and social divides tend to produce stronger, more responsive governments.

With that in mind, I’ll be helping to host an event at the New South Wales Parliament on May 11 in Sydney with the Athens Democracy Forum asking how we can reconnect people with their elected officials. Presented by The New York Times in collaboration with New Democracy, an independent research organization, we’ll be gathering everyday citizens, politicians and experts for a wide-ranging discussion that will help create a report with recommendations about how to better engage all of us in democracy, worldwide.

If you’re interested in being a delegate, please fill out this form.

You’ll hear from six speakers, including former Premier Geoff Gallop and Rod Simpson, the commissioner of Greater Sydney, in a participatory workshop format. We’ll be selecting about a dozen readers in Sydney (or those willing to travel to Sydney) to take part in the gathering.

Now here are our stories of the week.


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