Living the Dreamocracy

By Andrew L. Urban

All democracies are equal – but some democracies are more equal than others, if you’ll pardon the Orwellian correlation. All democratic governments make mistakes and some make terrible mistakes. Some are gold plated, a few are solid gold … with some chips and blotches. All democracies contain within them anarchists, lefties, rightists, centrists, loonies, buffoons and goons in varying proportion, but it is the ability of a democracy to embrace them all and to manage changes in power without bloodshed that is its greatest force, its most compelling argument as the best form of government.

Millions of people around the world aspire to live in a democratic system, where their material needs are met (they can work at a reasonable pay, enjoy social security benefits, etc) and personal freedoms ensure their safety even if they criticise, lampoon, satirise or deride the government or politicians in any way. Cartoonists and comedians regularly target political leaders and even Heads of government – we expect them to.

In a political sense, such freedoms are fundamental benefits, while common responsibility for maintaining the democracy as a functioning and tangible system, is the price. The pivotal element, though, is free and fair elections that put citizens’ representatives into the Parliament, accountable to their electorates individually and to the nation as a whole. Election campaigns are the battlefield of competing ideas and ideology that will determine how an elected government will act, what specific policies it will pursue.

But the dream of a democratic society is not the same as living in the real thing.

The 2010 Federal election in Australia was called by Julia Gillard in her role as the new leader of the Labour Caucus in Parliament, after she helped force the resignation of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who had led Labour to victory in 2007. It was just months before the 2010 elections were due and the polls favoured a Labour loss. It was a political survival strategy by Labour that the electorate perceived as a perversion of democratic ideals. 

In the final days of the campaign, Gillard jettisoned her proposal for a Citizens’ Assembly to work towards public consensus on climate change policies and promised that if she led the new government, it would not introduce a carbon tax – a policy that was seen as being highly divisive and unpopular at that point in time.

Gillard went to the election as a usurper in the eyes of many and if it weren’t for three independents (who had won 312,496 votes), agreed to support Labour in a minority government, she would not have been able to form a government. The Liberal National Coalition won 658,932 more primary votes – 5,370,295 – than Labour, which won 4,711,363. The independents could be seen as having ignored the will of the people. (Labour and the LNP each won 72 seats in their own right.) The election was not won by Labour, yet it retained power. For the second time in a few short months, democracy in Australia was twisted out of shape.

To make matters worse (for democracy) independent candidate Tony Windsor declared that his decision to support the minority government on the floor of Parliament was decided by the prospects of the NBN Co – a government monopoly shielded from public scrutiny. (See below)

Soon after the 2010 election and soon after Gillard and Greens leader Bon Brown signed a working agreement in government, in Februray 2011, Gillard announced that in this new political environment she would after all introduce a carbon tax. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back in the public’s tolerance for the Gillard Government’s disregard for the core elements of democracy. That, and the stream of financial waste under Gillard and the previous Labour government finally chased the undecided voters out of the no man’s land into hostile territory. The polls from February 2011 onwards have reflected profound dissatisfaction, much deeper than periodic flares driven by weekly blunders from all parties.

Whatever one’s views on the Carbon Tax policy, its introduction in this manner is the antithesis of a good outcome for a functional democracy. Not only was Gillard seen to depose a Prime Minister who was the leader of the party at the previous election – hence had the moral mandate of the electorate – but she was now seen to negate a key election promise with profound ramifications in socio-economic terms, affecting the entire nation. Indeed, that is the objective.

Such a profound erosion of trust undermines the legitimacy of the Gillard government and weakens its claims to being democratic. No longer solid gold, Australian democracy has become – at best – gold plated.

In a fully functional democracy (FFD), we would have respect for our political institutions and our elected representatives. And they would respect themselves and each other, behaving so that they earn ours.  In Parliament, we would see genuine, informed debates. Parliamentary debates would be the place to win arguments based on reason, logic and compassion.

The basic principles of democracy would inform governments and bureaucracies at all levels – national, state and local.

In a FFD such as Australia claims to be, there would not be a controversial government monopoly established at the whim of Cabinet – and then legislation passed to shield it from any scrutiny, by being excluded from the requirements of the country’s Freedom of Information laws. This level of cynicism and disregard for the citizens’ rights to transparency is more usually found in totalitarian systems. History will judge such decisions and decision makers harshly. [NBN Co]

Nor would a genuinely democratic government alter the terms and conditions of a major tender for a government service after tenders have been completed, because it wanted to preference a government owned entity. [The Australia Network tender for broadcasting to over 44 nations in the Asia Pacific & Indian subcontinent], July 4, 2011:

Fairfax newspapers report today that Sky News’ bid was originally favoured over the ABC’s offer by a majority of the public servants charged with overseeing the process. But the panel’s role was effectively ditched after the government made a late decision to modify the rules governing the tender.

The move raises questions about the integrity of the tender process, potentially giving the impression that the government is seeking to avoid awarding the contract to Sky News, part-owned by News Corp.

Sky News’ proposal to establish a separate service to broadcast to China was one of the reasons why its bid was favoured by the panel. The broadcaster has signalled its intention to extend its reach into China and recently signed a new set of agreements with the state broadcaster CCTV. ENDS, July 5, 2011:

SUBSTANTIAL financial guarantees for the taxpayer-funded ABC and SBS have been put at risk after the Gillard government interfered in a public tender process to stop Sky News winning rights to run Australia’s official television service.

A promise to purchase programs from the ABC and SBS to broadcast internationally was another key factor leading an independent public service panel to favour a bid by Rupert Murdoch’s part-owned Sky News for the $223 million government contract.

Julia Gillard yesterday defended moves to strip the final decision over who runs the official television service from Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd’s department by citing ”changed international circumstances”.

The government yesterday sought to side-step questions on why it had recoiled from the independent panel’s finding in favour of Sky News and chose instead to make late changes to the tender process. ENDS

A FFD at the State level would never consider going into partnership with a foreign owned private sector business group to build a tunnel and then enact road closures around it to force motorists to use the toll road of the tunnel to the exclusion of other roads. [Sydney’s Cross City tunnel]

In a FFD, government would not allow the free to air networks to dominate the broadcast marketplace thanks at least in part to government largesse (exemption from licence fees amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars), while frustrating and impeding the legitimate business interests of subscription television operators.  [February 7, 2010, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy announces licence fee rabates to commercial networks, worth $250 million annually]

Nor would the same government insist on isolating the world’s longest list of sports that may not be broadcast through a subscription service, meant to ensure that all Australians have ‘free’ access to them – despite repeated failures of the scheme to deliver that outcome. [The anti-siphoning rules were reviewed in 2010 but remained heavily biased towards free to air networks]

Those who argue that the free to air networks need the protection of Governments for the public interest are deluded. Protectionist policies were ridiculed as inefficient years ago. The real reason, the politics of this scenario, are embedded in the primal fear (forged pre-subscription tv) that politicians have of television networks’ power at all times and especially in an election campaign.

The protection / public interest argument fails on rational economic grounds. As Foxtel Kim Williams said in his speech at the Network Insights Conference in Sydney in November 2009: “In the past we didn’t protect the stage coach from the train, propeller aircraft from jets, CB radio from the internet, or VHS from the DVD. So it’s time we stopped protecting the old television networks from subscription and other forms of digitally-based competition. In today’s world, when delivery systems are converging rapidly, our watchwords must be choice, competition, flexible responsiveness and efficiency, not protecting incumbency.”

Yes he would say that, but that doesn’t mean his argument is not valid.

When I asked him to comment on the issue, media policy academic Stuart Cunningham* of QUT wrote (email 8/2/2010): “I am a long-term defender and analyst of govt regulation for explicitly cultural benefit eg the commercial TV content regulations, and I would continue to defend them. The content regulations on pay TV for local drama have been a clear incentive for the industry to invest in this area.

But I also clearly acknowledge much content regulation is a trade-off. That is the context in which any comment from me has to be placed. Regulation is a less-worse option, not all bad or all good.

Anti-syphoning is a case in which the public interest argument is being eroded not only by growth of pay etc, but also in the internal inconsistencies and contradictions in the FTA case and in practice.

Their capacity to maintain a purist public interest argument has been significantly damaged by their contradictory desire to be allowed to multi-channel their sports properties now that multi-channelling is beginning to be well established and will inevitably grow in consumer uptake as household conversion to digital rapidly increases towards the analogue shut off.”

* Distinguished Professor Stuart Cunningham, Director, ARC Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation

That leaves the political cynicism of the government exposed, and its support for the networks a policy that is clearly against the spirit of democracy, akin to the emperor (read dictator) anointing his choice of court favourites. Eroding democratic principles one piece at a time is just as bad as trampling on them wholesale.

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