Democracy: Not our Kind of Thing

Young adults, if the Lowy Institute can be trusted, don’t really think democracy is all that it is cracked up to be. The Institute asked 1002 people a whole range of questions about all things political in their annual poll. It discovered a whole lot of things interesting only to students of politics, which isn’t many of us. But hopefully interesting to all of us is that only 39 per cent of people aged 18-29 surveyed in the poll believe that “democracy is the best form of government”, 23 per cent, believe that “for someone like me, it doesn’t matter what kind of government we have”, while 37 per cent say “in some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable”. So what is to be made of this? I didn’t really know when I first read it, and I was about to get out the soapbox and lecture but perhaps I’m not in the unassailable majority as I had assumed. So putting away the soapbox and sanctimonious tone of voice the only way to understand this is to pull it apart.

A starting point is the validity of the poll, 1000 people isn’t statistically large and how many of these people were 18-29? We could find out if I contacted the Lowy Institute but this isn’t part of my degree….so whatever. It would be fair to assume not a statistical majority. However the same poll last year, with a very similar number of participants indicated that only of 59 per cent of people thought democracy was the best form of government across all age groups. So it has some validity. The framing of the poll also included other political issues before the somewhat ambiguous democracy question about the carbon tax, foreigners buying farm land, the Afghan war, and selling uranium to India which probably influenced the answers by highlighting the current negatives of our system. So can we dismiss this poll? No. It points to something valid; it just isn’t entirely clear what that something is.

Maybe our public dialogue might help…or maybe not. The familiar ‘youth bashing’ emerged from some sections of the media and others lamented our apparent lack of civic responsibility. It seems understandable when our forbearers engaged in nation building and defence around the organising principles of democracy and citizenship. “We don’t know how good we have it” and even “Your generation needs another World War to define your generation” have been bandied around. FOR STARTERS, JUST NO. No one needs a World War and if you didn’t learn that lesson from first-hand experience or the experience of your parents don’t start accusing other generations of disengagement. There is something however in the ‘we have it good’ and I think there is a very good dose of apathy in these numbers as well. But there must be something more, so what could be driving the results?

The 23 per cent that believe “for someone like me, it doesn’t matter what kind of government we have” are disengaged. The underlying assumption of the statement being, if it was followed to its logical end, that in a dictatorship, theocracy or communist state it wouldn’t affect them. That seems a difficult point to argue and I would assume that in most cases the response is much more reactionary than examined, in that they don’t see a connection between the happenings of the political realm and their life in Australia and why would that change with a different kind of government? It seems reasonable that some people would have that attitude, particularly young people, as the political system that operates around us doesn’t seem to change much if you don’t delve into it.

It is the 37 per cent who believe “in some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable” that scared me. These people, by and large, probably have engaged with the system on a different level from the 23 per cent. They have examined democracy (ours and others maybe?) and become disillusioned with it. That isn’t to say that they are at fault, bits of democracy can be found wanting and it certainly isn’t perfect. Debates can be corrupted, ideology dominate, action delayed, decisions fragmented, interests and arguments ignored but democracy is democracy. As far as I’m aware you can’t pick the better elements of other systems and transplant them to into a super form of government. I suspect the largest reasons for this is the complexity and immediacy of the problems facing us as we hurtle towards even bigger problems. Resource scarcity will be upon us in our lifetime, assisted by climate change and rampant consumption. Can we solve these problems in our current state of apathy and cynicism across all citizenry? Perhaps not and maybe that is why 37 per cent think non-democratic government is worth a go.

So democracy is still winning the race by a whisker. William the III once said, “There is one certain means by which I can be sure never to see my country’s ruin: I will die in the last ditch”. I feel much the same way about democracy, so come join me in the mud. It could be fun! We may even be able to build something better out of it, our predecessors did and it looks like everything recognisable around us.

- Josh Osborne

An Open Letter to Julia Gillard

GNSAD - July 2013

GNSAD - July 2013