Democracy and COVID
7 May 2020 at 8:10 am
We are seeing a sharp withering of vital features of our democratic system, which matters intensely to everyone who cares about the climate emergency and the ecological crisis, writes David Ritter.
As Australians have disappeared behind masks to stave off the toxic smoke of spring and summer and the pandemic of autumn, our democratic expression has also been stifled.
Amidst the rolling crises, we Australians have shown our neighbourliness and community in abundance, demonstrated in countless acts of kindness and dedication by emergency workers and carers, or just the people next door. On the little street where my family live, there have been new friends made at a social distance, and we’ve learned more names, as the acknowledged bonds of our shared community of fate have become stronger.
And there’s no doubt either, that the fires and the disease have forced our politicians to give greater importance to human life and welfare and care for the public good.
“This may well be the most undemocratic peacetime moment in the 120 years of the Australian nation state.”
Yet alongside the bright flowering of our social-mindedness, has been the sharp withering of vital features of our democratic system. National parliament has been suspended, the media, the universities and the arts are in freefall, and both public and private assembly prohibited – even though the latter has a strong public health rationale. This may well be the most undemocratic peacetime moment in the 120 years of the Australian nation state.
Evidence of the wilting of our democracy and our institutional safeguards is there in the abandonment of ministerial accountability and with it some of the norms of our parliamentary system, and in repressive government threats against protest and advocacy.
Australia lacks effective mechanisms for dealing with both straight corruption and the institutionally corrupting impact of vested interests. According to Transparency International, the corrosive influence of money on Australian politics has contributed to worsening perceptions of corruption.
When Scott Morrison dismisses legitimate questions about the function of our democratic institutions as the preoccupations of “the Canberra Bubble” he is evincing contempt for the system ill-befitting his office. It is fundamental that our prime minister should cherish, respect and nurture the system of rules that underpins our liberal democracy and are foundational to his legitimacy. And as Masha Gessen memorably pointed out in the US context, the problem is that “many of these institutions are enshrined in political culture rather than in law, and all of them – including the ones enshrined in law – depend on the good faith of all actors to fulfil their purpose”.
The work of campaigners and activists has never been more important. Philanthropic and pro bono support for advocacy has never been more crucial to the robustness of our democracy than now.
The reduction of our democratic space matters intensely to everyone who cares about the climate emergency and the ecological crisis (which should rightly be all of us). The more robust the system of checks and balances accompanied by a systemic commitment to the common good, the better the chance of bringing in the reforms that will guarantee our rapid shift to clean energy sources like wind and solar, the transitioning to regenerative agriculture and clean cities, and the resurgence of wildlife and nature.
“The challenge now is to bring together the surge in social-mindedness with urgent demands for the deepening of our democracy, in the context of the climate emergency.”
A clear majority have favoured effective action to reduce emissions consistent with the science for many years – and the policies and technology are there to achieve what is necessary. What has stifled progress has been the malformation of our democracy by vested interests.
Environmentalists should strive for greater accountability within our political system, not only out of conviction in democracy but because we recognise that when huge corporations fill our skies with pollution, destroy our reefs, cut down our forests and empty our great rivers, they are doing so in defiance of the will and wishes of the great majority of Australian people.
Dealing with mass public welfare crises like the bushfires and COVID-19 forces politicians to acknowledge that we are social animals, who live in relation to each other and rely on a set of shared systems. Contra Margaret Thatcher, there is such a thing as society, and ours is inhabited by 25 million Australians who, taken as a whole, share the natural propensity to sociality, kindness and reciprocity that is endemic to our species.
The challenge now is to bring together the surge in social-mindedness with urgent demands for the deepening of our democracy, in the context of the climate emergency. Fulsome commitment to decentralised clean energy systems, for example, could simultaneously contribute to the future flourishing of life on the planet, lowering the cost of power, reducing vested interests, deepening democracy, and regrounding the truth that the availability of electricity for all is a foundational public good.
One day, the masks that protect us from disease will be gone. But the future air that we breathe should not only be free of COVID-19, but also clearer and cleaner of pollution, and alive with the reawakening of our democratic spirit.