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Australia's Leaders Must Give Democracy More Respect

John Lee

Once Australians made fun of other countries for having multiple leaders in short succession.

Now the tables are turned. When Scott Morrison became prime minister in late August, he was the sixth Australian leader to be sworn in since 2010 and the fifth since 2013. Too much change at the top is rarely a good thing.

Moreover, the voters had been pushed aside as three of the last five prime ministers assumed their position through an internal party ballot rather than a general election.

Strikingly, this sudden surge in the toppling of sitting prime ministers occurs at a time when Australians are enjoying an unprecedented economic expansion, with a 27th consecutive year of growth, a record for any developed economy. The economy, a common reason for public political dissatisfaction, is definitely not to blame.

The facts point to a deeper political malaise — a general disappointment with democracy. A string of leaders breaking promises and relentless political infighting has tarnished Australian politics in the past decade.

If this can happen in Australia, a country with a strong economy and established democratic traditions, it bodes ill for other states in the Asia-Pacific region, where democracy often comes in fragile forms and the authoritarian alternative is frequently dominant, not least in China.

Australian democracy is in the dock. According to the 2018 Lowy Institute Poll, the majority of Australians aged 18-44 years do not consider democracy the best form of government under all circumstances, with only 47% nominating democracy as appropriate for all conditions compared with 76% of those aged 45 and more.

Underlying the younger voters’ weaker support for democracy is the fact that more of their adulthood has been lived under leadership instability.

The result is consistent with a 2017 Pew Research Center survey which revealed that only 40% of Australians are “committed democrats.”

Australia is not the only country in the region where democracy is being questioned as the Pew Survey also shows. Committed democrats make up only 31% of respondents in Japan, with figures in other Asian democracies even lower: South Korea (26%), the Philippines (15%) and Indonesia (12%). In India, the world’s largest democracy, only 8% of respondents were committed democrats, the same proportion as in the Communist dictatorship of Vietnam.

This matters because whereas committed democrats will blame the party in power for unsatisfactory outcomes, other citizens frequently blame the democratic system itself.

The dangers are highlighted by Thailand, an on-off democracy which has experienced at least 15 coups or coup attempts since becoming a constitutional monarchy in 1932. In the latest takeover in 2014, the junta experienced its highest approval ratings months after it seized power, as it was perceived military leaders had a better chance than democratic politicians of restoring order to society and politics.

Meanwhile, in the Philippines, another country where democrats and authoritarians have done battle, President Rodrigo Duterte’s approval ratings, almost 80% earlier this year, are the highest of any president since the 1980s despite his illiberal tendencies.

The apparent decline in democracy in the region has not escaped China’s attentions. Long on the defensive over its one-party system, China is now on the offensive. Under President Xi Jinping, Beijing openly denigrates political pluralism in the region. For example, on the eve of the 2017 Communist Party Congress, an editorial in state-run Xinhua mocked the “crises and chaos” which “swamp Western liberal democracy.”

It contrasted China’s stability with the ‘endless political backbiting, bickering and policy reversals’ of democracy which “retarded economic and social progress and ignored the interests of most citizens.’

China would be smirking with respect to recent events in Canberra.

Moreover, Beijing is no passive bystander. It seeks to exploit the “bickering” which occurs in open societies and weaken their capacity for action by deepening the perceived divisions in such societies. Australia is only recently pushing back against accounts of extensive Chinese political interference and covert influence in civil society which has shocked the country.

Legislation is being passed outlawing such activities. Australia is the canary in the coal mine. There are similar reports of covert Chinese influence from Canada, New Zealand and the U.S.

With the promotion of autocracy and the undermining of democracies on the rise, Australian politicians have not done the broader democratic movement any favors. A report on Trends in Australian Political Opinion from 1987-2016 shows that Australian satisfaction with democracy has declined from a high of around 88% in 2007 to a low of 60% in 2016. The perception that politicians “look after themselves” increased from 57% to 74% under the same period.

These figures coincide with the years after the stable leadership of Prime Minister John Howard (1996-2007), when subsequent governments lost credibility amid a spate of internal party coups against serving prime ministers and back flips on supposed core beliefs. Kevin Rudd (2007-2010) called climate change the “great moral, environmental and economic challenge of our time” only to walk away from a carbon emissions trading scheme. Julia Gillard (2010-2013) adamantly insisted there would be no carbon tax only to introduce one after she won the election. Malcolm Turnbull promised fundamental reform of the Goods and Services Tax only to baulk in the face of political pressure.

Nevertheless, there is hope. Australians overwhelmingly support the legislation against foreign interference, suggesting they believe restoring integrity to democratic institutions is important.

According to the 2018 Lowy Poll, the democratic nations of Japan, India and the U.S. in descending order are still more trusted in Australia than Xi’s China. To support the adage that consistency of policies matter and that respect must be patiently earned, Australians have more confidence in the long-serving Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe than they do any in other leader in the region. Japan, by the way, had six prime ministers in 2008-2012 before Abe stopped the rot. Instability can be reversed.

The way forward for Australian democracy seems clear: Ensure political stability by allowing elected leaders to serve out their time and present themselves to the people at elections; demonstrate convictions, stick to consistent policies and argue for them even if there is initial skepticism.

Only then might Australian democracy, and its leaders, regain political standing at home and hope to set an example for the region. It falls to Morrison to make a start.