Monday, 9 April 2018

Book review: The People Vs Democracy, Yascha Mounk (2018)

At first glance the thesis of this German-educated Harvard academic appears fruitful. Mounk says that there are several engines of change that are affecting the texture of democracy, making it less pluralistic even in countries where liberal democracy had seemed to have achieved undoubted supremacy. He links this to globalisation and the neoliberal consensus that has animated democracies in both the developed and in the developing world. He points especially to inequalities in income and wealth in these places. And he adds that social media arriving on the scene has further destabilised the institutions we rely on to safeguard our freedoms.

All well and good, but again and again Mounk talks about North America and Western Europe. Again and again he points to such bastions of liberal democracy and expresses dismay at the way things are turning out as populist parties rise to prominence in election after election. But there’s nothing about Australia or New Zealand. Or even not much about Japan, which is surely one of the world’s great democracies.

It is infuriating. Australia is the world’s fourth-oldest democracy. Elections for the Legislative Assembly in New South Wales started to be held in 1856, a good 11 years before the Act of the parliament in the UK proclaimed the new Confederation in Canada and just four years after the Act of the same parliament that granted colonial self-government to New Zealand. You ignore Australia at your peril. South Australia was, furthermore, the second jurisdiction in the world to allow women to vote, in 1895, following New Zealand. And Australia was the first jurisdiction where women could run for elected office. The roots of democracy run deep in Australia and it just makes me very irritable when prominent pundits like Mounk ignore its achievements. Second-tier democracies like Germany and France can learn a lot from studying what has been achieved in places like Australia and New Zealand.

In fact, borrowing from Mounk’s ideas, the United States is manifestly undemocratic, if you compare it to Australia. Even the party of the left in the US, the Democrats, tolerated the problems deriving from a fundamentally flawed healthcare system for generations before finally moving under Obama to do something about it. And even then, it was done using the same private insurers who had been ripping off the people for all that time! Not even the Democrats have been able to fix the minimum wage – currently set at about US$7 (it is over A$17 in Australia) – demonstrating that the party of the left is often more right-wing than the party of the right is in Australia. The GOP – the grand old party – in Australia is the Australian Labor Party, the party of the centre-left.

Mounk makes much of the rise of populist right-wing political parties in Europe. But even here his chosen graph shows support for them flatlining in 2017 at just under 20 percent. In Australia, populists struggle to get more than 15 percent of the popular vote in the lower houses where legislative agendas are set. The Australian Greens have been sitting at about 15 percent for over a decade and have been able to influence legislative agendas only through their participation in the upper houses, or houses of review, in the jurisdictions that have them. They do this by making deals with the governing party when a vote on a piece of legislation is tight.

The anti-immigration party is called One Nation and it was established in the late-90s (predating Trump by a generation, mind you). It only managed to secure one seat in the Queensland Parliament in 2017. And Queensland is the home state of the party’s founder, Pauline Hanson. In South Australia, the much-vaunted Nick Xenophon and his party only managed in the 2018 election to secure about 14 percent of the vote, giving them no lower-house seats.

So populism is a fringe element of the political process in Australia. Let’s turn now to look at immigration, which is currently running at a level of about 200,000+ individuals annually. Most of these new immigrants move to Sydney and Melbourne because that’s where the jobs are. There are also homogenised enclaves in the cities’ fabrics, especially in Sydney, where immigrants can find the solace of the languages, shops and places of worship that they can rely on to support their particular lifestyles. What animates the mainstream in Australia when it comes to discussing immigration are things like infrastructure (roads and trains) and the cost of housing (either rented or purchased using a mortgage). Neither of the major parties says anything to alienate those parts of the electorate that identify with immigrants.

The number of people who have at least one parent born overseas in Australia totals 49 percent of the population. Australia has the highest overseas-born percentage of a population in the OECD, at 26 percent, and also the highest immigration rate in the developed world. It is, as the prime minister says when he wants to take credit for strong security policies, the world’s most successful multicultural nation. Multiculturalism was adopted first in 1973 by the ALP’s Gough Whitlam and was endorsed after Whitlam lost power in 1975, by the conservative Liberal Party’s Malcolm Fraser.

Which brings me to the matter of terminology. Mounk uses “liberal” and “illiberal” where I prefer “pluralist” and “homogeneous”. The reason for this choice is because in Australia the term “liberal” has been appropriated since the 1950s by the conservative party, skewing the tone of debate and shoe-horning ideas into words that were never meant to hold them. When we talk about what North Americans term “liberal” party policies here we talk of “progressive” policies.

One more thing needs to be emphasised. In Australia public education was first made mandatory in 1880 through an Act of the New South Wales Parliament. The policy meant that children had to go to school when they were aged between six years and 14 years. Those parameters have subsequently been expanded. In his book, ‘The Architecture of Victorian Sydney’, architect Morton Herman (who died in 1983) reflects on this government decision, which led to a bout of construction in the city’s earlier history.
Sir Henry Parkes brought down his Education Act [sic] in 1880, to counteract the condition whereby twenty-six per cent of children of school age were illiterate. Nowadays, of course, conditions have changed and nearly everyone can interpret the cryptic print of the sporting pages of the newspapers. Though there had been many schools before this time, now their number was to be increased so that each centre of population in New South Wales was to have its State school. To the horror of little boys, attendance was compulsory.
Finally, I want to finish by talking about a bugbear that grated as I read the six percent or so of this book that I managed to complete. Democracy originated in England, not in the United States of America. In 1649 Charles I was killed for the same crime that caused the Atlantic colonists to declare independence: taxation in the absence of representation. The colonists wanted nothing more than the rights of natural-born Englishmen, in fact. Louis Harz, an American anthropologist, has written in an admittedly highly rebarbative style a book about a theory of culture which he calls the “fragment” theory. If Mounk had paid a bit more attention to such ideas he might have written a better book.

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