Thursday, 15 February 2018

Democracy shoots itself in the foot again

The shooting today at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida will change nothing. When one of America’s major parties is allied so strongly with the radical fringe element in the electorate that wants to conserve gun ownership rights, nothing can change.

In Australia as it happens, on the same day as the Florida shooting there was a gun death, involving outlaw motorcycle club leader Mahmoud “Mick” Hawi, who was shot in the head and killed while sitting in his car outside a gym in the Sydney suburb of Rockdale. This is the kind of gun crime that Australians are used to seeing: a contract killing involving elements of the criminal underworld. Not school children shot in their classrooms. The difference being, of course, that Australia outlawed most privately-owned guns following the Port Arthur massacre in 1996. At that time, both major political parties made the decision to make ownership of high-powered rifles illegal for most people. The country has not had a gun massacre since.

But the Republicans in America are notorious for forgetting the purpose of good government: to enable the majority of people to live in peace so that they can pursue happiness in their chosen way.

Look at their health care system. “The share of GDP allocated to health spending in the United States (excluding capital expenditure) was 16.4% in 2013, compared with an OECD average of 8.9%,” an OECD report of 2015 states. Nevertheless, life expectancy in the US is lower than in comparable countries. “Life expectancy has increased in the United States, but less rapidly than in many other OECD countries, so there is now a gap of almost two years between life expectancy at birth in the United States compared with the average in OECD countries (78.8 years in the US in 2013 compared with 80.5 years for the OECD average).”

It’s no wonder that China looks askance at the benefits that democracy is supposed to bring, when these kinds of facts are routine for news coverage of the country that out of a sense of nationalistic exceptionalism considers democracy to be a crowning achievement. (Let’s leave alone for the moment the fact that the British invented representative democracy.) China will do better than the US because the rulers there use common sense to generate policy, and do not rely on outdated and retrogressive ideological positions that cause misery to the majority.

While the Chinese try to control the message overseas - revelations of Party involvement in Chinese language media in Australia are contained in a new book titled ‘Silent Invasion: How China Is Turning Australia into a Puppet State’ by Professor Clive Hamilton of Charles Sturt University, to be published by Hardie Grant later this month – the mainstream media in countries like Australia where democracy is part of the system of government, is struggling both to make a profit and to retain the reputation on which profitability rests.

Twitter routinely lights up with messages condemning the mainstream media whatever the cause of the protest is, as though journalists were part of the problem of bad government when democratic leaders are accused of something untoward. Any divergence by journalists from the most extreme approach is greeted by shameful catcalls. Only a few properties will survive the onslaught of free or cheap information, but news is expensive to produce and journalists need to be free to make mistakes. Holding them to such high standards that they are condemned merely for agreeing with each other, for example, seems a little uncalled-for.

Having said that, the benefits for democracy of vehicles such as Twitter are clear, because they open up the debate to more people. The gatekeepers are left empty-handed, and every man (and woman) and his (or her) dog can participate in the process of tearing down an unworthy politician, such as Barnaby Joyce. There were a few lonely voices on Twitter even a week ago before the Daily Telegraph published its story on Joyce and his girlfriend, but I, for one, remember them with gratitude because they never gave up even when things seemed hopeless. 

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