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Friday, Oct. 28, 2011

Global crises of democracy


CANBERRA — In 2000, at the first U.N. millennium meeting in Tokyo, Gallup presented interesting results of a global public opinion survey. Most people, even in the mature Western democracies, believed their government was failing to represent them — refusing to heed their voices, looking after their own and corporate interests rather than defending the common interest of the citizens collectively.

The Anna Hazare movement against rampant public corruption in India this year tapped into a widely-shared sense of disenchantment with most state and federal governments. Millions of Indians have concluded sadly that their politicians are interested essentially in three things: cash from the wealthy to fight elections; votes from the poor to win elections; and feathering their own nest in between elections.

In Greece, streets are aflame once again as people believe the government listens more to foreign financial interests.

In Japan, the government's response to 3/11 disasters, especially the Fukushima nuclear accident, intensified the people's distrust of it.

It seems silly to deny the link between the eruption of street violence in Britain and the greed-is-good patterns of behavior and abuse of office and power by the political, business, banking and finance elites that fed the financial collapse.

Pay, perks and bonuses have been disconnected from performance for the past 20 to 30 years. In this time, wealth has become more narrowly concentrated, income inequality has widened among and within nations and the gap between the compensation packages of CEOs and pay packets of workers at the bottom has blown out. Henry Ford's great insight — well-paid workers would buy the cars he made — has been forgotten. Western businesses depend on China and India for profitability and survival.

The U.S. tea party is driven by anger against politics in Washington that seems to have perverted President Abraham Lincoln's famous dictum into government by, for and of elites. To tea partisans, government is the problem, not a solution. One popular explanation is that "tea" stands for "taxed enough already."

By contrast, the Occupy Wall Street movement, with all the global offshoots, is an inchoate, unorganized yet gathering protest against the disconnect between what people vote for and what they get. The "99 percent" slogan captures the protestors' belief that the government makes them promises but its policies are actually for the 1 percent rich and powerful, with their army of lobbyists and campaign funds.

It is difficult to think of big bank bailouts as a failure of capitalism. Capitalism would have allowed the banks to fail. Rather, big bailouts are examples of corporate welfare.

That is, profits have been privatized and risks socialized: public pain for private gain. The price of greed and excess by the "fat cats" on Wall Street has been paid by ordinary folks on Main Street. Or that at least is the perception.

Because perception is all-important in politics, the crisis of capitalism may well morph into a crisis of liberal democracy. This is where the current highly febrile political atmosphere in Australia links up with global trends. Democracy works by candidates and parties presenting policy platforms to voters who evaluate them, align them to their own priorities and values, judge the parties' ability and competence to implement the policies, and cast their votes accordingly.

In 2007 the Australian Labor Party won elections with Kevin Rudd as leader and he duly became prime minister. In dumping Rudd for Julia Gillard last year, the ALP gave a highly visible finger to the voters. Had Australians voted for a majority Gillard government, they would have vindicated Labor's contempt for them. A hung parliament was a people's warning shot across Labor's bow. Instead of listening and heeding the danger signal, the government continues to be contemptuous of citizens. After months of terrible polls, in refusing to correct course with a change of leadership and policy, in effect Labor tells voters they are wrong and then seems surprised at the level and depth of their rage and vitriol.

There is an urgent need for all countries to combat the threat of climate change by putting a high enough price on carbon to modify industrial and individual behavior. That still leaves open for debate the particular type and level of tax, and the wisdom of imposing it ahead of a global agreement. What is not defensible is promising one thing as policy to win election, then doing the opposite to stay in power without a compelling change of circumstances: The damage to democratic principles and integrity exceeds any climate gains.

Moreover, under modern conditions, democracy works through parties, and the system would break down without party discipline. But when a policy is forced through against an election promise to the contrary, and just one party member can kill it, failure to stop the policy will badly damage the party brand. I recall a conversation with some senior ruling party officials in Zimbabwe around 1999 or so that the best chance for them to stem the gathering rot was for the party to reject another term by President Robert Mugabe. They didn't. The failure to stop British Prime Minister Tony Blair going to war in Iraq against strong public opposition similarly caused lasting damage to the U.K. Labour Party brand.

Worse, to lock in elements of the carbon tax in order to make repeal by a future parliament very costly is democratically perverse, as well as high risk in terms of governments playing the lottery at public expense (a syndrome also seen in the National Broadband Network saga). This is not a course that one would recommend even if a campaign promise were being redeemed and support was available across the parliamentary aisle. It is grossly irresponsible from a legitimacy-challenged government, led by an unpopular leader, against the backdrop of a broken election promise, amid entrenched public hostility.

Professor Ramesh Thakur is director of the Center for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament, ANU Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy.


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