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Blog: Democracy in Transition

Leading the debate on the future of democracy: Regular updates from the 2015 Democracy in Transition conference in Melbourne

The 2015 “Democracy in Transition” conference, hosted by the Melbourne School of Government, brings together change-makers from around the world to explore the challenges and opportunities that democracies are facing in the 21st century. Follow this blog for all the latest developments.

Want to join the discussion? Have your say on Twitter using the hashtag #MSoGDemocracy

8 Dec 2015

and that’s a wrap. thanks for joining us

We’ve had a fantastic two days of debate and discussion here at the Melbourne School of Government’s 2015 Democracy in Transition conference. Thanks for following this blog. We hope you enjoyed it!

We wouldn’t have been able to bring you this blog without the hard work of our dedicated team.

Your blogging team were:

Editor and Production: Roselina Press

Reporters: Aqsa Ali, Martin Bortz, Cassie DeFillipo, Chloe Duncan, Joanna Hanley, Luke Heemsbergen, Rebecca Hetherington, Eleanor Kennedy, Roselina Press, Sophie Reid, Rachel Robinson, Stephanie Smith

Social media: James Cahill, Cathy Harper, Molly Thrasher, Roselina Press, Susanna Woodward

Photography: Hao Wong

Pride Comes Before a Fall: Against Arrogance in Democracy

Parallel session: Beyond the liberal crisis – humble democracy or radical democracy

Widespread self-absorption and self-obsession are among several symptoms of a comprehensive crisis of democracy, argues Dr Jakub Nalichowski from University of Wroclaw in Poland. Emerging from a glorification of career and consumption, this pathology of personality feeds into growing social trends of narcissism, and spreading stress and depression. This contrasts with a trend toward authoritarian adherence to traditional values, which encourages aggressive nationalism, populism and terrorism.

These two opposing trends are accompanied by alienation of the political system, of the sciences, and of the knowledge economy. The root cause of these problems is a transformation of capitalism toward overproduction and overconsumption, according to Dr Nalichowski. This “indifferent imperialism” devastates the environment, social relations and emotional life. But deliberative democracy presents a panacea for these ills. It can highlight that development of knowledge is a social process where people interact to deal with problems.

Dr Christopher Hobson from Waseda University in Japan takes up the theme of hubris and narcissism, asking how we can consider democracy from a frame of humility. Although humility is no longer as trendy a virtue as it once was, it can provide a platform for compassion and mercy. The goal is to develop an ethos that is “more other regarding, more meditative, and less arrogant” through properly acknowledging the limits of humans as individuals, and of democracy.

But there are difficulties in this approach. Firstly, how to promote the importance of being humble, while at the same time remaining humble? Secondly, placing value on humility can easily slide into passiveness and meekness. There is a danger of entrenching hierarchy. But getting the balance right has great potential benefits. Humility is a value present in many world religions, as well as being accessible from a secular viewpoint. It provides a starting point for integrating the diversity of views within a democracy. A certain arrogance of democracy often creates an overconfidence in the possibility of change, that sours to pessimism and despair when change is not straightforward or immediately successful.

“Democracy is ultimately an interplay between democracy as an ideal and democracy as a practice, and there will always be a gap between,” Dr Hobson said. A more humble approach will temper disappointment and cynicism.

Reporter: Sophie Reid

Problems and Paradoxes in US and Scottish Democracies

Parallel session: Questioning “we the people” democratically

This session explored problems and paradoxes in American and Scottish democracies. Dr Timothy Lynch of the University of Melbourne explored the problem of democracy in the political development of the United States. A number of arguments were advanced:

  • If people are not angels, then government must control the governed before controlling itself.
  • Attempts to solve the problem draw on a science of politics that attempts to negate the human dimension by introducing divisions of power, and by creating checks and balances making political power difficult to locate in any one person or institution.
Dr Timothy Lynch, University of Melbourne
  • The United States constitution seeks to negate tyranny, which may result in a tyranny of the masses. The United States constitution also seeks to promote virtue, though this may not be achieved.
  • Paradoxes abound: federalists are anti-federalism, anti-federalists are pro-federalism, Republicans favour democracy, Democrats favour republicanism.
  • Democrats have empowered the least democratic branch of government being the judiciary which at its highest level is comprised of nine unelected lawyers.
  • The constitution is a legal fiction that provides political stability in an otherwise geographically, culturally and economically chaotic context.
  • And finally, the US is a republic before it is a democracy.

Thomas Lundberg, Lecturer in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow, discussed the Scottish referendum for independence held in September 2014. Critically, Lundberg sees the Yes Campaign as a social movement whose objective is greater than achieving independence: it is to realise a higher quality of democracy in Scotland. This helps explain why the campaign continues after the referendum was lost, albeit by 5% of the vote. Lundberg maintains that the referendum experience has deepened the quality of democracy in Scotland while creating greater disconnection from UK politics and the Westminster system. Looking forward, although the Scottish National Party (SNP) championed the failed Yes Campaign, party membership has quadrupled since the referendum which suggests the social movement may continue as new phases of contention and opportunities for insurgents and their opponents arise.

let’s fix democracy

Democracies are facing a number of 21st century challenges ... can we put our heads together and find solutions?

Comedian and radio host George McEnroe invited attendees to spend the final hour of the Democracy in Transition conference coming up with remedies to fix* democracy’s ills.

Joined on the stage by former President and Prime Minister of East Timor Xanana Gusmao, Dr Sara Bice of the Melbourne School of Goverment, and Professor Shamsul Haque of the National University of Singapore, George McEnroe led a spirited and not-so-serious debate about ways to improve democracy – in Australia and abroad.

Some highlights:

  • “Democracy is no longer sexy. We no longer appreciate it when we have it,” Dr Bice quipped. “So how do we get community interested in democracy?”
  • George McEnroe asks Xanana Gusmao, “how would you fix democracy?”
    “I can’t”, he deadpans.
  • We are seeing “political apathy, the disinterest of people in a globalised world ... there is political infantilisation”, Professor Shamsul Haque said.

*We can’t guarantee that we actually fixed democracy.

Professor Shamsul Haque
Dr Sara Bice and George McEnroe
L-R: Dr Sara Bice, George McEnroe, Prof Shamsul Haque, Xanana Gusmao

democracy post-war: no silver bullet, or one-size fits all solution

Parallel session: Politics at war’s end – working out order and legitimacy in the ruins of conflict

Dr Astri Suhrke from the Australia National University spoke to the audience about the election process in Afghanistan in 2014. Despite much international intervention, the election process was unsuccessful, marred by violence, fraud and the results being set aside for a controversial power-sharing arrangement which raised questions as to whether, given the high level of international intervention, the Afghanistan experience could/should be viewed as a democratic project gone astray.

Whilst offering a number of perspectives on why the democratic process failed in Afghanistan, Dr Suhrke referred to Charles Tilly who compared democracy to being like a lake that can expand and contract (flood and drought), but it has the structural capability to handle those situations. Dr Suhrke highlighted how these structures were fundamentally missing in Afghanistan in 2014 to allow the democratic process to be a successful one.

To this end, Dr Suhrke highlighted how institutions themselves can shape the outcome. After 30 years of conflict, Afghanistan was a highly controversial environment in which, Afghanistan may have benefited from a parliamentary system that promotes a coalition, rather than a powerful Presidential system as was proposed. The Parliament itself had little financial power, being heavily reliant on external donor funding which weakened it as an institution. The parties were also weak, with people running as individuals.

Where these main instruments or structures are weak, then the democratic project may also be weakened. Dr Suhrke highlighted that democracy should not just be understood and considered in terms of output, but also as a process.

Charmaine Rodrigues, former UNDP Global Governance & Peace building specialist, used her wealth of experience working with the United Nations to respond to the topic. Ms Rodrigues acknowledged that responses to conflict and democracy building require a long-term focus with particular focus on the process itself. Focus on short-term goals, with a rush toward stability and ending conflict at all costs, is not always the best approach and may actually mean we miss opportunities for transformation. It is not enough to simply promote democratic government and sit back hoping for the best and that people will be able to work it out, without giving sufficient attention to proper problem analysis.

Ms Rodrigues also highlighted that solutions have at times given insufficient attention to politics and people, being focused on technical institution building that is about process, not people. She also reiterated that there is no silver bullet, or one-size fits all solution to many of these very complex situations and by giving voice and agency back to the politics and people, then we may be able to promote real solutions that are suited and responsive to each individual context.

Ms Rodrigues concluded by highlighting that elections should not be used as a proxy for democracy, emphasising long-term views to finding solutions.

Reporter: Joanna Hanley

transitional justice and democratic transition

Parallel session: Redress in divided societies – space to reconcile or space to argue?

This session explored the interesting intersection between liberal democratic ideals and transitional justice frameworks when seeking redress in divided societies.

Thomas Obel Hansen of the United States International University in Nairobi, Kenya, recently wrote on an evolution in transitional justice that challenges many of the underlying assumptions that characterise its precedents.

This includes the association of transitional justice with democratic transition as a tool to advance or consolidate democratisation. Based on Latin American and Eastern European experiences of the 1980s, this posits a liberal “window of opportunity” in which the newly-elected democratic regime is the main actor facilitating state-led reparation.

But Dr Obel Hanson argued that the contemporary field is occupied by pre- and post-transition analysis, and recognises that rather than being derivative “these justice tools can somehow help initiate these transitions”. Importantly pre-transition processes can contribute to redress or reparation without the advent of regime shift. This creates greater space for International and Civil Society actors and re-situates the emphasis upon goals of peace-building rather than prescriptive liberal ideals of justice.

This more adaptive interpretation of transitional justice was taken up by Dr Sarah Maddison of the University of Melbourne, in discussing her research into divided societies of Guatemala, Australia South Africa and Northern Ireland.

This research undertook an “agonistic reconciliation” approach to conflict resolution analysis and rejects the emphasis on consensus in many transitional justice frameworks. In the latter, consensus is normatively upheld as a democratic ideal with agreement sought on the sequence, cause and accountability for events in conflict.

Furthermore Dr Maddison argued, “these [consensus initiatives] are often framed through various transitional justice mechanisms even when there is no evident transition taking place, such as Australia, and these mechanisms are often established to seek ideas of truth, a singular truth about the past”. This often serves elite interests in maintaining the status quo and singular narrative around justice and redress.

In contrast, Agonistic reconciliation may enumerate plural experiences and memories of historical violence and injustice. This is seen as pragmatic in those contexts where distinctions between perpetrator/victim/bystander may prove ambiguous. An agonistic approach seeks to turn enemies into adversaries and create debate and engagement.

Although this may challenge democratic processes when parties maintain an offensive or violent agenda, Dr Maddison said the persistence of such divergent views exposes “the problem that transitional justice has established for us [being] the idea that we might get to the point where we have transitioned”.

Rather agnostic reconciliation allows transitional justice to be constructed as an ongoing process occurring at and across multiple societal levels and reflecting the reality that “these processes are open-ended and complex”.

Reporter: Stephanie Smith

L-R: Professor Andrew Walter, University of Melbourne; the Honorable Kay Rala Xanana Gusmão; Professor Helen Sullivan, Foundation Director of the Melbourne School of Goverment

Honorary Doctorate awarded to Xanana Gusmão

The Honorable Kay Rala Xanana Gusmão

The Honorable Kay Rala Xanana Gusmão, the former President and Prime Minister of East Timor, has been awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Melbourne’s Faculty of Arts.

Xanana Gusmão, widely regarded as the leader of East Timor’s struggle for freedom, was presented with the Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, during a special ceremony yesterday evening, as part of our Democracy in Transition conference.

Learn more.

ranjana kumari: women have a right to equal participation in politics

Parallel session: Popular resentment in the midst of democracy

Democracy is facing many internal and external challenges. Thitinan Pongsudhirak from Chulalangkorn University, Bangkok discussed the effects of military dictatorship on Thai politics where the country is ruled by the troika – the military, the monarchy and the bureaucracy. The democratisation process is marred as a market place for buying and selling votes, and the vicious coup cycle is ruling the country politics.

However, the new political party has been able to involve the masses in politics. The current phase is very uncertain as Thailand is a kingdom and a democracy is emerging out of that kingdom. The generals have promised to conduct elections by 2017, whereas the institutions and individuals related to crown are against elections which has given way to uncertainty. The democracy emerging from monarchy has to give space to the monarchy; only a compromise can bring stability. In the absence of any adjustment and compromises the country cannot have a stable future.

Ranjana Kumari, Director of Centre for Social Research in Delhi, India, considered exclusion as a threat to real essence of democracy – equality. She said that in India, the democratic process is structured in a way that excludes women from politics. The bill for 33% female representation has not been passed by the parliament for the last 17 years because of a strong opposition, and resentment, by the male parliamentarians. Women in India have been able to achieve 41% representation in the Panchaiati Raj (village level administration) as the political parties are not involved in the local government elections. The absence of half of the population from the government does not make the government democratic, said Dr Kumari. So to strike a balance it’s important to give women their right of equal representation in politics.

It’s important to give women their right of equal representation in politics.

Dr Ranjana Kumari, Director of Centre for Social Research in Delhi, India

Erika Feller from the University on Melbourne talked about mass migration and forced displacement as one of the defining challenges to democratic principles. The Australian government considers cultural and ethnic diversity as its strength, but it has also wound back its many laws protecting the rights of asylum seekers and refugees in particular. Many refugee frameworks have been replaced by ministerial discretion, which is not subject to the checks and balances of judicial review. To be a good global governance partner, Australia must strike a balance between national security interests and the needs of genuine refugees.

Reporter: Aqsa Ali

“Democracy in transition” speakers in the media

Dr Mukulika Banerjee of the London School of Economics appeared on RN Drive with Patricia Karvelas last night, where she discussed why India excels at elections and why Indian citizens have a longstanding passion for the democratic process. Listen to the interview.

Sir Simon Hughes, former British MP, was interviewed on ABC’s The World about Islamic terrorism and why there is no simple solution to the extremism of groups such as the Islamic State. Watch the interview.

Privileging the local: democracy assistance in the real world

Parallel session: Aiding democrats? The challenges of international assistance in transition contexts

The importance of examining local contexts when giving democracy assistance was the focus of this session. Dr Wesley Morgan, Pacific Policy Advisor with Oxfam, began by explaining the complexities of Vanuatu’s democracy by using the recent political upheavals in Vanuatu to highlight the differences between local contexts and the universal, theoretical ideas of democracy that often govern international discourses of aid.

Of particular interest was the hybridity present in Vanuatu, which has been described by Miranda Forsyth as “the bird that flies with two wings”. One of these wings is the state government, which broadly follows Western expectations, and the other is the “kastom” governance, a traditional form of governance presided over by local chiefs that has come to be contrasted with a European “other” and is therefore tied to national identity.

Dr Jesse Dillon Savage of the University of Melbourne spoke from a political science perspective, examining the provision of democracy assistance and the role of the military in its effectiveness. He contrasted Georgia’s 2003 Rose Resolution with Armenia’s 2008 crisis, which both received USAID democracy assistance with very different outcomes. Georgia’s poorly-resourced military refused to assist the opposed government, while Armenia’s military, well-resourced and with a good relationship with the regime, agreed to subdue the opposition.

With this background, Dr Dillon Savage then explained the often contradictory research on the effectiveness of democracy assistance by testing the hypothesis that a well-funded military will not only negate the effectiveness of democracy assistance, but possibly make it worse. His results showed that once a country spends 4% or more of its GDP on the military, democracy assistance is likely to make the situation worse.

Both speakers focused on the need to take local contexts into consideration when giving democracy assistance, but Dr Morgan focused on the benefits of democracy assistance, while Dr Dillon Savage suggested that democracy assistance in some instances is a waste of money, and may actually hinder democratisation.

This led to an interesting discussion on the relations between NGOs and the military; the balance between accepting undemocratic practices and working with them to improve society; and the possibility of democratic coups. Ultimately, however, the message was clear – the application of universal principles of democracy can only be useful if it is combined with real consideration of the central actors in the local context.

Reporter: Rebecca Hetherington

Associate Professor Lykke Ricard, Roskilde University and Cathy Harper, editor of DemocracyRenewal.edu.au
Zim Nwokora, McKenzie Postdoctoral Fellow at the Melbourne Law School


Parallel session: Do central governments have too much power? Recharging local and regional communities

A panel of academics from Canberra, Queensland and Victoria today suggested that we must address the “narrative of failure” and demand more from Australia federalism.

Anne Tiernan of Griffith University issued a challenge to political leaders and public servants to get behind federal reform as we approach the December COAG meetings and set out the Reform of the Federation White Paper.

Panellists agreed that core challenges for the future of federalism involve the vertical fiscal imbalance, concerns of federal executive over-reach and emerging challenges in light of indigenous self-government.

Michael Crommelin AO, Zelman Cowen Professor of Law at the University of Melbourne, discussed the constitutional foundation of Australia’s federalism. Professor Crommelin, who recently co-authored a paper with Cheryl Saunders titled Reforming Australian Federal Democracy, expressed his confidence that – despite the considerable challenges – our Constitution provides a robust framework and solid foundation to reinvigorate our federal democracy.

Miranda Stewart of the Australian National University discussed the challenge of indigenous self-management in light of federal democracy. Professor Stewart shared data about the complex system of financial transfers supporting indigenous programs.

In order for our federal democracy to address indigenous representation and budgeting, Professor Stewart imagined substantial reform driven through “COAG or a similar process led by federal government in cooperation with the states”.

Dr Glenn Savage of the University of Melbourne discussed recent reforms to school education including the implementation of a national curriculum, national teaching standards and national testing. Reforms have led some to perceive education policy as an example of “coercive federalism”.

Using the example of education reform, Dr Savage issued a challenge. He said that the White Paper on the Reform of the Federation, “needs to harness the benefits of national reform and cooperation but also guard against over-reach and ensure intergovernmental cooperation remains representative and fair”.

Reporter: Rachel Robinson

organisational democracy: still alive but in critical condition

Parallel session: Organisational Democracy – Is it dead and buried?

According to panelists Jimmy Donaghey of Warwick Business School of London and Bill Harley of the Centre for Workplace Leadership at the University of Melbourne, organisational democracy is still alive but in critical condition.

Industrial democracy first emerged in the late 19th to early 20th century. It was seen as part of a political project: a new economic and social order where the orthodox power structure was modified and employees had both greater participation and a larger stake in the organisation.

It was a system where “rule by men” existed, and the employee could hold those in authority accountable. But the movement had a troubled beginning and failed to gain widespread popularity. It also rarely fully implemented in practice.

Associate Professor Donaghey and Professor Harley note that the popularity of organisational democracy has not been increasing in recent years. “If anything we have gone backwards in the last 100 years or so,” Professor Harley said.

Until the 1980s, calls for workforce democratic participation, an essential element of organised democracy, were widespread among scholars, unionists, and political reformers. Now, however, participation has been displaced by the concept of involvement, and the movement has stagnated. In its place are associational democracy organisations such as democratic societies, unions, and employer associations.

Associate Professor Donaghey and Professor Harley discussed the changing nature in worker representation, citing a continuing decline of union membership and coverage. NGOs with specific purposes are acting somewhat as substitutes for some groups of people, but the right of these NGOs to represent these workers is often under dispute.

Another topic of discussion was corporate social responsibility and how some organisations now participate in questionably unethical behaviours such as relocating to countries with fewer regulations and protections for worker’s rights. There is often little accountability for these multi-national corporations, and many have moved away from the goals of organisational democracy.

The panelists left attendees to ponder if organisational democracy can be realised in different settings via different mechanisms, who can legitimately make representative claims, what responsible capitalism looks like, and how organisational democracy can be brought back to life.

Reporter: Cassie DeFillipo

rethinking the corporation in democratic transition: the responsible company

The institutionalisation of social responsibility within corporations was the topic of conversation for the Lunch Plenary on Day 2. Dr. Sara Bice of the Melbourne School of Government said that the mandate of corporations to enter social spaces has “grown exponentially in the recent years” and produced a real “boundary issue with civil society” as companies are realising they must take on more responsibility.

Dr Sara Bice, Melbourne School of Government

Providing a positive example of transgressing such boundaries, Michael Parks, General Manager of Governance, Integration and Reporting at Telstra explained how his company’s reconciliation action plan in Australia includes building capability and confidence, as well as infrastructure, as they expand telecommunications capacity in the Northern Territory. “Digital literacies”, including understanding privacy issues, he says, are important aspects of becoming connected.

Michael Parks, General Manager of Governance, Integration and Reporting at Telstra

Audience questions reminded the panel of a company’s responsibility to its shareholders, and asked if we should encourage or demand changes to corporate law to continue to move forward. The response from ANZ Head of Corporate Sustainability Jane Nash was that under the current regime such activity “is what is expected of us” to maintain their “social licence to operate.”

Reporter: Luke Heemsbergen

Engagement within and between publics: Bridges and blockages

Parallel session: Engaging with Publics Pushing the Boundaries of Deliberative Democracy

There is more to deliberative democracy than just citizen engagement, according to Dr Carolyn Hendriks of the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University.

Speaking on a panel with Dr Annie Bolitho from the University of Sydney and Dr Nicole Curato from The Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance at the University of Canberra, Dr Hendricks observed that the connections between engaged citizens and decision-makers may not always happen organically. Sometimes this coupling between citizens and decision-makers needs an intentional boost in order to be effective.

Dr Bolitho provided some insight into the difficulties of designing these processes. Drawing on her extensive experience of organising citizen participation initiatives for local and state governments, she observed that people often don’t understand what a really robust values discussion entails.

She presented a basic recipe for successful citizen deliberation, with three ingredients: strong framing of the issue, random stratified sample of participants, and empowerment to explore the issue. Both noted the need for support from political officials in order for deliberative innovations to have an impact. Dr Hendriks pointed out that a well-designed deliberative process would have little impact without leaders and champions interested in supporting the coupling process.

Dr Hendricks noted that “Democratic innovation needs people prepared to think outside the box, even if it is for self-interested reasons.”

Dr Curato presented a counterpoint to these fairly optimistic views, with a presentation on the ways that citizens can act to silence each other. Looking at civil society reactions to the recovery efforts after hurricane Haiyan devastated parts of the Philippines in 2013, she examined the ethical boundaries around dissent that emerge during times of crisis.

In times of humanitarian emergency, expressions of solidarity are a common reaction from civil society. But expressions of dissent also often emerge, such as criticising government responses to the crisis. The general aversion to politicising humanitarian disasters, however, means that in these circumstances government critics are often themselves subjects of criticism, labelled traitors or simply told “Shush, just help”.

But Dr Curato said that far from being traitors to the state in times of danger, these critics have an important role to play. They are “necessary to ensure the state of exemption does not become the rule.”

Reporter: Sophie Reid

Better outcomes: policy processes and public interest

Parallel Session: Reforming the policy process – how do we get better outcomes?

“Involving the community in both defining socio-economic challenges and aligning innovation is beneficial” was the conclusion of a study conducted by Roskilde University’s Lykke Ricard and the University of Melbourne’s Jenny Lewis.

Their research on insider and outsider understandings of policy challenges and views of innovation in the public sector in Copenhagen, Rotterdam and Barcelona emphasised the benefits of deliberative democracy.

This research highlighted striking similarities between insider and outsider views when political culture was shaped by the access of citizens to policy processes.

The Hon Tim Smith QC, former judge and current representative of the Accountability Round Table, also focused his presentation on conventions of democracy.

Mr Smith suggested the need to refocus on the principle of “Public Office, Public Trust” or the fiduciary relationship between members of parliament and the public. He shared his concern that public trust is compromised by professionalisation of the political trade; the absence of meaningful public policy debate; debate that is driven by factions; and concerns of deception, half truths and exaggeration in political process.

“As a nation, we’ve never been so educated, healthy or prosperous but something’s not working – confidence has never been lower and it’s never been harder to get things done”. Nicholas Reece, University of Melbourne and former political advisor expressed his reservations about the state of our democracy.

As a member of a deliberative budgeting process, Mr Reece provided insight into the way citizens can play a meaningful role in policy formation. Citizen juries are able to understand and solve specific and complex policy problems given the right tools and information.

Members of the audience suggested that citizen juries could be improved when juries are provided with adequate time and information and are able to incorporate experimentation, engagement and discussion opportunities outside the direct jury process.

But in order to be successful, deliberative processes need to be conducted in an environment of broader political stability.

The panel and audience were concerned about policy gridlock and a growing inability to address the long-term policy issues of the day. But there was confidence that a focus on good governance and deliberative processes have the potential to reinvigorate democracy for the future.

Reporter: Rachel Robinson

Jim Middleton, University of Melbourne and Annabelle Quince, Australian Broadcasting Corporation
L-R: Mukulika Banerjee, London School of Economics; Craig Jeffrey, Director of the Australia India Institute; Ranjana Kumari, Director of Centre for Social Research, Delhi, India
John Brumby, former Premier of Victoria

indigenous-state relations

Parallel session: How does Indigenous political organisation influence 21st Century conceptions of Western democratic ideals?

As promised by Panel Chair Dr Mark McMillan, Law Lecturer at the University of Melbourne, both speakers provided significant accounts of how Indigenous political organisation influences Western democratic ideals in the 21st Century.

Professor Steve Cornell, Director of the Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy at the University of Arizona, began by discussing the extensive historical precedent of intervention in the governance and governments of Indigenous peoples. Across the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand (CANZUS) this typically involved the promulgation of structures done generally “in the name of democracy”.

Such initiatives assumed traditional or cultural forms of governance were undemocratic. However Professor Cornell’s research has found these Indigenous systems were indeed democratic despite considerable variation in form.

In contrast, imposed governance structures are alien and lack legitimacy in failing to reflect local cultural values and practices. This can give rise to rent-seeking behavior and damaging “winner takes all” contests for limited resources. Professor Cornell promoted “organic democracies” as more viable, defined as “a reflection of the norms and values of the people being governed’’. Such forms of self-determined government have produced sustained improvement in Indigenous welfare in the United States, a phenomenon delineated in the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, his seminal work co-authored with economist Joseph P. Kalt.

Second speaker Kirsty Gover, Co-Director of Melbourne Law School’s Indigenous Peoples in International and Comparative Law Research Program at the University of Melbourne, considered the puzzling case of Australian exceptionalism amongst the CANZUS states. Specifically, the absence of a Common Law “Honor of the Crown” Doctrine that conditions Government powers in relations with Indigenous Peoples.

As Dr Gover reflected, Mabo No.2 decision was an historic legal decision that failed to introduce the corollary fiduciary duty alongside recognition of Native Title as a vulnerable form of property rights. This speaks to the unique tension faced by Liberal Democratic Settler States “to grapple with and reconcile two forms of liberalism”. The first is the classic tenets of promoting and maintaining norms of equality and fair resource distribution. The second being the ideal of consent, unique to the “social contract” of democratic government.

In relation to Indigenous citizens, this is pressing as Indigenous consent regarding governance process and decision-making “is often palpably absent or seems implausible given the systemic injustice [that has characterized this relationship]”.

Many Indigenous claims have been stymied by objections of racial-discrimination or fail to gain traction through rights-based frameworks. As Dr Gover contended, the introduction of an “Honor of the Crown” Doctrine may introduce a new form of relationship between indigenous peoples and the state, one which codifies trust and obligations, and expands the democratic possibilities of governance in the Australian context.

Reporter: Stephanie Smith

democracy in 140 characters

Parallel session: The role of social media in renewing democracy

This session was chaired by Tim Dunlop of the Centre of Advancing Journalism at the University of Melbourne, and featured presentations from Nkwachuwkwu Orji of Institute of African Affairs at German Institute of Global Studies; Dr Sarah Bice of the Melbourne School of Government; and Tim Norton, Campaigns Manager at Save the Children Australia.

“What are the political effects of social media?” was the question that framed Dr Orji’s discussion. Drawing on his experience with the 2015 Nigerian elections, his answer was that social media can bring benefits in electoral processes by empowering citizens to be electoral observers.

Fact to blow your mind: Nigeria has 92,000,000 internet users. Coupled with Nigeria’s weak electoral processes, Dr Orji explained it was inevitable that social media would be used to strengthen the elections.

For many, when the terms “Twitter” and “democracy” are raised they think of the Arab Spring and the role of the social media platform in less democratic communities. But Dr Sara Bice reminded us that there are powerful applications for social media in established democracies as well.

This was told through the story of Twitter’s use in promoting awareness, community and resistance on the issue of coal seam gas. Coal seam gas campaigns, and the use of social media in those campaigns, reminds Dr Bice of one of the strengths of social media and our digitally-connected world: no matter how distant people may be geographically, we are no longer isolated or disconnected.

To summarise Tim Norton’s presentation in one word, it would be “reach”. That is, the amplified reach that social media affords. 30 years ago, Mr Norton said, “you used to go to town hall meetings and reach 200 people. But now I can spread a message to 100,000 people via Twitter.” So perhaps social media is less about renewal of democracy, and more about reformulation. “An increase in voice is not an increase in democracy,” Mr Norton said.

If this panel had been presented entirely in hashtags, the trending phrase would have been #tipoftheiceberg. Social media is rapidly changing and transforming all the time, so there still much to learn about its application in democracies.

Reporter: Eleanor Kennedy

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