Eavesdrop on Experts, a podcast about stories of inspiration and insights. It’s where expert types obsess, confess and profess. I’m Chris Hatzis, let’s eavesdrop on experts changing the world - one lecture, one experiment, one interview at a time.
In recent years the creeping deterioration of democratic rule worldwide has become a major preoccupation across a wide range of research fields and disciplines - especially public law and political science - as scholars struggle to understand the nature of evolving threats to a broad range of democratic systems.
Associate Professor Tom Daly is Deputy Director of the Melbourne School of Government at the University of Melbourne and Associate Director of the Edinburgh Centre for Constitutional Law at the University of Edinburgh. He’s an academic and consultant in the area of democracy building, public law, and human rights.
Tom Daly sat down for a Zoom chat with Steve Grimwade.
I want you to paint a picture. I want you to imagine yourself at a barbecue – remember those? – and someone comes up to you and asks, what do you do?
Wow. Well, I think the main answer would be, I am a democracy obsessive, and if the person doesn’t start sort of backing away, I would go on to say that, at the Melbourne School of Government, I spearhead key research themes like renewing democracy. We have a new theme, governing during crises, and I’m Director of our flagship course, the Master of Public Administration. But one of my main obsessions, actually, is I’m director of the Global Research Hub, which is focused on assisting researchers, policy makers, and the public to better understand threats to democracy and how democracy is being rethought and regenerated.
So, that’s the Democratic Decay and Renewal Hub, it’s called DEM-DEC for short. So, a lot of my work really is very democracy-focused, government focused.
Let’s presume that they haven’t backed away yet. What do you find most people want to know about democracy?
I think what a lot of people want to know about democracy, these days, is, is democracy in as much trouble as people are worried about? There’s a sort of a quick answer to that, which is yes and no. So, what I always respond to that is, it really does depend on which country you’re asking about but also, what we find throughout the world is, a lot of alarmism on the one hand, and a lot of complacency on the other. What I try to do in my own work is follow the evidence and the evidence allows you to sort of steer the middle course between alarmism and complacency.
Sometimes it does lead you to alarming places and sometimes it leads you to a picture of more resilience than fragility. So, that’s really sort of the main one, I guess, is – or people will say, is anywhere as bad as here? [Laughs] Whether they’re from Australia or Ireland or Kyrgyzstan or Brazil, that will often be the leading question too.
I think it’s time to start down the middle road between alarmism and complacency and I’d love to start by unpacking a few basic principles. So, how about we define democracy? Surely that’s easy.
Yeah. I mean, it is pretty easy in terms of there is a broad consensus in research and among policy makers. But the main thing about defining democracy is what we really need to push against is any idea of democracy simply being reduced to elections or to majority rule. So, when I’m defining liberal democracy, I always talk about three elements. The first is, full free and fair elections is absolutely central to any democracy worth the name, but that alone definitely isn’t enough. So, you have to have, beyond that, core democratic rights, like free speech, freedom of association, freedom of assembly and, for many people, they would say minority rights, as well, need to be protected.
A third aspect is you need to have institutions to keep government accountable, to act as a check on the elected actors. So, some would say you have to focus on just independent institutions, others speak more broadly about the rule of law, which, at minimum, is a legal system that’s clear, that’s predictable, and that’s stable. So, when we’re talking about democracy, we’re really talking about liberal democracy, or what’s even now being called liberal constitutional democracy. So, some aspects are more focused on giving power to the people and others are on constraining elected actors and the power of the people.
It’s interesting. When you think about Australia as an example, I mean, we have a Constitution, which is essentially a contract between the states and the government, the Federal Government, we don’t have a Bill of Rights, and we have the monarchy sitting above all of this. Yet, you couldn’t argue – well, would you argue whether we’re a successful democracy?
Well, I mean, one of the first sort of answers to that always is when you look at the various sort of indices that are produced by democracy assessment organisations, like Freedom House, or Varieties of Democracy, Australia’s always sort of among the top 20, often. It’s considered a gold standard democracy. I think what we [do need] to keep in mind is, there’s no one model for a successful democracy. We have such a wide variety of systems, we have presidential systems, parliamentary systems, we have electoral systems that have proportional representation, we have first past the post.
So, democracy’s given extremely different expression, and institutional expression, in different states. Now, I used to live in the UK and it was in Scotland and I used to often get that question of, how can we be a democracy if we have – if we’re subjects of a monarch and not just citizens? But I think most people would see a constitutional monarchy, where there are very limited powers accorded to the monarch, is acceptable within our broad definition of democracy.
Does the lack of a bill of rights impact your assessment of Australia? Because we are reliant, probably on common law, to protect our interests.
Yeah. I’m aware that this is a really long-running debate in Australia. I mean, what’s important, ultimately, is how rights are protected in practice. Once again, on so many scores like media freedom, for example, or the robustness of the judicial system, independent judiciary and so on, Australia fares very well against international comparators. So, I think when people are seeking a full Australia-wide bill of rights, they’re focused on where there are some deficiencies.
It can be useful to have a clear statement of what the principles are in terms of what rights are protected, what are the limits, how can you limit rights? But I think there are many ways – the same ways there are many ways of doing democracy more generally, there are many ways of protecting rights. You don’t necessarily need to have a written bill of rights, but I do think the clarity that a bill of rights brings is helpful.
Some academics propose that democracy has been in decline since the 1990s. Why is that?
We’re facing what has been called this global democratic recession. So, what we had for decades was – especially from the mid-1970s, we had this overwhelming trend – it wasn’t the universal trend, but an overwhelming trend towards democracy becoming more widespread, globally. Dictatorships were being sort of toppled and democracies were being put in place. We had – longstanding democracies were becoming better functioning, more rights protection, better citizen participation and so on.
This was to the point that people started to assume that the whole world’s future was democratic, it had become the sort of – the exclusive norm in terms of political order. But in the mid-2000s, actually, it’s when we see this decades-long expansion started to stall and reverse and year on year. If you look at every major democracy assessment organisation, for example, they all started to register declines from about 2005 onwards and that’s been the case now, year on year, and up to date. But what’s been troubling here is we’re not dealing with the old fashioned sort of issues like military coup d’état, we’re looking at a deterioration of democracy that happens step by step.
Some people call it death by a thousand cuts, others sort of use this boiling frog analogy that a frog in a pot of slowly boiling water never jumps out because it doesn’t realise that it’s boiling. So, that’s become the sort of dominant threat to democracy in recent years.
I’m interested in the idea of both executive underreach and potentially, executive overreach. Because if you look at the early 2000s, democracy building was probably the main phrase, the main reason for the Iraq war. This idea of regime change. Was it simply that the bastions of democracy around the world, such as the USA, overreached?
Yeah, that’s a really interesting question. I mean, I certainly do think that Iraq, for example, was a case of clear overreach. Of course, I think it’s important here to make clear distinctions between different phenomena. So, of course, we have the sort of neo-conservative idea of democracy building, that’s been this kind of thick strand of foreign policy in the US for over a century. That has a chequered history: there’s the positive role, as many see it, of reconstructing Germany and Japan after World War II, producing viable democratic rule, even if it wasn’t perfect, but then you have this highly negative track record as well.
So, not only the serious failures in Iraq, but if you reach right back into history, you have the US Government’s assistance with toppling democratically elected governments across Latin America in the 60s and 70s, and even further back, how the Philippines was governed after the US took over at the end of the 19th century. But I think, on the other hand, you have democracy support that respects national sovereignty, that’s requested by the recipient state or actors within the state, and that doesn’t seek to simply force one particular model of how to do democracy, that’s not just coming from one executive or government that wants to get its own way.
So, I think, definitely, Iraq is an example of huge executive overreach but that shouldn’t sort of colour our view of democracy support in general.
So, would you argue that Churchill was right, that democracy is the least worst form of government?
I think there’s definitely a lot of wisdom in that. In that, we tend to grumble a lot about the failures of democracy, about the deficiencies of democracy, but I think the answer to that is not to start cosying up to the idea of more authoritarian modes of governance like you see in China and Singapore. That has been the trend in recent years, this narrative that democracies are inefficient, that they’re incapable of producing sort of public goods like prosperity, like stability, like security. That’s simply not true, it’s not borne out by the evidence.
In fact, when you look at the COVID response, for example, some democracies have done well, others have not done well. Some authoritarian regimes have done well, others have not done well. So, it’s really more about effective government and if you can have effective government with democracy and freedom, why not take that over the authoritarian alternative.
I’ll buy that. In a recent article, and you did refer to this just earlier – you said, overt coups are out, fake democrats are in. So, let’s talk about – how is decay happening?
Yeah, it’s a really good question. I mean, I tend to divide this into two broad types when we’re talking about what I call democratic decay. So, the first is the sort of master plan, and we’ve seen this in places like Venezuela or Hungary or Poland. So, you have a democratically elected government that comes to power and then it rolls out a sequence of measures, often presented as reforms, but these cumulatively degrade the democratic system and overall, they sort of concentrate power in the government’s, or the ruling party’s, hands.
So, you get independent accountability mechanisms like parliament, courts, public broadcasters, independent media, human rights commissions and NGOs. All of these are sort of disabled or seriously constrained and usually, then, we see the government starts changing election laws to make it easier to maintain its power. So, you’ll have lots of gerrymandering, tinkering with election commissions, and so on. But it’s not all about master plans. In other places, it’s a more diffuse sort of pattern but you still have many factors leading to deterioration of the democratic system.
So, it might still be coming from the government, but you might have measures that are less systematic. You might have the president or the government lashing out at the perceived enemy of the moment and not really taking over institutions like courts, but delegitimising them. So, that’s what we’ve seen definitely with Trump and USA or Bolsonaro in Brazil or Duterte in the Philippines, for instance.
Often, this is accompanied – and often in the master plan scenario, as well, with sort of negative trends like hyperpolarisation in political system, political actors unwilling to play by the rules of the game according to established conventions, and you’ve denial of the fundamental legitimacy of political opposition, for example.
Then you’ve all of the other challenges that are facing democracy like declining party membership and citizen connection to government. You have rising economic inequality, you have cultural backlash against progressive values, and you have the sort of profound and negative effects of technology on society and the political system. So, sort of echo chambers and misinformation are rife now.
I’m swimming in that sea of information now and I don’t know how you ever navigate a path. But I want to go back to master planning. For a master plan, is there a master planner, is there an individual, or a party behind that sort of planning, or is there more simply a philosophy or a value?
I think it’s sort of both at the same time. I mean, the paradigm case is Hungary and what we’ve seen in Hungary is, you have very sophisticated lawyers actually working with the government to roll out the measures – to produce measures that appear democratic. Actually, what we’ve seen is Hungary has learned from measures taken in Turkey and Russia, for example, and they’ve also taken deficient practices in well-functioning democracies, like Germany, and they’ve put them all together in a new pattern. Kim Scheppele, a US scholar, calls this the Frankenstate.
This is the sort of all the bad pieces put together and what you end up with is something where, on various different sort of measures, if you look at them on their own, it can look democratic or acceptable. But when they all are working together, what you actually get is a very troubling picture of the government ruling the roost. In some places like Poland, it’s actually concentrating power not just in the government, but in one individual.
So, the head of the ruling party in Poland isn’t the prime minister, he’s not the president, Jaroslav Kaczynski, he is a Member of Parliament. He’s a backbencher, but he holds all the true power in Poland right now, after chipping away at the system since they got into power in October 2015. So, there is often an architect, or architects.
If there was, or is, a democracy dashboard, what are the metrics we need to look out for – they’re going to operate as red flags saying that democracy is currently being compromised?
Well, I think what’s been most sort of obvious in most recent years in how we’ve sort of been struggling to keep up with what are the new threats to democracy are that a lot of this new form of democratic decay doesn’t really follow the same patterns as previous threats. So, often what we – we’re primed to look out for things like full frontal assaults on human rights, for example. But actually, what we get in contemporary sort of contexts is attacks on structures. They’re very sophisticated, subtle attacks on structures.
So, what you’ll get, for example, is you won’t get a really obvious packing or takeover of the courts. What you’ll get is, in Turkey, for example, what they – and Hungary borrowed this as well, is they give the court more powers, and that looks good. Gives the court more powers to sort of adjudicate on issues and then they say, well, look, we need more judges because the court is under pressure. Then, they start packing the court. But it looks good because they’ve put thought into making it look good and making it look democratic and defensible.
So, when you’re looking at the dashboard, we’re still constructing the new dashboard. What are the things we should look out for now, beyond the old sort of metrics of full frontal assaults on rights. You know, closing down parliament, all the old, brutal sort of blunt attacks have ceded to much subtler attacks.
So, why is it that democracy is so fragile? Are our ideals so weak or our wants so narrow?
It’s a really good question. I mean, I get asked this a lot and for me, I always come back to the idea that democracy is work, in the sense that it’s sort of like a marriage. It takes work to keep it going, day after day, year in, year out. But instead of a commitment between just two people, it takes a sort of society-wide commitment, it takes a commitment by politicians, judges, civil society, the public. Like marriage, the moment you have commitment wavering or you get complacent about it, you’re in trouble.
I think that’s what’s been so troubling about recent trends. There was this long-established assumption in political science, for example, that once a democracy was consolidated and democracy was the only game in town, that it wouldn’t break down. The past 15 years have really shown that that assumption was over-optimistic. But that’s not to say that democracy is somehow unnatural or always fragile. I think what we’re seeing in many places now, is a lot of democracies are showing that they’re resilient and a lot of researchers are increasingly paying attention to the notion of democratic resilience and the sources of democratic resilience. That’s intensified during the pandemic.
What has the impact of COVID been on democratic values?
COVID has had so many impacts. In fact, under the DEM-DEC project that I’ve been running since 2018, we launched a new project, COVID-DEM, in April. Which is focused on tracking and analysing what is happening worldwide, how the pandemic and state responses to the pandemic are affecting democracy worldwide. Really, the immediate impact has been dramatic. We have – by mid-April, over half of the world states were under formal states of emergency, and that doesn’t account all the states who were under emergency measures without a formal state of emergency.
Executives have assumed really sweeping powers to suppress the virus, with citizens submitting to rights restrictions, stay at home orders, expanded police powers and a lot of extra surveillance. In many cases, this has been without anything close to an acceptable level of democratic oversight because our usual mechanisms like parliaments or the independent media have really been hindered by the lockdown. Then you also have elections postponed in over 50 states and there’s often little certainty about when and how they’ll be held.
So, there’s been this dramatic instant impact and democracies have been facing this tougher challenge than authoritarian states because they have not only to suppress the virus, but they have to do it in a way that conforms to democratic principles and not wreak damage on the democratic system. But we’ve also seen some positive trends as well. The pandemic has returned and intensified the focus on what do we want from democracy, how much inequality can we tolerate and still call a system democratic, how do we make the best out of citizen solidarity, and how do we institutionalise that sense of solidarity that we’ve seen build in many states, even though it’s certainly not universal.
I feel that, in Australia, the COVID crisis has given us that opportunity to see the bigger picture and to work together towards it. How do you think we capitalise on this crisis to improve our ongoing engagement in democracy?
I think one of the most positive signs for me, in Australia, has been it’s shown that we can innovate. The National Cabinet is an absolute case in point. No other federation came up with this idea of such an effective mechanism to cut across what is a very hyperpolarised political system to bring together executives of different party colours and achieve consensus and robust and swift decision-making. I think the lesson from the pandemic is, if we can do it with the National Cabinet, we can do it in other areas too.
One of the things that I’ve been talking about a lot and discussing with a lot of experts here at the University of Melbourne, but also people outside the university, is can we look at, for example, the possibility of a citizen’s assembly or assemblies for Australia. Really reinvigorating citizen participation in governance, not just at the federal level, but possibly at the state level, at the local level too. Because there are opportunities here like the Local Government Act, which mandates deliberative democracy, that’s the 2020 act here in Victoria.
I think it really is – the time is now, and there are so many models to pick and choose from and make something truly something Australian and reclaim the Australian sort of – the proud tradition of democratic innovation that is such a feature of Australian democracy.
I want to flip back to alarmism and ask you, do you hold any fears for the upcoming US elections?
I mean [laughs] – I do have quite a few fears. What has been very concerning to me in recent days is this new express narrative from President Trump that he may not recognise the results of the election, due to his concerns about the integrity of the election. That is a very concerning development. There had been hints and so on about this previously, but now that it has been stated in starker terms, I think we are now really facing the magnitude of what – of the challenge that might be in place if Joe Biden wins in November.
I think it shows, if we needed any more proof – but it shows that President Trump himself, is willing to really do anything. There are no limits to what he would do to potentially maintain power. So, I am very concerned about the elections in November. But also, what I always come back to as well, for those who hope for a different result, is that even if President Trump leaves the stage, the US and US democracy is still going to be facing a whole range of challenges that a change of government is not going to fix. So, it has to be a broader suite of remedies.
What provides you with hope?
A lot of things provide me with hope. I’m probably a born optimist in any case, which is always helpful, but a lot of things give me hope. Number one is we do have this drumbeat for the last few years about democracy is dead or liberalism is dead, or the west is over, or – you know, there’s a lot of this sort of doom and gloom. We are facing many, many, many challenges but, especially in terms of the very wide global network that I deal with on a daily basis, which includes politicians, researchers, policy makers, members of the public, members of my own family, I see such an interest in how democracy works and making it better.
I think it is very easy to become fatalist but I think that would be the wrong move. I think we have to focus on the positive and keep on pushing because it doesn’t help anyone to sort of give up the ghost, give up the fight. Even if you’re in a democracy that’s functioning quite well, it can always be better. I see that sort of – I see that real – that hunger for reform, that hunger for a better democracy, especially with our students and the young people that I deal with – younger than me, certainly. There is that hunger for a different way of doing things.
Finally, when our listeners are thinking about democracy, what do you want them to consider?
I think the first thing that I would want anybody to think about is, democracy begins with you. If you’re not registered to vote, register to vote. You have a voice in many other ways than just voting as well. You know, write letters to your elected representatives, inform yourself about who is representing you. You can join associations, you can support charities and civil society organisations, you can come together, there’s so many ways to come together with your fellow citizens to help our democracy work better.
You can always sort of just informally help democracy work better by, for example, in your everyday life, skewering misinformation. We all receive those Facebook sort of forwarded communications or on WhatsApp from different people we know that contain misinformation. I think all of us can play our part in being sort of reality checkers. That’s a partial response to the flood of misinformation that we’re dealing with right now. It’s not going to completely fix it, but I think all of us can make a difference, every single one of us, every day.
Tom Daly, thank you so much for your time today.
Thank you, Steve, it was a really interesting discussion.
Thank you to Tom Daly, Deputy Director of the Melbourne School of Government at the University of Melbourne. And thanks to our reporter Steve Grimwade.
Eavesdrop on Experts - stories of inspiration and insights - was made possible by the University of Melbourne. This episode was recorded on July 22, 2020. You’ll find a full transcript on the Pursuit website. Production, audio engineering and editing by me, Chris Hatzis. Co-production - Silvi Vann-Wall and Dr Andi Horvath. Eavesdrop on Experts is licensed under Creative Commons, Copyright 2020, The University of Melbourne. If you enjoyed this episode, review us on Apple Podcasts and check out the rest of the Eavesdrop episodes in our archive. I’m Chris Hatzis. Join us again next time for another Eavesdrop on Experts.
“We’re facing what has been called this global democratic recession,” says Associate Professor Tom Daly, Deputy Director of the Melbourne School of Government at the University of Melbourne and Associate Director of the Edinburgh Centre for Constitutional Law at the University of Edinburgh.
“What we had for decades was – especially from the mid-1970s, was an overwhelming trend – it wasn’t the universal trend, but an overwhelming trend towards democracy becoming more widespread, globally,” he says.
“But if you look at every major democracy assessment organisation, they all started to register declines from about 2005 onwards. We’re not dealing with the old fashioned sort of issues like military coup d’état, we’re looking at a deterioration of democracy that happens step by step, some people call it death by a thousand cuts.”
Associate Professor Daly explains that the trend in recent years is a narrative that democracies are inefficient, that they’re incapable of producing public goods like prosperity, stability and security.
But he says that’s simply not true. “It’s not borne out by the evidence. In fact, when you look at the COVID response, for example, some democracies have done well, others have not done well. Some authoritarian regimes have done well, others have not done well.”
“I think one of the most positive signs for me, in Australia, has been it’s shown that we can innovate,” Associate Professor Daly says.
“The National Cabinet is an absolute case in point. No other federation came up with this idea of such an effective mechanism to cut across what is a very hyperpolarised political system to bring together executives of different party colours and achieve consensus and robust and swift decision-making.”
“I think the lesson from the pandemic is, if we can do it with the National Cabinet, we can do it in other areas too. Really reinvigorating citizen participation in governance, not just at the federal level, but possibly at the state level, at the local level too.”
Episode recorded: July 22, 2020.
Interviewer: Steve Grimwade.
Producer, audio engineer and editor: Chris Hatzis.
Co-producers: Silvi Vann-Wall and Dr Andi Horvath.
Banner: Getty Images