Hewson's view: So much for democracy

Democracy in action?: Newly minted Liberal candidate for Gilmore, Warren Mundine, with  Scott Morrison in Nowra on Wednesday after the Prime Minister announced Mr Mundine would replace preselected candidate Grant Schultz. Picture: Mick Tsikas
Democracy in action?: Newly minted Liberal candidate for Gilmore, Warren Mundine, with Scott Morrison in Nowra on Wednesday after the Prime Minister announced Mr Mundine would replace preselected candidate Grant Schultz. Picture: Mick Tsikas

Politicians of all persuasions, right around the globe, would claim to support/fight for/defend democracy and democratic processes. Yet, under this “umbrella”, they often act quite differently, indeed often undermining democracy in pursuit of their own personal interests, or to favour some particular vested interest, against the national interest, as defined by the will/aspirations of the people.

Although democratic ideals are relatively easy to define, much is easily compromised, or lost, in the detail of its application.

For example, it is the essence of most democratic processes that the “majority rule”, but this does not mean that the interests of the minority can, or should, be ignored. It is also fundamentally important to an efficient democratic process that the people are all fully informed about the issue on which they vote. Politicians are also wont to claim a “mandate”, when elected, even though the voter has not actually been fully informed.

For example, Trump has been prepared to shut down the US government, claiming that he has a “mandate” to build a wall along the US-Mexican border, even though only scant details were ever provided during, and since, his election campaign, and the “promise” was also that “the Mexicans would pay for it”, even though that was never going to happen. Sure, Trump won, but only on the basis of the gerrymandered Electoral College – he lost the national popular vote by some 3 million votes.

Similarly, the Brexit referendum in the UK was conducted more on “fear” and “anxiety” than on actual data and evidence, especially concerning the “threat” of a flood of people from the Middle East and North Africa over the next few years

Both these US and UK experiences have been claimed to be democratic outcomes, but both were based more on “emotion” than “substance” and have proven to be fundamentally divisive, across both nations, as only now is more complete evidence emerging, fostering a more informed debate.

Here in Australia we have heard both major parties, both concerned about dwindling membership, claim to be searching for ways to improve the democratic processes of their party, by attempting to improve the influence of the rank and file in issues such as preselections, leadership, and the development of their policy platforms.

Yet, don’t just listen to what they say, scrutinise what they actually do.

For example, recent media has focused on the Liberal Party’s preselection processes in Higgins, with the resignation of Senior Minister Kelly O’Dwyer, and Gilmore, where the locally preselected candidate, Grant Schultz, was ditched in favour of higher profile Warren Mundine.

The Gilmore decision highlights the hollowness of the recent promises/rhetoric/decisions that claimed to improve the “democracy” of the party.

Indeed, the whole Gilmore process has been a very sorry tale from the beginning with accusations of branch stacking and intimidation, leading to the withdrawal of the current member Anne Sudmalis, resulting in the preselection of Schultz, then being overruled by Morrison and the executive to parachute in Mundine, precipitating resignations by some party members, and Schultz to run as an independent.

None of this really helps Mundine either. While he is otherwise a “good candidate”, this will damage his chances of winning Gilmore, one of the most marginal seats in the country, and where voters have been taken for granted.

All this comes on the heels of Morrison’s previous intervention to protect the preselection of Craig Kelly in Hughes, even though he had lost the support of his branch members. At that time, Morrison also claimed to “confirm” all other preselections – obviously except Gilmore.

Morrison clearly just wants to “win”, at all costs, which results in him “shooting from the hip” on any day to maximise what he perceives as the short-term advantage in a particular circumstance, or on a particular issue. But this behaviour is counterproductive as it only confirms the electoral distrust of, and loss of faith in, our politicians, self-absorbed in their own little political games, while ignoring the major issues such as the cost of living, climate change, and so on. In these terms, “democracy” is taken by many of our politicians as something, a label, to be abused and exploited for political gain, rather than a genuine attempt to ensure “power to the people”!

Morrison clearly just wants to “win”, at all costs, which results in him “shooting from the hip”.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.