Australia’s youth are interested in politics and are passionate about issues but, unless we take note of the latest report into civics and citizenship education, their capacity to participate in democracy and shape society in future may be limited.
Since 2004, the National Assessment Program – Civics and Citizenship (NAP-CC) has been administered every three years to a national sample of year six and ten students. It’s used to measure students’ level of knowledge about subjects including Australian government, judiciary and democratic processes, and explores their attitudes towards civic participation.
The 2016 NAP-CC report has just been released and the results show some concerning, but familiar, trends.
As with previous assessments, the percentage of Australian students achieving the proficient standard remains low. This is a point on a scale that represents what has been deemed as a challenging but reasonable expectation of student achievement for their year level.
The report shows 55% of year 6 students achieved at or above the standard.
More problematic is the fact the rate of year 10 students attaining this standard was just 38%. This is the lowest result on record.
The Australian Curriculum: Civics and Citizenship was developed in 2012/2013 to provide educators with tools to teach students about democracy and civic participation. This curriculum is delivered to students from Year 3 to Year 10. It’s based on the principle that informed and committed citizens will advance a robust democracy and schools play a vital role in preparing young people for the responsibilities of adult citizenship.
This latest report into civics and citizenship education is the first opportunity for educators to see how students are performing under the new curriculum, and the results are disappointing. It shows by Year 10, Australian school students don’t possess the fundamentals deemed necessary to become active, informed citizens.
So what else should be done to help prepare our young people to participate in the democratic process?
What do young people think?
We have been undertaking research with recent school leavers aged 18 and 19 about their preparedness to participate in the Australian political process.
Many have told us they’re interested in political issues, but are uncertain about how the system works.
They also believe more could’ve been done to address this knowledge deficit while they were in school.
These high school graduates reported, while they could recall the subject being covered when they were in primary and early secondary school, they did not remember what had been taught.
The young people we spoke to suggested civics and citizenship education be extended through to Year 12. Interestingly, they wanted it to be viewed more as a life skill (similar to drug and alcohol education, for example) and not an academic subject.
They said young people need support when they’re approaching voting age and it would be useful for schools to assist with enrolment and provide basic information about the system of voting.
As one 18-year-old put it:
The last time that my high school spoke about politics I was in Year 9. I was 14 years old. I’m not voting yet, it’s not relevant to me, I’m not even 16. I can’t even go to the doctors by myself.
A simple and clear explanation in late high school would help alleviate the feelings of uncertainty first-time voters can experience when they go to cast a vote at the ballot box.
As another 18-year-old said about her peers:
So many of my friends said to me, “which box do I tick?” and, “what do you mean I have to go above the line and below the line?”. Basic definitions and terminology is really important.
Where to from here?
The 2016 National Assessment Program – Civics and Citizenship report tells us by Year 10, a majority of school students have little knowledge about Australian civics and democracy. This is concerning, especially as many students don’t encounter the topic later in high school, yet they will be required to vote when they turn 18.
We need to ensure all young people have the basic skills required to engage in Australia’s political process. As young Australians approach voting age they need simple, clear and practical instructions about the mechanics of how government works and how to vote.
School is the best place to teach this and it should be covered in the senior years. Doing so would help more young people become confident and empowered participants in Australia’s democracy.
The following notes on the future of democratic representation were inspired by Simon Tormey’s The end of representative politics (2015), launched at a Gleebooks event organised by the Sydney Democracy Network (SDN), May 15th 2015.
Whatever is happening in the field of party politics within the old parliamentary democracies? Why is mass membership of political parties a thing of the past? How come politicians are so disrespected, turnout rates volatile and elections often treated as pay-back moments by angry citizens?
A handful of clues is provided by the 2015 UK General Election, whose dynamics and results have attracted great global attention and floods of commentary on such matters as the break-up of Britain, the possible exit of Britain from the European Union and the dismal failure of the Labour Party to win over those parts of the middle class convinced there’s no alternative to the mean clampdown politics of austerity. The 2015 election was undoubtedly a media event extraordinaire. For a few days, it even featured robust debate about the failings of a first-past-the-post electoral system that awarded only one seat each to UKIP, which won 3.8 million votes, and to the Greens, who won 1.1 million votes.
By contrast, media assessments of the ocean of public disaffection on which the ship of Westminster and its parliamentary elections are now floating have been rare. During the days following the election, for instance, I rummaged in vain to find within the British press commentaries on the steady decline of voter turnout since 1950 (the United Kingdom now ranks 76th in world turnout rankings). I also couldn’t find any analysis of the number of citizens who actually voted for the return of a Tory government now blessed (thanks to the electoral system) with a thumping absolute majority in the House of Commons. I was forced to do my own calculations, to discover (on an overall turnout of 66.1%) that a mere 24.4% of adult citizens actually cast their vote for the new Conservative government.
Journalists and public commentators wilfully or blindly ignored such figures and long-term trends. Some did lament the way television broadcasters successfully managed to push ‘horse-race’ coverage, for instance by emphasising just how close the contest was between the Conservatives and Labour, why a Labour/SNP coalition government was a real possibility, and whether or not such a government could handle the fragile economy. Other commentators chose instead to bang on about the surprise result, and why it happened. Or they noted the end of Duverger’s Law, which states that first-past-the-post systems typically produce two-party systems.
Missing in these reports was any sense of the several ways, slowly but surely, parliamentary democracy in Britain is drifting backwards, heading towards a 21st-century version of late 18th-century politics. By this provocative analogy I mean to highlight the way present-day parliamentary politics is coming to be dominated by such 18th-century facts as the capture of government by the rich, the weakening of independent parliamentary powers and the near-collapse of mass political party organisations. The regressive trend includes as well cuts to welfare support for permanently poor people (1 in 5 of the UK population, 13 million people, now live below the official poverty line). Elections that bear more than a passing resemblance to pork-barrel plebiscites, widespread public mockery and disaffection with politics on high and tough law-and-order measures designed to spy on and control ‘harmful activities’ are also part of the same backsliding.
Rough Music Politics
These are mere tendencies, yes. But they’re to be found within many other parliamentary democracies, and that is why, to extend the 18th-century simile, ‘rough music’ politics is everywhere returning to their streets, parks and fields. In practically every existing parliamentary democracy, the disaffected and excluded are expressing their annoyance in unconventional ways. Once upon a time, as Edward Thompson famously pointed out, the 18th-century poor and powerless and pissed off expressed their indignation through ritual, revelry and riot. Raucous ear-shattering noise, unpitying laughter and the mimicking of obscenities were the weapons of the weak. In France, such practices were called charivari (Italians spoke of scampanate; the Germans Katzenmusik), while in late eighteenth-century Britain the protests paraded under such strangely obsolete names as ‘shallals’, ‘riding the stang’ and ‘skimmingtons’, rowdy parades expressing moral disapproval featuring effigies of the proxy victims.
The end of representative politics
Today, in the much-changed, media-saturated circumstances of the 21st-century, rough music assumes different forms, as Simon Tormey convincingly shows in his newly-published work, The end of representative politics. The book is a precious gem. A genuinely original contribution to the field, it’s a beautifully crafted slim essay with a big thesis: we are living through the end of an aura, says Tormey, the slow but sure decline of legitimacy and vibrancy of party politics and representative government. ‘We are moving, remorselessly, away from representation and representative politics towards styles and modes of politics that engage us immediately, directly, now.’ Symptomatic is the world-wide flourishing of what Tormey calls ‘immediate or non-mediated politics’: flash protests, occupations, hacking, boycotts, Facebook- and Twitter-led campaigns, circles, pinging and micro-parties. Concerned active citizens, he says, are no longer patiently prepared to wait until election time to express their concerns. Harnessing state-of-the-art media ‘they seek to make their views, anger, displeasure, known immediately, now.’
Tormey examines the causes of the declining aura of representative politics. He’s right to say that the peccadilloes of politicians and the politics of enforced austerity are not the principal drivers of the trend. There are multiple deep causes, including such peculiarly modern factors as the collapse of old collective identities, like belonging to a working class community, individualisation and the spread of globalised capitalism. The weakening of parliaments by the massive expansion of executive state powers and the outsourcing of political decisions to corporate and cross-border bodies might have been added to the list. A more thorough analysis of the rapid contemporary growth of communicative abundance would have been helpful as well. But these oversights are minor blemishes in an outstanding book that most definitely is on to something of epochal political importance.
Its potent analysis naturally prompts the curly question of whether, as the title suggests, we’re living through times that count as the end game of representative politics. ‘It’s the end of the paradigm, the “metanarrative”’, answers Tormey. ‘Much of the enthusiasm has gone for the classical model of representative politics and all the paraphernalia that went with it: a belief in the essentially benevolent or well-intentioned motives of those who would represent; a belief that our deepest needs and interests are best off in some other person’s hands than our own; a belief that joining a traditional mass party will prove the best use of our time and energies as engaged citizens. The props fall away; but the superstructure is still intact.’
The words are wonderful and the core thesis of The end of representative politics is both daring and consequential. The book offers important insights and prompts intellectual and political questions; it also triggers doubts, as every adventurous book does. We should thank Tormey for forcing us to ask after the book’s wobbly sense of history. From when dates the collapse of the paradigm of representative politics, we may ask? Through the examples he cites, Tormey leads us to think of the collapse as a pretty recent phenomenon, one that stretches back no more than a couple of decades. There’s admittedly mention of the Zapatistas and the World Social Forum as instances of the end of representative politics, but by and large the book depends upon very recent examples of what he calls DIY politics: the M-15 movement in Spain, Occupy Wall Street, Tahrir Square and the 5-Star Beppe Grillo phenomenon in Italy. They’re all good and interesting examples, to be sure; but they have the effect of obscuring the fact that since 1945 every major public issue, from civil rights and nuclear weapons to feminism, environment and disability, has been activated, publicised and pressed home by civic initiatives, networks and movements outside the zones of formal parliamentary politics.
The point is historical, and it’s important, if only because it reminds us that those who neglect or misunderstand the past are prone to misrecognise the present. The point is this: politicians, governments, parliaments and political parties have been under pressure for much longer than this book implies. The decline of representative politics has been coming for a generation, which implies the need to see the sea change noted by Tormey as connected to the near-collapse of parliamentary politics during the first half of the 20th century (a point developed at length in The Life and Death of Democracy) and the birth, during the 1940s, of a brand new form of democracy that I call monitory democracy.
Do Political Parties Have a Future?
This long-term transformation of democracy that began in the 1940s has decentred and de-territorialised elections, politicians and parliaments. The trend has naturally posed challenges to political parties, and raised questions about their fate. Do political parties have a future? On this point, Tormey is ambivalent. He mostly sides with the ¡Democracia Real YA! position that ‘the democracy of the representatives has come to be regarded by many as not only a rather pale imitation of the real thing, but a mechanism for preventing ordinary citizens exercising greater control over their own lives.’ But there are moments when Tormey admits that the party isn’t over. At one point he says that contemporary politics resonates with ‘the sound of anti-political politics, anti-representational representation’. In saying this, he has Podemos, Syriza and the SNP in mind: ‘Recent initiatives’, he notes, ‘suggest that even the most horizontal of activists now see that under representative or post-representative conditions the “horizontal” may need to be combined with the “vertical” to leverage alternatives for citizens during elections, to provide a focus for specific campaigns and demands.’
In these and other passages, it’s as if Tormey is neither for nor against representative politics, but just the reverse. His vexed ambivalence is entirely understandable, especially because a straightforward return to mass-membership political parties seems most improbable. During their heyday, as Robert Michels famously pointed out in his classic Political Parties (1911), political parties were powerful patronage machines. They offered paid-up members and supporters significant benefits: jobs, financial support, literacy, promises of one-person one-vote and access to state power and its resources. Parties today are ghostly silhouettes of their former selves, which raises the question: since for the foreseeable future political parties will remain indispensable conduits of access to such state resources as taxation revenues, law-making powers and policing and military force, which kind of political party has the greatest chances of success in getting out the vote, attracting the support of citizens? Are slimmed-down and flatter political parties using multi-media tactics and Google-type algorithms to turn heads, inspire hearts and to mobilise the vote viable alternatives to the old mass-membership party analysed by Michels? Or might party forms of the 21st century instead come to resemble accountancy parties (let’s call them). Might there in future be more of what we have now, so that organised parties resemble firms of well-advertised accountants and tax advisors hungry for business? Drab firms that nose-pinching citizens conveniently hook up with from time to time, when the need arises (elections), to do what they have to do (deal with the state), to submit their returns (by casting their votes), then to resume their everyday lives, at a distance from the party system, all the while complaining about the performance of politicians and poking fun and spinning crabbed jokes about the sad and boring rituals of all parties, including the party for which they’ve just voted?
Hobbes and Rousseau
Tormey doesn’t declare his hand on this point. In part, I suspect, this is not just because the task of building distinctively 21st-century parties is very much unfinished, speculative and highly challenging business; or because his whole approach (as he puts it) is ‘weakly normative’. Something else is at work here: it’s called gut contempt for representation. It’s a pity the book doesn’t attempt a fine-grained genealogy of the plural meanings of representation, but enough is said to confirm that Tormey typically understands representation in its originally Hobbesian sense of substitution. In plain English, representation for Tormey is a con. It’s a deceptively ideological practice whereby those who exercise power over others falsely claim themselves to be identical with those whom they rule. Put abstractly, representation (‘Trust and respect me, I am your representative’) is supposed likeness, matching and direct correspondence. It is unity through identification, congruity, alleged similarity. The representative claims to be the self-same or twin of the represented, a Doppelgänger, a facsimile or carbon copy of the represented, a chip off the old block.
Tormey’s provocative image of representation as illegitimate ruling, as a vertical relationship between leaders who lead by claiming falsely that they have the interests of the led at heart, helps to explain his repeated insistence that representation is the opposite of ‘horizontal’ citizen participation, and that the task of radical politics is ‘to connect rather than represent’. Inspired by Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778), who despite their substantial differences were agreed that representation is ruling others, Tormey strikingly concludes that 20th-century Communist Parties were ‘a quintessentially representative discourse and representative form of politics’.
The Principle of Disappointment
To my mind, this understanding of representation as unification through ruling is one-sided. It downplays the way the brand new idea and practice of representative democracy, as it emerged at the end of the 18th century, contained within it the principle of popular rejection and rotation of leaders. When measured by the ancient Greek standards of democracy as self-government by the people, for the people, representative democracy was of course a defective form of government. That was Rousseau’s strong objection. Government under conditions of representative democracy nevertheless rested, ideally speaking, on the premise that ‘the people’ are ultimately ‘sovereign’. It followed from this formulation that while perfect accord between representatives and the represented couldn’t ever be achieved, steps towards self-correction could and should always be taken. In the lonely hour of the last instance, ‘the people’ must always have the final say in determining who governs. Vox populi, vox dei. But in striving for mimesis – a closure of the gap between citizens and their representatives – representative democracy, according to its own standards, constantly chased after the unattainable. Its self-inscribed, openly declared lack of perfection stemmed from the fact that it embraced the principle of disappointment: the recognition that representatives and citizens are ultimately not identical.
In the life and times of modern representative democracy, the disappointment principle was often seen as its fundamental weakness, as proof of its reactionary incoherence. Today, as Tormey correctly emphasises, public disappointment with representatives is fuelling deep disaffection with parliamentary politics. The odd thing is that defenders of representative democracy (from Thomas Jefferson to Robert Dahl) consistently saw the disappointment principle as its greatest strength, certainly in comparison to tyrannical regimes that boss and bully their subjects into submission. They hailed representative democracy as a practical new method of publicly admitting differences of opinion and apportioning blame for the poor political performance of leaders. It was seen as a brand new way of enabling citizens to complain publicly and to let off steam about their leaders and, thus, to chastise them with threatened or actual rotation of leadership, guided by such criteria as merit, performance, responsiveness and humility.
Put differently: from the end of the 18th century, champions of representative democracy thought of it as a new and livelier form of humble government. It was seen as a novel way of creating space to enable not only individuals but also groups and dissenting political minorities to defend their interests legitimately, and to control those who governed them by means of an open competition for power that enabled elected representatives to test their political competence and leadership skills, in the presence of others equipped with the power to trip them up and throw them out of office, if and when they failed, as surely they would in the end.
The founding principle of representative democracy was both original and powerful: ‘the people’ do not govern but they do make periodic appearances in elections in order to judge, sometimes harshly, the performance of their representatives. Electors are entitled to throw the idiots out. That is how, from time to time, they solve what Hanna Pitkin famously called ‘the paradox of representation’: that citizens have to be absent in order to be re-presented but also present in order to be re-presented. Seen in terms of the deep tension that is inherent in the process of representation, this is the whole point of elections: they are weapons for periodically cheering up the disappointed. If representatives were always virtuous, impartial, competent and fully responsive to the wishes of the represented, elections would lose their purpose. The represented would be identical with their representatives; representation would lose its meaning; the animating disjunction between what ‘is’ and what ‘can be’ or ‘ought to be’ would consequently collapse. However, since representatives are rarely (if ever) like this, and since, in the eyes of the represented, they never quite get things right and are never so worthy and persuasive, often behaving like idiots who get things badly wrong, elections function as a vital means of disciplining representatives for having let down their electors. Through elections, the friends of representative democracy concluded, electors get their chance to throw harsh words and paper rocks at their representatives – to chuck them out of office and replace them with popularly elected substitutes.
The Changing Ecology of Representation
Well, that’s the old orthodox theory. In our times, for the variety of reasons outlined in this wonderful book, ideals are being crushed by practice. Tormey makes a stimulating and persuasive case for a new democratic politics pitted against mainstream political parties. In opposition to felt injustices and mounting inequality, he is right to champion new forms of public clamour. He calls for a ‘politics of resonance’, a renewal of the sense that democracy has been kidnapped, and that it needs to be reclaimed, and lived anew within everyday life. Trouble is that the new ‘immediate or non-mediated politics’ forms of democratic politics he has in mind are everywhere, and without exception, instances of representative politics. Their lack of structure and formal leadership and avowed rejection of representation (‘United, the people do not need parties’ was the cry of protesters from Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, five years ago) are only apparent. Their reliance upon mechanisms of representation is too often disguised, or denied. Truth is they rely upon mechanisms of representation, if by that word is meant what the earliest champions of representative democracy meant: acting on behalf of others, in their name, subject to their consent.
Michael Saward and others have recently pointed out that in this sense all politics involves claim making on behalf of others, and it therefore follows from this wider definition that in the age of monitory democracy the politics of representation is not confined to elections and parties and parliaments, that is, formal parliamentary politics in the narrow sense. Often in opposition to mainstream political parties, unelected and non-party representative politics is flourishing. That’s a key reason why mainstream political parties are feeling the pinch. They increasingly find themselves competing in fields of power with other bodies claiming to be representative of their constituencies. The fundamental point is that we’re not witnessing the end of representative politics but, rather, we’re living through times in which the ecology of representation is changing, becoming more complex, and ever more dispersed. Tormey agrees, and that’s the principal insight of his excellent book: within human affairs, the central political struggle is no longer, or primarily, the battle for one person, one vote. In the age of monitory democracy, the central struggle is to establish the principle of one person, many votes, multiple representatives, wherever power is exercised.
Seen in this way, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Oxfam and Greenpeace are just as politically important as any political party on our planet. So, too, are citizens’ efforts to blow the whistle on institutionalised racism, or to extend rights of representation to indigenous peoples, disabled citizens and the poor. Which is to say that rather than witnessing the end of representative politics, we’re now living in times faced by a double democratic challenge: the challenge of breathing life back into political parties as trusted representatives of the wishes and needs of citizens considered as equals, and the difficult, potentially complementary struggle to extend the principles of representation into every field of power where arbitrary rule currently mangles the lives of people and their environment.
Anthony Charles Lynton Blair (born 6 May 1953) is a British politician who served as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1997 to 2007 and the Leader of the Labour Party from 1994 to 2007. From 1983 to 2007, Blair was the Member of Parliament for Sedgefield and was elected Labour Party leader in July 1994, following the sudden death of his predecessor, John Smith. Under Blair’s leadership, the party used the phrase ‘New Labour‘, to distance it from previous Labour policies and the traditional conception of socialism.
Some regard the Westminster tradition of a politically neutral public service as a self-serving fiction. Others see it as an ideal to which governments and their civil services should aspire, though may never quite attain.
There are few hard and fast conventions involved in cultivating an independent government administrative system. Yet there are traditions or principles that many see as fundamental to good governance, or even to an effective democracy.
Straying from these leads to accusations that the government is politicising the public service. But what that means isn’t exactly clear. It might suggest the appointment of party-political representatives to public positions; the appointment of known government sympathisers to public positions; or some other way of preventing professional civil servants from providing “frank and fearless” advice to ministers.
Despite the lack of agreement about what politicisation means – and its significance – there’s almost universal criticism of governments that stray from the principles that underpin neutrality.
In practice, the accusation of “politicisation” often accompanies appointments made by an incoming government. These may be to departments; to government agencies, such as the ABC; to integrity agencies, such as the ombudsman; and, more often, the appointment of former politicians to diplomatic postings.
Obedience and integrity
The Australian Public Service operates near to the model of a professional public service where it serves successive governments without fear or favour. Changes of government typically mean that experienced, professional secretaries have remained to pilot their new ministers through.
There have been aberrations, such as the 1996 “night of the long knives” that dispatched six departmental heads. But most governments in past decades have relied on a cadre of professional civil servants to head departments and agencies even after power changes hands.
Max Moore-Wilton was appointed as Australia’s top public servant
by John Howard. AAP, CC BY
It is this cadre that enables the public service to remain as neutral as possible, especially when incoming governments are determined to implement their “mandates”. This reflects a fundamental principle that governments need to be “responsive” to their electors.
But problems can arise when appointees pay little attention to “frank and fearless” and see their role largely as doing the minister’s bidding. That’s stretching the notion of responsiveness too far.
The civil service is traditionally required to act in an impartial manner – that is, not to privilege particular interests over others and to behave in a politically neutral way. This is especially significant in relation to government agencies that investigate and adjudicate on complaints about and mistakes made by government.
Integrity agencies, such as the Office of the Information Commissioner or the Human Rights Commission, are required to investigate citizen complaints about government behaviour. They need to be seen to be at arm’s length from government.
Other agencies, such as the Electoral Commission, the Auditor-General or research bodies such as CSIRO or the Productivity Commission, also need to be at arm’s length so they can operate credibly in providing balanced advice.
Much more can be done to promote the independence of these agencies. A fundamental problem is that they rely on funding through the budget process. Some governments, at both Commonwealth and state levels, have used this as a lever to constrain agencies from following their remit when governments are unhappy with their activities. The Human Rights Commission is a recent example.
Making these agencies responsible to parliament, rather than to the government of the day, would mean that funding, and accountability, would be delivered through bipartisan bodies, such as the Public Accounts Committee. This would protect integrity agencies from direct government interference.
Governments are expected to represent a diversity of interests. That becomes less likely with a politicised public service.
Public agencies with responsibilities to consider the impact of policy on broad community groups, for instance, or to manage grants programs, need to have appointments that reflect community diversity. These appointments need to be treated with care to ensure they remain free of accusations of favouritism, cronyism, nepotism or vote-buying.
Cynical observers may be concerned about the politicisation of policy advice, especially that provided by public inquiries. When chaired by appointees with known views on the subject they rightly engender public cynicism about the likely outcomes of these ostensibly independent inquiries.
This was the case when noted climate sceptic Dick Warburton handed down a report on the Renewable Energy Target, and when education conservative Kevin Donnelly reviewed Australia’s national curriculum. These reports usually find their way to the rubbish bin once governments of a different hue assume office.
In contrast, more broad-based and less politicised inquiries – such as the Gonski review of school funding – may well retain their currency for longer.
There are arrangements in place that may dull the excesses of political appointments – such as the Public Accounts Committee, the Senate estimates process, codes of ministerial conduct and independent audits.
But unlike the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand, Australia hasn’t appointed an independent commissioner for public appointments. An independent appointments body may help ensure that the government of the day cannot directly influence appointments to agencies and programs that specifically require diversity of interests and arm’s length from government.
The public service has gradually become more politicised in recent years. But this is a bigger problem for agencies broadly described as integrity agencies and for bodies where public perception of neutrality are important to their operations, such as the ABC or the Electoral Commission.
Institutional change, along the lines of what’s already operating in other democratic systems, might produce independent appointments and reduce the public angst each time a “political” appointment is made to such boards or commissions. In these cases, governments might finally accept that arm’s-length governance is preferable to public cynicism and diminution of the standing of important agencies that serve to uphold democratic standards.
This article is part of a series on breaking political conventions. Look out for more articles exploring various political conventions in the coming days.
Political protesters often don’t play by the rules. Think of the Occupy Movement, which brought lower Manhattan to a standstill in 2011 under the slogan, “We are the 99%”. Closer to home, think of the refugee activists who assisted a breakout from South Australia’s Woomera detention centre in 2002. Both are examples of contentious politics, or forms of political engagement outside the institutional channels of political decision-making.
The democratic credentials of contentious politics are highly ambivalent. On the one hand, contentious politics appears to have insufficient respect for democratic decision. Protesters are often forceful, uncivil and rowdy, aiming to disproportionately influence policy. But shouldn’t proposals be put forward with civility through the proper channels? And shouldn’t their proponents accept with good grace if they are democratically rebuffed?
In my current home, Singapore, contention is viewed as dangerous, at any moment threatening to destabilise the hard-won authority of the government. Consequently it is not tolerated.
The 1965 SAFA Freedom Riders and their bus. From Ann Curthoys, Freedom Ride: a freedom rider remembers,
Allen & Unwin, 2002
At the same time, history offers countless examples of social change that is now consolidated and popularly supported, but which was only achieved through protests that were judged at the time to be extreme and immoderate. Notably, the Australian Freedom Ride of 1965, which challenged the subordinate status of Indigenous Australians, was highly controversial. Today its 50th anniversary is celebrated and recognised in the mainstream media and the halls of power.
A closer look at the history of political thought can provide us with the framework to assess the case for and against the democratic reasonableness of contentious politics.
Hobbes’ citizens accept authority
Best known for his claim that the natural human condition is one of war and all against all, 17th-century English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes is often misrepresented as the ultimate theorist of contentious politics. He actually views conflict as antithetical to good democratic politics (or indeed to any politics at all).
Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes’ ultimate authority. Abraham Bosse
For Hobbes, the purpose of politics is to escape war. As such, he insists that in order to establish a democratic political order, all individuals need to hand over their will to a single point of ultimate authority – in this case, the democratic assembly. Hobbes thought that citizens should accept the determination of the democratic assembly, even when it ruled against their own preferred outcomes.
In Hobbes’ ideal democracy, democratic citizens do have some recourse when they disagree with the assembly. He distinguishes between counsel and exhortation. He sees it as permissible to offer counsel to the ruling assembly. But it is unacceptable for the citizen to become vehement or to let their own interests drive their demand, as this amounts to exhortation.
If citizens were free to protest and seek to overturn the democratic decision whenever they chose, the system would not be one of pure rule by the people, but rather a rule by the people distorted to appease the protesters.
Machiavelli sees room for conflict
The Hobbesian view, while influential, is not the only way to think about political contestation and democratic rule. Written more than a century before Hobbes’s Leviathan, the ideas expressed in Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince are still very popular, making him the archetypal cynical and ruthless adviser to rulers who want nothing more than to hold firmly onto power.
However, Machiavelli’s other major work, The Discourses on Livy, has some important lessons for the future of democracy. By looking at the recent histories of Florence and Venice, along with the ancient history of Rome, he makes clear that while some conflicts of authority are destructive, others are constructive.
Although not concerned about democracy in the modern sense, Machiavelli firmly defends the political power and worth of the common people. He argues that some constructive conflict is necessary for them to enjoy status and liberty in the political order.
Renaissance Florence had been racked by conflict. Different sects hated each other, and the polity was tossed violently from one ruling power to another. Weakened by the transitions, it was easy prey for external domination. Through this conflict, the lot of the Florentine people was very wretched.
Ancient Rome was also marked by conflict. The plebs (the common people) periodically disrupted ordinary politics. They closed their shops, refused military service, ran noisily down the streets or even left the city en masse when they desired something. Unsurprisingly, the Romans were not afraid to bring accusations against arrogant rulers.
The Secession of the People to the Mons Sacer, engraved by B. Barloccini (1849), depicting the commoners leaving the city as a political protest. Wikimedia Commons
Curiously, during all the centuries of conflict in the Roman republic, it was never deeply disordered. Very few citizens were exiled or killed. Instead, there were countless examples of great virtue among citizens, and the laws supported the common good and public freedom.
Constructive vs destructive conflict
Machiavelli identifies a crucial difference between the two cases. In Rome, the citizens were by and large committed to living together in a society on fair terms. Their ultimate goal was not the eradication of the opposed party; their conflicts were aimed at improving the laws, not using the laws to eliminate their opponent.
In Florence, the parties were corrupt in the sense of not seeking a fair common good. Instead, they sought to overcome and crush their opponents.
This type of self-serving conflict destroys liberty. It seizes everything from the losers and denies their existence in the polity. It also produces instability because there is so much at stake in who is ruling. Ultimately, it weakens the polity because there is no public good to be committed to and inspired by.
Hence, the protagonist of constructive conflict is committed to the good of the political order and acknowledges the reasonable interests of opponents. Destructive conflict involves self-interested competition without any higher commitment to living together on reasonable terms.
How does this distinction between kinds of conflict apply to present-day politics?
The 1965 Australian Freedom Ride campaign exemplifies the effectiveness of constructive conflict. The zero-sum racialised conflict suffered by the Solomon Islands over recent decades illustrate the impacts of destructive conflict.
On Machiavelli’s view, the vast majority of political contestation that we see within democracies today would count as constructive conflict. Undeniably, constructive conflict is preferable to destructive conflict, but this raises the question: why do we need conflict at all? Would Rome have been an even greater polity if it had managed to avoid all conflict?
A standard trope of civic republican writing in Machiavelli’s time was to lament the tumultuous character of the Roman republic, often in unflattering contrast to the serene harmony of the republican city-state of Venice.
Lorenzetti Ambrogio’s ‘Allegory of Good Government’ (1338) represents the ideal of civic harmony, with the people shown as small
and orderly below the rulers. Wikimedia Commons
Machiavelli rejects this evaluation. The cost of Venice’s harmony was a political order heavily weighted towards the interests of the nobles and away from the common people.
Contemporary nobles and commoners
In any polity, past or present, there are always powerful nobles (or, as we know them today, corporations and the corporate tycoons heading them, the Murdochs, the Berlusconis, the Koch brothers), who do not of their own accord treat the masses well.
In Machiavelli’s view, the people only secure their own freedom when they actively contest the power and influence of the nobles. The Roman plebs only flourished because of their shrill demands for inclusion and respect against the conservative reluctance of the nobles.
While there may be a legitimate need for citizens to defer to democratic decisions most of the time, unconditional deference might allow oligarchical tendencies to consolidate themselves.
Forgoing the Hobbesian view, where the persistence of protest and contentious politics attests to a deficient and weak political order, Machiavelli’s analysis encourages us to value contestatory politics as an important bulwark against the undemocratic meddling of the rich and powerful.
Our worry today should not be that there is too much contentious politics, but that there is too little. The stealthy capture of democracy by corporate interests needs constantly to be called out.
Rather than hope for a deferential population that does not contest government decisions, we should recognise the role of even the most unruly protest in defending inclusiveness and fairness in society, so long as it is grounded in a constructive sense of shared democratic future.
When in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo attacks last January, I wrote a column suggesting that we all had to demonstrate a new toughness.
At that time, I thought the scale of ISIS’ attacks on Western targets was contained by its avowed doctrine of territorial legitimacy. I assumed any attacks in the West would be carried out by lone wolves or with one or two partners. I was wrong.
Ever since it first declared a caliphate, ISIS’ leadership consistently expressed the intent of fighting a more or less conventional war in a well-defined piece of territory spreading across Iraq and Syria.
Their surprising initial victories reinforced that strategy. And it allowed them to pursue a war against the Yazidis, which the American Holocaust Museum has declared a genocide.
But then the Americans arrived, eager to engage a Jihadist army in direct combat.
So ISIS responded, by shifting its strategy towards new tactics: fighting a more common, irregular, guerrilla war, as the Taliban had often done successfully in Afghanistan and militants had done in Iraq before them.
Then the Russians arrived to support Syrian President Al Assad.
Although their initial targets have not been ISIS strongholds, it has changed the dynamic once again.
ISIS leaders understand that with the US on one side and the characteristically merciless Russians on the other, time is running out.
It is one thing to take on one of them. It is quite another to take on both.
They can replenish their forces with raw new recruits. But they probably can’t do it fast enough to hold off all sides. And the apparent execution by drone of Jihadi John, their poster child, threatens a further dent in their recruitment campaign.
So, the ever flexible ISIS leadership has moved to a new stage in their tactics – war by terror.
The goals are predictable.
First, killing civilians at home in Europe in highly symbolic settings. Their intent here is to provoke a debate about these countries’ involvement in Syria and Iraq and thus break the political will of the western countries. There is, in other words, a cost to be paid for military intervention.
Second, to convince potential new recruits that with limited training they can still play a crucial role as a martyr. After all, if you are going to die as a martyr, you don’t want to do so by the side of the road in the middle of the desert. You want to do so on the streets of Paris where everyone will know who you were and what you did.
Third, to convince the west that you are still a formidable force – everywhere.
The new tactic involves soft civilian targets. They involve country nationals and foreign recruits. The enemy is everywhere and nowhere. It is a classic terrorist response.
I spent the evening of the attacks frantically trying to reach my family and friends. My sister-in-law, Lorene Aldabra, is a professional singer and musician who often visits the Bataclan concert hall, scene of so much carnage. When you have to spend time tracking down loved ones, you really understand what this new war means.
The declarations of support are encouraging and touching. President Obama was as eloquent as ever. London’s mayor Boris Johnson sounded mildly Churchillian. Benjamin Netanyahu from Israel was blunt and forthright. But we can assume these attacks won’t be the last ones.
France is in a state of emergency. The security services in Europe and North America are on a state of alert. My spouse traveled on the Washington, DC-to-New York train Friday night and it was full of sniffer dogs and police. We risk a return to the national fear that gripped us after 9/11.
Parisians got it right when they assembled in large numbers and unfurled a sign saying “not afraid” in the hours after these attacks.
On the streets of Paris Yves Herman
But not afraid of what?
The terrorists for sure. But also let’s not be afraid to distinguish between terrorists and Syrian asylum seekers. Between those who invoke the forces of evil and those imams who decry it. Between our Muslim friends and neighbors and our fanatical enemies.
The lives of Parisians will not be the same after November 13. But, knowing the city and its inhabitants well, I believe that they will not be deprived of oxygen and disappear into the vortex of hate preached by jihadists – or Europe’s extreme nationalists. Civility, albeit wrapped in an iron fist, will be their response.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835 – 1910), better known by his pen name Mark Twain, was an American author and humorist. He wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and its sequel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), the latter often called “The Great American Novel”.
In some ways the False equivalence fallacy is the direct opposite of a False dilemma.
False equivalence is an informal fallacy that describes a situation where there is an apparent similarity between two things, but in fact they are not equivalent. The two things may share some common characteristics, but they have important differences that are overlooked for the purposes of the argument.
The pattern of the fallacy often looks like this: if A has characteristics c and d, and B has characteristics d and e, then since they both have characteristic d, A and B are equivalent. In practice, often only a passing similarity is required between A and B for this fallacy to be committed.
The following statements are examples of false equivalence:
‘They’re both soft, cuddly pets. There’s no difference between a cat and a dog.’
‘We all bleed red. We’re all no different from each other.’
‘Hitler, Stalin and Mao were evil atheists; therefore all atheists are evil.’
A more complex example is where somebody claims that more Australians are killed by sharks or road accidents than by terrorism, therefore we should not do anything to stop terrorism. This example ignores the fact that terrorist acts are prevented by doing something, such as surveillance and intelligence. We also choose to take the risks of swimming in the ocean and driving in cars, but we cannot avoid the risk of terrorism no matter what we do.
False equivalence is occasionally claimed in politics, where one political party will accuse their opponents of having performed equally wrong actions, usually as a red herring in an attempt to deflect criticism of their own behaviour. Two wrongs don’t make a right.
On the other hand, politicians might accuse journalists of False equivalence in their reporting of political controversies if the stories are perceived to assign equal blame to opposing parties. However, False equivalence should not be confused with False balance – the media phenomenon of presenting two sides of an argument equally in disregard of the merit or evidence on a subject (a form of argument to moderation).
Moral equivalence is a special case of False equivalence where it is falsely claimed, often for ideological motives, that both sides are equally to blame for a war or other international conflict. The historical evidence shows that this is rarely the case.
Another special case of False equivalence is Political correctness, which may be defined as language, ideas, policies, or behavior that seeks to minimise social offence in relation to occupational, gender, racial, cultural, sexual orientation, certain other religions, beliefs or ideologies, disability, and age-related contexts, to an excessive extent thus inhibiting free speech.
Churchill, Roosevelt (FDR and Eleanor), JFK and Thatcher – depending on your politics, they’re all political heroes.
We place them on a pedestal because their special qualities set them apart. Through far-sighted action, they persevered and succeeded (mostly) in the face of adversity and often ridicule.
It was American writer Joseph Campbell who first alerted us to the perpetual and profound influence of heroes in our daily lives. Campbell’s seminal book The Hero with a Thousand Faces – written more than five decades ago – highlighted how the “hero” story pervades every culture and creed.
While heroes come in various guises, the underlying themes that make their stories so compelling – daring, vision and strength – are largely the same. Heroes transcend the limitations of our world. In doing so, they give us a glimpse of our own potential and inspire us to achieve more.
For Campbell, such is the ubiquity of the “hero” story that it represents the central narrative of humanity. That’s why everyone – and every system – needs their heroes.
What has become of political heroes?
Much has been made of the depth of public disillusionment with our current democratic system. Campbell’s “hero” thesis may provide another guide to understanding this. It may also help us understand how and why we must address it.
After all, who would we say are our political heroes now?
On a global stage, some might point to Barack Obama or perhaps Angela Merkel. But generally the well is almost dry. This is evidenced by opinion polling showing trust in, and respect for, politicians at record lows across most Western democracies.
Kevin Rudd’s record level of voter support was an improbable and temporary state of affairs. AAP/Dean Lewins
In Australia, political heroes are non-existent. From time to time we believe we have one in our midst. Think of Kevin Rudd’s stellar rise to leadership. Likewise with Mark Latham, Malcolm Turnbull, Julia Gillard and even Tony Abbott (before things went pear-shaped for the current government).
The pattern has become depressingly predictable. The “next big thing” steps onto the political stage to intense hope and excitement. Finally, we hope, here’s the political hero we’ve been looking for.
We blame the declining quality of our elected representatives for this chronically sad state of affairs. Their personal strengths and characteristics have seemingly deteriorated to such an extent that politics has become an arena almost exclusively of “anti-heroes”.
When they’re not ripping off taxpayers with shonky entitlements, they’re disconnecting themselves from the real world with arcane ideological and factional fights. When they should be fixing the big problems of our age, they obsess over childish finger-pointing and three-second soundbites.
Certainly, the argument has merit. Politics has increasingly become an echo chamber where many MPs have only ever been professional politicians, or emerged from a narrow band of professions that lead to politics.
Inside this bunker, individual behaviour and values gravitate to mediocrity and group-think – the antithesis of hero qualities.
John F. Kennedy’s 1963 speech in Berlin rang around the world, but he may never have become president in today’s political system. EPA
But consider this. What if JFK, with all his charisma and oratory, entered American politics now? How long before he would be tagged as a philandering creep riding into power on the coattails of his Nazi-appeasing father?
And Churchill? Would the English public and press allow the person responsible for the strategic farce of Gallipoli to become their leader in the second world war? And would Australia fight alongside him?
And what about Churchill’s “black dog”? Any sniff of mental instability in today’s political world effectively spells the end of leadership, or leadership ambitions.
Their times were far different. There were no social media or “liar” hashtags. There were much fewer “gotcha” campaigns aimed at carpet-bombing the reputation of rival politicians. There was no internet to instantly cross-reference and fact-check anything and everything a politician has ever thought, said or done.
But that is exactly the point. Today’s media and social environment no longer allows any politician – no matter how well-meaning, smart or brave he or she is 98% of the time – to be put on a pedestal for any length of time.
In this era of hyper-transparency, no potential political hero gets out of here alive.
No time or space for redemption
But heroes are more than just about reputation and credibility. In the hero’s journey, as Campbell highlighted, redemption is a central part of the story. Heroes overcome their personal flaws by acting decisively and strategically to create a better world.
But this means having the scope and time to think coherently and deeply about this future world. It means heroes having at their disposal the economic and social policy levers that they can deftly shift to deliver on their vision. It means taking control of the future by leading the rest of us bravely into a world where we otherwise would not dare to venture.
All this is basically impossible in today’s political environment. In essence, our system – and the politicians who inhabit it – is on the verge of being “de-futured” and “de-levered”.
Our political system still assumes the world around it moves in a comparatively slow way. So it shackles parliaments to drawn-out decision processes, which are meant to give our elected representatives time and scope to decide on policy action.
In the meantime, our hyper-sped 21st-century world passes it by, forcing politicians to retreat into the only sphere of action they can control, namely the short term.
Our system assumes that our elected representatives, despite their flaws, are still the prime decision-makers on policymaking. In the meantime, our hyper-expert world has turned them into comparative dunces.
It assumes that national parliaments will always be the predominant realm that decides what, in terms of policy, will have a major and ongoing impact on the citizens they represent. Yet our hyper-scaled, globalised world turns parliaments into bit players.
None of the assumptions our system depends upon to function make sense in the context of massive changes wrought by globalisation and the internet over the last two decades.
A leader afflicted today by the ‘black dog’ of depression is unlikely to tower over politics like Churchill did. EPA/Facundon Arrizabalaga
So, encased in a system that takes away the ability to act in a heroic way, would a Churchill or Roosevelt of today succeed as they did before? Or would they fail miserably? More likely the latter.
A new model may let heroes emerge
What this underscores is the urgent need to reform our current configuration of democratic politics.
There is any number of potential solutions. These include a shift to deliberative democracy, which effectively gives citizens much more direct input into policy-making. This recognises that politicians no longer have all, or even some, of the answers.
Other solutions include using collaborative, internet-based technology to promote quicker policy decisions that still allow for transparency and significant public input. They also include stronger transnational forums to address the problems of a globalised world, which no single country or parliament can tackle.
Under these proposals, political heroes may no longer come from the political class. What may emerge is a different kind of hero – the citizen-politician. They not only promote change like a Gandhi or Martin Luther King, but are also put into the driver’s seat to enact important policy and turn their vision of a brave new world into reality.
Either way, Campbell’s hero thesis should alert us to why reforming our political system is the most important challenge of our time. A system without heroes diminishes all of us. It is also a system that cannot survive.
Conservatives won a decisive and unexpected victory in last week’s UK General Election, roundly beating expectations set by pollsters to claim a clear majority in the House of Commons. But the Scottish National Party (SNP) also scored major wins, even beyond what was expected. The Tory win and the SNP gains set the stage for a divided nation—and possibly the end of the U.K. as we know it.
Last September, Scots rejected independencenarrowly but decisively, 55 to 45. But in last Thursday’s vote, the SNP, which brought the independence referendum to a vote and has fanned the flames of independence, converted that loss into a staggering win in the UK General Election. The SNP claimed 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats, leaving the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, and Labour with just one seat apiece. Previously, Labour held 41 Scottish seats, with the Liberal Democrats on 11.