IPA Today

Australia’s Democratic Backslide

Written by
28 December 2022
Originally appeared in The Spectator Australia

Democracy is the backbone of the Australian way of life. By global standards, Australia’s electoral and democratic institutions are at an exceedingly high standard, but it is important to constantly observe how those institutions stand up in the face of significant challenges.

Australian democracy has been under stress since the onset of lockdowns in March 2020, but the referendum on the Voice in 2023 could be our democracy’s biggest challenge yet.

There is a phenomenon in political science called ‘democratic backsliding’, an academic description for how lawful and democratic means can be used by politicians and bureaucrats to undermine democratic norms.

The three main methods employed by ‘backsliders’ are polarising the public, transferring power from the legislature to the executive, and the use of excessive police force.

Backsliders know that an overly and purposefully polarised society is less likely to turn to democratic and peaceful methods to resolve issues, and more likely to resort to conflict.

Secondly, taking power away from the legislature and giving it to the executive further limits an agitated citizenry’s power to enact change. Examples of this are extensive constitutional changes or awarding political power to the executive or judiciary through Parliament, even if it comes at the expense of elected officials.

To sustain this, backsliders will then typically turn to the police to sustain the undemocratic regime against their ideological and political opponents.

Fortunately, Australian democracy is strong and durable. That does not mean though that we should be complacent. It is important that we are constantly scrutinising our politicians who pursue undemocratic policies.

Unfortunately, Australian democracy has been declining since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020.

The most severe case of backsliding during the pandemic was the lockdown regime implemented by Premier Daniel Andrews in Victoria. In this instance all three backsliding techniques were used; the suspension of Parliament and unilateral control he had of government policy; the divisive tactics he used to pit Victorians against one another; which made the violent response he allowed from police towards peaceful protestors acceptable to his supporters.

This concluded with the passing of the Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (Pandemic Management) Act 2021, which put these unconstrained powers into the legislature, embedding the ability of the Premier to arbitrarily remove power from the legislature.

What is of further concern, is the potential for future and permanent backsliding through the forthcoming referendum on the proposed Voice to Parliament, which embodies two of the three used backsliding methods, with the exception being use of police force.

The referendum itself will be a test for Australian democracy because it will most likely involve heated debate on whether it is right or wrong to enshrine in the constitution extra rights to people based on their race or heritage.

There is nothing more polarising than dividing people based on race, and yet the referendum will do just that, pitting Australians against one another depending on whether they believe race has a place in the constitution.

Should the Voice be put into the constitution, it would be a permanent polarising force. Unlike Andrews’ pandemic law, which could still be repealed by the legislature.

The Voice to Parliament would most likely function as a form of executive government, making arbitrary decisions for all Australians and putting those decisions into law. Whether their abilities be effective or through influence does not matter. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has already set the bar for their influence, stating that it would take a ‘very brave government’, to ignore a recommendation from the Voice.

This is taking policy making out of the hands of the legislature, our elected officials, and giving it to an unelected race-based body.

We must remain vigilant in the face of politicians and bureaucrats whose actions could subvert democracy by stealth with the use of legal mechanisms. If the pandemic taught us anything it is that Australia is not immune from democratic backsliding.

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Saxon Davidson

Saxon Davidson is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs.

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