Essays For Australia

Refounding Democracy

Written by
16 December 2021

Australia has always prided itself on being a frontier land. Our vast and isolated landscape gave rise to a rugged individualism and self-reliance. Our convict past fed into the image of Australians as being naturally sceptical of authority. Our egalitarian ethos gave rise to a distrust of the establishment and dislike of elitism. The Australian approach can perhaps be best captured by the ever-optimistic national catchphrase – “She’ll be right, mate”.

But this image does not reflect modern Australia. Instead, it has become exactly the opposite – a nation that is over-governed, overregulated and increasingly dependent on an unaccountable expert elite. Back in 1977 Lang Hancock bemoaned “a decline in the Australian character of rugged individualism, to the point where we now seem to have adopted the philosophy ‘the world owes me a living’, and adopted as our national anthem the expression ‘the Government oughter’ …”. Since then, that decline has only become more pronounced. Australians now expect government to play an ever-greater role in their lives, and to solve more of their problems. The automatic answer to every problem seems to be that new laws need to be introduced, more government money needs to be spent, and more bureaucrats need to sit on more committees to coordinate a government response.

This reflects the findings of the IPA in The Fair Go – Going, Gone: The Decline of the Australian Way of Life, 2000 to 2020 which points to the increased role of government in the everyday lives of Australians – with evidence of this including the government spending as a share of the economy increasing over the past twenty years, increased welfare dependency, and steadily rising government debt as a share of the economy. Indeed, while measuring the relative size of government over time is far from a straightforward task “the clear suggestion that can be drawn from the available measures is that governments in Australia have grown in size over the long run and especially since the second half of the twentieth century”.

But has this larger government presence translated into an improved quality of life for everyday Australians? The short answer appears to be no. This was the key finding of The Fair Go report, which found that the Australian Way of Life Scoreboard – an index of 25 measures of different aspects of Australia’s culture and economy – declined by 28.5 per cent between 2000 and 2020. Indeed, the report found that 23 of the 25 measures selected to provide a reasonable representation of the quality of daily life in Australia have declined over the past twenty years. Of particular concern is that the largest decline has been in the governance component of the scoreboard, with a decline of 55.6 per cent since 2000.

The almost-unchecked expansion of the government and its legislative purview has significant consequences for both Australian democracy and individual freedoms. The question is: is it possible to reverse this trend in order to improve the quality of the Australian way of life?

WHAT IS THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENT?

The question of exactly what role government should play in our daily lives, and where the line should be drawn between government intervention and individual responsibility, is one about which reasonable minds can reasonably differ. There is no doubt that government does have a legitimate and important role to play, and times of emergency or crisis provide a strong reminder of this. There is also no doubt that over the past century the role of government has expanded greatly. The limited conception of government outlined by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations – where the core functions of government were limited to defence, law and order, and providing core public goods (such as key infrastructure and education) – bears little resemblance to the modern expectations of government, where people increasingly seem to expect that the government will provide for every want and need, solve every problem and protect from every danger (both real and imagined).

This is apparent when we consider the dominant role played by the federal government in Australia. The Australian Constitution created a federal government with limited and enumerated legislative powers. Indeed, Alfred Deakin famously asserted at the time that “so far from our Federal Government over-awing the States, it is more probable that the States will over-awe the Federal Government”. The expansive role played by today’s Commonwealth Government in regulating so many aspects of our economic and social lives is a long way from what was originally envisaged. Today we have not only Ministers for Communications, Education and Health but also Ministers for Regional Communications, Regional Education and Regional Health, together with both a Minister for Infrastructure and a Minister for Urban Infrastructure. There are separate ministers or assistant ministers for Women, Indigenous Australians, Senior Australians, Families, Children and Youth. Many of the departments in the federal sphere exist in areas that were intended to remain state areas of responsibility. Health and education spring immediately to mind, with the relevant departments at the federal level continuing to expand in terms of both budget and staff despite the federal government not running a single hospital or school.

Australia is not unique in this respect. There is no doubt that when President Clinton declared in his State of Union Address in 1996 that “the era of big government is over” he spoke prematurely. President Biden’s US$1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan is just one recent example that highlights how pervasive big government actually is in the modern era. The Washington Post described Biden’s plan as representing “an unapologetic commitment to a bigger federal government, with bigger responsibilities, for the foreseeable future”. An overall sense of the growth of governments at a global level can be found in research by the Fraser Institute which shows that the average level of public spending expressed as a share of the economy for a set of 13 industrialised countries (including Australia) rose from 12.3 per cent in 1913 to 43 per cent in 1990. That trajectory has not shifted in the subsequent decades.

MEASURING SUCCESS

This seemingly inexorable growth of government could perhaps be tolerated if it could be shown that there were corresponding improvements in the everyday lives of Australians. Unfortunately, as the Australian Way of Life Scoreboard so clearly demonstrates, this has not been the case over the past twenty years. Part of the reason may lie in the fact that the growth of government in and of itself seems to have somehow become a measure of success. That is, when we judge a government we tend to focus on how many laws they make and how much money they spend. The mistake here is that the machinery of government is seen not as the means to an end, but instead as the end itself. Back in 2016 I wrote that the success of a government shouldn’t be measured simply by how many laws they have passed:

… [T]his has appeared to be the key measure in recent years, with Ministers frequently emphasising the success of the 43rd Parliament (in particular) by reference to how many pieces of legislation had been passed. Indeed, the 543 Acts of Parliament that were passed during Julia Gillard’s tenure as Prime Minister were apparently enough to qualify her as Australia’s most productive Prime Minister! By this measure, our first national Parliaments were terrible failures. It took over eight years for our first Australian parliamentarians to pass enough laws to match the 206 Acts that our national politicians were able to pass in 2015 alone. It wasn’t that our first parliamentarians were lazy. Rather, our current Parliaments are over-zealous lawmakers who see creating more laws as being a key part of their job description.

This remains the case five years later. For example, between 2016 and 2020 our national parliament alone passed 688 Acts. Just as the number of laws has increased, so too has the length and complexity of those laws. Justice Weinberg noted this trend in his 2016 Victoria Law Foundation Oration, referring to the example of the criminal law (which, it should be noted, was never intended to be an area of Commonwealth responsibility in the first place):

The Crimes Act 1914, when originally enacted, managed to set out the entire body of Commonwealth criminal law, as it then stood, in 25 pages. By 1998, that Act had grown to 331 pages. In its current version, it extends to an astonishing 857 pages.

Justice Weinberg concluded that “those charged with the vital task of turning words into law must understand that sometimes the less they have to say, the better it is said”.

It is also not the case that these are all purely benign laws that have no restrictive impact on daily life. While it is difficult to measure this in objective terms, analysis by the IPA has demonstrated that the number of restrictive clauses in Commonwealth legislation have grown over the past twenty years.

Of course, it is difficult – if not impossible – to conclusively measure the regulatory burden imposed by government. Simply counting the number of rules in existence, or the number of pages they occupy, says nothing about the actual impact of those rules in terms of the degree of prescription imposed, the cost of compliance, or the practical impact of enforcement. What is clear is that politicians continue to suggest that the passing of a new law is itself an indication that a particular issue has been addressed. Too often the law itself is held up as the achievement, rather than any subsequent impact on our quality of life it may have. It brings to mind the famous words of Kerry Packer when he appeared before a parliamentary committee in 1991:

Since I was a boy there must be 10,000 new laws been passed but I don’t think Australia is that much a better place. (Yet) every time you pass a law, you take somebody’s privileges away from him.

Another way that modern governments measure success and show their commitment to an issue is by increasing their spending in a particular area. The first leaders debate during the 2019 federal election, between Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten, provides a good example of this. In his opening remarks the Prime Minister highlighted “record funding in our hospitals, public hospital funding up more than 60 per cent” and the importance of keeping the budget in surplus “to ensure that we continue to invest in the essential services, the schools and the hospitals, at record levels.” Conversely, the Leader of the Opposition referred to “the Government’s cuts to hospital and Medicare” and argued that “the Government hasn’t kept the promises it’s made when it was first elected: proper funding of schools.”

The problem with talking in terms of “record funding”, cuts or promises of “proper funding” is that the money being spent is itself being presented as the measure of success. This loses sight of the fact that governments should not exist simply to spend taxpayer money, and that spending larger amounts of money in a particular area does not necessarily guarantee better outcomes. Record spending and ever-expanding government budgets should not be seen as achievements in and of themselves, and might instead be better viewed as evidence of a country being over-governed and over-regulated.

THE GROWTH OF THE BUREAUCRACY

The increasing number of laws and record levels of spending aren’t the only signs of government expansion. They are matched by the significant growth of the executive branch at both the national and state levels, which can be seen in the ever growing number of government programs and services, and the need for an ever expanding public service to implement them. While an optimist may suggest that this is positive evidence of the government having an increased capacity to provide services and support to the Australian people, the evidence does not seem to show the corresponding improvement in the quality of daily life in Australia that you would want to see from such an active and growing bureaucracy. The warning sounded by Herbert Hoover in 1928 continues to ring true today, “Liberalism should not be striving to spread bureaucracy, but striving to set bounds to it.”

Australia can now be best described as a bureaucratic democracy. In my 2016 piece referred to above I reached this conclusion after outlining the sheer size and scope of the Executive branch at the federal level in Australia:

At the Commonwealth level, we are currently administered by 42 Ministers & Assistant Ministers, 18 government departments, 192 individual government agencies and, as at 30 June 2015, 152,430 Australian public servants. A quick search of the federal register of legislation lists 2,139 legislative instruments as being made in 2015, and an astonishing 64,450 legislative instruments as being made during the past ten years. By contrast, the Parliament itself passed fewer Acts in the past ten years in total (specifically 1,821) than there were legislative instruments made in 2015 alone.

Again, we can see that not much has changed in recent years. Following a recent ministerial re-shuffle there were still 42 ministers and assistant ministers, which means that just shy of 20 per cent of the parliament and almost 48 per cent of the Coalition party-room are also part of the executive branch. This alone goes a long way to explaining the increasing dominance of the executive over the parliament.

The good news is that over the past five years the number of government departments and agencies, and the total number of public servants at the federal level have reduced. The bad news is that the reduction is, at best, marginal. At the time of writing there are 14 government departments and the Australian Government Directory lists 188 government departments and agencies, while there were 148,736 Australian public servants as at 31 December 2020.

In any event, any slight reduction in the number of federal public servants has been more than offset by the increases in the state bureaucracies. Public sector employment and earning figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics report that there were over 2 million public sector employees in Australia at the end of June 2020, which included 1,609,100 at the state government levels. The figures show that across the last ten years state governments have added an extra 194,700 public sector employees. While the number of public servants continue to grow, it is difficult to see the corresponding improvement in service delivery or outcomes for ordinary Australians.

THE RISE OF THE EXPERTS

The growth of the bureaucracy has also resulted in a greater reliance being placed on expert advice, with it becoming increasingly common for elected representatives to minimise their own responsibility for decisions by claiming that they are simply following the experts. Probably the most explicit example of this was the announcement by Zak Kirkup at his first media conference after becoming the leader of the WA Liberal Party in Western Australia about the approach that he would bring to the pandemic response:

The essential principle we will take with us throughout this campaign will be that we 100 per cent support without hesitation, without equivocation, the advice given to us by the Chief Health Officer in order to keep Western Australians safe.

This point was again emphasised in the statement that he subsequently released where he confirmed that it’s “the Chief Health Officer who makes the decisions with the best health advice, not politicians. We will continue to follow his advice …”.

The idea of rule by experts has been shown to attract a considerable degree of support in Australia, with the Pew Research Centre finding in 2017 that 41 per cent of Australians surveyed supporting the statement that rule by experts, rather than elected officials, would be a good way to govern the country.

This brings to mind the virtual country, Rationalia, suggested by American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. In a tweet in 2016 Tyson suggested that “Earth needs a virtual country: #Rationalia, with a oneline Constitution: All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence.”

On the surface, this sounds perfectly objective, rational and uncontroversial. After all, what could be wrong with simply following the weight of evidence? Except, as it turns out, plenty. To begin with, what happens when the evidence is uncertain, not clear, or even contradictory? What happens if the experts disagree? Who gets to decide what evidence is used? While it is nice to believe that science is always objective (and while it is true that objectivity lies at the heart of the scientific method) it is simply unrealistic to presume that all evidence will be collected, applied and analysed without personal values or biases having any influence.

It is also unrealistic to pretend that experts are infallible. A quick look back through history teaches us that even experts can get it wrong from time to time – whether it be Irving Fisher (Professor of Economics at Yale University) declaring just nine days before the Wall Street Crash of 1929 that “stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau” or American biologist Dr Paul Ehrlich predicting in his 1968 book The Population Bomb that overpopulation would lead to worldwide famine and the deaths of hundreds of millions of people in the 1970s and 1980s. Even Albert Einstein didn’t always get it right, proclaiming in 1932 that “there is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable.”

But the biggest limitation of all is that technical expertise alone tends to provide an incomplete answer to complex policy questions. Appeals to “trust the evidence” ignore the fact that decisions inevitably (and properly) have a human component. When experts provide technical advice, they are looking at the problem from the particular perspective of their area of expertise. But complicated policy issues usually require a broader range of factors to be considered. Value judgments and moral trade-offs must also be applied, with democratically accountable decision-makers being better suited to this type of decision-making than narrowly focused technical experts. It is wise for elected representatives to listen to expert advice. It is a moral abrogation for them to claim that they will adopt and implement expert advice “without hesitation, without equivocation”.

The measures introduced as part of the Covid-19 pandemic response illustrate this point. While Chief Health Officers across Australia recommended at various times that borders should be closed and lockdowns imposed, this advice was based on a technical assessment of the health risks involved. But, of course, border closures and lockdowns have impacts that reach far beyond that, with the economic and social impacts of those measures being enormous. The point here isn’t that the health advice should be disregarded, nor is any conclusive opinion being expressed as to whether any particular measures that were imposed were right or wrong. The point is simply that while health experts are well placed to provide health advice, they are not best placed to weigh up the full range of factors that need to be considered when responding to a pandemic. The people best placed to do this are our democratically elected representatives who are able to seek expert advice from a wide range of sources, weigh up all of the policy considerations that need to be taken into account, and who are then ultimately accountable to the people for the decisions that they make.

RESPONDING TO A GLOBAL PANDEMIC

The Covid-19 pandemic has provided a clear illustration of Australia’s transformation from a land of rugged individualism to one of government paternalism. Whatever your views about the pandemic response by state and federal governments in Australia, there is no denying that there has been a significant restriction of individual freedoms and a significant expansion of governmental control over our daily lives. This may or may not be justified. But it is extraordinary in its reach, and provides an insight into the national character that departs sharply from old stereotypes. As Adam Creighton observed in the wake of the pandemic:

Foremost, we are far more compliant than we thought. Americans and Australians, who have acquiesced to major restrictions on their rights in return for the promise of a tiny bit more safety, have made a mockery of the maverick image we thought we saw in the mirror.

Australians are not outliers in this respect. Governments across the world have assumed sweeping powers and imposed significant restrictions on their citizens in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Dr Tom Daly (Director of the global online research platform Democratic Decay & Renewal) noted that by mid-April 2020 “over half of the world states were under formal states of emergency, and that doesn’t count all of the states who were under emergency measures without a formal state of emergency”. The Economist’s Democracy Index 2020 described citizens across the world as experiencing “the biggest rollback of individual freedoms ever undertaken by governments during peacetime (and perhaps even in wartime)”, and noted that “the willing surrender of fundamental freedoms by millions of people was perhaps one of the most remarkable occurrences in an extraordinary year”. It later went on to make a telling observation that is worth reflecting on in the Australian context:

Liberty, alongside equality, it essential in a democracy. The loss of liberty should not be taken lightly. Even if a temporary withdrawal of freedoms is a price worth paying to save lives, liberties should not be surrendered unthinkingly, and they should be restored as soon as possible.

IS A BIGGER GOVERNMENT A PROBLEM?

I have outlined the continued expansion of government in Australia and have suggested that the past two decades in particular have seen a move away from individual responsibility in favour of government paternalism. But it is now worth turning to the causes of this.

While a number of interrelated factors have each played their role, probably the most notable has been the seismic shift in technology, particularly communications technology, over the past twenty years. The growth of the internet, mobile communications and social media means that the world is more connected than ever before, that information is more readily available than ever before, and that we have all become used to expecting answers instantaneously. This means that people are more aware of what is happening in the world, are more directly able to compare their lives to others, and are able to immediately communicate their views in a more direct and visible way. The upshot of this is that our expectations of what our lives should look like have increased, and our tolerance for inaction or delays have decreased. At the same time, public opinion has become louder, more direct, and more immediate, with people able to voice their opinions on a vast array of issues at little personal cost.

Perhaps counterintuitively, however, as our horizons have expanded, they have also narrowed. While the world is now at our fingertips, the gradual shift from tribalism to individualism in Western societies has narrowed our central reference points and encouraged people to look inwards. A focus on living your best life and searching for your own authentic truth inevitably leads to an inversion of John F Kennedy’s famous words – the question is no longer what you can do for your country, but rather what your country can do for you. Paradoxically, the rise of individualism across the West seems to have actually led to a greater reliance on government and a corresponding diminution of individual responsibility. While a focus on empowering individuals and expanding individual choice can bring enormous benefits, this always needs to be balanced with a recognition of the importance of individual responsibility – a concept that too many Australians seem unwilling to embrace.

It is also a mistake to view the classical liberal focus on the innate worth of the individual as being a repudiation of the importance of community. However, in Australia (and other Western democracies) the rise of individualism has coincided with a weakening of many of the institutions that have traditionally bound our communities together, such as stable family structures, and active involvement in church, charity and other community groups. Weakening these institutions has resulted in a void that government has filled. This is a self-reinforcing cycle. The more that we turn to government to solve our problems, the less we rely on civil society, but the weaker civil society becomes, the more we are forced to rely on government.

Another key factor is the changed nature of government decision-making. Governments have more access to more information than ever before, including continuous exposure to public feedback and opinion, 24-hour media cycles, and polling data. This drives an approach to decision-making that is more reactive, risk-averse, and focused on short-term impacts. Governments are encouraged in this environment to involve themselves in more, but to take responsibility for less.

These factors are all mutually reinforcing, creating a vicious cycle that will see the trend from rugged individualism to government paternalism continue and strengthen over time unless conscious steps are taken to break the cycle. Is this something that we should be concerned about? I would answer yes, for a number of reasons. The first is that this shift coincides with an identified deterioration in the quality of daily life in Australia. I would argue that there is a causal connection. That is, the continued growth of government has not only failed to achieve better outcomes for Australians, but is actually partly to blame for things getting worse. The simple truth is that more laws, more government spending, and a larger bureaucracy don’t lead to better outcomes for the Australian people.

The second reason this matters is because of the impact on individual freedoms – as government grows, freedom contracts. President Ronald Reagan highlighted this in his Farewell Address to the Nation in 1989:

I hope we once again have reminded people that man is not free unless government is limited. There’s a clear cause and effect here that is as neat and predictable as a law of physics: As government expands, liberty contracts.

The final reason raises broader questions about the long-term health of our democracy and key institutions. While government has been expanding, it appears that our trust in government has been diminishing. The evidence seems to suggest that while people are expecting more from government, they are also feeling increasingly disconnected and distrustful towards it. The Fair Go report outlines evidence suggesting that trust in government has been on a consistent downward trend in Australia since the 2007 election. This reflects a trend that has been consistently reported in both Australian and global research over the past two decades, with scholars talking about an “era of democracy decay” and a “global democratic recession”. Interestingly, the most recent Democracy 2025 survey suggests that political trust has increased in Australia during the Covid-19 pandemic, but at this point it is too soon to tell whether this is a temporary response or the beginnings of a reversal of the trend of declining trust.

The longer-term trend of declining trust seen in Australia is problematic for several reasons. A growing disconnect between the people and the government undermines democratic engagement, makes the job of governing more difficult on a day-to-day level, and makes it harder for a country to successfully address complicated or controversial policy problems. Perhaps most importantly, it also undermines the legitimacy of democratic government, which at its heart is meant to be “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. Democracy is neither inevitable nor guaranteed. Indeed, in the world today the trend seems to be moving away from democratic government rather than towards it. For this reason, it is absolutely critical that Australia is focused on strengthening our commitment to democracy, which requires us to address our growing democratic deficit.

WHERE TO FROM HERE?

There is no easy answer to any of the above, but as I have previously suggested:

…a good starting point would be to go back to basics. A kind of Law-Making 101. It is worth reminding ourselves of what these institutions were originally created to do, and why they were originally limited in the way that they were. In all of the chaos and excitements of Australian politics in recent years, values have been far too easily swept aside. We need to return to our basic political values and ask some key questions about our governance and legal frameworks. Simply creating lots of laws and doing more things does not mean you are a good government.

What is clear is that government alone can’t fix the problem. In fact, we need to have a broader conversation in Australia about what we want the role of government to be, and our focus when judging governments needs to be on outcomes rather than action as a measure of success. We also need to find ways of strengthening the participatory aspects of our democracy by encouraging Australians to take an active role in civic life. Ultimately, the answer lies in realising that the Australian way of life isn’t something that can be provided by government. Rather, it is something that each of us must take responsibility for. Every Australian has an important contribution to make.

This article is from Volume 1 of Essays for Australia and is written by Lorraine Finlay, Human Rights Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission. To find out more, head to ipa.org.au/essays.

Essays For Australia - Book Cover
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