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Protecting democracy is not just about elections

Chris Merritt                 30 June 2022

Published in the Australian Newspaper

Globally, the cause of liberty and democracy is in trouble. Authoritarians are on the rise and more people are living without freedom than at any time since 1997.

That bleak assessment is the core message from the latest report by Freedom House, an independent American institution that has been promoting the cause of democracy since its establishment in the darkest days of World War II.

This year’s Freedom in the World report shows democracy has been in decline globally for 16 consecutive years as authoritarians circumvent democratic norms and undermine institutions that support basic liberties.

Just 20.3 per cent of the global population now lives in countries that are considered to be free. That’s a catastrophic collapse from 46 per cent in 2005.

This country is part of that lucky 20.3 per cent but it has had its share of authoritarians, particularly during the pandemic. Thankfully, that might well have triggered a backlash.

The recent Lowy Institute poll shows support for democracy in Australia has been growing steadily since 2017 and is now at record levels.

It shows that 74 per cent of Australians believe democracy is preferable to any other kind of government, up from 60 per cent in 2017.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this might be a reaction to attacks on the core requirements of democracy – not just internationally, but domestically.

One of the greatest misconceptions is that democracy merely requires the regular performance of elections and majority rule. That is the path to an elected dictatorship unless it is accompanied by effective checks on the power of the state.

Freedom House defines democracy as a governing system based on the will and consent of the governed, institutions that are accountable to all citizens, adherence to the rule of law and respect for human rights.

So domestic attacks on democracy do not need to overturn the electoral system in order to succeed. They can merely overturn democratic norms – such as responsible government, in which the executive is held accountable by parliament.

Last year, when the pandemic was at its worst, this country caught a glimpse of authoritarian rule when some state governments ignored the doctrine of responsible government and ruled by decree.

Mere officials, frequently acting without parliamentary oversight, were dictating rules that were eventually met with community outrage.

Robin Speed, founder of the Rule of Law Institute of Australia, wrote at the time that Australians had never before found themselves trapped by laws with no way to change or repeal them.

Under the lockdowns that gripped the nation, protests were banned, social media was censored and state parliaments stopped sitting.

And all that was happening at the very time that the poll data from the Lowy Institute shows support for democracy was heading to record levels.

Australians, it seems, might have had just about enough of those who locked them in their homes and took away their ­freedoms. Politicians would be wise to take note.

One of the most encouraging aspects of the Lowy data is that the gap between older and younger Australians on the importance of democracy has almost disappeared.

Of those aged between 18 and 29, 70 per cent express a preference for democracy, compared to 74 per cent for those over 30. In previous years this gap had been as large as 28 points.

This might have something to do with the fact that young people suffered disproportionately during the lockdowns – disrupting vital years that can never be ­restored.

There are lessons here not just for politicians but for the lawyers, who have a unique responsibility to defend one of the essential elements of democracy: the rule of law.

The Lowy poll shows 55 per cent of Australians believe the rise of authoritarian systems of government around the world amounts to a critical threat, which is a 14 point increase since 2020.

An even greater proportion – 86 per cent – say they are concerned about China’s influence on this country’s political processes, a four-point increase from 2020 and 23 points higher than the level of concern in 2018.

If democracy is to withstand the challenge of the authoritarians, we need to get our house in order. The rule of law must act as a bulwark between governors and the governed, restraining the power of the state, protecting individual liberty and holding those in power to account.

The erosion of democratic norms during the pandemic – primarily by state governments – must never be repeated.

Take emergency measures by all means – but present them to parliament as disallowable instruments.

The deterioration of this country’s governance has been clearly identified by legal academics Augusto Zimmermann and Gabriel Moens in their book, Emergency Powers, Covid-19 Restrictions & Mandatory Vaccination.

They write that governments used a broad range of extra-constitutional powers to control almost every aspect of our lives.

Globally, this is exactly what is contributing to the decline of democracy.

According to the Freedom House report: “Democracies are being harmed from within by illiberal forces, including unscrupulous politicians willing to corrupt and shatter the very institutions that brought them to power.”

This is in line with the assessment of Zimmermann and Moens, who say: “The nation’s political class has managed to undermine the rule of law through legal means.”

If democracy is to prevail, authoritarians need to be confronted everywhere – in Ukraine, the South China Sea and in the parliaments of our states.