THESE are interesting times for our western democracy. We are constantly reminded how important it is, we even bomb other countries to help them get it. But how healthy is our democracy?

Democracy is a broad term and to say a country is a democracy doesn’t necessarily tell you so much about how democratic it is.

Access to truth and relevant information for our society has been gradually stripped away for years now, but the process had sped up significantly under the Howard government. Freedom of speech is now under serious attack, we even have
‘anti-terrorism’ laws perfect for use against peaceful political protests.

We have sedition laws that mean you can go to prison for saying what you think. Our elections are decided on the basis of spin and fear campaigns, with terrorism, immigration, interest rates and hung parliament, some recent examples of election time fear campaigns. So with truth and freedom of speech locked up in a detention centre with their lips sewn, how do we have the informed society necessary for a real democracy?

Hung by it

There is another problem that perhaps makes Australia’s democratic condition worse than that of most other western democracies.

The party line.

Australian politicians must tow the party line or risk being hung by it. Our politicians are not allowed to have their own ideas or opinions.

In the build-up to the ongoing Iraq war many US Republican and UK Labor
members were vocal in their opposition to the Iraq war. How many Liberals in
Australia were?

The recent Dubai Ports Deal in the US, whatever your opinion on the deal itself, was primarily brought down by Republicans, who were publicly very critical of the deal and of their leader. This is not unusual in the States; Senators there can, and do, give their own opinion and not just that of their party leader.

Recently in Britain, Blair’s anti-terrorism policies were not accepted by his Labor Party. In the UK members of the same party still engage in public debate over issues.

But in Australia politicians must not deviate from the party line, and it is not just their fellow members who hang them out to dry if they do, it is our ‘democracy-loving’ public as well.

A traitor

Australian culture seems to view someone who deviates from their party line as dishonest, untrustworthy, a traitor, or someone on an ego-trip to get attention for personal ends.

So we have two major parties representing two ‘lines’ in a country of about 20 million different ‘lines’. As if this weren’t bad enough for decades now the party lines of Liberal and Labor have been converging. Today to vote for one or the other is a very similar thing. Sure, there are a few policy differences, but they share a very similar ideology.

No wonder the Liberal party in Tasmania has been so weak in recent years, their ‘line’ has been stolen by Labor. The left and right of the past has gone, the entire scale has shifted, it is now, right or further right. The representation of the workers by Labor and the business by Liberal has gone, now business is the major influence on both parties. Not many governments look after big business at the expense of all else like the current Lennon government! The differences between Labor and Liberal are primarily symbolic representations of history.

Where is debate under this system? Anyone who has watched Question Time knows there is little debate between parties, rather more rhetoric and childish slanging, and of course repetition of the party line.

There is no public debate within parties either, for this would be seen as a lack of unity, weakness and ‘un-Australian’. You can see the Tasmanian Labor Government playing to the public fear of debate, of not having one clear party line. The fear campaign — we must have a ‘stable majority government’. Just imagine the instability and chaos if we had a hung parliament, if we had debate, if we had democratic process.

One set of opinions

It raises the question is there any point in having so many politicians when there is only one set of opinions (or the representation of only one small section of society) per party, and not per politician.

Yet, surely having a variance in opinion from your party portrays honesty rather than dishonesty, and surely we would consider someone more trustworthy if they have the conviction to say what they think rather than what they are told to say. As for being a traitor, in a democracy politicians are meant to represent the demos (people). Towing the party line is to be a traitor to democracy, to the demos.

Voicing your opinion, whether or not it conforms to your party line, is a sign of strength, not weakness. It is reasonable that people want unity within their political party. However, unity is more likely to occur in an environment where each member has the freedom to voice their opinion without fear of retribution, than in one where you have to do as your told or pay the price.

As for ‘un-Australian’, who knows? Perhaps one day our politicians will explain just what ‘un-Australian’ and for that matter, what ‘Australian’ actually means, in this a democratic country full of different people with different views and different ways of life.

In a democracy people don’t all have to fit in to the same mould and have the same views. In any case, if we respect democracy Australian politics must change.

James Dryburgh is a Tasmanian, living in Spain.