Is Australia a real ‘democracy’?

There’s been a good deal of talk recently about our failures as a democracy — our politicians can’t make hard decisions any more, or Australian governments are weak in comparison to entities like the UN, the World Bank, transnational corporations and even NGOs like Greenpeace and the WWF, or we the citizens are lazy, self-satisfied and uninterested. I’m not of that camp, though there is something in the criticisms. Over the last few weeks I’ve been re-reading classics from my youth, one of them Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies, written during the Second World War. Despite its formidable title, it is an easy book to read, almost conversational in its style.

Popper sees  a real democracy as  an ‘open society’, and he says at one point that democracies only work if the main parties adhere to rules about the functions of such a society. I thought it a good passage, and summarise it here. In sum, the job of a democracy is not to do good so much as to prevent evil.

(1) It’s not just the rule of the majority, because majorities can be tyrannical. What is crucial is that the powers of the rulers must be limited. That is why we must have real, free and honest elections. It is imperative that all parties work to keep those elections honest.

(2) Societies that don’t have the removal of elected governments as both possible and achievable without violence are tyrannies, whatever else they call themselves.

(3) A consistently democratic Constitution should exclude only one type of change in the legal system: one which would endanger its democratic character.

(4) This one I present as he wrote it: In a democracy, the full protection of minorities should not extend to those who violate the law, and especially not to those who incite others to the violent overthrow of the democracy.

(5) If you are framing institutions to safeguard democracy, never forget that there may be anti-democractic tendencies among the ruled, as well as among the rulers.

(6) If democracy is destroyed, all rights are destroyed. Even if the rulers retain certain economic advantages, they would persist only on sufferance.

(7) Democracies work well because they provide an arena for reasonable reforms, which can take place without violence. But those who want to undertake reforms need to remember to maintain the democratic context in which they want to bring about their reforms (whatever they are). If they don’t, the latent anti-democratic tendencies that are always there in societies may bring about a breakdown of the democracy itself, to everyone’s cost.

Popper goes on to admonish us that we must not blame ‘democracy’ for all the evils that it does not prevent. You can hear a lot of that kind of blame today.  Some climate botherers urge us to abandon democracy, because the things that must be done to save the planet require firm, tough leaders, and democracy cannot provide them. Popper says that we the citizens have to be alert all the time. What he calls ‘the strain of civilisation’ applies: you are free in an open society, a democracy, but it comes with costs. You have to put up with people who disagree with you, who have ideas that you think are silly, or even dangerous, and your only weapon is thought, argument, discussion. You need to approach them as rational people, listen to them, and then respond. We can find that tiresome. But banning the others, banning their thoughts and ideas is not the way to go. It was all so much simpler when we lived in tribes.

We in Australia think that the question at election time is ‘Who will rule us for the next three years?’ Popper says that there are more serious underlying questions: ‘How are they to rule us?’ and  ‘How much power is to be wielded?’ These, too, are issues that we rarely talk about.

Popper wrote his book when he was in New Zealand, an émigré from Austria who had the good fortune to be able to teach at the university in Christchurch, as well as the early foresight to see that emigration might be necessary (though he was baptised as a Lutheran his grandparents were all Jewish). His focus was not on the democracy he was living in, though there are occasional references to Australia, Sweden and other living democracies, but to his own native country and others like it in Europe where democracy had had not survived.

Why did democracy not survive there? His answer was that philosophers and politicians had been caught up in the view that powerful historical forces ordained outcomes for humanity over which humans themselves were almost powerless. His principal targets were Plato, whom he saw as providing a foundation for the view that a small natural elite of rulers was the right basis for government, and Hegel, who taught that society was everything, the individual nothing. On top of all that Marx (and Spengler and Toynbee) saw historical laws as omnipotent. Societies rose and fell, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. Marx had a more sophisticated version, in which feudalism led to capitalism, which would destroy itself and be replaced by socialism. Again, these things would just happen; they were inevitable.

Amid the horror of war, and the memory of the depression and the tensions that had characterised at least the second half of the interwar period, such a pessimistic outlook had many adherents. Popper saw these ‘historicist’ accounts of humanity’s joinery as not just wrongheaded but pernicious as well. Good societies, ‘open’ societies’, were achievable, but achieving that state was hard work. Hence his  rules that I have set out above.

How does Australia stack up in this context? Pretty well, I think. As I said in the Australia Day essay, our politicians have not tried to subvert the Constitution, either from the left or the right. There may have been a moment during 1931, when a right-wing group seriously considered overthrowing the Lang Labor Government in New South Wales. It came to nothing, and perhaps it would not have succeeded had it tried. Intolerance and xenophobia can be found in our society, but I’m not sure that it is any worse than it was fifty years ago.

On the whole, Australian governments go for what Popper calls ‘piecemeal social engineering’, or what I call ‘incrementalism’ — tweaking at the edges rather than trying to make some large universal change. There are exceptions, and the old-age pension was one. I didn’t see a real need for the National Broadband Network, and it is struggling, far behind the confident projections for its success made by Kevin Rudd all those years ago. The NDIS, another ‘universalist’ project, is also discovering that tweaking at the edges might have been more effective and efficient, if slower.

The trouble is that we are used to instant gratification. If we can have instant food, why not an instant change in the body politic or in social welfare? And there will always be the chanting groups to voice that possibility. Democracies are not perfect. They are just much better than the alternatives, as Churchill pointed out. We have to live with their noise and their imperfections, and protect them against the attractive but deluded notion that a wise, beneficent ruler would be so much better.

Popper spoke of a twentieth-century intellectualism which expresses its disillusionment, or even despair, of reason and of a rational solution of our social problems, by an escape into a religious mysticism. He knew nothing of ‘climate change’, but in fact there is quite a lot in the book which translates easily into that contemporary issue, and I’ll write about it in another essay.


Join the discussion 61 Comments

  • Alan Gould says:

    One reason we may tolerate the imperfections of Democracy is because we are aware of the tyrannies in our lives that fall beyond considerations of governance. We must age. We must endure mixed fortunes of health and livelihood – nothing like a bad cold or an interval of penury to feel the rub of tyranny. I find some of the sudden impositions of the Internet, or the queues to speak to a phone operator tyrannous. So our lives have tyrannous circumstances embedded in them. Of course I recognise the distinction between this and prevention from regular participation in choosing a rulling body.

    One consideration, if you were ambitious to set up a despotism in Australia, is its geography. How might you effectively garrison such far reaches in the interests of tight central government? Of course despotic empires have done this – the Mongols, just to name one. But I shudder to think of the administrative onus on any bureaucrat in tyrant’s pay charged with seeing each remote farm or township is effectively policed to guard against dissident opinion.

    I’m writing on Macbeth at present. One detail Shakespeare brilliantly introduces in the play is the effect of distrust. A tyranny means you can no longer trust yourself to speak candidly to another because you know not who he/she works for. When MacDuff makes the simple statement to Malcolm in their exile, “I am not treacherous” he takes fearful risk because he no longer has certainty of the person he imparts this to. Such conditions are our familiars today in many places.

  • David says:

    “In sum, the job of a democracy is not to do good so much as to prevent evil.”

    So, given the current scientific evidence, Popper would think it appropriate for democracies to prevent further increases in CO2.

    • Bryan Roberts says:

      Since the evidence, as you must know, is far from unequivocal, I cannot imagine Popper doing any such thing.

      • David says:

        Bryan, Popper and other grown-ups, would understand that one does not require certainty before decisions can be made.

        • Doug Hurst says:

          I am a grown up David, and I know that the weight of evidence strongly supports doing nothing, because nothing dangerous or unprecedented is happening – and if it were, spending trillions to curb CO2 would still be a bad idea. We probably can’t ever be absolutely sure in the climate field, but we can apply the weight of evidence to our decisions as we do in so many other areas of life.

          WRT Don’s blog, I generally agree with Popper, especially wrt Plato and Hegel who won unmerited support from political factions and academics uncomfortable with democracy and keen to dominate ordinary folk.

          • Mike says:

            Why answer garbage from a troll. This is about democracy not other things. Obviously it is an attempt to steer the subject away and dilute it. Ignore trolls.

          • David says:

            To Mike,
            Don is trying to press gang Popper into some meme about maintaining the status quo, re doing anything about AGW. When in fact the Popper quote encourages the exact opposite. And I am sure Karl would agree.

            And Mike

            If you really think a couple of observations about Popper makes me a Troll you really do have a glass jaw.

        • Bryan Roberts says:

          David, when you grow up, you will find random assertions don’t win arguments.

        • David, Popper was in favour of a free flow of critical discussion and anyone who thinks that the science is settled was a worry, also appealing to consensus is a sign that something has gone wrong.

          • bobo says:

            Sure, but climate science hasn’t been falsified. There’s still a lack of a compelling counterexample to climate science. There is a real lack of engagement by climate sceptics with climate science – climate science is operating at a level of considerable sophistication in terms of techniques/methods used, but these techniques aren’t being critiqued by climate skeptics in a highly detailed way, nor is there any indication that the climate sceptics have much of an understanding of the intricate machinery of climate science. To paraphrase the title of a well-known paper, this phenomenon could be referred to as the “unreasonable ineffectiveness of climate scepticism”. Why unreasonable? Because so much energy, time, effort and expenditure of climate sceptics world-wide has failed to dent the edifice of climate science (but the climate sceptics have had many significant PR victories, which of course is irrelevant from a scientific perspective).

            Regarding consensus, again one has to drill down to the real meaning of the consensus. If there is an overwhelming consensus by experts who have thoroughly evaluated the evidence and reasoning, then that consensus translates to a great deal of confidence in a theory. For example, there is a broad consensus that 2+2=4, so attacks based on consensus alone have little merit – there must be a fallacy of reasoning associated with that.

            I’m not sure what Popper has to say about the improving confidence of a theory that is subjected to multiple stringent tests, I believe he says nothing on the matter (the timing of this discussion is coinciding with the pending announcement of the discovery of gravitational waves, which gives physicists even more confidence in the general theory of relativity, a form of reasoning which would be at odds with Popper).

          • David says:

            Rafe, I agree. I don’t think the science is settled in an absolute sense. But wrt to AGW I do think it is settled, enough, to take some tentative decisions.

            If you go to see your Dr with complaint of a temperature, you do not expect theme to rule out every possible source infection before they comment treatment. Typically they will run some tests and commence some treatment while they wait for the results to come back. Then re-assess. This is sensible management.

          • Mark McGuire says:

            bobo says: February 11, 2016 at 3:51 pm
            “Sure, but climate science hasn’t been falsified.”

            ‘Climate science’ is unfalsifiable. Global Warming causes everything.
            More rain, less rain, more snow, less snow, droughts, earthquakes, randy cats …
            Unless you have evidence otherwise?

          • bobo says:

            @Mark McGuire

            ” ‘Climate science’ is unfalsifiable. ”

            Here are some basic claims of climate science that are falsifiable:
            – GW is occurring
            – GW is being caused by GHGs
            – the GHGs causing GW are created by human activity

            The problem for climate sceptics, is that despite all their energy, efforts and industriousness (surely more than all the climate scientists in the world combined), they can’t falsify any of those basic claims. How demoralising that realisation must be.

        • JMO says:

          David, honest grown ups state their position, or viewpoint, clearly and up front. We all have guessed you are an alarmist who has swallowed the CAGW mantra hook line and sinker ( I once swallowed the alarmist hook and some of the line before spitting it out – nothing like climategate and a litany of failed predictions to sober a critical mind).

          On a previous post (late last year) I said to you my view on equilibrium climate sensitivity (1.2 C +/-0.3) I am still waiting for your view. Again, what is yours? My guess is 4.8C +/- 0.3. Am I right or am I right?

          Come on David, demonstrate you are grown up – lay your cards on the table and cease the juvenile sneering at Don and others whom you do not agree.

      • bobo says:

        “Since the evidence, as you must know, is far from unequivocal”

        Actually you’re wrong. You’re obviously not in a position to understand that though.

    • margaret says:

      To prevent evil good wo(men) must do something – to paraphrase a well known quote. I know I’m sounding facetious and troll-like and I know that David does not require my defense but as I often come to this site and sometimes try to penetrate the erudition and learn something, I find David non troll like, non-condescending and, funny.

    • Mike says:

      Don said nothing about CO2 yet you introduce that and try to weave it into this. There are those who want to end democracy so that people would be forced by a dictatorship to do what activists get out of their nether regions. Your comment is contemptible and to be ignored. I will ignore you Troll.

  • Right on comrade! I think Popper is on the outer in academia at present, The Open Society is kept in print by a lay readership. Much the same in the philosophy of science where he is mostly misread and misrepresented in various ways.

    Anyway, keep the flame alive!

    • bobo says:

      Interesting to see your critical analyses and reading guides of Popper’s work.

      One issue I have with philosophy is the insistence on reading original texts which are often difficult to understand. It borrows a lot from the study of literature in this regard, which is odd, because stylistics aren’t really relevant to philosophical ideas.

      In the sciences and mathematics, on the other hand, one hardly ever reads original texts while coming to grips with a discipline, unless it’s a recently published paper or something very specialised. The best ideas propagate through to relatively recently published books etc that are written with improved clarity, better notation and are framed in the contemporary way of thinking associated with the particular discipline.

      • Bryan Roberts says:

        “In the sciences and mathematics, on the other hand, one hardly ever reads original texts while coming to grips with a discipline”. I disagree, but you’re obviously not in a position to understand that.

        • bobo says:

          Which original texts or papers did you read?

          • Bryan Roberts says:

            bobo, if you have graduated from a university, or undertaken post-doctoral studies, you would not ask those questions.

          • bobo says:

            If you were undertaking post-doctoral studies you’d be mainly reading original papers because you’d be doing highly specialised research. If you are learning a hard science/math discipline as an undergraduate you don’t generally look at research papers on anything other than the odd occasion to do a short research project. For example, a physics student is not going to learn physics from Einstein or Maxwell’s original papers, a math student won’t learn Galois theory from Galois’ original works. But a philosophy student will read the verbatim translations of Aristotle, Rousseau, Hegel etc etc etc as a core part of their education.

          • Bryan Roberts says:

            So what’s you point? Both science and arts student read original papers.

      • Rafe says:

        Some of the great books of philosophy by the likes of Kant and Hegel and also Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery are very difficult without a guide. The reason for going back to the original is to correct a drift in interpretation that can happen by way of hostile critics and also followers who promote partial or eccentric interpretations.

        A lot of Popper is very readable as Don said but there is so much of it that I think my guides can be useful for people who are short of reading time or think that philosophy is not their cup of tea after contact with obscurantists like the logical positivists and Heidegger.

    • Mike says:

      Why write comrade? For me that means you follow the most extreme form of communism, is that what you mean?

      • Rafe says:

        No I was making a joke, using language that was common among radical students in Don’s generation and mine.

        • margaret says:

          Gough Whitlam was fond of the expression and it does mean friend, colleague and/or companion.

          • David says:

            And this Margaret

            “Men and Women of Australia!
            The decision we will make for our country on 2 December is a choice between the past and the future, between the habits and fears of the past, and the demands and opportunities of the future. …”

            It still packs a punch. 🙂

          • margaret says:

            It does still pack a punch David – GW was a modern day philosopher king who wanted to release Australians from a fate of looking at shadows on the walls of a cave for their reality. Now they have Netflix instead : )

        • Mike says:

          My connection with communism is quite different. In the late 60s early 70s I was a member of a communist union and my father in law, plus mother in law members of the CPA. Comrade meant a committed fellow traveler who read the Tribune every day. Gough probably meant exactly that. Communists I knew at the time approved greatly of him at the time. I see your humour now.

  • bobo says:

    Don, any thoughts on political donations and the effects this has on democracy?

    A fascinating political donor is the Cormack Foundation (other similar organisations are the Greenfields Foundation and the Free Enterprise Foundation).

    The Cormack Foundation provided $4.26m to the Liberal Party in 2013-14. It is an investment fund operated on behalf of the Liberal party, and as of 2010 had at least $58 million capital invested.

    Essentially the public has no information about who is donating to the Cormack Foundation, the industry sectors that the Cormack Foundation invests into, nor if the coalition’s policy positions are chosen to maximise the dividends of the Cormack Foundation’s investment portfolio.

    Hypothetically, if the Cormack Foundation and the major donors to the Cormack Foundation were heavily coal-exposed, in the interests of maximising donations it would not make any sense whatsoever for the Liberal party to support the renewable energy sector otherwise they’ll cannibalise the hand that feeds them, the coal-powered energy market.

    • Popper’s faith in democracy was tested when he went to the US circa 1950 and saw the beginning of massive paid advertising campaigns in elections. We are approaching the end game when Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump can promise the moon and not get laughed off the plaltform.

    • JimboR says:

      ASIC’s John Price spoke at a Senate Committee hearing today about their investigations into Qld. Nickel and the requirement that directors act in the best interest of the company. Specifically, he said:

      “For example, if a political donation is made and it doesn’t directly or indirectly benefit a company, that might be an issue”

    • Don Aitkin says:

      In principle, I would have no donations or comparable offerings of any kind from any entity — freely offered individual contributions in kind excepted — and no volunteering of work from other entities. Given compulsory voting, I would have thought extra support from interested parties, like corporations and unions, was really unnecessary.

      We don’t start with a clean sheet, however. I know nothing about the Cormack Foundation, and have not enquired into it. Its name suggests that it was named after Sir Magnus of that surname, and he was a Liberal politician.

      I also have considerable objections about governments of all parties running what I think are quasi-electoral campaigns with taxpayers’ money. Rudd did it, Howard did it. I don’t know when it started, but I’m opposed to it.

  • Alan Gould says:

    Whether Popper, Aitken or Hurst, I think one can be a little too severe on Plato. ‘Philosopher Kings’ regardless, this gent was one of the earliest instigators and defenders of that cornerstone of democracy, the questioning mind, as his ‘Dialogues’ amply show. I’d give him his liberty guernsey for that.

    • Alan it helps to find that Popper drew a distinction between the younger Plato who was promulgating the Socratic doctrine of the questioning mind and the older Plato of the philosopher king in The Republic and The Laws who was prepared to advocate the Noble Lie along with other unhealthy ideas, like banishing deviant poets and authors. Popper had boundless admiration for Plato (and Aristotle) and his treatment in the Open Society was not designed to belittle them but to take issue with some anti-democratic ideas which they promulgated, ideas that have become embedded in the way we thing about politics.

      • Alan Gould says:

        My thanks for that. I confess I’ve not read Popper at all, but fairly widely in Plato, though not The Laws. O yes, having tried to make livelihood as a poet for four decades or more, I’m deeply conscious of our exile from the Republic. What was our deviancy again? Recidivist disrespect to the gods?

  • margaret says:

    Trolls are people too. In a democracy.
    Trolls are a many and varied species. IF David is a troll, one definition of internet troll is:
    “One of many unsung internet heroes who are almost entirely misunderstood. Contrary to popular belief, many trolls are actually quite intelligent. Their habitual attacks on forums is usually a result of their awareness of the pretentiousness and excessive self-importance of many forum enthusiasts. As much as people may hate trolls, they are highly effective – their actions bring much of the stupidity of other forum users out into the great wide open.
    Man, that troll really owned those dumb forum users who take themselves too damn seriously.”
    I have quoted a quite positive definition of troll. The opinions of like-minded and long-winded men require an opposing view lest the forum become fusty.

  • PeterE says:

    The point is that democracy is fragile and has been hard-won. Overseas, terrible things are happening but even here in Australia every day brings subtle undermining of our democracy. To take but one example, the tendency to appeal to the UN, for whom no one here has voted, poses a dangerous threat.

    • Dai Davies says:

      I agree with each of your points – especially the hard-won bit.
      I’ve only recently realised how much of British law has been, and is increasingly being, dictated by faceless bureaucrats across the channel. Fortunately, it seems that the Brits are waking up to it.
      Whatever happened to ‘never, ever, ever shall be slaves’?

  • bobo says:

    Hi Don,

    I know it isn’t related to the topic of your essay, but I’d be fascinated to hear your thoughts on the discovery of gravitational waves in the context of the way science is done?

    • JimboR says:

      Yes, I’m kinda’ curious whether the LIGOs would have been built, had Don been in charge with his “no evidence, then no theory” rule?

    • Don Aitkin says:

      It’s a long time since I was dealing with requests for money to establish a gravitational wave observatory in WA — 1990, or thereabouts, I would think. The proponents wanted a lot of dough, and their site was to be calibrated with others in the USA and somewhere else. Big ask need big support, and there wasn’t enough from the physics community. If memory serves me well, there had been other, earlier requests.

      • bobo says:


        To be fair, the GR research community in Australia is (and probably was) very small, so was unlikely to get a disproportionately large piece of the small funding pie.

        Interesting anecdote, but I’m fascinated to hear your views on the actual discovery and the interpretation of the results, perhaps with a tie-in to climate research?

        • Don Aitkin says:

          That’s all I have for you at the moment. I haven’t read anything about it yet, because I’m busy with other things.

  • FrankD says:

    We cannot claim to be a democracy. Proof of that is the dismissal of the Whitlam government by the Senate in1975 to satisfy the political ambitions of Malcolm Fraser. The House of Representatives at the time always had a stable majority on any issue. The Senate does not represent the people.

  • colin davidson says:

    The CAGW hypothesis is based on projections made by climate models. Those models incorporate the “settled science” of radiative imbalance caused by increased concentration of CO2, transfer of that imbalance to the surface, and positive water vapour feedback.
    The average projections of the very many models consistently overestimate the actual temperature increase by a factor of nearly 3 times. This is not a “near miss”. It is proof that there is something wrong with the “settled science”. (The radiative imbalance part of the science is generally accepted. Where the error seems to lie is in either the transfer mechanism to the surface, or in the positive water vapour feedback. My guess is the latter, based on recent work on what happens to atmospheric water vapour in massive thunderclouds, but it could well be in both.)
    The data is not lying, but the models are. (Some of the climate clergy are claiming the data is wrong! Perhaps also Galileo was wrong to rely on data rather than the certainty provided by the Church view?)
    It follows logically that if the models are consistently unable to “project” (they mean “predict”) correctly, then they are in error, and any CAGW hypothesis based upon them is necessarily falsified.
    The theory is wrong – it does not produce answers which are consistent with observed (measured) behaviour. It is incorrect to claim that ”the science is settled”, and unforgivable to base public policy on such flawed models and disproven theory.

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