Thoughts from UvA on Authority

By Stephanie Hemelryk Donald

I am a long way from Australia at present. I am based in Amsterdam, and have been travellin in Lithuania and a quick trip to Karlsruhe. But I was asked to write something about Australian democracy, which I found difficult to be frank. I am not a political scientist nor an Australian historian, but here are some thoughts dating back to August:


On 16 August 2011, there was a public meeting at St Peter’s Town Hall in Sydney’s inner west. The participants were protesting against the expansion of coal seam gas ‘exploration’ in residential areas.


Their fears resonated with concerns of farmers and communities across the Liverpool Plains. Energy grabs challenge the prime tenets of the good life: public health, long-term water and food security, national sovereignty, and an inviolable sense of home, whether that is in regional or urban New South Wales. Neither group has won their fight, and a support from the Leader of the Opposition is couched as a farmers’ fight, rather than as a coherent national debate over food security and the long term value of arable land, city communities, and the water table.


On 14 August  2011, the words ‘Dalian’ and ‘PX’ were disabled (or rather scanned for removal) on Sina Weibo, the extraordinary Chinese microblog network. PX is a petrochemical company.  Dalian, a major industrial city in China’s north east, was made famous as a port for the Daqing oilfields in the 1960s. Paintings of its petrochemical plants were turned into posters in the 1970s, and the region was a byword for Chinese production and self-sufficiency.


In August 2011, Dalian had become a city seething with anger over petrochemical pollution. The aspirational classes, whose political acquiescence underpins China’s development, were roused to demonstrate. Thousands went on Weibo and on other sites, and locals took to the streets. This was a collective act of defiance and bravery in a State where protest is frequent but never legitimate. Government irritation notwithstanding, the local mayor promised to get the plant shut down or moved.


Taken together, one can see that defiance, demonstration, and a sense of the greater good are not confined to one type of regime. Indeed it seems that protest in a democratic polity may be brushed aside without consequence, whereas the shock of middle-class protest elsewhere resonates. A mayor in Dalian might actually get a plant shut down, if his power base supports him to do so. Which politician in New South Wales will challenge American and Chinese commercial mining interests, despite signs of popular dissent on home turf?


Arriving in Australia in 1997, I encountered something that was depressingly familiar; a society defining itself through exclusions. Naively, as I now realize, I was shocked by the political disrespect for Indigenous Australia, for people of colour, and for women. What kind of democracy was this?


The British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had declared in the mid-1980s that there was ‘no such thing’ as society. What she meant was that individuals and families are the building blocks of social and political association.  The upshot of her remarks was that there was disrespect: no time and apparently no need to listen to each other any more. The logic of market dominance had won the day, what could possibly be left to discuss?  Leaving Britain, even though we did so a month after Blair won the ‘97 election, seemed a wise move.


A new resident, and then citizen, in my new country, I glumly contemplated the Pauline Hanson phenomenon and waited for a chance to vote. As the years passed, the aggressive atmosphere culminated in the Tampa stand-off  - a large Western democracy forgetting the first laws of seafaring: change tack to save the drowning, and give succour to those who are pulled from the sea’s unforgiving embrace.


In 2001, I walked to a voting station in Carlton North and, as eager supporters handed me voting cards, I realized that I had to eschew the major parties. Both had pursued an agenda of fear. They were scared of the redneck fringe, scared of leading change, and above all- scared of losing. I was trained enough in the responsibilities of freedom not to turn back, nor spoil my vote, so I went Green.


At that point, it seemed that a leader was required, a person of moral fibre, imagination, and courage (and ideally someone with a smidgeon of televisual charm, and persuasive oratory). We needed someone who could demonstrate the transformative intelligence that might inspire the better selves of the nation’s soul. People assured me the latter existed, and indeed I had seen those glimmers of respect in many personal encounters. I still do. But it wasn’t, and isn’t, in mainstream politics.


Several false starts later, here we are. The politics of cowardice have created a vacuum, in which – at least at the level of political discourse - there is conflict without argument, and prejudice without the creation of informed communities of interest.


Has democracy fallen prey to new media platforms, to amoral lobbyists, to social networking? Certainly, politicians seemingly have not learned how to manage the 24- hour news cycles with dignity, nor how to transcend the scramble of single interest group campaigns.


But I don’t think that social networks or the media have destroyed democracy. I don’t think they necessarily support deliberation either. Some do, some don’t. If political communications are lost in the vortex of influence, if news is analysis-lite, and if most people have little idea of why they should pay more attention to what the world around them is doing – because it really really does affect them -  then the seriousness of the situation is underestimated. I think that fundamentally Australians still don’t respect each other enough across generations and places of origin, to listen to one another with much interest. And that goes for Left, Right and the shining path of centrism.


It’s also true that we can hardly tell the difference between an advertisement for maintaining the brand equity of the tobacco industries, and a campaign to vilify the so-called carbon tax. Tacky rhetoric rather than informed judgement abounds. Teenagers turn to George Watsky on YouTube for political intelligence (not a bad idea given the choices elsewhere). This is not so much a democracy deficit as an authority deficit.


Democratic systems need structural pliancy, checks and balances, multiple and mutually respectful nodes of expertise and judgement, and – most crucially - a certain regard for the public good. If deliberation takes place in blogs rather than in a daily broadsheet, that should, frankly, be neither here nor there.  But you have to be prepared to speak and listen, or no conversation will take place at all. At that point democracy is without substance.


In Dalian, the people trusted that other Chinese would care about their situation. They appealed to a sense of common interest, and in a country where concerns are mounting about ecological impact on newly won lifestyle, they found support. Is anyone out there making the connection between the good life in middle Australia, and coal seam gas in St Peters, Gunnedah, and the Kimberley?



Stephanie Donald

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