4.5 Problems Of Modern Democracy
From Political Freedom and Democracy by LJM Cooray (1996)

It is both proper and desirable in a democracy that the legislature and the government engage in the widest possible consultation prior to taking decisions affecting the public. However, decisions must remain the responsibility of the legislature or government as the case may be. Whatever consultation the government engages in cannot absolve it from the responsibility of submitting its actions to the electoral test. However, this is not the only important requirement of a representative democracy. A meaningful democratic order requires the elected government to have regard to what mandates it has received and has not received, and generally, to act according to the wishes of the electorate. The duty of an elected government is not only to submit itself to periodic elections but also to conduct the affairs of the state in accordance with what public opinion perceives to be in the best interests of the nation. The elected representatives must therefore be responsive to the opinions of those who elected them.

In recent times these principles have been subverted by governments pursuing regulationist and socialist programmes. The corporatist strategy of these governments is to make their policies work by making deals with powerful interest groups such as trade unions and big business and special interest groups such as environmentalists, feminists and peace groups. This is the basic strategy of Hawke's "government by consensus". On questions of policy vitally affecting the Australian public, the Hawke government has repeatedly chosen not to consult with the electorate as a whole but with groups which, despite their power and influence, fail to represent the views of the vast majority of Australians. The government has thereby set up alternative consultative processes which circumvent the traditional institutions of democratic government.

Economic policy in Australia is today effectively determined by a process of trade off between big unions, big business and the big government. What passes for consensus are deals which accommodate the special interests of union bosses, big economic conglomerates, the ideological goals of the government and specially favoured pressure groups (eg environmentalists, feminists, the education lobby, peace groups, the arts lobby, the multiculturalists, the gay rights movement and Aboriginal activists). The public is led to believe that decisions are made by public consensus whereas the truth is that they only reflect the interests of the powerful and the influential.

It is not difficult to understand why these powerful groups readily cooperate. The government for its part cannot hope to obtain popular endorsement for most of its policies. It must therefore seek to create alternative mechanisms which are ostensibly pluralistic but in fact take no account of public opinion. The unions, particularly the monolithic ACTU, provide this support. The latter not only share most of the government's policy objectives but stand to gain tremendous concessions at the expense of the public.

Big businesses on the other hand, are sometimes less willing partners, forced to co-operate in this process for the purpose of survival. In return for their acquiescence, they expect patronage and protection for their interests. The unfortunate aspect is that the interests of big business seldom coincide with those of the smaller entrepreneurs, farmers, the general public and the economy as a whole. The concurrence or silence of big business participants tends to foreclose further debate on economic issues by those representing the private sector interests.

It is clear that corporatism in Australia consists of an unequal bargaining process in which the economic and ideological interests of socialist governments and unions predominate. It is a masterful political strategy for imposing minority views on the majority under the guise of pluralism. It has substantially eroded the principles of democratic government which require the government to be responsible to Parliament and Parliamentarians to be responsible to the electorate.

The threat to representative democracy which arises from this type of corporatism is that the process, when institutionalised, can displace the principle of government according to popular wishes. The pursuit of this strategy has been so successful that it is almost presumed that once a deal has been struck between these powerful groups, it is no longer open to question.

Democracies everywhere are in danger of being hijacked by bureaucracies and special interest pressure groups. Public accountability is giving way to government by coercive deals. Political power is shifting from the populace to the powerful organisations. The inevitable victors will be the coalitions which seek to control society for their ideological or parochial ends. In the United States and Britain this process has been arrested or slowed down due to the efforts of Reagan and Thatcher. These two leaders took their policies directly to the people. They courageously weathered the abuse and ridicule heaped upon them by the new establishment, comprising pressure groups, the media and the education system. They were vindicated by their respective electorates. The Reagan and Thatcher strategy contrasted sharply with that of Bob Hawke. Hawke mistrusted the electorate and conducted government by erecting facades of consensus through unrepresentative summits. The opposition did not adequately challenge Hawke and the pressure groups and appeal to the majority of the people.

The tyranny of the majority is not often a problem in the history of democracy. At times of war or perceived national danger, majority hysteria can run amok. However, for the most part the majority are generally apathetic about governmental issues and are concerned about the immediate issues in their day to day lives. The major problem of modern democracy is that of the tyranny of a minority, and particularly a minority with a strong ideological fervour, which purports to be representative of the majority or a wider group, but is not so representative. Left wing trade union leaders, purporting to represent workers, are not representative of all workers. The Women's Electoral Lobby is not representative of the women of Australia, yet it exercises enormous power in Canberra on social issues. The captains of industry invited to the Hawke Summits, were not representative of the mass of small business people who constitute (or constituted — they are a decaying group) the basis of private enterprise and entrepreneurship. Unrepresentative public affairs media (along with trendy/left forces) enjoying low public esteem, as demonstrated by the Australian Values Study set the agenda of public debate in Australia.

The basic problem of modern democracy is the tyranny of unrepresentative minority and pressure groups who have captured government, opposition, the media and the education system. The analysis of the Australian Values Study demonstrates that the policies of neither of the main political groupings in Australia (Labour and the Coalition) were attuned to the values of the Australian people at that time. There must be questions about the extent to which there is divergence between values embodied in government policies and the values of the Australian people.