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Thursday, 25 September 2008
Page: 96

Mr SIDEBOTTOM (12:03 PM) —Colleagues, I am very proud to be able to participate in this motion put forward by the member for Fremantle. She follows the former member for Fremantle, who was a great advocate of democracy in every sense of the word—one of the few people I have heard in this place actually speak about genuine reform to the parliamentary practices and traditions of this place and throughout Australia. I am a beneficiary of a democratic community, like everybody here. I also work in, and am a participant in, an institution of our democratic system, our parliamentary system. Like all of you in this place I have stood for election, not just for federal parliament but for state parliament and local government as well. That means that I have been part and parcel of a democratic community and I have been able to participate in it and be genuinely free to do that. Thus, I want to be able to participate in this debate and to celebrate democracy.

In the interim between losing my seat in 2004 and regaining it in the last election—

Mr Murphy —That was tragic.

Mr SIDEBOTTOM —What, that I got re-elected?

Mr Murphy —It was tragic that you lost your seat.

Mr SIDEBOTTOM —Thank you. What I did in the meantime, once I got over the little bit of personal hurt, was postgraduate studies in international relations. One thing amongst many that I got out of those studies is that you can take democracy for granted, because you greatly appreciate the different forms of democracy throughout the world but even more appreciate the urge of many other peoples who seek just the basics of a democratic society and to be able to live in one. So I recognise the United Nations General Assembly resolution 62/7 that we have an International Day of Democracy celebrated on 15 September. I also note that democracy ‘is a universal value based on the freely expressed will of people to determine their own political, economic, social and cultural systems and their full participation in all aspects of life’. The resolution goes on to say:

While democracies share common features, there is no single model of democracy and ... democracy does not belong to any country or region.

Indeed it does not. There is both a truth and a warning. The best democratic systems have evolved. To try and impose them on others for whatever political ideology will not work. Democracies evolve. They are dreamed of, they are fought for and people have died for them.

They are also taken for granted. Indeed, apathy is often a consequence of a long period of democratic experience, particularly the system of liberal democracy that we live under. That is one of the consequences and one of the great ironies of liberal democratic systems, that you can take it for granted. Some people think that voting on election day is basically your democratic responsibility and duty and that is all. But that is not all; that is just the beginning. Democracy, as many speakers have alluded to before me, is much more than the electoral process for parliamentary elections. We have many institutions that make up a democracy which are absolutely vital for that democracy to function properly. If we do not take notice of what is happening to those institutions, we do it at our peril. I know that the member at the table, my colleague the member for Lowe, has constantly been on in this place about the media ownership laws in this country, and the effects of those laws—that is, the concentration of ownership—can have on our democratic institutions. If we do not have a diversity of opinion, a diversity of information, then our community suffers for it.

We are being reminded of that daily, remembering that most people get their news and information from the traditional forms to this day, from newspapers, radio and television. They are concentrated in few hands. We do have greater access to the new technologies through the internet, through our iPods, our MP3 players and our mobile phones and so forth. But most people’s information does not come from those. So, although we have democratic institutions such as a free, fair, open media, we have to guard to make sure that that that in actual fact is the reality. So I suppose the one thing I want to emphasise today is that we should not take what we have for granted. It is sometimes under threat, often from without in many countries but at times from within, and sometimes by design. Sometimes it is just by apathy and neglect. So we need to be vigilant.

There are those in this country who believe that there are constant threats to democracy in Australia. They are often ridiculed as mad Lefties. But one of their major arguments is that one of the sure signs of our democracy being eroded is the growing disengagement of Australians from the democratic system. We are all aware of that. We in this place are an aberration; we are an exception rather than the rule. For a start, we belong to political parties. Most Australians will not have a bar of political parties. Why is that? We are passionate, we are dedicated, we are informed and we are educated. So are many other Australians, but why won’t they belong to our political parties? What is it about them? We are engaged. We believe that our political system is engaging, but many will not have a bar of it, and it is not just apathy. Sir William Deane, the former Governor-General said:

So let us rejoice and be grateful for all the achievements of our past ...

I would add, ‘Our democratic past.’ He went on:

At the same time, let us be honest and courageous about the failures and flaws which mar those achievements ...

That reminds me that people will engage with politics because it gives meaning to action. They disengage when politics lacks purpose. Essentially, for me that means that the political system that we are more thoroughly engaged in appears to be less relevant to their lives and it certainly is in their minds. That is an issue that we have to deal with.

One of the suggestions is that what has happened in the political arena of our democracy is that the executive rules, not the parliament. While we do have a parliamentary system, the parliament either lacks the will or the ability to scrutinise the executive. We in this chamber all know what I am talking about. That can be sheeted home to things like how we use the committee system within the parliament, whether it be in the House of Representatives or in the Senate. Are those committees properly resourced? Are those committees free to take up their review briefs? A review of the committee system could tackle the public view that the parliament is disengaged from those things that matter most to people. That is something that we can debate more in the future.

Others are concerned that the party system is still bound by either ideologies or by personalities through factional arrangements, whether it be on our side of the House or among others. We may say that that is an unfair view, but the fact that the view exists is a worry for us.

How do we engage with and communicate with generation Y? These are the people who are most disengaged from us? How do we go about that? It is absolutely crucial that we do that. I thought that I would share with you a little bit of research done on generation Y in the book No, Prime Minister: reclaiming politics from leaders by James Walter and Paul Strangio, published in 2007. I quote:

Research by the Australian sociologist Anita Harris shows that young people accept that future achievement is dependent on ‘individual choice and responsible self-making’ but resist the diminution of public space and surveillance of the private by establishing community, neighbourhood and friendship networks. In her investigations of the political attitudes and behaviour of Generation Y (those born in the early 1980s), researcher Rebecca Huntley confirmed that members of Gen Y are ‘turned off, annoyed by and distrustful of political parties, politicians and increasingly the [mainstream] media, but also found that they are ‘looking for alternative ways to get involved and so they focus on issues that affect them directly, at the local and the community level, or international issues, something facilitated by information technologies without borders.

So the last thing they need—and I will finish with this because I have other colleagues who want to speak—are electoral laws that disenfranchise them, a media that is controlled and dominated by a few, often on ideological grounds, and a parliamentary system that seems to churn on under 19th century conditions, yet in their name and in that of generation now. I will leave you with this thought—HL Mencken said of democracy in 1920:

Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.

I think we can all have a discussion about what ‘good and hard’ means. The important thing is that they get it, and many do not believe that they do. But, compared to many others throughout the world, what we do have should be cherished, we should be vigilant with it and we should be very proud of it.