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Thursday, 25 September 2008
Page: 98

Mr MURPHY (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Trade) (12:16 PM) —I congratulate the member for Braddon for his invaluable and lasting contribution to this important debate. It is an honour to join the parliament in recognising the first International Day of Democracy, which was held on Monday, 15 September 2008. There can be no greater place to acknowledge this important occasion than in our parliament, an institution which demonstrates better than any other the commitment of the Australian people to democracy and democratic institutions.

I note that the United Nations General Assembly recorded in a press release dated 8 November 2007:

... that democracy is a universal value based on the freely-expressed will of people to determine their own political, economic, social and cultural systems ...

Furthermore, article 21(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 by the United Nations General Assembly, to which I am a proud signatory, states:

Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.

Article 21(3) of the declaration states:

The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

Can there be a better place to focus attention on the promotion and consolidation of democracy than in an institution which is the ultimate expression of the will of the people?

While we conduct our day-to-day lives in this place, we can never underestimate the importance of our role in the democratic process. We should never underestimate the legitimacy and mandate of an elected government, a legitimacy that arises because of the will of the people. As parliamentarians, we all know that the will of the people is sacrosanct. We understand our duties to interact directly with our constituents and respect their right to decide policies and programs through free and fair elections. That is one of the impenetrable strengths of any true democracy and those in power will always remain accountable to the people—that it is the people who ultimately rule. It comes as no great surprise that the Inter-Parliamentary Union notes that the word ‘democracy’ is derived from two Greek words meaning ‘people’ and ‘rule’. It also comes as no surprise that the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the world organisation of parliaments, has fought for decades to promote democracy by strengthening the very institution of parliament.

On this historic day, we ought to pay tribute to this organisation, which has developed governance principles for free and fair elections, established parliamentary systems where they would not otherwise exist and assisted more than 40,000 parliamentarians to represent their constituents without the fear of retribution. While the strength of any democracy is its capacity to limit the power of government according to the wishes of the people, there is no place for complacency. Democracies have not always been fortified against failure; we need only refer to the atrocities committed against indigenous populations by rising democracies in the United States and Australia.

The member for Fremantle, Melissa Parke, has already made reference to Duncan Green’s book entitled From Poverty to Power. In that book, Green rightly notes that numerous institutions, be they the legislature, judiciary, executive or media, exert checks and balances on each other which will ultimately determine the degree to which democratic regimes respect the rights of their citizens. Nowhere is this clearer than in Australia. Australia’s democratic institutions are undoubtedly underpinned by the rule of law, which is upheld by a truly independent and incorruptible judiciary.

While notions like the rule of law can be utilised as powerful rhetorical weapons, we ought to be concerned about any action or inaction that makes a mockery of what those words actually stand for. It would be the antithesis of democracy if citizens were forbidden to participate in democratic processes on the basis of their race, gender, personal beliefs or lifestyles. It would be the antithesis of democracy and would go against one eminent principle of the rule of law if free men and women were deprived of their life, liberty or property except by due process of the law.

It is a truism that no nation can seriously be considered democratic if it only pays lip service to protecting opposing voices, the rights of minorities and individual freedoms such as freedom of speech, association and religion. The outgoing President of the United Nations General Assembly, Srgjan Kerim, has lived under democratic and non-democratic systems and would be well equipped to attest to that fact. He has been quoted recently as saying:

I have experienced the difference between being able to realize one’s individual initiative, and in circumstances that limit rights and opportunities.

Similarly, the UN Secretary-General, Mr Ban Ki-moon, has stated that while his home country, the Republic of Korea, had previously been exposed to emergency laws, censorship and political imprisonments:

With our transition to a pluralist state came greater transparency and accountability, a more effective government machinery, and a thriving business sector able to compete with the rest of the world.

In non-democratic nations or fledgling democracies, one can often find criticism that democracies are flawed, have failed people and are only promoted by meddling foreign powers. In this light, I applaud the United Nations General Assembly for deciding to commemorate the International Day of Democracy and for inviting all member states to participate in a way that raises public awareness. I also applaud the General Assembly statement that:

… while democracies share common features, there is no single model of democracy.

It would be wrong to feed any misconception that democracies are a product of interfering foreign nations. It would be wrong to assume that democracies can be exported from one country to another without the will of the people. While Australia is one of the oldest uninterrupted democracies and is recognised worldwide for its political stability, it would be naive to assume that our parliamentary democracy, with its Westminster traditions, is one that can be transported elsewhere. No democracy will succeed if people are not given a genuine say in their own governance.

Australia is best served by sharing its experiences, both good and bad, and its knowledge of governance principles for free and fair elections. Our mission should be to support fledgling democracies, not dictate to them. In this context, we should also pay tribute to the United Nations, which, arguably more than any other organisation, has supported the growth of democratic institutions and practices worldwide. The United Nations has matched the talk in numerous General Assembly resolutions with action on the ground—most visibly through countless peacekeeping missions. The role that multilateralism has to play in the spread of democracy should never be downplayed. It is a far greater challenge for nations to promote and consolidate democracies around the world unilaterally, or even bilaterally. In this global village, we are integrating with our neighbours to a far greater degree than we have ever done before.

There is no room for unilateralism. International cooperation and understanding are as necessary for peace and democracy as they are for trade and investment. Just as the epic struggles of the 20th century were fought hand in hand with those that shared our values and experience of democracy, so too we will work together against the modern threat to democracies and human rights around the world. We well remember 11 September 2001 and the callous and cowardly attack on the values of freedom, and on the democracy of not only the United States and Australia but of all free democracies around the world.

Only this week, terrorists tried, yet again, to assault democratic traditions and institutions in Pakistan with the cowardly suicide bomb attack on the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad. While terrorist attacks have taken place in areas such as New York, Bali and Islamabad, their targets were very clearly each and every free nation—those defending freedom over oppression and democracy over dictatorship. Democratic traditions and institutions have been resilient against far greater challenges in the past and we must remain vigilant. We must support all people who stand up against violence and overwhelmingly commit themselves to democratic causes and values. We must ensure that we continue promoting freedom and democracy as a positive force for change, particularly given the sheer forcefulness of the rhetoric used by terrorists. We must also remain attuned to the needs of our fellow human beings who turn sympathetically to such rhetoric out of desperation or ignorance. It cannot be denied that poverty, combined with the absence of education, has fuelled the capacity of terrorist organisations to recruit people to their cause.

It is legitimate to ask whether many fledgling democracies can survive if we do not take real action to eliminate poverty. Australia’s fate, and the fate of many democracies, is inexorably linked with the fate of the majority of the world’s people that are struggling with poverty. It would be naive of us to assume we can promote and consolidate democracies around the world while leaving the door open for extremists to recruit from the poor and marginalised. That is why I am proud to be playing my role in the Rudd government’s active re-engagement with Africa. I am also proud of the Rudd government’s commitment to the millennium goals and our long-term ambition to increase Australia’s overseas development assistance from 0.3 per cent of Gross National Income to 0.5 per cent by 2015-16.

Before concluding, I wish to speak about the free and sceptical press in Australia that has no doubt given our democracy the strength and vitality that makes it one of the most revered around the world. Notwithstanding my own reservations about policies which I believe were inconsistent with his statement, former Prime Minister Howard was spot-on when he said:

... the strength and vitality of Australian democracy rests on three great institutional pillars: our parliament with its tradition of robust debate; the rule of law upheld by an independent and admirably incorruptible judiciary; and a free and sceptical press.

I have already spoken about the role of parliament, the rule of law and the judiciary. The role of journalists, and their ability to dissect and report on the serious issues of the day, is no less important. Their role extends beyond keeping government accountable. The media is central to the free flow of information in a participatory democracy. Diversity in news, current affairs and journalistic commentary is essential to ensure people are made fully aware of all views and opinions. Without a free media, citizens are unlikely to be able to participate in the political, democratic, process. How can citizens who are disengaged and uninformed be expected to legitimately take part in the democratic process? That the juntas and dictators of the world will stop at nothing to tear down a free and sceptical press is proof enough of the importance of the press to any democracy.

We must all remain vigilant and obstruct any moves that would weaken the pillars of our democracy. The International Day of Democracy has an important role to play in sustaining this vigilance. I commend the member for Fremantle for moving this very important motion.

Debate (on motion by Ms Grierson) adjourned.